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EACH DAY at 06:40 senior cadet Caleb Campbell eats an uneasy breakfast in the mess hall with 4,000 classmates at the United States Military Academy. "Every morning we worry that they're going to announce, 'It is my deepest regret to inform you....'" says Campbell, a 6'2", 229-pound strong safety and captain of the Army football team last fall. "It always begins like that when a former cadet has died in combat." He pauses. "When we hear those announcements, the rest of the day is totally different. It gets to you."
The realities of war—and the likelihood of a deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan—are part of life for every cadet at West Point. But Campbell's path may soon diverge sharply from his classmates'. Earlier this month he attended the NFL combine in Indianapolis, where he was the first Army nonkicker ever invited. Like every participant he hopes to be drafted by an NFL team next month, but Campbell has more riding on the draft than most. He could be playing professionally next season. But if he isn't taken or doesn't make an NFL team as an undrafted free agent, he'll likely be serving as a second lieutenant in Iraq or Afghanistan by the end of the year. Such is life on the banks of the Hudson River in a time of war.
In the past, star athletes at military academies (Navy's Roger Staubach and David Robinson, for example) had to put pro sports careers on hold while they fulfilled their service obligations. (Staubach served four years, including one in Vietnam; Robinson served two years at a base in Georgia and then four as a reserve while playing in the NBA.) Campbell owes his chance to pursue his NFL dreams to a policy implemented by the Army in 2005 that releases cadets from their five-year active duty commitment if they have "unique talents and abilities." It requires them only to "participate in activities with potential recruiting or public affairs benefit to the Army." If he's drafted, Campbell will serve as a recruiter for the Army during and after the NFL season, speaking to young people and working at the local recruiting office wherever 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 Army for five years.
The policy's rationale is straightforward: West Point grads with highly visible talents create positive publicity for the Army, an aid to recruiting at a time when the military can be a hard sell. Josh Holden, a minor leaguer for the Cincinnati Reds, was the first Army graduate to benefit, in 2005; in all, fewer than 10 athletes have been excused from active duty. Campbell would become the first football player to receive the exemption, a distinction that makes him uncomfortable. "I came here after 9/11; I knew what to expect," he says. "We've been trained to lead troops into battle. I expected to do that. 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 in Iraq soon."
He may feel awkward, but Campbell is a singular football talent. He became a starter in the sixth game of his freshman season, and after finishing his sophomore year with a team-high five interceptions, Campbell was targeted by other college programs. (Cadets can transfer out of West Point after their sophomore years without penalty.) "That season coaches and players would talk to me after games and tell me to look at their school," he says. The lobbying convinced Campbell to transfer to a football school with easier academics. In the summer of 2006 he took his transfer papers to then coach Bobby Ross—but Ross, using the exemption policy as a selling point, persuaded him to stay. "He told me I'd graduate from another school, but I wouldn't care and that I probably wouldn'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 make leaders of character."
Campbell tore his ACL nine games into his junior season, but last fall he rebounded and made 97 tackles 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 are handicapping his draft status; Campbell recently completed details for a private workout with the Falcons on April 10. "He has great intangibles," says one NFL scout who projects Campbell as a late-round pick. "He's probably a backup safety and special teams player [in the NFL]."
The attention is a novelty for a kid from Perryton, Texas, the son of an oil company account manager and a stay-at-home mom, who received only two scholarship offers—Army and Tulsa—out of high school. But Campbell's life remains austere. In an age when most combine invitees drop out of school to train, Campbell is still taking classes. Recently his Politics of Latin America professor, Major Lorenzo Rios, asked him to analyze ideological hegemony and the motivations behind Venezuela's Hugo Chavez's massing troops on the Colombia border. (Asked if NFL schemes will be difficult to grasp, Campbell just laughs.) As he awaits the draft, 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. "I think cadets are not sure about the policy because they don't really understand it," says senior Kyle Snook, one of Campbell's roommates. "But once they realize what's going on, they're excited for the publicity for the Army and the football team."
On a recent Friday, Campbell stood on the overlook at West Point, staring out over the expanse of the Hudson River. He will graduate on May 31, but little else about his 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, as if to himself. "What a view," he says.
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Clay Travis is the author of Dixieland Delight: A Football Season on the Road in the SEC.