Story and photo by Lee Elder
Nashville Recruiting Battalion
NASHVILLE, Tenn., May 3, 2013 – Before starting his second season in the National Football League, Army Reserve 1st Lt. Collin Mooney embarked on a two-week tour of area schools to support Army recruiting.
The Tennessee Titans fullback visited 13 high schools across western Kentucky and middle Tennessee during his annual training period.
Encountering Titans fans at each stop, Mooney said he was amazed at their enthusiasm despite the team's 6-10 record in 2012.
"There are a lot of Titans fans in the middle Tennessee area who like to see somebody from the team and be a part of it," Mooney said. "It was good to be able to spend time with them and see the support Titans are getting from them."
Mooney, 27, signed with the Titans in May. Shortly afterward, he was released from his active-duty commitment after serving three years as a field artillery officer at Fort Sill, Okla., and he moved into the Army Reserve.
Going to camp as a free agent, Mooney impressed Titans coaches with his determination and work ethic. While he failed to make the team's 53-man roster, he was brought back as a member of the team's practice squad, where he spent the first three months of the season.
Wearing No. 42, he saw action late in the season in two games, carrying the ball five times in the team's season finale against Jacksonville.
It was his first time playing football since his days at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., where he is the school's all-time single-season rushing leader. He ground out more than 1,300 yards his senior season in 2008.
This off-season, he's working hard to expand his role with the Titans in 2013. Just before the team's organized workouts began, he donned the Army uniform to help local recruiters. His appearances varied from table setups in high school cafeterias to auditorium presentations.
He fielded questions from groups and individuals about football and the Army, and he posed for pictures with students.
"I most enjoyed getting to meet with the students and hang out with them," Mooney said. "Just seeing the level of service that these students exhibit is great, they're really interested in serving their country."
Mooney was a big hit with students, as well as teachers and administrators. They listened intently to his Army story of how he came from a suburban Texas high school to play football at West Point, served three years in the Army and then made an NFL roster.
"I think the students were very impressed with Collin," said Amie Chaney, a counselor at Franklin-Simpson High School in western Kentucky. "They were amazed at the fact that he was part of the military and played professional ball."
Mooney told students and faculty he made some serious choices in high school, including the choice of pursuing his dream of playing football while some classmates wanted to use drugs, drink alcohol and live a party lifestyle.
"He also talked about making good choices for himself and having to lose friends over it, and that is a sad reality for a lot of people," Chaney said. "The kids really enjoyed his positive message."
Students and teachers alike crowded in to get an autograph or take a picture with their camera phones.
"He was very put-together, and he talked about his high school career, college and pros," said Army Capt. William Sharpe, who commands the Clarksville, Tenn., Recruiting Company. "He was somebody they could relate to."
A soft-spoken man, Mooney talked about his football career from high school to the NFL. However, many were impressed when he spoke about his military career, spent mostly as an executive officer for a Fort Sill training battery.
Mooney talked about working out an hour on his own before doing physical training with his unit. At the end of the duty day, he said, he would work out even more hours, trying to keep his football skills sharp.
"I'll never forget a chaplain at West Point telling me, 'Work while you wait,'" Mooney said. "It was kind of my motto."
After two years, Mooney tried to get noticed by an NFL team, but the leaguewide lockout got in the way.
"I wasn't sure if I should give it another try," Mooney told a high school audience. "My family and friends kept telling me to take one more shot."
Mooney did well at a scouting combine held at the University of Oklahoma. His performance garnered the interest of four NFL teams, and he signed with the Titans after a tryout in Nashville.
Sharpe said young people were drawn to his story of service and perseverance. Mooney's quiet confidence and boyish charm were a hit.
"I think it carries a lot more weight coming from a pro athlete," Sharpe said. "He's put in that dedication and knows what it takes to get to that level. He struggled in high school with some things, and he knows where they are coming from and can relate to the kids."
At school appearances in the Clarksville area, Sharpe ensured his future soldiers were called to the front at the end of Mooney's presentation. They were given exposure in front of their fellow students and got to be the first photographed with the Titans player.
One of Mooney's most memorable experiences was traveling to Bowling Green High School, where he not only shared Army opportunities, but also presented an Army All-American nomination to Nacarius Fant, a three-year starter at wide receiver.
"It was great being able to present that to Nacarius," Mooney said. "It was special for him, and it was special for me, too."
Fant said he was also honored to have Mooney make his presentation. He met Mooney and Army recruiters at the door as they arrived on campus, and he thanked them for coming.
"It was really quite a surprise," Fant said. "It's not everybody who has an NFL player come to his school to make a presentation to him."
There were other surprises along the way. At Lebanon High School in Tennessee, Mooney was challenged to an arm-wrestling match by senior Ladarian Allison.
"I saw his arms," Allison said. "He's big, and I wanted to test my strength."
Mooney quickly triumphed. They shook hands and Allison returned to his seat in the cafeteria.
Mooney's final recruiting appearance came April 20, when he swore in a group of future soldiers during a break in the action at Clarksville's Rivers and Spires Festival.
"A lot of [future soldiers] wanted to come in and be sworn in by Lieutenant Mooney," Sharpe said. "They didn't know before they had seen him in their school."
Mooney said he was just glad to be able to help. While he did sometimes have to field a bizarre query during the question-and-answer sessions that followed his presentations, he added, enjoyed his time with recruiters.
"It was good to have that open forum," Mooney said. "It's not often they get to talk to an NFL player and somebody in the Army. It went really well, and it was all positive."