Face of Defense: AF Academy Grad Gears Up for Super Bowl
By John Van Winkle
U.S. Air Force Academy
U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo., Jan. 30, 2013 An Air Force Academy graduate -- now an Air Force Reserve captain and San Francisco 49ers wide receiver -- arrived in New Orleans Jan. 27 for Super Bowl XLVII.
Air Force wide receiver Chad Hall tries to juke past an Army defender during the Falcons-Black Knights game at the U.S. Air Force Academy’s Falcon Stadium, Nov. 3, 2007. Now an Air Force Reserve officer and a wide receiver with the San Francisco 49ers, Hall is preparing for Super Bowl XLVII. U.S. Air Force photo by Mike Kaplan
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Chad Hall was signed to the 49ers practice squad Nov. 27. He was released Dec. 14 as the team juggled its active and practice squad rosters, but he left an impression on the coaches, who signed the 5-foot-8, 187-pound Hall back onto the practice squad three days later.
"I've been preparing every week, and I was ready to go every week, in case I was called up," Hall said. "Every week, usually the defense has me play the role of their opponent's quickest receiver and slot receiver in practice. I'll do anything I can help in that way, and have been doing that ever since the first day I got here. Over the past couple of weeks, the offense has put me in for plays that are designed for me."
Hall has also been working as a backup punt and kick returner. "Hopefully, I can work my way into that role for next year," he said.
The 49ers moved Hall up to the active roster Jan. 19, which allowed him to suit up for the next day’s NFC championship game against his hometown team, the Atlanta Falcons. "I love what I do. I love being able to put on a football helmet every day and able to compete physically and mentally," Hall said. There's not many jobs you get to compete physically with everybody on every day. It's a tough job mentally and physically, but I love what I do."
Hall attributes his success to his Air Force background.
"The rigors of the Air Force Academy just furthered my discipline and my work ethic," he said. "For the cadets at the academy now, I'd say just because you go to the academy, it doesn't mean you can't follow your dreams and do anything you want, whether it's right away or after finishing your service commitment. Whether it's flying an aircraft or playing professional sports, you just keep on grinding and keep on fighting for that goal. If you work hard enough, your dreams can come true.
"It's not easy, but the Air Force definitely got me prepped for that," he added.
The magnitude of the rare opportunity to be part of a Super Bowl team has just began to sink in.
"You think back to when you played football in your backyard at 6 years old, and now you're going to play in the Super Bowl -- only about 120 guys every year get to play in the Super Bowl. It's not something that happens often, so it's amazing," he said.
Hall's journey to the Super Bowl started at the academy, where he lettered for three years. During his junior season in 2006, he started all 12 games at halfback and led the team in rushing with 784 yards.
As a senior, Hall moved from halfback to wide receiver. But wherever he lined up, he was a weapon for the Air Force Academy Falcons and a headache for opposing defenders, averaging just more than 206 all-purpose yards per game. He led the 2007 team in rushing and receiving with 230 rushes for 1,478 yards, 15 touchdowns, 50 receptions for 524 yards, and one touchdown. On special teams, Hall was the primary punt and kick returner, returning 36 punts and kickoffs for a combined 681 yards.
Hall got the attention of NFL teams, but he had a five-year active duty service commitment to fulfill after graduating in 2008. Defense Department policy required him to serve at least 24 months of active duty before applying for an early release from active duty to transfer to the Guard or Reserve after being signed to play professional sports, so he went undrafted. He earned a minicamp tryout for the Atlanta Falcons, but they didn't offer a contract. A later tryout with the Buffalo Bills had similar results.
Hall began his active-duty career as a maintenance officer in the 421st Fighter Squadron at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, but kept his goal of playing pro football alive and worked out at the University of Utah's Pro Day in March 2010. It was there that Philadelphia Eagles scouts signed him, giving him his first shot at playing pro football. Hall then transferred to the Air Force Reserve and pursued his NFL dreams.
Hall played in eight games in the 2010 season, starting once. He ended the season with 11 catches for 115 yards and his first NFL touchdown, along with nine rushes for 29 yards.
His 2011 and 2012 seasons started the same way.
"It was my third year with the Eagles," he said. "For the first two years after camp, they released me and brought me back, and I ended up playing. I busted my butt for three years, and if they didn't think I could play for them from the beginning of the season, I thought it was time to try for another team."
As the 2012 season rolled on, Hall kept training and staying in top physical condition, waiting for his next NFL opportunity. He got a couple of calls, and two tryouts. But nothing happened until San Francisco called him.
Now, Hall can become the latest in a very short list of Air Force Academy graduates to make it to the Super Bowl. That list currently sits at four: Chad Hennings (defensive tackle, 1993, 1994 and 1996), Steve Russ (linebacker, 1998-1999), Bryce Fisher (defensive end, 2006) and Joe Lombardi (quarterback coach, 2010).
"It's very special, because it's one of the greatest sporting events in the world and certainly the greatest sporting event in our nation," Hennings said. "But to be able to play on that type of stage at a professional level, it's the pinnacle of professional football.
"You appreciate the sacrifice of making it to a Super Bowl and winning it," he added. "But then it's like, 'Hey we won one, but let's go get ready to win another one.'"
Hennings also remembers what it took to get to that pinnacle of professional sports: for him, it started with his time at the Air Force Academy.
"My Air Force Academy class ring means more to me than my Super Bowl rings, because it laid the foundation of professional success I had,” he said. “That's where I learned the truths about honor, commitment, and integrity that helped me as a fighter pilot, helped me as a member of the Dallas Cowboys, and helped me in my professional life after football."