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Bracing For Impact

This story appeared in the Army Gameday Football program vs. Tulane on Oct. 6, 2007.

By Brian Gunning

The brace on Caleb Campbell’s right knee is a constant reminder of just how close he came to losing his dream. 

As the Black Knights battled Tulane last October in the Louisiana Superdome, Campbell’s number was called by defensive coordinator John Mumford. He was to attack the area between the guard and center. It was something he had done countless times before in practice and in games, but this play will live in his mind forever.

As Campbell started on the blitz, his assigned gap closed down. Always on the attack, he planted his right foot and spun back to his left in an effort to find another way to make the play. As he pivoted, he felt a Green Wave offensive lineman’s cleats stepping down on his own. He continued to spin, but his right foot remained planted in the Superdome turf. In an instant, he felt his knee give. While his teammates thought he had suffered a cramp, Campbell knew immediately it was more serious. His season was over and a grueling road to recovery lay ahead.

At that moment, “Don’t Be Afraid, Only Believe” became more than just Campbell’s favorite quote from the Bible. It became his way of life.

“After it happened, I was devastated,” Campbell admits, his eyes glancing quickly toward his right leg. “It especially hit me during spring ball when I couldn’t be out there playing. It definitely made me think about only having one more year of football and making the best of it because you never know when it’s going to get taken away.”

Staying true to his nature, Campbell didn’t back down from the challenge of regaining his health and getting his career back on track. After sitting out all of spring practice, the No. 13 jersey so familiar to Black Knight fans was once again lined up at strong safety for the initial snap of preseason camp. Not only did his teammates welcome back his physical presence on the field, but they also sensed his newfound appreciation for his ability shaped by that moment nine months earlier.

Senior free safety Jordan Murray, Campbell’s running mate in the Black Knights’ secondary, immediately noticed the new attitude. “I think the one good thing that came out of the injury was now he doesn’t take anything for granted,” Murray explains. “I think it was a reality check for him. Every play could be your last, and that makes him play that much harder each and every down. You never know what could happen next.”

Any questions as to whether Campbell would regain his form on the playing field have been answered. Through five games, he ranks fourth on the team with 34 tackles, including 27 solo. He has also forced three fumbles and recovered another.

“I had kind of a shaky start after a 10-month rehab,” Campbell says. “Of course, I was excited, but I was a little overanxious at times. I’ve had to get back to the level of being anxious enough to play ball and not have it affect me. From the first game until now, there has been a big improvement.”

While Campbell has been filling the stat sheet, to understand the depth of his contributions to the team you have to look well past the box score and highlight reel.

Chosen as one of four team captains for the 2007 season along with Tony Fusco, Jeremy Trimble and Mike Viti, Campbell has taken his role as a leader very seriously. He has made it his mission to instill a sense of pride and commitment in his fellow Black Knights. When he sees something that doesn’t mesh with those ideals, he is not shy about sharing his feelings.

“The first few days after I was named captain, some called me a dictator,” Campbell says with a chuckle. “I saw that changes needed to be made and Mike, Jeremy and Tony agreed. They were small things. We set a team policy to become more disciplined. Those small improvements are going to carry over to the football field and lead to bigger things. It’s all about discipline. When you do the small things right, you do the big things right.”

While definitely one of the more outspoken members of the squad, Campbell certainly doesn’t demonstrate dictator-like qualities. In fact, he recognizes the need for shared leadership and is the first to praise his classmates for taking the responsibility on themselves.

“Not that the past senior classes weren’t tight, but we’ve come to realize that we have to stress that this year,” he says. “Four captains can’t be everywhere. It’s not just four captains, it’s the senior class. Sure, we (the four captains) represent the team, but the whole senior class is acting like one captain.”

One of the main things Campbell and the fourth-year players have tried to instill in the younger members of the team is to give their maximum effort each and every time they buckle their chinstrap, whether it is a Saturday afternoon at Michie Stadium or a Tuesday afternoon at Howze Field.

“It’s easy to get sidetracked,” Campbell says with his voice gaining intensity. “A lot of people use the excuse that there are a lot of things going on down in the corps and that affects you up here. That’s not right. That’s just taking the easy way out and feeling sorry for yourself. As a senior class, we have to make sure that everyone is giving their all up here.”

Campbell’s desire to bring out the best in his teammates is nothing new. Since he arrived at West Point, he has tried to lead, and the title of captain has solidified his standing and given him a platform to do what he feels is necessary to ensure the little things are being done correctly.

“Ever since our freshman year, he has demanded a lot out of the people playing around him,” Murray says. “As team captain, he has expanded his role to ensure that the entire team is a close-knit group, noting that it all starts with our seniors.  We’re a big team, so all four captains cannot be the only ones serving as leaders. It takes a close-knit class like ours to ensure that we are all doing the right things, on and off the field.”

Campbell’s enthusiasm and intensity don’t disappear when he crosses the white lines.

“At times I’m laid back, but at other times people have had to tell me to calm down,” he says. “My friends would say I’m a pretty relaxed guy, but if you push the right buttons, I’m coming full force. I actually think being here as taught me how to control myself better. I got myself into some trouble early on in my freshman year because I wasn’t in control. Being here has helped me get a hold of my emotions.”

Not all of his friends would call Campbell “relaxed.” Murray, who has been Campbell’s best friend since Cadet Basic Training, isn’t so sure that term applies.

“I wouldn’t quite call Caleb a laid back kind of guy. He jokes around a lot, but it doesn’t take too much for him to get worked up,” Murray says.  “I think that his intense personality is what makes him so unique because he transitions that intensity onto the field and it makes him play well.”

Campbell’s trademark intensity was formed early in his football career. A native of Perryton, Texas, a small town in the northern portion of the state, Campbell was a standout performer at Perryton High School. Despite being named the A-3 Player of the Year by the Amarillo News and a two-time all-state pick, his name was absent from many schools’ recruiting boards. Campbell overcame the odds, and, upon joining the Black Knights after a year at the U.S. Military Academy Prep School, became only the second player ever from PHS to play Division I football.

His journey to West Point was nearly over before it began. Campbell threw out the first two recruiting letters he received from the coaching staff, and, had it not been for his mother’s intervention, he would have never enrolled at the academy.

“My mom saw one of the recruiting letters and told me I should look into it,” Campbell says, smiling at the idea of how much different his life would be without his mother’s prodding. “I said, Mom, I’m not going into the Army. Do they even have a team?’ The coaches called and asked if I wanted to take a trip to New York to check out the program. When you look at West Point, it’s just naturally appealing. Then you talk to some of the older grads that have done a lot of great things. You’d really have to be a fool not to include this place in the picture when looking for a team to play for.”

Campbell has certainly made the most of his opportunity. Despite the knee injury, he is often mentioned as the Black Knights’ top pro prospect. One NFL web site even lists him as the fifth-rated strong safety in the nation. The chance to play in the NFL is something this small-town Texan has been dreaming of for as long as he can remember.

“I try not to think about it, but it’s hard not to because it’s been a dream of mine since I was a little kid,” Campbell says.

“Growing up, I was always told, Well, you’re a good high school athlete.’ I didn’t get recruited much out of high school, but wondering what it would be like to play NFL football was always in the back of my mind. Now that I’ve played four years of college football, you don’t want to think about it because you want to limit distractions. But it’s hard to ignore.”
Should Campbell achieve his dream of donning an NFL uniform, he would not be the first professional athlete in his family, nor would it necessarily give him bragging rights at the dinner table. Caleb’s older brother, Jacob, spent time as a professional bull rider, and his younger brother, Jeremy, is a national champion long jumper who competes with the U.S. Paralympic Track & Field Team.

While Jacob’s career was sidetracked due to a back injury, Jeremy, who was born missing half of one of his legs, is just getting started. A 2006 Perryton graduate, he won the gold medal in the long jump at the 2007 Parapan American Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He was also an all-district selection in basketball, track and football, turning down opportunities to play at the Football Championship Subdivision and Division II levels to focus on his track career.

Even with their diverse pursuits, the Campbell brothers always found the time to make sure they supported each other.

“I would go to rodeos and not have a clue what was going on,” Campbell says while remembering a particularly valiant effort to impress his older brother.  “I showed up one time in shorts and a button-down shirt and got made fun of by all my brother’s friends. The next time, I wore jeans and boots that were way too tight. I vowed I would never wear that stuff again. I even wore a cowboy hat, and I still got made fun of. We definitely supported each other, and it was really encouraging to know, that even though we were doing different things, we could give each other our fullest.”

While he altered his fashion sense to support his older brother’s endeavors, Campbell’s support of his younger sibling has been more mental and emotional.

“We relate to each other well because neither of us took the normal college route,” he says. “Some of my friends will call me and tell me they’re getting ready to go partying, and I’ll tell them I’m getting ready to start school. That was sometimes difficult for me during my first couple of years. Now my little brother is training full-time, and taking classes part-time, so he’s not really doing the normal college thing either. He’ll call me aggravated sometimes and say, Caleb, I want to enjoy the college life.’ I have to talk to him and let him know there is so much more out there than a few frat parties. What he’s doing now will help him accomplish something so much greater in the future. I’m definitely proud of him.”

                                                                                                * * *
The Black Knights had just scored on the first play of overtime to take a 14-7 lead against Rhode Island on Sept. 8. The Rams came right back with a 21-yard reception on their initial snap to set up first-and-goal from the Army four-yard line. A touchdown would force a second overtime period, while a stop meant a Black Knight victory.

The Army defense held firm on first down, taking down the Ram quarterback for a loss. On second down, Campbell came down from his safety spot to stop a running play three yards shy of the goal line, but when Murray came over to congratulate his teammate on a good hit, he noticed something was a little off. Blood was dripping out of Campbell’s mouth. The contact had stunned Campbell who was having trouble focusing. He tapped his helmet to ask for a substitution, but could not get off the field in time. Rhode Island ran the ball again on third down, but again the Army defense denied the Rams the goal line.

Fourth-and-goal from the two-yard line. One play away from victory, Campbell composed himself using breathing techniques he learned at West Point’s Center for Enhanced Performance. He looked to the sidelines where the Army coaching staff was instructing players to watch for a wide pitch, a play the Rams had scored on earlier in the game. Regaining his focus and heeding the coaches’ warnings, Campbell noticed the man coming in motion out of the corner of his eye and knew immediately what was coming. His recognition gave him an extra step, allowing him to elude two block attempts in pursuit of the ball carrier. After cornerback John Laird caused the runner to stumble, Campbell came across the field to finish the play, knocking him out of bounds and securing Army’s first victory.

In that moment and the celebration that ensued, Caleb Campbell was living his dream knee brace and all.

Brian Gunning is the Associate Director of Athletic Communications at West Point.

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