Brett Toth made a promise to his country when he enrolled at West Point. He wanted to follow in the footsteps of his family members – including his father, Douglas, a Navy veteran – who have served in all of the branches of the armed forces.
The 6-6, 290-pound offensive tackle planned to put his NFL career on hold for two years to fulfill his commitment to the Army. The Department of Defense ended the practice of allowing student-athletes in the service academies to postpone their military careers to pursue professional sports in 2017 until a recent change reinstated the policy. Toth was granted a waiver, allowing him to sign with an NFL team. He did just that on Friday to become a member of the Philadelphia Eagles. To make room for him on the roster, the Eagles waived cornerback Jay Liggins.
"I'm excited for the opportunity, more excited to get out on the field and get a playbook in my hands and start getting after it," Toth said after signing his contract at the NovaCare Complex. "I'm ready to get back out there and off the sidelines."
Toth, a second lieutenant, will draw a lot of interest because of his unique situation, but the reality is that he hasn't played competitive football since the 2018 Senior Bowl – 18 months ago. Add to that he's joining a deep and talented offensive line group. Toth said he signed with the Eagles because of the ability to learn from offensive line coach/run game coordinator Jeff Stoutland, although Toth said there was no formal meeting at the Senior Bowl. At this point in the summer, Toth wants to gain weight and earn playing time in the final two preseason games. He has previously spoken with former Eagle and current Steelers offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva about how to make the transition from the military to the gridiron. Villanueva served three tours of duty as an Army Ranger in Afghanistan, earning a Bronze Star, before signing with the Eagles in 2014.
"It's going to be a lot of proving that I belong here and just taking what coaching I've gotten at those all-star games and applying it as quickly as possible and adjusting on the run," Toth said. "I got the short stick here. Other guys have been doing this for a few months. They've been able to understand the offense and I've got two weeks now to show that I belong on this roster."
Following his graduation, Toth spent the 2018 season as a graduate assistant at Army, helping coach the Black Knights to the most wins in a single season in program history with 11. He turned his focus to his military career, taking the Basic Officer Leadership Course at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. An engineering officer, Toth learned everything from demolition to project management to construction. Upon completion, Toth earned a platoon leader role with the 3rd Chemical Brigade doing Basic Combat Training.
"I was adamant about worrying about my military obligations first as well as what my duty title was," Toth said. "I told my battalion commander, my company commander that, first and foremost, I was there to complete my duty. That was going to be my first priority."
A two-year starter for the Black Knights at right tackle, Toth helped anchor the nation's top rushing offense in 2017. More importantly, from a military academy standpoint, Army topped Navy in two consecutive seasons, capturing the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy for the first time in over two decades. The latter of those victories was at Lincoln Financial Field.
"Having played in Lincoln Financial a few times and winning a few games there, I'm ready to be under the lights again," Toth said. "I don't know if it's as crazy as a Philly crowd, but it's been a hell of an atmosphere. That's for sure."
Toth was named to the AP All-Bowl team for his performance in the 2017 Armed Forces Bowl, a 42-35 win over San Diego State where the Black Knights rushed for 440 yards. He played in the Senior Bowl and was invited to the NFL Combine, although he couldn't participate due to a foot injury. He performed at his Pro Day and posted times that would have been among the best for an offensive linemen at the Combine – 5.09-second 40-yard dash, a 4.55-second 20-yard shuttle, and a 7.35-second 3-cone.
An outstanding athlete, Toth was worthy of being selected in the draft. He needs time to develop the finer details of pass protection after playing in a run-heavy, triple-option offense. Toth said at the Senior Bowl that he lined up in pass sets more that week than he did all the previous season. However, Toth's mandatory two-year military commitment was a key reason why he was not chosen in the NFL Draft. That was just fine with the Charleston, South Carolina native who was inspired by the brotherhood and camaraderie he witnessed when he made his official visit to Army while attending West Ashley High School.
"You realize that there's something out there more than football," Toth said. "I saw that West Point was that opportunity to show and use your platform for something. When I went on my official visit there and you meet some of the brotherhood, Chuck Schretzman and Greg Gadson, just guys that have played in the past, it changes your perspective. After going to visit there, there's no doubt that you're going to want to commit."