NFL Rookie Caleb Campbell Must Serve The Army Before Realizing Football Dreams

Linebacker was gearing up for training camp when he learned of the new policy.

There’s no crying in football — or in the Army, for that matter. But after being issued a helmet and gearing up for his first NFL practice with the Detroit Lions, Caleb Campbell admitted that he shed a few tears Wednesday when he learned he would be joining his fellow West Point graduates in either Afghanistan or Iraq instead of taking the field.

When Campbell was drafted in the seventh round by the Lions in April, it opened up a debate about whether it was fair that he’d be lacing up his cleats come fall, when his comrades would be lacing up their combat boots, thanks to a new rule that allowed military-academy grads to go straight to the NFL and delay their service.

According to ESPN, it also might have ruffled feathers at the Navy and Air Force, because their graduates were playing under different rules put down under a Department of Defense directive, which required them to serve two years of active duty before applying for a release to pursue their sports dreams.

Thanks to the Army’s alternative-service-option policy created in 2005, Campbell would have been allowed to play football while completing his military service as a recruiter and then in the reserves. But the Army revised its interpretation of the policy on July 8, though word didn’t reach Campbell and the Lions until just before training camp was to begin.

“When I got drafted, I told people that I was going to have the best of both worlds,” Campbell told ESPN. “I was going to be in the United States Army and I was going to have a chance to play professional football. Now I have the best of one world, and I’m very positive about that. It’s all going to work out. … I’m in great shape, and I’m going to stay in great shape. I’m going to fulfill my duty to the United States Army and do what I’ve got to do. One day, hopefully, I’ll get another opportunity to play in the NFL.”

Campbell admitted that he was upset at first and cried when he learned of the change in the Army’s policy, but an Army spokesperson told The Associated Press that the defensive back known for stuffing the run could still get a chance to shine.

“It’s unfortunate, but it doesn’t mean Caleb Campbell’s dream is dead. It just means it will be delayed,” Army spokeswoman Lieutenant Colonel Anne Edgecomb said. “We want to take care of soldiers, and dashing their hopes is not what we intend. But it is what it is.”

While Campbell had agreed to contract terms with the Lions, he had not yet signed a deal with the team, which will retain his rights until next year’s draft, though he won’t be eligible to play until 2010.

Campbell, a second lieutenant who trained as an air defense artilleryman at West Point, isn’t the first soldier/athlete to be impacted by the military’s rules. Last month, according to ESPN, Navy Secretary Donald C. Winter ruled that 22-year-old pitcher and St. Louis Cardinals draftee Mitch Harris has to serve a five-year active-duty commitment before joining the team. Harris had said he was surprised by Winter’s ruling considering that, at the time, Campbell was going to be allowed to play football.

But now, every former West Point athlete currently playing pro sports will have to serve two years of active duty, after which they can apply for their release.

“It’s unfortunate that the timing of the new policy is happening at the same time that he was about to begin trying out, but that’s not something we planned,” Edgecomb told ESPN. “But he’s been at West Point for four years, and he went there to be an officer. What he’s accomplished on a football field has been outstanding, but what he’ll accomplish as a soldier will be even greater.”

It’s not totally the end of the line for Campbell in terms of football. After attending summer and spring mini-camps with the Lions and moving from strong safety to linebacker, he will serve as a graduate assistant with the Army or at the Academy’s prep school in Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, according to New York’s Times Herald-Record. After that year of service, he will report for officer training.

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