Caleb Campbell: Army Soldier, NFL Draftee ... Olympic Bobsledder?
The Army's decision to reverse course and require Campbell to report for service, despite having implemented a 2005 exemption penalty, ignited a firestorm of debate. Now Campbell is training in Lake Placid, N.Y., while stationed at West Point. He has a new dream -- making the Olympic team.
While the military won't allow Campbell to pursue a career in the NFL until late 2010, they do have a policy in place that allows would-be Olympians to pursue their training as part of their military commitment. After being contacted by a member of the U.S. bobsledding team in July of 2008, Campbell has thrown himself into the training and pronounces himself in the best shape of his life. "Some days, it hurts to get out of bed," he says.
Over a year ago, I trained with Campbell for the NFL Draft. I wrote about Campbell's story for FanHouse and initially wrote about Campbell's draft dreams for Sports Illustrated in March of last year. Late last July, Campbell called me as he drove back to West Point, his NFL hopes left behind in Detroit. "Don't tell anyone, Bookman," he said to me (a.k.a. "Bookman"), "but they want me to try out for bobsledding. They need someone of my size and speed." I asked him if he'd ever been on a bobsled before, "Hell, no," Campbell said.
After an assignment as a graduate assistant with the Army football team in the fall of 2008, Campbell began to learn the basics of bobsledding.
"The bobsled moves so fast," says Campbell, "faster than anything I've ever done before."
As the brakeman, the last member of the four-man team to jump back into the bobsled, Campbell provides the final push down the chute after other members of the team have helped to start the bobsled from a standing position. Campbell's position requires speed, explosiveness, and great strength. Not to mention the dexterity to swing into the bobsled after it's already gained a tremendous amount of speed. All while running full speed on a concrete track covered with artificial ice. While Campbell's not the first football player to make the transition to bobsledding -- former running back Herschel Walker was a member of the Olympic team in 1992 and former wide receiver Willie Gault was a member of the 1988 Olympic team -- he certainly never believed he would find himself training for the Winter Olympics.
"I grew up in Texas, Bookman, no one bobsleds in Texas. We don't even get much snow."
While Campbell has improved immensely, winning two silver medals and a bronze this past April in one competition, all has not been smooth going. "Hitting that ice at full-speed is a harder hit than anything I've ever taken on a football field," he says. "And sometimes the bobsled tips over. It's wild."
Bobsleds can rocket up to 125 miles an hour.
Near the end of the chute, Campbell pulls on the brake. Then he hops out, stomach left somewhere on the hillside behind him, and does the run all over again. In August, the bobsled team aspirants will gather in Lake Placid. After cuts, the best among them will advance to time trials in October. As the 2010 Winter Olympics near, Campbell believes he has a good chance of making the team.
"I hope so," he says, "but you never know."
If he does, then come the winter of 2010 in Vancouver, the NFL's unlikeliest would-be hero might become the Winter Olympics' unlikeliest hero.
But if he doesn't make the team and commence full-time training for his Olympic dream, Campbell will await orders to report wherever the Army assigns him. He'll train with a unit and then he'll ship out for active duty. Maybe to Iraq, maybe to Afghanistan.
"I told my superiors a while back that I was ready to serve. Not to coddle me," he says. "We'll see."
Until then, Campbell plans to keep on sprinting down the ice-covered track until the last possible second, when he hurtles over the edge of the craft and comes to rest in the rear of the bobsled. From this position, Campbell ducks into the fetal position. He can see nothing at all.
"You just pray it turns out right," he says.