Let me start right off with apologies to Falcon athletes from sports other than football. I have followed many different academy sports over the last 35 years, and have seen some very outstanding performers over those years. I’ve particularly enjoyed the success of the Air Force hockey team under the coaching of Frank Serratore. Two players from his program have really impressed-Eric Ehn, who was one of three finalists for the Hobey Baker Award (best player in NCAA hockey) in 2007, and Shane Starrett, goaltender from 2015-2017, who is now in the minor league system for the Edmonton Oilers. In baseball the most impressive talent I have seen was Griffin Jax, a pitcher who was invited to spring training with the Minnesota Twins this year before the coronavirus shutdown. And in basketball during the great run of talent from 2003-2007, I thought Jacob Burtschi was the pivotal player who brought good rebounding, tenacious defense, and accurate shooting to the arena every night.
But of course football is the cornerstone of most college sports programs, and especially so at Air Force. All cadets are required to attend every home game, and new cadets top off the completion of their basic training period with Parents Weekend, when parents of the freshman cadets show up to congratulate their sons and daughters and attend the first football game each season. For that reason, and for the other reasons I will state, I am picking a football player that probably won’t surprise many Falcon fans.
First I will point out three honorable mentions who should be mentioned along with my top pick. The most recent of the three is currently the wide receiver coach for the Buffalo Bills, Chad Hall. He was a running back from 2005-2007, and had one of the best seasons ever by a Falcon in 2007 with 1478 rushing yards, 524 receiving yards, and 681 return yards. He later played wide receiver sparingly for the Philadelphia Eagles and managed to catch 2 touchdown passes in the NFL.
The second runner-up is Dee Dowis, who was a runner-up in Heisman Trophy voting as a quarterback in 1989. When he graduated, he was the all-time NCAA leader in rushing yards by a quarterback in a single season with 1315 yards, and in a career with 3612 yards. He had a unique running style that drove his coaches crazy, as he would hold the football in one hand out away from his body. At 5 foot 10 inches tall and 158 pounds, he appeared quite out of place on the football field.
In the pre-option era of Falcon football, the clear standout is Ernie Jennings, who played from 1968-1970 as a wide receiver. He had a tremendous senior year in which he led the NCAA in touchdown reception with 17, and was named a consensus All-American and ended up eighth in the Heisman Trophy balloting. He was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers, but never played professionally.
In 1983, the Falcons recruited a tight end out of Iowa who had good athleticism and size, who they hoped would provide blocking for the run game and an occasional pass reception to augment the triple option game that was Fisher DeBerry’s favored form of offense. He was good enough to play a good number of snaps on offense, which is unusual in the Falcon’s scheme of offense, which requires discipline in execution and repetition in practice. He didn’t accumulate any stats his first year, and when his sophomore season started, the coaching staff decided they needed a defensive lineman, and at 6’ 6” tall and increasing weight and strength, he willingly followed their desires. He was still learning his position, but 1985 became the most successful season in Air Force Falcon history. The team went 12-1, beat Texas in the Bluebonnet Bowl, and ended the season ranked #5 in the Coaches Poll at the end of the season. If you are a Falcon fan, by now you know I am speaking about Chad Hennings. Hennings recorded no sacks in that exceptional season, but the next two years recorded 10 sacks in 1986, and then an amazing 24 sacks in 1987. In that year he became the Outland Trophy winner and a consensus All-American. To put 24 sacks in perspective, this last year Chase Young at Ohio State produced 16.5 sacks, and became the #2 pick in the NFL draft.
Hennings was selected by the Dallas Cowboys in the eleventh round of the draft, but his military commitment sent him to pilot training, and he became a pilot in the A-10, one of the few aircraft in the air Force inventory that could accommodate his 6” 6” frame. He served in the Iraq war, and after the completion of that campaign, the Air Force ended up with too many pilots and offered to suspend flying commitments to pilots who were willing to leave. Hennings took the offer and was able to play for the Cowboys for nine years, earning 3 Super Bowl rings, and accumulating 269 tackles and 27.5 sacks. He retired in 2000 and currently tours the country as a motivational speaker.
Thanks for reading, and I’d be glad to hear any disagreements in the comment section.