- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Army 2nd Lt. Caleb Campbell never should have been allowed to pursue his NFL aspirations with the Lions before meeting his five-year commitment in the military.

If Campbell found that the lure of a potential career in the NFL was too strong to ignore, he could apply to be released from active duty in two years.

That is the deal with America’s service academies. Or it used to be the deal until the Army broke from the policy of the Department of Defense.

This is where the question of Campbell’s military obligation becomes muddled. He could have transferred from West Point after his sophomore season and avoided the military commitment.

By then, Campbell, a safety, knew he had the goods to take a stab at the NFL, knew he could transfer to a college football factory to enhance his draft stock, knew he had a tough decision to make.

But the Army absolved him of that decision, told him he could delay military service after graduation to pursue his NFL dream, told him the publicity surrounding his attempt would benefit the Army’s recruiting efforts.

So Campbell spent the last two seasons playing football at West Point, and the Lions selected him in the seventh round of the NFL Draft in the spring.

It was good stuff. Fans chanted, “USA, USA,” after his name was called, and the national press took notice.

Campbell spent the next few months readying himself to play in the NFL and basking in the attention. They threw a big party for him in Perryton, Texas, his hometown, the day before he left to go to training camp. Once at training camp, he was assigned a locker and room and given the team’s playbook.

Campbell was living the one-in-a-zillion dream, the Cadet who would be an NFL player.

And then, the day before the start of training camp late last month, Campbell was called into Matt Millen’s office and handed a new directive, as issued by the Department of Defense.

It was over, the dream. Or at least it was put on hold for two years.

The Army’s policy was at odds with those followed by the Navy and Air Force, and both academies were displeased over the prospect of the Army having a recruiting advantage.

And there was something unsettling about Campbell being allowed to play football, while many of his classmates might be off fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So now Campbell is back in the Army’s fold and preparing for another football season, only this one as a coach at West Point.

Campbell, though disappointed in the 11th-hour decision, accepted it without rancor because he believes in the military and the ideals it espouses.

“You know what?” he told the Oakland (Mich.) Press. “I got another job ahead of me that I’m really excited about. So I’m taking it with a smile.”

His resilience is part of what the academies are all about. Life is fraught with challenges. That is hardly news. What distinguishes one from another is the capacity to absorb the challenges.

And that is what Campbell is doing, even if somewhere in the dark recesses of his mind he is feeling betrayed by the military and wonders about the meaning of honor.

It was the institution, wrong as it was, that told Campbell he could have it both ways. He could become both an officer and NFL player without meeting his military obligation right away.

That precedent, if allowed to stand, could have harmed the academy in unimaginable ways.

Those with special gifts other than in athletics might have felt justified to pursue those ventures, to challenge the military commitment, to evoke Campbell’s name if he had been allowed to stay with the Lions.

That prospect has been avoided, thankfully enough.

The work of the military is far more important to the nation than the work of a safety.

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