November 23, 2010
West Point graduate Caleb Campbell(notes) made his NFL debut on Sunday with the Detroit Lions, becoming the first Army player to appear in a game in over a decade (and only the second in the past 30 years).
If you watched the second day of the 2008 NFL draft, you may remember Campbell, whose selection became one of the biggest stories of the day. When he was selected in the seventh-round by the Detroit Lions, ESPN brought him on set, set up a videoconference with him and then-Lions coach Rod Marinelli, a Vietnam veteran, and celebrated the fact that an undersized player from West Point would have a shot to play professionally. He was the first Army player to be drafted in 11 years.
The safety (who would be converted to linebacker by the Lions) was poised to became the first football player to take advantage of a new rule that would allow service academy graduates to play sports instead of serving their five-year military commitment. In this case, Campbell still would have been a member of the Army, but his duty would have been to play football and serve as a recruiter for the armed forces. The thinking behind the rule was that an individual like Campbell could draw positive attention to West Point by playing football on a national stage.
But then, one day before Campbell was set to take the field for his first training camp, he was informed that the Army revised the Department of Defense rule. Now, he'd have to complete two years of active duty before he could be allowed to play football. It was a poorly timed and illogical move; Campbell stayed at West Point in good faith with the belief that he'd be able to take advantage of the rule and move on to the NFL if a team wanted him. Plus, as was noted at the time, the two greatest recruiters the Navy ever had were famous athletes: Roger Staubach and David Robinson. Campbell wouldn't be a Hall of Famer like those Naval Academy grads, but couldn't he have served the Army better by showing its virtues on the football field?
Though he was "a little bitter" about the decision at first, Campbell handled himself with the class you'd expect from a West Point graduate and completed his active duty in Fort Sill, Okla., as a First Lieutenant. Upon his completion of the two years (and the myriad paperwork that accompanied the early release), Campbell was signed to the team's practice squad earlier this year.
He remained there until last week when he was signed to the team's active roster. On Sunday, Campbell made his NFL debut, playing on special teams. He still has military commitments as a member of the Michigan National Guard, but for now, he's mainly focused on the football field.
The military is never far from his mind though. In September, when Campbell was still toiling on the practice squad, he received a call from his best friend's wife. She told Campbell that, Jake Watson, his best friend since they had met at West Point's prep school in 2003 had been hit by an IED in Afghanistan. (Watson has recovered from the injuries.)
[Related: Stay-at-home dad turns NFL athlete]
After receiving the news, Campbell told The Detroit News that he struggled with his decision to choose football over the military:
"He's my best friend; God bless him. [...] They are over there putting their lives in harm's way and I'm here playing football. We all serve in our way, but that's where I initially had my battles.
"I wondered if I was doing the right thing (playing football). But I talked to all my boys and they reaffirmed that I was doing the right thing."
Campbell wears No. 53 for the Lions. Keep an eye out for him on Thanksgiving.
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