Photo: Christian Spears was a leading tackler the last three seasons.
Each year the nation’s championship professional and collegiate teams parade through the White House to meet President Obama. They present him with an official ball and a jersey to represent their championship season.
It’s a safe to say, though, that Air Force Academy football player Christian Spears stands out as unique among such a high-profile athletes.
Name another guy that started his journey to the White House as a freshman on the JV football team and ended up standing shoulder-to-shoulder the President at the White House. By Air Force's visit last week for winning the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy in the 2014 season, Spears had developed into a three-year starting free safety and team captain. With that progression he had a prime role with Obama during the ceremony.
“It’s an experience that his hard to put into words,” Spears said. “Who knew when I went to the academy I would someday be standing next to the President? After the ceremony, we talked to other people that attended. An Air Force major told me he had been working at the White House for a year and he hadn’t been that close to the President. That shows you the opportunities the Air Force Academy can present you.”
The Super Bowl and college football national champions may be the best, but the brightest are Army, Navy and Air Force players competing for the CIC Trophy. A difference, though, is only the team’s seniors make the trip. That adds to the urgency.
“The younger guys on the team always want to see the seniors win the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy and go to the White House,” said Spears of Arlington (Tx.) Timberview. “When you’re younger on the team, you know the trials and tribulations the seniors have been through. But even when we don’t win, we still honor the seniors. They’re special guys; we treat each other as brothers. The seniors didn’t make it last year, but they are second lieutenants across the nation and the world serving their country.”
As one of the team captains, the 5-foot-9, 195-pound Spears stood on Obama’s right while quarterback Kale Pearson, another captain, was on the President’s left. They held up each shoulder of the No. 19 jersey -- representing the Falcons’ 19th Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy – while the President clasped the ball.
“The President is very genuine,” Spears said. “Before the ceremony, we were in another room and the President came around and shook everyone’s hand while they introduced themselves.
“Kale and I didn’t know if we’d have to give a speech when we presented him with the ball and jersey. We were sweating bullets. But the President did all the talking, and we were thankful for that. Just standing next to him was enough.”
Spears’ personal journey to the White House began when former Air Force defensive line coach Ron Burton learned about him while recruiting another player in the Dallas area. Burton, a former NFL player, spent 10 years coaching at Air Force before moving on to Michigan State in 2013.
"I never thought I’d be in the military before coach Burton recruited me,” Spears said. “When I visited the academy, I fell in love with it. I liked the structure and the opportunity to play Division I football. I also saw it as a way to serve my country and give back. Once I made my visit, I knew without hesitation this was where I wanted to be.”
Although Spears first had to spend a year at the Air Force Prep School before he was admitted to the academy in 2011 as a freshman, his story isn’t that much different than other academy athletes. They are in general over-achievers that recognize and take advantage of opportunities.
There may not be time to develop sleeper athletes at a major conference powers with so much elite talent on the roster, but it happens regularly at the academies. The athletes like to say football is the easy part of their day after meeting the demands of elite academics and military training.
“The biggest thing for me was my determination,” Spears said. “I had my parents, my coaches and my teammates keeping me motivated. I couldn’t get discouraged. The other thing that set me apart was I did a lot of extra work myself and with a teammate, Justin DeCoud (a senior starting cornerback last fall). We would wake up early (before the academy wakeup call was 6:20 a.m.) to work out and then get in extra work at night. On weekends, instead of going out, I worked on my backpedaling, footwork and getting my hips loose so that by the time fall camp came around I was ready to show the coaches I could seize an opportunity.”
The refined techniques combined with a high football IQ compensated for whatever athleticism he lacked to be considered a top recruit coming out of high school. He developed into a Division I athlete, starting all 38 games his sophomore, junior and senior seasons.
“I was recruited as a cornerback, but free safety is my favorite position and I was glad when they moved me there,” he said. “Just being able to sit back there and visualize the whole play allowed me to react faster. A lot of the times I got a run-pass read from the guard or tackle to get into my back pedal or come down hill on the running back. Having those tendencies helped me develop.”
As a sophomore in 2012, Spears was fourth on the team in tackles with 81. He led the Falcons in tackles in 2013 with 92, but that was a reflection of a 2-10 record. One sign of a bad defense is a safety as the leading tackler.
As a senior, the Falcons rebounded to a 10-3 record, capped by a win over Western Michigan in the Famous Potato Bowl in Boise. Spears finished third in tackles with 81.
“My senior year we had a different mentality,” Spears said. “We were meaner, and that was a product of Coach Rud (John Rudzinski, an Air Force graduate that took over coaching the secondary in 2014). With guys like linebacker Jordan Pierce and defensive lineman Nick Fitzgerald, running backs were having a hard time getting past the front line.”
In Air Force’s 30-21 win over Navy at Falcon Stadium, Spears recorded a season-high 10 tackles with an interception and a tackle for a loss. He contributed five tackles in the 23-6 win at Army that clinched the CIC Trophy.
“Your blood boils for those games,” Spears said. “You can’t fully embody it until you play in those games.”
Next for Spears is graduation on May 28 as a second lieutenant and then serving his military commitment.
“I have always had a love for football,” he said. “Now I can hang up my helmet and serve my country as a U.S. Air Force officer. That opportunity in itself is great.”
Tom Shanahan has featured Army, Navy and Air Force athletes for nearly 30 years in the San Diego Union-Tribune, Rivals.com and the Raleigh News and Observer. He attended his first Army-Navy Game after John Feinstein wrote in his book on the rivalry, “A Civil War,” everyone should attend the Army-Navy Game at least once.