For fans unfamiliar with Caleb Campbell, his journey to the NFL has been unique. Born in small-town Texas, Campbell came from very humble beginnings. A natural athlete, the small-town boy from Perryton always had big dreams of making a name for himself.
Despite his talented beginnings in football, Campbell was bullied during his time in junior high and high school. Football was his escape. Campbell was able to overcome adversity using principles such as perseverance, discipline and a diligence—qualities often attributed to military personnel.
Predictably, Campbell’s morals would lead him to a career with the United States military.
The kid from Texas who fought bullying with faith and football, went on to become a cadet for the United States Military Academy at West Point and a Division I football player. A team captain in his senior year, the talented collegiate safety at Army graduated from West Point with aspirations of fulfilling his childhood dream of playing in the NFL.
As a West Point graduate, Campbell was able to undergo NFL training and the draft through what is known as the Army’s Alternative Service Obligation Policy, or “ASO rule.” A confusing and wordy policy, Campbell provided a description in layman’s terms.
“The policy actually changed 8 days prior to [the Army] informing me that I would not be able to play until after 2 years of service. Up to that point, there was no 2-year service obligation. You could play and serve simultaneously. Now, after 2 years of service, if you have a professional contract in place, you can put together a packet or contract with recommendation letters from key personnel and submit it to your chain of command. If approved, it is then submitted to the Dept. of Defense where they then sign off on it.”
Rather than reporting to training camp, Campbell reported for active duty with the US Army. Having to trade in his pads and cleats for a combat helmet and boots, Campbell left the Lions to serve out his contractual obligations with the military.
“When I first heard the news, it was mass chaos,” Campbell recalls. “I didn’t know what to expect because no one could give me a direct answer. Even the West Point officials didn’t know what was going on. Yes, I was definitely upset, confused, and sad that my dream had come to a halt. I just wanted answers and no one could give them to me. Frustrated is a great word! At that point, I didn’t know I was going to get an opportunity to play down the road.”
Campbell had to deal with the emotions he faced after hearing his name at Radio City Music Hall and excitement of working out with the Lions, followed by being unexpectedly thrust into combat.
“That time was definitely a period in my life that I will always remember—but maybe not for the reasons you think. Yes, all those things were great and I enjoyed it all for the most part. But when the news started to spread about me potentially being drafted, the pressure started to build up. I didn’t really talk to anyone about this. I was young, immature, and doing as I was told and directed. There were literally hundreds of people in my life at this time. It was definitely exciting but also nerve-racking.”
“Along with feeling excited about the opportunity to fulfill a child hood dream, I also felt pressure like I’ve never experienced before. Fear had taken over my life. What if I didn’t make it? What if I don’t get drafted after being paraded around on national TV at the draft? What are all these people going to say if I let them down? These questions haunted me. Not to mention the letters that I was receiving from random people calling me a coward and other names I won’t mention. Along with sending me pictures of Pat Tillman’s grave…yes they actually did that. People thought I was looking for a way out of my service. It’s unfortunate. I thought ‘if only they were a fly on the wall during the countless meetings I had with 3 star generals and Army officials.’”
“More than feeling excited and happy, I felt fear. I was relieved. Yes, relieved when they told me that I couldn’t play. Fear had such a stronghold on my life it wasn’t healthy. I had just finished OTA’s a few weeks before and they couldn’t have gone any worse for me. I was so afraid of failure at that time that it paralyzed me. With all the media attention that I was receiving, I felt the weight of the world on my shoulders. I couldn’t fail because I couldn’t let all of these people down. That was my thought process. So when they told me that I couldn’t actually play, this took the pressure off of my shoulders and now I didn’t have to fail and therefore I wouldn’t be exposed as the coward that I really felt I was.”
The NFL dream instilled in Caleb, as a kid was still very much alive. Though entirely focused and committed to his military post, the Army lieutenant acknowledged that his focus would sometimes shift to football during his active duty.
“I definitely thought about it every day,” admits Campbell. “When I was first told that I couldn’t play for another two years, I told myself that I was done. I didn’t touch a weight, football, or film for a good few weeks. Then I woke up in the middle of the night and knew in the core of my being that it wasn’t over yet. I had to give it one more shot. That was the hard part because I was training like I had a game that Sunday and I didn’t even know if I was ever going to get another shot at playing again. I’m very thankful that I had great chain of command that believed in me and supported my vision. That helped and encouraged me a great amount.”
Prior to his deployment, there was some debate as to whether or not it was morally correct for Campbell to pursue his NFL career while his peers from West Point fulfilled their obligations to their country. Teammates at Army—FB Mike Vidi and P Owen Tollson—faced similar backlash from enraged military supporters. As Campbell mentioned, nicknames like ‘coward’ and even worse were directed at them.
“It was great to have those guys [Vidi and Tollson] with me during this process,” said Campbell. “We stuck close together for the most part. There was definitely some backlash from my peers, and that hurt. I went through West Point, all the ups and downs, all the training, all the academic requirements just like they did, and for them to dismiss me just like that; it was a slap to the face. But I worked through it. I want to say that for every negative comment there were at least 10 supportive ones—especially from soldiers down range at the time. Yes, there were a few that didn’t agree with what was happening but there were several who did.”
There was one organization that had always backed the decision of Caleb Campbell to join the NFL—the United States Army. Members of both the Army and West Point view athletes like Caleb as a “recruiting tool” of sorts. In a tough climate to recruit members to join the armed forces, Campbell definitely noticed that his publicity led to a spike in the numbers.
“Not only was there an increase in recruits at that time, but I do feel like the image for the most part was shed in a more positive light based on the publicity I had received,” said Campbell. “At the Draft alone, fans were chanting USA! USA! as I was selected. You can’t buy that kind of publicity. I am sure there are some people that will completely disagree with me, and that’s ok.”
Recruiting tool or not, Campbell’s tour of duty eventually came to a close in 2010. After two years, the former draft selection in 2008 was free to pursue his NFL dream once more. What’s sweeter, the team that gave him a shot in 2008 was the first to reach out to the heroic Campbell.
“It definitely made it sweeter to return to Detroit,” confessed Campbell. “Not only were some of the guys from my draft class still there, the city of Detroit really connected with my story and brought me in as one of their own. I remember when I showed up for mini camps. Usually the first few picks are paraded around for media requests, but wherever they went, so did I. I loved Detroit and still do. I still have a lot of contacts that I keep in touch from the city. “
Since his return to action in 2010, Campbell has bounced around in the NFL a bit, going from Detroit, to Indianapolis, and winding up in Kansas City for the 2012 campaign. Campbell has attacked every day with the same passion prior to his removal from football.
NFL franchises still have some concerns about the benefits Campbell can bring to their team. Most notably, teams are concerned with his ability to shake off the rust. At 6-foot-2, 240-pounds, Campbell is better suited for linebacker than safety with his current frame. The former college standout issued this statement when discussing his NFL-readiness.
“I’m not one to make excuses, but the transition from safety to linebacker with 2 years off, is a tough transition. At the time, I was in the best physical shape of my life, but mentally, I wasn’t there. It didn’t help that I didn’t play any special teams during college.”
“Remember that fear I talked about earlier, it was still there, lurking over me like a dark cloud. I was still afraid of failure. This is what I learned about the situation. The very thing you fear will actually come upon you. I sabotaged my own career to a degree. I did my best at staying an arm’s length away from getting on that field so I would never have to face failure. Never have to be exposed for someone that really didn’t have what it took. Sometimes, I thought that if I didn’t have to play, then I didn’t have to fail. I was ‘safe’ while on the practice squad.”
A current free agent, Campbell has learned from his first go-around in the NFL. In fact, he has a message for any teams that might still have an interest in him.
“At this point, with the way that I have matured, if I got back on the field, I would never be outworked. Maybe out performed, but you won’t find someone that would work as hard and as diligently as I would. I really can’t answer if there is a specific team or venue that would be an ideal fit, but if there is a team out there that loves big, fast safeties, then yeah, that team.”
Caleb Campbell’s journey was not typical but he learned from the experience. And feels it has made him a better person.
“It definitely affected me for the better. Not initially, but from where I am now. I’m the biggest, fastest, and strongest I have ever been but that is not the important part. This entire journey brought me to the end of myself. It called me out. I had to quit hiding and face these fears that were lying dormant in my heart. I had a choice to make; I could keep hiding and let the fear of failure dictate my life or I could face it head on. And that’s what I did.
“If it wasn’t for this process “breaking me,” I don’t know where I’d be. I’d probably be the same coward that hid behind his accomplishments while constantly living with the weight of the world on his shoulders.”
“The beautiful thing from all of this is I found the real me. The person I was created to be, not the football me, not the person the world told me I was, but the real me. Before this journey, I use to wake up in the morning not knowing who I was and I spent the entire day trying to prove to people who I was. As I mentioned, fear controlled and dictated my life. It was exhausting. Life was one big performance and God forbid if I didn’t perform. The problem with this is that I was never good enough. I would achieve some small level of success, feel validated for a while, and then it would disappear, only to feel the need to perform even more. When does it stop? It doesn’t and it was about to take me to my grave. Depression, worry, anxiety, stress were constant throughout my life.”
“Now, I wake up and I know who I am. Because I know who I am, I have nothing to prove in life. I’m not worried about what people think about me, or this constant need to ‘be somebody’ in life so that I can be validated or appreciated.”
“It was through this journey that my life has forever changed because I’ve realized that the purpose of my life has nothing to do with me. Every day that I wake up not having anything to prove and this allows me to live for a purpose that is bigger than me. I’ve never had more meaning behind my life, more passion, more fulfillments, and more love. Life is good.”
Campbell has remained positive, he was able to fight for his country, play in the NFL, and become a motivational speaker in the process. But the most rewarding experience centered on Campbell’s patriotism and love for his country.
“Fulfilling a childhood dream is amazing, but nothing compares to putting on the uniform and serving the greatest country in the world. I’m so thankful for the men and women who protect this great country and it was an honor and privilege to share the uniform with them.”
Through unpredictable circumstances, Caleb was able to develop a sense of drive to motivate and inspire others. His message is simple. Hold onto hope and live a selfless life because in the end, adversity doesn’t build character, it reveals it.
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