EACH DAY at 06:40senior cadet Caleb Campbell eats an uneasy breakfast in the mess hall with4,000 classmates at the United States Military Academy. "Every morning weworry that they're going to announce, 'It is my deepest regret to informyou....'" says Campbell, a 6'2", 229-pound strong safety and captain ofthe Army football team last fall. "It always begins like that when a formercadet has died in combat." He pauses. "When we hear thoseannouncements, the rest of the day is totally different. It gets toyou."
The realities ofwar—and the likelihood of a deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan—are part of lifefor every cadet at West Point. But Campbell's path may soon diverge sharplyfrom his classmates'. Earlier this month he attended the NFL combine inIndianapolis, where he was the first Army nonkicker ever invited. Like everyparticipant he hopes to be drafted by an NFL team next month, but Campbell hasmore riding on the draft than most. He could be playing professionally nextseason. But if he isn't taken or doesn't make an NFL team as an undrafted freeagent, he'll likely be serving as a second lieutenant in Iraq or Afghanistan bythe end of the year. Such is life on the banks of the Hudson River in a time ofwar.
In the past, starathletes at military academies (Navy's Roger Staubach and David Robinson, forexample) had to put pro sports careers on hold while they fulfilled theirservice obligations. (Staubach served four years, including one in Vietnam;Robinson served two years at a base in Georgia and then four as a reserve whileplaying in the NBA.) Campbell owes his chance to pursue his NFL dreams to apolicy implemented by the Army in 2005 that releases cadets from theirfive-year active duty commitment if they have "unique talents andabilities." It requires them only to "participate in activities withpotential recruiting or public affairs benefit to the Army." If he'sdrafted, Campbell will serve as a recruiter for the Army during and after theNFL season, speaking to young people and working at the local recruiting officewherever he plays. (He would be excused from his five-year service commitment.)If he doesn't hook on with a pro team within a year, he'll return to the Armyfor five years.
The policy'srationale is straightforward: West Point grads with highly visible talentscreate positive publicity for the Army, an aid to recruiting at a time when themilitary can be a hard sell. Josh Holden, a minor leaguer for the CincinnatiReds, was the first Army graduate to benefit, in 2005; in all, fewer than 10athletes have been excused from active duty. Campbell would become the firstfootball player to receive the exemption, a distinction that makes himuncomfortable. "I came here after 9/11; I knew what to expect," hesays. "We've been trained to lead troops into battle. I expected to dothat. I didn't expect the Army to give me an opportunity to play in the NFL.But the difference gets to you. My best friends are probably going to be inIraq soon."
He may feelawkward, but Campbell is a singular football talent. He became a starter in thesixth game of his freshman season, and after finishing his sophomore year witha team-high five interceptions, Campbell was targeted by other collegeprograms. (Cadets can transfer out of West Point after their sophomore yearswithout penalty.) "That season coaches and players would talk to me aftergames and tell me to look at their school," he says. The lobbying convincedCampbell to transfer to a football school with easier academics. In the summerof 2006 he took his transfer papers to then coach Bobby Ross—but Ross, usingthe exemption policy as a selling point, persuaded him to stay. "He told meI'd graduate from another school, but I wouldn't care and that I probablywouldn't even go to my own graduation," Campbell says. "That got to me.I've never quit anything in my life. It's hard here, really hard, but they makeleaders of character."
Campbell tore hisACL nine games into his junior season, but last fall he rebounded and made 97tackles as a senior. At the combine he bench-pressed 225 pounds 24 times(second most of all defensive backs) and ran a 4.5 40. NFL teams arehandicapping his draft status; Campbell recently completed details for aprivate workout with the Falcons on April 10. "He has greatintangibles," says one NFL scout who projects Campbell as a late-roundpick. "He's probably a backup safety and special teams player [in theNFL]."
The attention is anovelty for a kid from Perryton, Texas, the son of an oil company accountmanager and a stay-at-home mom, who received only two scholarship offers—Armyand Tulsa—out of high school. But Campbell's life remains austere. In an agewhen most combine invitees drop out of school to train, Campbell is stilltaking classes. Recently his Politics of Latin America professor, Major LorenzoRios, asked him to analyze ideological hegemony and the motivations behindVenezuela's Hugo Chavez's massing troops on the Colombia border. (Asked if NFLschemes will be difficult to grasp, Campbell just laughs.) As he awaits thedraft, Campbell is living in Eisenhower Barracks, room 313, with two roommates,three bunk beds and a 23:30 light's-out policy every night but Saturday. "Ithink cadets are not sure about the policy because they don't really understandit," says senior Kyle Snook, one of Campbell's roommates. "But oncethey realize what's going on, they're excited for the publicity for the Armyand the football team."
On a recentFriday, Campbell stood on the overlook at West Point, staring out over theexpanse of the Hudson River. He will graduate on May 31, but little else abouthis future is clear. When asked if he's counting the days until the NFL draft,he doesn't answer. Then after a minute or so, Cadet Campbell speaks softly, asif to himself. "What a view," he says.
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Clay Travis is theauthor of Dixieland Delight: A Football Season on the Road in the SEC.
"In the past, star athletes at military academieshad to PUT PRO CAREERS ON HOLD."
PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY JOHN UELAND