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Country First

For one Patriot, the call to duty comes from an authority above even Bill Belichick

Eric Kettani watched from a friend's apartment as the Patriots edged the Jets on Sunday—the same way that he had followed New England's first four games. The difference this week was that he watched not as a running back on the Pats' practice squad but as an active-duty repair division officer in the U.S. Navy, which last week denied Kettani's request for a release from his remaining two and a half years of service and ordered him to report to Florida. "I'm disappointed," says the 24-year-old Kettani (above). "At the same time, I love my country and I'm here to serve."

A lieutenant junior grade who had rushed for 982 yards as a senior at Annapolis, the undrafted free agent signed in '09 with New England, which placed him on its military reserve list while he served two years on the U.S.S. Klakring, including six months in South America. Then, last December, Kettani applied for an early release. He regained the 15 pounds that he had shed during deployment, caught coach Bill Belichick's eye in camp and made the eight-man practice squad in July.

Because two current NFL players had been granted releases—free-agent linebacker Caleb Campbell (Army) and Eagles receiver Chad Hall (Air Force)—Kettani held out hope for approval. The Department of Defense grants such exceptions for "recruiting or public affairs benefits," and Kettani did his part. He handed out WOUNDED WARRIOR PROJECT T-shirts to teammates, got teammate Chad Ochocinco to mention his @Navy_Pat36 Twitter account to 2.8 million followers and promised to wear his dress whites to games if he were activated. Kettani says it was a "total shock" when he was ordered back to the Klakring.

From Jacksonville, where he has rejoined his unit, Kettani reports that he is happy to serve—but he would love to chase his NFL dream first. Meanwhile, he's appealing the ruling and reaching out to politicians in hope that one might influence the Navy's decision. "Coach Belichick said he'd leave my locker open for me," he says. "We'll see what happens next."


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