Nothing enlivens sports like a comeback. Tommy John, Sugar Ray Leonard and John McEnroe have all been more intriguing the second time around. Every season of every sport has its stories of rebirth, of course, but few are as varied and dramatic as those incubating for the 1989 NFL season.
The last time Lieutenant (j.g.) Napoleon McCallum of the U.S. Navy carried an NFL football, he gained four yards up the middle against the Indianapolis Colts. That was on Dec. 21, 1986, when he was a running back for the Los Angeles Raiders. In the 946 days since then, McCallum's athletic future was kicked about in a high-level game of political football. During that time, he spent six months on a warship, visiting exotic lands along the Indian Ocean and enduring the threat of Iranian air attack in the Strait of Hormuz. Then he was traded by the Raiders to the Chargers and was reassigned by the Navy to a recruiting office in San Diego. Now he is poised to resume his playing career while fulfilling the remaining 16 months of his obligation to the Navy.
Says McCallum: "I haven't thought of this as a comeback. I'm supposed to play, and that's what I'm going to do."
The last time outside linebacker Otis Wilson sacked a quarterback in a regular-season game was on Dec. 20, 1987. He crashed through the Seattle Seahawks' offensive line and drove Dave Krieg to the turf at Soldier Field in Chicago. In the 582 days since then, he suffered torn ligaments in his left knee and underwent reconstructive surgery. He drove himself through hundreds of hours of physical rehabilitation. He was discarded by the Bears, the franchise for which he had played his entire career. And he was signed by the Raiders, who are trying to rebuild their defense.
Says the 31-year-old Wilson: "I'm coming back with a vengeance. Everyone in this business wants a 21-year-old. But playing football is an attitude. I'll take any rookie into the gym and he'll fall asleep on me because he'll be tired."
The last time Derrick Fenner ran from scrimmage was on Nov. 22, 1986. He was a sophomore tailback for North Carolina, and on a pitchout against Duke he gained 32 yards, giving him 1,250 for the season. In the 975 days since then, he flunked out of one school and walked out of another after being blocked from playing by the school's conference. He was arrested for unlawfully transporting a handgun, and he pleaded guilty to possession of cocaine. He was indicted for killing a man, and he spent six weeks in a Maryland jail before the charges were dropped. He was shot outside a bar last Christmas Day. In April he was drafted in the 10th round by the Seattle Seahawks.
Says Fenner: "This is a comeback, definitely. Especially considering where I was two years ago—in jail. I want to have a successful stay in football, and at the end of it, it'll be something to put down on paper. I think it'll be real interesting to read."
Each of these players was a star, and each was away from football for a year or more. Now all three of them are trying to do the most difficult thing in sports: They are trying to recover lost time. Each attended minicamp in the spring and got reacquainted with team meetings, shadow drills and blowing whistles. But that, as the football people say, is just gym shorts. Soon they will put on full gear twice a day and endure withering contact while trying desperately to make an impression. Meanwhile, coaches who once might have given them the benefit of the doubt wonder how sharp, how sound, how hungry they are now or can be again.
As these three men compete at training camps that open this week, their identities as athletes—and possibly millions of dollars—will be on the line. They have come a long way, but they have not yet come back.
After standing watch while two NFL seasons ticked away, Napoleon McCallum, 25, is on a mission. There is no way he will lose another minute from his athletic prime. McCallum has a datebook, a rust-colored binder crammed with pencil-scratched appointments, addresses and the Chargers' marching orders for his weight workouts. It's his personal double-duty roster, his way of balancing his obligations to the Navy and to himself. "I don't miss much," he says. "I've learned how important it is to manage your time."