Cameron Kinley wants to make sure the next athlete who is interested in attending a U.S. military academy will have an easier decision to make.
On Sunday, Kinley took the field with the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the team opened its 2021 training camp with a two-hour practice. For the Buccaneers, the journey back to the top of the NFL mountain – if that comes to be – is just beginning, but Kinley has already had an arduous path to this moment.
Kinley attended the United States Naval Academy where, among other things, he was a star cornerback on the Midshipmen football team. He was also the Academy's senior class president and had the honor of introducing Vice President Kamala Harris at his graduation ceremony. For most Academy graduates, the next step is a mandatory four-year military commission, but like other athletes before him who had a shot at pursuing a professional sport, Kinley was hoping to have that service delayed. He signed with the Buccaneers as an undrafted free agent in May and attended the team's rookie mini-camp, believing he would be allowed to attend training camp as well.
Then came the surprising and disheartening news that Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas W. Harker had declined Kinley's request and would not hear an appeal. Meanwhile, four other 2021 service academy graduates – Army's Jon Rhattigan and the Air Force trio of Nolan Laufenberg, George Silvanic and Parker Ferguson – had similar requests approved.
Fortunately, while he couldn't appeal Kinley did have some powerful allies working on his behalf. Even President Joe Biden released a statement supportive of the young NFL hopeful after U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin announced on July 7 that Kinley would be allowed to delay his commission "for the duration of his football career."
Kinley has every intention of proudly serving his military commission but will now get the opportunity to chase his NFL dream as well. More importantly, though, he hopes he has helped clarify what future service academy graduates should expect if they too get a chance to play in the NFL.
"It's huge, and that's what it was all about, the whole situation," said Kinley shortly after his first NFL training camp practice. "Just in the future that nobody would have to go through what I went through. I hope that the situation serves for that and we have some consistency going forward so that everybody has a chance to live out both of their dreams."
Kinley says he relied on a strong support system to keep him "motivated and positive" during the uncertain months following Harker's original decision. He worked out alongside Navy teammates and then later at his high school back home, trying to be ready to hit the ground running if Harker's decision was reversed. He was successful in that regard, according to Head Coach Bruce Arians' first camp impression on Sunday.
"Oh, yeah, he came back in great shape and he was studying just in case," said Arians. "So he's ready to roll."
The challenge for Kinley as he awaited to learn his ultimate fate was as much mental as it was physical but it taught him a lot about his own strength. He fought not to let complacency creep in, and it was not an easy battle.
"[It was] dealing with adversity, perseverance, kind of just working through the difficulties despite how hard it is," he said. "You have people saying different things and everybody is entitled to their own opinions. But staying true to yourself and fighting through the situation for what you believe is right and standing up for that. So it was definitely huge fighting through adversity."
Now he's facing a new challenge as he attempts to land a spot on the active roster in the fall, or perhaps make it onto the practice squad, which is how many undrafted players get their foot in the NFL door. The task is made even more daunting by the Buccaneers' talented roster, which has returned almost entirely intact in 2021 after winning the Super Bowl last February. He is one of 10 cornerbacks on the Bucs' training camp roster, though fellow rookie Chris Wilcox, a seventh-round draft pick, is currently on the active/PUP list.
"This is what you ask for, this is what you dream for," said Kinley of trying to crack a championship roster. "If you're in the NFL you know you can't run from competition. That just makes you a better player. So I'm just excited for the opportunity and I'm going to put my best foot forward to make the most of it."