The dream was so close to becoming reality for Caleb Campbell two years ago.
A standout college safety, Campbell became the first West Point football player drafted by an NFL team since 1997. The Detroit Lions chose the 6-foot-3 kid from small-town Texas in the final round assuming, thanks to U.S. Army policy instituted in 2005, he could play that fall and delay his five-year active duty military obligation.
The seventh-round draft pick, the 218th player selected in 2008, went through rookie camp only days after being cheered at Radio City Music Hall. He reported for preseason drills in July 2008 and had a contract ready to sign.
Then the dream appeared to end. The Lions were informed that the Army policy was trumped by Department of Defense rules prohibiting graduates of all three military academies from being excused from active duty for two years.
But the dream revived only a few weeks ago. The Lions invited Campbell to travel from his officer's course in air defense artillery at Fort Sill, Okla., for a private workout. He was offered another contract, and Friday the Lions announced he was signed. He learned only a few days ago that his request for early release from active duty should be granted by the Pentagon in mid-July -- in time for training camp -- as long as he graduates from officer school.
"I'm not just out there hanging and dangling from some rope and I don't know when my feet are going to touch the ground," 1st Lt. Campbell said Wednesday from Fort Sill, preparing for a Thursday morning flight to Detroit and rookie camp. "It definitely is comforting, and now you can focus."
This weekend, Campbell will be competing with several other Lions in rookie minicamp -- as a linebacker.
It's possible no one has ever been more excited at the prospect of joining the Michigan National Guard. That's where Campbell could be assigned as part of his special arrangements. In exchange for delaying the last three years of active duty, Campbell probably will face a longer term of military service -- possibly as a recruiter -- and also be forced to make some financial reparation.
"They're using me as a guinea pig, and I don't mind that if it makes it smoother for the athletes that come after me," he said. "I hope it does. I don't wish for anyone to go through this process of up and down, up and down. 'Am I going?' It's a great policy."
Campbell said West Point's superintendent in 2008, Lt. Gen. Franklin Hagenbeck, sat him down and explained the situation soon after he was ordered back to West Point. If it was a case of Navy and Air Force crying foul over Army breaking ranks on their collective policy, Campbell won't say.
"I think the policy was created and they thought it would never be used," Campbell said. "When I got drafted and got so much media attention, it kind of threw things haywire for them. And they weren't prepared for it, I'm guessing."
If Campbell looks back on the episode philosophically, many back in his hometown of Perryton, Texas -- they hope the new U.S. census reveals a population growth to 10,000 residents -- aren't as forgiving.
"You talk about some people fit to go to war," said Gary Newcomb, Campbell's coach with the Perryton High Rangers. "People wanted to contact the president, department of armed services, and they were gonna get all that changed. Like Perryton can call up there and..."
Out of the Lions' plans, Campbell wasn't immediately sent down the standard post-West Point path.
As is often the case with Army's top football grads, Campbell became a graduate assistant on the Black Knights' coaching staff. He was also assigned to help in West Point's Center for Enhanced Performance, which focuses on the mental side of becoming a better student and soldier and is popular with Army athletes.
At one point, he was pursued by the U.S. bobsled team because of his overall athletic talent. He arrived at Fort Sill for the delayed start to his officer school in early March.
Some critics questioned Campbell's commitment to military service that he made when he accepted a free West Point education.
"The whole idea of the being in the Army I absolutely love, and I want to stay in," he said.
"I can't wait to do a deployment down the road. But the idea of trying to pursue the dream that I've been pursuing for so long and was taken away from me once but I never gave up on it ... well, I can't say never did. There were times when I did."
Gregg Campbell, Caleb's father, said his middle son was heartbroken by the military's decision. But as anyone in Perryton will attest, those three Campbell boys are tough.
Jacob became a professional bull rider and suffered a broken back. Jeremy's right leg was amputated when he was 15 months old, yet he was named all-district in football, basketball and track at Perryton High. He won two gold medals in the 2008 Beijing Paralympics.
"Being in the military, they taught [Caleb] respect," said Gregg Campbell, who is in oil-field sales. "Respect and honor."
Caleb Campbell wasn't highly sought by the most high-profile college football programs in Texas and nearby Oklahoma, and he took a recruiting trip to West Point by himself.
"He called back and said, I signed,'" Gregg Campbell said. "He was so impressed with it. He liked how the organization was."
A cadet is free to leave West Point without a substantial financial obligation during the first two years, and Campbell could have transferred to a school with a better football program. Army's coach then, Bobby Ross, told him of the new policy that would affect NFL draftees. That helped convince him to stay.
"And because I wanted a chance to graduate from a prestigious academy," Campbell said. "My friends were there, and I definitely liked the idea of serving."
Chris Samples has been in the radio business in Perryton for 15 years, announced the football games when Campbell played, and has often visited with him since.
"He's told me recently the delay, Army's wrench in the whole deal, has made him a better man," Samples said. "Brought him back to the roots of his faith."
Said Campbell: "It's been tough the last two years, doing my Army commitment and then at the end of the day or early in the day, knowing I have to work out at a level that will allow me to compete with the greatest athletes in the world. It's been a real fight mentally, physically and spiritually to continue to have faith through this whole process."
Before Campbell, the most recent draftee from West Point was quarterback Ronnie McAda, who like Campbell had to serve two years in the Army before getting an extended NFL tryout. Selected with the final pick of the 1997 draft by the Green Bay Packers, McAda had brief training camp stints with the Packers and later the Denver Broncos. In between, McAda played in NFL Europe. After the Broncos cut him in 2001, McAda -- who had battled shoulder injuries -- retired.
The most recent Army product to appear in an NFL game was tight end Ron Leshinski, who played one game for the 1999 Philadelphia Eagles after serving two years of his active commitment.
Campbell, 25, said he's bigger, faster and stronger than he was two years ago. He weighed 222 pounds then; he weighs 236 pounds now.
"More explosive," he said. "My knees feel good, and I've got some change of direction going on. They had to have seen something to have offered me a contract."
Campbell usually reports for physical training at 5 a.m. at Fort Sill. But on Thursday, he only needed to get up in time to be in Oklahoma City to catch an 11 a.m. nonstop flight. But wake-up on Friday came at 4:45.
"I've got a lot of nerves to fight through," Campbell said. "Going to camp with Ndamukong Suh and some fantastic athletes and to know I'm going to be playing with them."
Jeff Miller is a freelance writer in Texas and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org