EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Coming out of college, Owen Tolson faces two very different career choices.
He's either going to be punting for the New York Giants or another NFL team, or he is going to be shooting down planes and helicopters with the Army.
Welcome to the Army's Alternative Service Option program. It was implemented in 2005 to give West Point student-athletes a chance to play professionally and complete their service by serving as recruiters and in the reserves.
Tolson and two other seniors from the football team -- safety Caleb Campbell and fullback Mike Viti -- will try to make NFL rosters this summer, while fellow classmates leave West Point to begin training for future assignments that may lead to deployments in Iraq, Afghanistan and other areas of conflict.
Campbell was drafted in the seventh round by the Detroit Lions. Viti signed as a free agent with the Buffalo Bills. Tolson signed as a free agent with the Giants.
Knowing that classmates are heading into danger while he competes as a pro concerns Tolson.
"We are torn about that," said Tolson, who last season ranked seventh in the nation in punting with an average of almost 45 yards. "But as I said, this will be a different mission and we are to be helping the Army positively and West Point positively. I think it will all work out in the long run."
Cadets have a five-year commitment to the Army after graduation.
If Tolson, who is from Lucas, Tex., were to make the Giants, he would serve two years as a recruiter during his first two offseasons and then serve six years in the reserves after his playing career ended. He also said he would have to pay the Army between $100,000 to $130,000 to buy out his contract.
If he failed to make the team, Tolson would report to Fort Bliss in El Paso, Tex., for air defense.
"It's shooting down planes, helicopters and other missiles," Tolson said. "It's fun."
Tolson's chances of making the Giants are slim. The Super Bowl champions have one of the league's top punters in Jeff Feagles. The 42-year-old signed a new two-year contract shortly after New York beat the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl.
"He is one of the best and I look at this as a great opportunity to learn," Tolson said. "He has got tons of experience under that helmet, and any knowledge I get will be beneficial to me."
One advantage that Tolson has is that he can punt and kick. He handled both jobs for Army last season.
In his career, he averaged 42.6 yards on 181 kicks and landed 60 inside the 20-yard line. He also made 8 of 15 field goal attempts, including a 45-yarder. He had eight touchbacks on 40 kickoffs.
General manager Jerry Reese said the Giants are a patriotic organization, but that was only part of the decision to bring Tolson to camp.
"We try to get football players first," Reese said. "It doesn't hurt that he is from the military, but we think he has a chance to be a good football player. That is first and foremost. It's not a feel-good story for us."
Tolson admits there has been some criticism of the new program, but for the most part he believes most of his classmates support it.
The Air Force Academy and Naval Academy do not offer such a program. Both require two years of active service upon graduation before presenting the option of swapping the final three years of active time for six years in the reserves.
He is well aware that his back is against the wall going up against Feagles, and he knows he may not get a second chance. Many punters and kickers spend two or three years trying out before catching on with a team.
"I know it will be a lot harder for me than the other guys to come back after a year or so because the Army may need me elsewhere and I fully understand," Tolson said.
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press.