Pat Tillman’s death has put a crimp in the use of football-as-combat-metaphor. It’ll be a while before sportswriters feel comfortable, for example, typing about how a good coach could get his players to go to war.

But for a couple of years now, Uncle Sam has been looking into whether that adage is true.

The Department of Defense has piloted a program to bring high-school football players into the armed forces by enlisting their coaches in the recruiting effort. The plan, called the Coaches Clinic, was brought to the government jointly by the D.C.-based National Football League Coaches Association (NFLCA) and a Bethesda marketing firm, Equals Three Communications.

“The purpose of the Coaches Clinic was to look at how to communicate to what we call ‘the influencers’—high-school coaches—about the benefits of the military,” says Eugene Faison, CEO of Equals Three. “And to help the influencers communicate [those benefits] to the athletes, who are really the target audience of the military.”

Organizers say about 300 high-school coaches attended a Coaches Clinic event at Ravens Stadium in Baltimore in May 2002, the only function held locally thus far. At that all-day gathering, Ravens head coach Brian Billick and the Redskins’ ex Steve Spurrier spoke about their craft, and a couple dozen NFL assistants conducted seminars on offense, defense, special teams, and all other things gridiron.

Doug Duvall, head coach at Wilde Lake High School in Columbia for more than 30 years and one of the winningest coaches in Maryland history, was impressed by the government rations.

“They served a good doughnut,” says Duvall, whose teams have won five state championships. “It’s one of the best clinics I ever went to.”

But Duvall and other influencers at the Pentagon-subsidized function got more than just food, drink, and chats about X’s and O’s.

They also heard pep talks from representatives of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard about careers in the service, and were given an assortment of promotional brochures and videos produced by the Department of Defense—and a solicitation to get that information to their players.

Larry Kennan, the NFLCA’s executive director and an architect of the Coaches Clinic, says it’s hard to overestimate the sway scholastic football coaches have inside the walls of their schools. When it comes to winning hearts and minds, he knows from personal experience that guidance counselors are often no match for the guys trolling the sidelines in polyester Bike pants come fall Fridays.

“In my own life, the three most important men were my father, my high-school coach, and my college coach, in that order. Nobody else is even close,” says Kennan, whose 16-year NFL coaching career included a stint as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach with the Seattle Seahawks.

Kennan, who lives in Fredericksburg, says that it was before Sept. 11, 2001, when his group retained Equals Three, a firm with experience in government contracting, to pitch the Department of Defense to bankroll the endeavor. The timing seemed right. In 1999, with the economic boom that the United States enjoyed for much of the previous decade having made the military worry about its ability to recruit and retain soldiers, Congress passed the Strom Thurmond Defense Authorization Act. The act provided money and instructions to the Pentagon to devise strategies to maintain the inventory of warm bodies. In the interest of targeting new audiences, Pentagon-sponsored mass-marketed video games soon appeared, including SOCOM: US Navy SEALs for PlayStation 2. So did a platoon of stock cars racing on NASCAR’s Winston Cup and Busch Series circuits decorated with the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines logos. The Army has also become a primary sponsor of the Arena Football League, and it now underwrites the All-American Bowl, a football game for elite high-school players. The Pentagon gave the go-ahead to conduct Coaches Clinics in Baltimore and Detroit in 2002.

According to Faison, his company and the NFLCA have submitted their report to the Department of Defense on the pilot events. That report has not yet been made public. Pentagon staffers are now compiling data from the test events and tracking recruiting activity at the estimated 185 schools represented at those trial clinics, before deciding whether the program will become a permanent enterprise. Matt Boehmer of the Department of Defense’s Joint Advertising Market Research and Studies Program, the government’s contact person for the Coaches Clinic project, says there are currently no Coaches Clinics scheduled for the next fiscal year.

Douglas Hirschhorn, a New York–based researcher who has studied coach-athlete relationships in youth sports, says the armed services would probably do well to continue to get coaches to do their bidding with students. He’s not so sure about the ethics of such a strategy, however. “Something doesn’t sit right with me, using coaches to use their influence to push a career decision in one direction without putting all the options out there,” he says. “I don’t think you want a kid saying, ‘Hey, I’ll join the military because Coach says it would be a great path for me!’”

The sad ending given Tillman’s gridiron-to-front-line tale last month did nothing to change Duvall’s mind about pushing the military as a career option to his players.

“I realize the influence I have, and it’s always hard to fit kids into the right situation,” says Duvall, who also teaches weight training at Wilde Lake. “Even with college recruiting, or [a career], you try to lead them to the right place. I had no hesitation recommending the military to my players, not at all.”

There is unscientific evidence that even without a full-scale rollout of the Coaches Clinic or any other like-minded new program, the military has been doing an OK job bringing former high-school football players from across the country into its ranks. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, 52 U.S. servicemen died in Iraq in March and April. A search of the wire services finds high-school football mentioned in the memorials for: Marine Lance Cpl. William J. Wiscowiche of Victorville, Calif.; Marine Lance Cpl. Andrew S. Dang of Foster City, Calif.; Army 1st Lt. Michael W. Vega of Lathrop, Calif.; Marine Pfc. Ricky A. Morris of Lubbock, Texas; Army Master Sgt. Thomas R. Thigpen of Augusta, Ga.; Army Capt. John F. Kurth of Columbus, Wis.; Army Sgt. 1st Class Bradley C. Fox of Adrian, Mich.; Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Nathan B. Bruckenthal of Smithtown, N.Y.; Army Pfc. Shawn C. Edwards of Bensenville, Ill.; Marine Lance Cpl. Michael J. Smith of Wintersville, Ohio; Marine Lance Cpl. Gary F. Van Leuven of Klamath Falls, Ore.; Marine Pfc. Christopher D. Mabry of Chunky, Miss.; Marine Staff Sgt. Allan K. Walker of Lancaster, Calif.; Marine Pfc. Deryk L. Hallal of Indianapolis, Ind.; Marine Lance Cpl. Marcus M. Cherry of Imperial, Calif.; Marine Pfc. Geoffrey S. Morris of Gurnee, Ill.; Marine Pfc. Chance Phelps of Dubois, Wyo.; and Army Spc. Jacob Herring of Kirkland, Wash. —Dave McKenna