From West Point To The NFL

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Dear Caleb,

You will never reach that level of pressure or stress in the NFL or the Army because you will be sitting in a recruiting office in the Detroit area trying to convince young men and women to join the Army and fight in the wars you cowardly avoid. How’s that going to work?

You wore a “C” on your uniform as an Army football player. I always thought that stood for captain but in your case it’s appropriate that it stands for coward or cut and run…Before you graduate next week I want you to muster up the balls to walk over to the West Point cemetery and stand in front of each head stone of recent graduates who were killed in Iraq or Afghanistan and tell them that you are going to face just as much pressure as they did. I doubt you’ll do that. You’ll kiss them off like you’re kissing off your classmates.

 I’m enclosing a photo of Pat Tillman, I’m sure you know his story. Take a close look at the photo and listen.

 I think he’s calling you a coward. That’s all you’ll ever be.

// Anonymous

I hastily folded the letter leaving the edges slightly crumbled as I placed it deep in my bag—somehow hoping that the deeper I placed it, the faster I’d forget. It was the first time that I met resistance head on. Up to this point, it had only been celebratory responses or distant murmurs that the voice of my ego effortlessly silenced.

Briskly weaving myself in and out of the parade of cadets scampering through the hallways of Thayer Hall at West Point, I lowered my head as I now frantically tried to avoid eye contact with my peers—my very classmates who in a few short months would be preparing for war as I prepared for my first NFL Training Camp.

Finding my seat towards to the back of the class, guilt silenced me.

Looking back at this time of my life, I can honestly say that nothing in me was pursuing the NFL as an escape to avoid the inevitable fate that my future held as a newly commissioned officer in the United States Army during a time of war.

In the months leading up to the 2008 NFL Draft, I sat with a countless number of Army Generals and government officials, and not one time in any of my interactions with them did they express a level of disapproval on my decision to pursue the opportunity to play in the NFL. On the contrary, they encouraged it.

As far as I was aware, I was doing the right thing.

Truth be told, avoiding my inevitable fate as an Army officer in a time of war was never a thought of mine until the day I opened up what I thought was fan mail only to find the above note.

In a strange way, I’m thankful for that note.

Football always brought a smile to my face.

While I’m not entirely for sure if it was ever a dream of mine as much as it was a dream of others for me, football is what I naturally gravitated towards. Growing up with a natural athleticism, one would say that though I might not have necessarily choose football, football certainly chose me.

Don’t get me wrong. I loved to play the game. I loved the competition, the practices, the camaraderie of my teammates, and most of all, I loved to win.

But, unknowingly at the time, as I matured and my talent outweighed that of my peers, the innocence of the game I once knew as a child evolved from a simple display of talent into a need for identity, a source of happiness, and a weight to bear that these shoulders were never meant to carry.

Because of my natural talent, or what some would call gifting, I couldn’t help but to think that making football my life was what was expected of me.

And, with each performance, sprinkled with the Word of Faith and Charismatic movement inundated with messages of finding God’s will for your life that I grew up in, validated what those closest to me were saying.

This is my calling. This is my purpose in life.

As you might imagine, football quickly turned from an innocent game into a cross to carry and a duty to fulfill.

In light of the recent news of U.S. Naval Academy graduate and draft pick Keenan Reynolds being able to play in the NFL immediately after graduation and the Department of Defense (DOD)  implementing the rule that will allow graduates to pursue the NFL immediately after graduation, more than a few people have reached out to me asking me for my thoughts.

While I consider talking about this season of my life the equivalent to a grown male adult wearing his high school letterman jacket out to the bars on a Friday night, I wanted to take this moment to share a few thoughts.

What most people don’t know is that when the DOD informed me, shortly after being drafted by the Detroit Lions in the 2008 NFL Draft and graduating from West Point, that I would no longer be able to pursue the original agreement that afforded me the opportunity to play in the NFL, I was ecstatic.

Like, ecstatic, as in I did a cartwheel in my hotel room as I packed my bags and prepared to leave Detroit.

Shortly after the press and local news channels heard what had happened, and because of the media attention I had received up till the draft, Rachel Nichols and an ESPN camera staff immediately approached me.

Everything in me wanted to tell her the truth, but I couldn’t bring myself to it.

Everything in me wanted to tell her that I knew, based on my off-season performance, that I was only days away from being cut and this unfortunate circumstance saved me from the humiliation of being exposed as a person that didn’t have what it takes to make it in the NFL when so many people were counting on and rooting for me.

Everything in me wanted to tell her that I was only moments away of having to confront the guilt that I buried deep in the rocky soil of my heart along with the note I buried in my bag only a few short months before.

And, any chance of resuscitating my lifeless soul that the guilt had poisoned through a successful NFL career while advocating on behalf of the United States Army while my classmates were doing there part downrange, was coming to end.

Everything in me wanted to tell her that I didn’t have the courage to make the decision to walk away despite the constant unrest, fear, and panic I had faced daily—because to walk away from the game was to abandon my life’s purpose altogether.

The very reason for my existence.

Being told that I couldn’t play in 2008 turned out to be a gift from Heaven.

Sure, it only delayed the inevitable, but looking back it has afforded me an opportunity to see things that otherwise I don’t know I would have been able to see.

When I gleefully returned back to West Point to await my fate as now an Army Officer, I knew that areas of my life needed to be addressed. And because I couldn’t find the courage to face the monster that I’ve tamed and hidden so well, I managed the chaos through the only way I knew how—physical performance.

I was convinced that becoming bigger, faster, and stronger would stop my bleeding heart.

If it didn’t’ stop my bleeding heart, it would at least put me in the best position to succeed as I knew that in only a couple short years, if a contract presented itself, I would have an opportunity to give the NFL another chance.

I would have the opportunity to redeem myself and resolve the issue of the guilt and insignificance that smothered me like a wet blanket once and for all.

Each rep, sprint, and grueling workout, conducted around my normal military schedule, slowly silenced the hesitancy that I had initially felt. And, before I knew it, I found myself back in Detroit in the best physical condition of my life, playing my first regular season NFL game.

I used to wish that the story ended there, but not anymore.

I used to wish that I were able to go on and preach the pseudo-inspirational message of patience and perseverance riddled with clichés and platitudes that our society has been suffused with over the last several years.

I used to wish that I could stand in front of the younger generation and tell them that if only you believe in yourself you too can achieve your dream.

And, I’m not here to say that you can’t or that the above statement isn’t true.

I’m just saying that achieving your dream and finding fulfillment in life are not necessarily synonymous.

I went on to play a season and half with the Lions, spent some time with the Colts and finished up in Kansas City—primarily serving each team as a glorified practice dummy. The funny thing is, I only wanted to be on the practice squad and nothing more.

I wanted the comfort of showing up to practice with the sole of job of reading a diagram on a card and doing exactly as I was told—nothing more, nothing less. I wanted the perks of being on the team and going out on a Friday night without the risk of being exposed with a poor performance on Sunday. I wanted the acceptance and validation that came with telling strangers what I did for a living.

The way that I saw it, to play on Sunday, or to be part of the active roster jeopardized the very way that I found life. One poor performance on a Sunday meant there’s a good chance you’ll be on the streets looking for acceptance in a new way. The uncertainty of it all paralyzed me.

As you might imagine, life was exhausting.

Each day I put on my NFL jersey, the symbol that once represented life to the fullest, now represented a straightjacket that entangled me in fear. The guilt and pressure that I had originally faced not only resurfaced, but seemed to bring some friends, too.

Once I got released from the Chiefs, I knew it was over.

Living on what seemed to be life support was no longer a viable option and, I was tired of drowning in this pool of fear—constantly chasing my next breath as it eluded me faster than my childhood dream. More than anything, I was tired of resuscitating what seemed to be a lifeless life only for history to repeat itself.

New team. Old fear. Same story…Something had to change.

The innocence of the game had been compromised and what started off as a childhood passion turned into chains of bondage that enslaved me in a world of fear leaving me fumbling like the blind along the wall—like a people with no sight.

By the grace of God, it was brazenly obvious that if something didn’t change with me, history would only repeat itself. I could take a job in corporate America, but like how loneliness isn’t cured by another person, I knew no job, city, or amount of money was going to fix what I was experiencing.

And while I was tired of feeling like a refugee in my own home, voiceless in a sea of voices, I made a move that saved my life.

Fast forward a few years and I can’t even begin to describe how much my life has transformed. More specifically, I can’t even begin to describe how clearly I see things that I once wasn’t able to see.

The day I read that hope-shattering letter, unknowingly at the time, was the beginning to a journey that would eventually lead me to not only stopping my heart from profusely bleeding, but to receiving a new heart altogether.

For these few years, I used to blame the man who wrote that letter for all the guilt that I had faced. I even went on to demonized the game that had given me so much for the paralyzing fear that I experienced while playing it.

All the while, refusing to see that the letter, or football, wasn’t the issue but only revealed the issue that was already inside of me.

Over time, it became clear to me that this was a normal trend to my life. There was always a reason why I didn’t win, or why I wasn’t where I wanted to be. There was always someone to blame, a finger to point, and an excuse to make.

A refusal to take responsibility for my life.

And, if there’s one thing that I’ve come to conclude over the last few years it’s that excuses will destroy more dreams than the lack of talent, finances, or skill sets ever will. And until something changed inside of me, there was a limit to my life even while serving my limitless God.

For this very reason, I’m thankful that things played out the way that they did. Not only did it lead me to a transformed life, but it opened up my eyes to a purpose that’s bigger than me.

A reason for my existence that runs deeper than a good performance on the field.

Just the other day, my younger brother had sent me a text that I can’t think of a more appropriate time so I’ll leave you with this:

We love to point our fingers. “Out there.” “Over there.” “That’s the problem.” “What’s wrong with people?”

Until we all start pointing our finger towards the mirror, nothing with change. Until we understand the despicable nature that cause the atrocities we see everyday on the news, dwells inside of us all, we will never see change.

Global change starts with individual change. I am what’s wrong with the world. Hate for my neighbor will only end when I hate my own sin more.

Find me on Snapchat: calebcampbell84

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