- Rick Reilly, Columnist, ESPN.com
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There are times when a good man gets screwed and yet can't say a word, which leaves it for somebody else to stand on an orange crate and say, "Hey! This stinks!"
Such is the case with 2nd Lieutenant Caleb Campbell, U.S. Army.
2nd Lt. Campbell was a surprisingly fine safety for Army the past four years. So surprisingly fine that in April he was selected in the seventh round of the NFL draft by the Detroit Lions, the first West Point cadet taken in 11 years.
The Lions picked him because the Army assured the NFL it had a policy allowing cadets with "exceptional skills" to delay military service and go pro as a way of pumping up recruiting.
So the tiny town of Perryton, Texas, threw Campbell a big party in the church basement the day before he left for training camp since, not only was he the first local kid to go to West Point, he was the first one ever drafted. Campbell flew to Detroit and got his jersey (No. 47, in honor of All-Pro safety John Lynch) and a locker with his nameplate on it and his playbook. And in mid-July he got a room at a Dearborn Marriott, just like all the other rookies, and stayed up wondering what the NFL was all going to be like.
And then, the day before camp began, Lions GM Matt Millen called Campbell and his playbook into his office and told him it was all over. The Army was rescinding the policy. Campbell had to report immediately.
Turns out the Army had no business having such a policy. Turns out the Department of Defense insists any service academy athlete who's drafted serve at least two years immediately after graduation, skills or no skills. And those two years can't be at Ford Field. Turns out that when the Navy and Air Force heard that Campbell was getting a special deal, they freaked. Navy's athletic director even called it a "significant" recruiting handicap. Funny, since it was the Navy that allowed former Midshipman Napoleon McCallum to play his rookie year with the L.A. Raiders while stationed at a Long Beach naval base.
2nd Lt. Campbell felt like he was hit in the nose with a shovel. Every day during his four years at West Point, he was reminded of and lived by the Cadet Honor Code: A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do. Instead the Army lied to 2nd Lt. Caleb Campbell. Now he gets to tolerate it.
First, he cried, but then he bucked up. He didn't file a lawsuit or punch a wall or ask questions you or I would've asked, such as, "The Army revised the policy on July 8. Why did it take until July 23, the night before camp started, to tell me?" Or, "Why can't I be grandfathered in, the way Army baseball players Nick Hill and Milan Dinga are being allowed to finish their season in the minor leagues?"
All Campbell did was throw his shoulders back and say, "I went to the academy to be a soldier."
But here's what stinks. Campbell did go to West Point to lead men into battle, but then he found out he was good enough to play on Sundays. At the end of his sophomore season, he could've transferred out, without penalty, to a big-time football college like Oklahoma or Michigan. But then head coach Bobby Ross told him about the Army's best-of-both-world's policy. Campbell stayed.
So the Army got two more years out of him, and all the boffo draft publicity—fans chanting "USA! USA!" at Radio City Music Hall—before it ran him full speed into a brick wall. "I never thought [my football career] would end this way," Campbell says. "I thought it would be a knee. Or I'd get cut. My dream was to play in the NFL. But my other dream was to be an officer in the greatest army in the world. Now I'm down to the best of one world, I guess. I'm a soldier and I'm going to see the task through."
And what task is that, you ask? Serving as an assistant coach for Army's football team this season, followed by reassignment, perhaps to Iraq or Afghanistan. Which brings up another question Campbell won't ask: "How is coaching football at West Point any more valuable to the war effort than playing it in Detroit?" What could be better for Army morale than 2nd Lt. Campbell starring in the NFL every Sunday and soldiers gathering around TV sets overseas, rooting their boots off for one of their own, secretly relieved he's on a team where losses don't go home in bags?
"Lt. Campbell is the kind of leader our soldiers deserve," an Army spokesman said.
The question is: Does the Army deserve 2nd Lt. Campbell?
14hMike Fish and David Purdum