A different kind of NFL recruit

Nearly 15 minutes pass before the first question about football and the Detroit Lions gets asked.

Like every other player drafted by the NFL last weekend, Caleb Campbell has been poked, probed, weighed, timed and tested to exhaustion. None, though, have had their motives so thoroughly scrutinized.

“I know they’re rebuilding their defense,” cadet Capt. Campbell said Tuesday during a conference call from West Point. “I know I’m fortunate enough to go into the 3-4 system they run as either a linebacker or a safety.”

When Campbell enrolled at West Point four years ago, he expected to wind up in Baghdad, not Detroit. He was a pretty fair high school football player, but his grand plan was to graduate in May and command a platoon. Before the Lions intervened and selected him in the seventh round with the 218th pick, chances were good he would have joined his former teammates soon afterward on a combat tour of either Iraq or Afghanistan.

“I enrolled here during a time of war,” Campbell said. “I knew exactly what I was getting myself into.”

What changed the course of his life was how good a strong safety Campbell turned out to be at the same time the Army was searching for a new recruiting tool. Called the Alternative Service Option program and implemented when Campbell was a sophomore in 2005, it provides athletes a chance to play pro ball and complete their two years of active service by working as recruiters.

Provided Campbell and Army teammate Mike Viti, who signed as a free-agent with the Buffalo Bills, make their teams, each will spend one day a week working at a local recruiting office. If they keep their jobs in the NFL, they can satisfy the remaining three years of their active-duty commitment in exchange for six years of reserve time. The catch is that if either gets cut, he could still wind up in combat.

“I don’t think the NFL would have a problem cutting me if that was the case. I did want to join the Academy, I did want to join the Army. I knew what I was getting myself into,” he said one more time, “and I take all responsibility for that.”

We tolerate kids going to college to play ball for so many wrong reasons it’s easy to lose count, and there’s rarely a peep when the most talented flee to the pros the first time they get the chance. In this case, two kids who did everything for the right reasons catch a lucky break and spend the better part of a week having to defend their decision.

Much of the griping about Campbell and Viti’s good fortunes centers on three points: first, the alternative-service option not being a realistic option for nearly all of his classmates; second, the reluctance of both the Air Force and Navy — Army’s athletic rivals — to offer a similar alternative to their athletes, which might put them at a disadvantage in recruiting; and finally. the notion that working as a recruiter one day each week isn’t really active duty — despite the fact that thousands of soldiers currently do just that.

“I think a lot of people have the misconception that if you’re not getting bullets slung by your head, that you’re not serving your nation in a time of war,” Viti said.

“There are service support branches in the Army for a reason. Combat arms is what I decided to do, but that doesn’t mean my service is going to be any less,” he added, “because when you start to split hairs on it, you start to demean some of the other branches of the U.S. Army.”

The recruiting advantage is a little thornier, but recalling the fierce rivalries between the branches on the playing field, neither Viti nor Campbell felt the need to apologize. Though three other West Point classmates are also participating in the alternative-service programs to pursue careers in baseball and hockey, the simple fact is that service academies rarely produce enough pro prospects to make a difference.

Campbell and Viti didn’t learn about the option until their sophomore years, when then-Army and former Lions coach Bobby Ross told the pair they not only had pro potential, but a path that would get them to the NFL.

“One thing the Academy does well is it keeps your eyes on the target straight ahead. You’re not really looking further than a few days out. In 2005,” Viti recalled, “this was probably the last thing on my mind.”

The first time Ross laid out the plan for Campbell, “I didn’t really understand it.”

“I didn’t think much about it until my senior year when I started getting calls from agents telling me I had a chance to pursue a career in the NFL,” he added.

No matter how Campbell or Viti’s NFL stints go, there is no chance a parade of topflight prep athletes will enroll in the service academies seeking a path to pro sports. The odds are too long, too many other schools already offer a more established and much more comfortable route and that’s before you factor in the risk.

To say it takes a special kind of kid to do what Campbell and Viti did isn’t saying enough.

“I know that if football doesn’t work out, I get to do something else that I love. That is what I’ve been telling people, it’s a win-win situation,” Campbell said.

“I get to pursue a career because of this new policy the Army has implemented, but if football doesn’t work out, I get to do what I came to the Academy for. I get to be an officer,” he added, “and that’s something I love as well.

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