KANSAS CITY, Mo. – An adrenaline-charged scene plays out minutes before kickoff at Arrowhead Stadium on game day.
Excited fans filling the stands focus their attention to the Chiefs players huddled at the stadium entrance, waiting in anticipation for the team to take the field.
The signal arrives, prompting the Chiefs to rush the stadium through smoke and pyrotechnics, all to the roar of an adoring crowd.
Wide receiver Chad Hall is among his teammates making a path to the sidelines. He finds a spot along the chalk, red helmet in his right hand, as the pregame festivities wind down.
Hall watches as the color guard appears with the U.S. flag, a cue to the stadium to rise and join those already standing on the sidelines to pay respect to the country.
At initial glance, Hall is very much like the men around him. He wears a Chiefs uniform, but there’s a deeper layer to the 27-year-old receiver than meets the eye for the casual NFL fan unfamiliar with his background.
Meanwhile, a singer takes the microphone and commences to sing the national anthem.
“O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light …”
From the first note of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Hall’s focus shifts from the day’s game plan to a pregame ritual he’s been through numerous times for as long as he can remember. It’s the same routine for home and road games.
Time stands still as he closes his eyes. He simultaneously raises his helmet, holds it to his heart and offers a silent prayer to the men and women of the U.S. armed forces.
Hall spends the first half of the national anthem thanking the troops for keeping the nation safe. He prays for personal friends who are serving the country. He offers a prayer to those in harm’s way.
“It’s a prayer to keep them safe, protecting them, let them not have fear,” Hall said. “It’s almost the same thing every time, spot on.”
In many ways, the premise of Hall’s prayer is what makes him unique from teammates.
Hall may wear the same uniform and played college football like the men surrounding him. But unlike a majority of current NFL players, Hall attended the U.S. Air Force Academy and served two years on active duty.
More than three years have passed since Hall wore a different uniform as a second lieutenant before playing in the NFL.
The Chiefs wide receiver wore the same boots of those he prays for.
Hall had two requirements for college when he came out of Wesleyan School in 2004: A top educational institute and an opportunity to play Division I football.
The native of Atlanta, Ga., starred at quarterback in high school and admits to previously not knowing much about the military as a young teenager. Hall’s first glance at what the military offered came as a high school sophomore when Marc Khedouri, then an assistant football coach and dean of students at Wesleyan, provided Hall a flyer promoting the service academies.
Before settling on a college, Hall pondered his options, including playing football in Division II. However, his heart was set on Division I and he had a dream of playing in the NFL.
While the service academies eventually came with offers, the Air Force Academy emerged as the top choice.
“Air Force was the first one to start recruiting me and they’re a top five education every year,” Hall said. “They recruited me as a quarterback and were the only school to recruit me for offense.
“Everybody else wanted me to switch to defense, so I liked that. It was the only Division I school I got a scholarship from and it was one of the best educations in the whole U.S., so it fit my two requirements perfectly.”
Still, the decision didn’t come free of concerns from Hall’s family, as the country was engaged in conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
His father, Jay, said he and his wife, Leslie, knew the risks. However, the choice to attend an academy, including knowledge of a subsequent service commitment, was left to their son with full family support.
And during the decision-making process, Hall’s sense of patriotism played a role.
“That was a big decision and he had to make it; I wasn’t going to make it for him,” Jay Hall said. “A lot of things going on in the military at that time and he said, ‘You know what, dad? I’ll serve my country. I think everybody should serve their country.’”
Meanwhile, Khedouri, now Wesleyan’s athletic director and a man Hall considers one of his biggest mentors, said he knew Hall wouldn’t regret the decision to attend the Air Force Academy.
“Not only was Chad a great fit for the Air Force – he just didn’t realize it at the time – we need guys like Chad to serve our country to protect us and make the freedoms that we enjoy accessible to everyone around the world,” Khedouri said. “If guys like Chad, who are the best and brightest, don’t do it, who will?”
By the time he graduated from the Air Force Academy, Hall knew what Khedouri felt from the beginning, as there was no second guessing his choice.
From a football standpoint, Hall enjoyed a successful career after switching from quarterback to running back following his freshman year. He emerged as the school’s most-versatile player in his senior season, playing running back, wide receiver and returner, culminating in being named the 2007 Mountain West Conference Offensive Player of the Year.
Personally, Hall said he was “very immature” when he first arrived at the Air Force Academy. But the structure of a military setting made an immediate impact and played a large role in developing him into the man he is today.
Moreover, Hall’s time in Colorado Springs, Colo., gave him a deeper appreciation for the nation and the men and women who take an oath to defend it.
“From then on, I’ve just been USA all the way,” Hall said. “We bleed the colors. I just love seeing anybody in the military. I’m just so patriotic. Going there, I knew nothing about it, but I woke up so quickly. I learned everything and I just respect it.”
An active duty commitment as a second lieutenant and maintenance officer followed with the 388th Maintenance Group at Hill Air Force Base, Utah where Hall quickly immersed himself as a leader of troops.
He said the biggest lesson he learned was responsibility for himself and the 135 airmen under his charge. And being in the spotlight as an officer entrusted with people’s lives proved an eye-opening experience.
“I had to take responsibility for everybody’s actions,” Hall said. “We got praise when we did well, but it was just an eye opener. You had to grow up fast. It went from taking care of yourself to being in charge and leading.”
Leaders learn to process information and think quickly on their feet, and this is especially true in the military when choices carry potential life-altering ramifications.
Hall said he experienced it within the first five minutes on the job. He was introduced to his unit when the senior master sergeant welcomed him, and then promptly pulled him into a meeting to help determine the fate of an airman who just received a second DUI. Making career decisions – both good and bad – that affected others were often the norm.
Hall’s time as a military leader left a positive impact on his growth, which was clearly evident to those close to him.
“He’s much more a decision maker now, whatever decision it is,” Jay Hall said. “He doesn’t look back on things. He became a man, an adult, very fast. Consequences served, if he made a wrong decision, he knew it was his responsibility.”
Khedouri said he noticed two immediate changes from the time Hall left for the academy to what he is today.
“For one, he had a level of humility that he didn’t have when he left,” Khedouri said. “And secondly, I think he was more attentive to detail. You can imagine the service academies are pretty attentive to detail. I think those are the two things that probably changed the most.”
What never changed was his dream of playing in the NFL. Hall knew he had a large obstacle to overcome while serving on active duty, but he’s accustomed to beating the odds.
Listed at 5-foot-8, 187 pounds, Hall doesn’t fit the image of an NFL wide receiver. However, what he lacks in stature, he more than makes up with work ethic and desire.
Hall specifically recalls a moment in middle school when he took it upon himself to prove doubters wrong.
He had just finished working out after football practice when he stumbled upon a discussion among his coaches, all of whom were unaware he was in the vicinity.
Hall said one of his coaches thought he should be the starter, but another coach said Hall was too small and could get injured.
“Ever since then, I just always keep that right in my chest,” Hall said. “Everybody has always told me I can’t, couldn’t, won’t, will never, whatever it is or whether they told me to my face or behind my back. Just by the looks of me, you wouldn’t think or wouldn’t expect it.”
From that moment, Hall chose to out-work everybody and he carried that mentality as he trained and stayed in football shape while on active duty. He saved leave days and sacrificed free time he had outside of duty obligations because he wanted to be ready.
“I was pushing myself not even knowing if I was going to be in camp, ever get a look, but it was my dream,” Hall said. “In my mind, I was going to do anything I could to make it happen.”
The opportunity arrived in March 2010.
Hall used vacation time to attend a Pro Day workout at the University of Utah where his versatility caught the attention of then-Philadelphia Eagles coach Andy Reid.
“That was something that intrigued us when I was in Philadelphia,” the current Chiefs head coach said of Hall’s versatility. “He worked out at the University of Utah there – the head coach there and I are good friends – and we watched him. He had been working out there to get himself back into shape.”
The Eagles contacted Hall a day later and flew him to Philadelphia for another workout before signing him.
“We wanted him onboard,” Reid said. “Tough kid, definitely a tough kid, not the biggest guy, but a tough guy.”
Signing an NFL contract meant the world to Hall, who left active duty in May 2010. He felt a sense of vindication for pursuing the unknown.
“That was just an unbelievable feeling that all this hard work, all this time, all my effort, this big dream of mine came full circle,” Hall said. “And it was amazing.”
Air Force Academy football coach Troy Calhoun knows the challenges of making it to the NFL.
A former defensive assistant with the Denver Broncos and former offensive coordinator with the Houston Texans, Calhoun said Hall was a “phenomenal competitor” who carried himself with plenty of confidence.
Calhoun came away impressed seeing his former player possessing the drive while still on active duty to pursue the highest level of profession football.
“He was a fantastic Air Force officer and yet still had the dedication to keep his body in shape to maybe still have an opportunity to play in the National Football League,” Calhoun said. “I don’t know if you can pursue an endeavor that’s any more difficult or any more challenging than what Chad has. And that’s what makes it pretty darn unique to say the least.”
Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton, who coached at Army from 1983 to 1999, is familiar with the mentality of academy cadets.
Sutton said Hall’s mental toughness to endure a two-year break from football and have an ability to maintain focus to train are indicative of those who choose to attend a military academy.
“Certainly in the 17 years I was at West Point, you come across really some of the most unique individuals that you’ll ever be around,” Sutton said. “They’re highly motivated, they’re driven and they have tremendous confidence in themselves. Every guy that I’ve been around there, Chad reflects the same.”
Meanwhile, Hall enters a fourth NFL season with his third team, including a second stint under Reid after the Chiefs claimed Hall off waivers from the San Francisco 49ers on Sept. 1, 2013.
Still, Hall knows he has to continue to work hard and never settle for the status quo in order to stay in the league.
His past athletic and military training, along with his upbringing taught him that.
“People get complacent, see success and stop working,” Hall said. “That’s not me. I’ve had to work for everything. I had great parents and they taught me at a young age that it’s about getting better. You’re never the best. There’s always room to improve.”
“And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air …”
Hall is finished praying by the time the national anthem reaches a higher pitch. He opens his eyes for the second half of his pregame ritual and uses the remaining time to look around, reflect on his journey and soak in the atmosphere.
From fatigues to a Chiefs uniform, Hall takes nothing for granted.
Hall is one of four current NFL players who attended a federal military academy and eventually served the nation.
He joins Denver Broncos defensive end Ben Garland from the Air Force Academy, while the U.S. Military Academy produced Tennessee Titans fullback Collin Mooney and Indianapolis Colts linebacker Josh McNary.
Each undertook a unique path to the NFL and their commitment to service before pursuing a professional football career isn’t lost on the Chiefs defensive coordinator.
“I have a great appreciation for anybody that attends the academies,” Sutton said. “Certainly the players that I’ve been around have really been extraordinary individuals.”
Hall’s prior service is also valued by Chiefs guard Jeff Allen, who has relatives in the military.
“Having a guy on the team like Chad, he was in the military, it’s an honor to play with a guy like that,” Allen said. “We play football, everybody gives us praise, but people like Chad and some of my family members, those are the ones that deserve praise. They’re going out and doing a selfless act and fighting for our country.”
Still, don’t expect Hall to crave attention. He’s not one to require the spotlight.
The two things he’s grateful for during his pregame ritual are the opportunity to play in the NFL and his former comrades-in-arms.
“The Star-Spangled Banner” carries special meaning for the Air Force veteran, who stood on point for the nation.
And by the time the final note arrives, he has chills.
“Being a huge patriot, just hearing the national anthem, I love it,” Hall said. “People don’t understand. That’s so American. It’s awesome knowing everybody is there standing up, praising and saluting America. That’s just awesome to me.”