Caleb Campbell's athletic path has taken an icy detour, possibly toward an unlikely spot in the Vancouver Olympics.
Campbell, the West Point graduate drafted by the Detroit Lions last year before the U.S. Army told him football had to wait, is now bidding for a spot on the 2010 U.S. Olympic bobsledding team. Admittedly a long shot, the still-active soldier is training in Lake Placid, N.Y., where he got a rapid introduction to sledding last fall.
"My first time in a sled, it felt like eternity," Campbell said. "It was only like 20 seconds and I was like, 'Get me out of here right now.' But after time, it started to grow on me. I love the athletes. I love the atmosphere. These athletes are absolutely phenomenal, some of the best I've ever seen when it comes to power, strength and speed."
If his improbable Olympic quest is to work out, Campbell will likely need to advance through qualifying rounds of the U.S. bobsled push championships in Lake Placid next month before more trials in September and early October. At 6-foot-1 and 230 pounds, Campbell has the combination of size and speed that bobsled push athletes possess. And he showed some potential by being part of three medal-winning teams at an America's Cup -- basically a developmental series -- in April.
"I never thought this would be for me," Campbell said. "But it's something I strongly want to pursue."
First, bobsledding had to find him.
Drafted in the seventh round by the Lions in 2008, Campbell had agreed to a contract and was about to sign the deal when the Army called with news he didn't want to hear. In short, because he was a newly graduated cadet, Campbell would have to serve two years on active duty before embarking on any pro sports career.
So on the eve of training camp, he grudgingly returned his Lions helmet, packed his car and started driving from Michigan back to West Point. Before he crossed the New York state line, a member of the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation called with an offer: Come to Lake Placid and give sliding a chance.
Campbell's first reaction was predictable. "Bobsledding?"
Soon, though, he was in Lake Placid. And after clearing up what he described as a misunderstanding with Army officials over the terms of his extended duty assignment -- when Campbell left when the 2008-09 season ended, some within the USBSF thought he was giving up the sport for good -- he's back in the Adirondacks.
"He has the strength," U.S. coach Brian Shimer said. "Last season was his crash course. If he makes a big improvement, he will have a shot."
Shimer knows how football skill translates to bobsledding almost as well as anyone. He was driving the sled when Herschel Walker famously tried the sport in Lake Placid for the first time in 1990, with fellow NFL standout Willie Gault -- by then a veteran bobsledder -- alongside him.
Gault and Walker both got to the Olympics. Campbell clearly has his eyes on that path.
"It's been a fun journey," Campbell said. "It's still a long journey."
Campbell still entertains hope of reaching the NFL next year. He's now a free agent, since the Lions had his rights only through this year's draft. And there is still a chance he could face deployment anywhere, including Iraq and Afghanistan.
"When you're wearing the uniform of the United States Army, there's always the possibility that could happen," Campbell said. "I've trained for that, so part of me is excited to maybe one day fulfill that part of my military career. I'm in a win-win situation here. Both opportunities I have are very, very exciting for me."
For now, if he's going to wear United States colors on foreign soil, he'd prefer they be red, white and blue in Vancouver.
"In anything I do, I set goals. That's what any athlete needs to do," Campbell said. "So that's what I have in my head right now. I wouldn't give up all this time in my life to train and work out and go through this and not want to compete at the ultimate."