For Caleb Farley and family, football is a bandage on a wound

After his mother died, Caleb Farley's family came together to watch his first college football game against Florida State. Joe Robbins/Getty Images

BLACKSBURG, Va. -- Why do we assume, when loved ones die, that they'd spend the afterlife keeping tabs on us? Consider it for a bit, as Virginia Tech's Caleb Farley has, and it starts to sound downright ridiculous. All the mysteries of the universe are at your fingertips, and you're watching a football game? Farley was raised small-town Baptist and wears his faith on his sleeve, and he has given a lot of thought to what heaven might be like. One thing that seems pretty certain is, the great beyond is probably a lot more interesting than whatever we're up to here.

That's not to say Farley doesn't imagine his mom looking down on him sometimes, and he wonders what she'd think of him now, the way he has worked his way back from a season-ending knee injury, how he has taken to playing cornerback for the first time in his career after just a few weeks of practice, how he is another step closer to the dream he first shared with her when he was just a kid. And then he laughs.

"I know she doesn't care about any of that now," he said. "She's enjoying herself, and she's happy."

It's a pragmatist's dogma. That's his dad's influence. If Farley's mom, Robin, was the dreamer, always cheering on Caleb's passions, his dad, Robert, is the sober realist. Want to play in the NFL? OK. Better get to work. Caleb thinks he's a nice blend of the two, the outgoing ball of energy tucked inside the tough outer shell of rational stoicism. That's what has framed his view of whatever awaits us on the other side. It'll be so good we can't imagine it, so good we won't waste time stewing over the details of humanity.

Still, when Farley finally took the field against Florida State on Sept. 3 after a year of rehab and change and loss, it didn't seem so far-fetched to think there might be a little divine intervention awaiting him. Truth be told, he wanted to take the opening kickoff back for a touchdown, and that didn't happen. But there was something in the air that night, some different energy, like someone was looking after him.

"We knew he was going to have a good game," said his brother, Joshua. "Don't ask me how. We just had a feeling. And then it was."

And then it was. Two interceptions. A sack. A win. A sign from the heavens that everything was right with the world -- this one, and the one beyond.

We all look for signs, small things that let us know the answers are out there, even if we can't quite understand them at the moment. But that game, it felt bigger -- not an explanation for why Farley has had to endure so much in the past year, but an assurance that it's all going to be OK.

"We get to do these things," Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente said, "and occasionally there are special moments. Not wins or losses. Just special moments that will stay with you for a long, long time. That's one of them for me."

Robert and Robin Farley were high school sweethearts. They met at Maiden High School, though not the same one Caleb attended. That's the new building, a mile or so away from the squat, sprawling campus where the first seeds of their family were planted. Before Virginia Tech games, Caleb Farley's hometown is announced as Hickory, North Carolina, where they live now, but Maiden -- "the biggest little football town in America," as Robert calls it -- is home.

Robert and Robin were married in 1987. Joshua came along two years later, Caleb almost a decade after that. Joshua excelled at sports, but he was more the quiet type. Small-town North Carolina always felt claustrophobic for him. He saw how much more was out there. Caleb was different. He had a motor from day one, and while he always seemed destined for something bigger, he relished time in his hometown.

"You'd put him to bed, and he wakes up wound up. He's going," Robert said. "You had to keep your eyes on him. I remember telling some of my friends, this kid, I hope we can channel him in the right direction, because he has to be known. He was determined. He's been determined for a long time."

Caleb was maybe 4 or 5 years old when he started tagging along with Joshua and his friends for pickup football games. He scampered around, a little wisp of a thing, playing among giants. But he showed no fear.

He was 6 when he first told Robert he wanted to be a professional football player.

"Do you think I can do it, Dad?" he asked.

"Son," Robert remembers telling him, "there's no doubt in my mind. You just have to want it bad enough."

The message stuck, and for the next 13 years, Caleb never wavered from that goal. Everything was put into making it big on the football field.

In his early days at Maiden High, he was still undersized, a skinny quarterback with decent enough arm talent, playing in a relatively simple offense on the JV team. And then one day, Frank Beamer showed up at practice.

"That was the first look I got from any school -- D3, D2. But I talked to him," Farley said. "He was just letting me know he recognized me. In that small town, I don't know how he found me."

And so, as Farley grew into a lean, 6-foot-2 frame, took over the varsity offense, set school records and blossomed into a star, his destination was always the same place: Virginia Tech. It felt like home, and home means everything to him.

Robin Farley first got sick when Caleb was in junior high. It was breast cancer. She spent nearly two years in treatment then -- chemotherapy, radiation. And it's not that the family didn't understand the severity of the situation at the time, but looking back, Caleb said it never occurred to him she might die.

"To me, it was never a big deal," he said. "In the household, it was always something that was going to get solved. I was a kid, but I thought I knew she was going to get healed and there'd be a fairy-tale ending. And I'm glad it was like that because there was always happiness in the household."

That was always how Robin Farley wanted things. There were bad days for her, but she never let on that she was struggling or afraid. Her home was a sanctuary, with the joy always bigger than the cancer.

She was at every one of Caleb's football games, the one in the stands cheering louder than everyone else. Even when the cancer returned, this time in her bones, she took Caleb on recruiting trips, cooked dinners, lived her life as if nothing was wrong.

"In our home visit and her visits here -- as we got down the road, I knew she was ill," Fuente said. "But I would've never known being around her."

Farley enrolled at Virginia Tech in January 2017. He'd hoped to play quarterback, but it seemed an unlikely fit long term. Bud Foster salivated at the idea of the long, athletic kid playing corner, but Farley thought he belonged on offense. That was his comfort zone. So, he landed at receiver, and, in the Hokies' spring game that year, he put on a show, hauling in 88 receiving yards and drawing three pass-interference flags. By the time fall camp opened, the buzz for Farley was growing. And on the first day of practice, it all ended with a pop in his knee.

The injury was a brutal blow to his psyche. He'd never been hurt before, never had to face a year without football. But back home, his mom was sick, and suddenly he had free time he could spend with her.

"I don't know that we look at [the injury] as unfortunate anymore," Robert said. "He was here in her final days, and I think that's something he'll always be thankful for. And I don't think he'd give that up."

When Caleb was at school, he'd FaceTime with his mom, and she'd beam. When he was home, they never talked about cancer. They talked football and school and the small-town gossip in Hickory. Robin's condition was deteriorating. Her body rejected food and water. She was in pain. There were complications, and the prognosis seemed bleak. But on Caleb's birthday -- just two months before Robin died -- she cooked a celebratory meal for the whole family -- greens, mac and cheese, chicken, potatoes, a soul food feast.

"How she could be more happy than me, and she was the one going through it? That's what kept me going," Farley said. "I just remember being weirdly at peace. I was calm. When I woke up, and the sun was out, I'd find joy in that."

More than anything, Robert said, that's his wife's legacy. That's what she wanted for her family.

"If there's anything I've experienced that's been perfect, it was the love she had for her family."

Robert's nickname for his wife was "Lovely." That's what she was, he said, so that's what he called her. They were married for 30 years. It would've been 31 on Jan 10. She died eight days earlier.

The end came while Virginia Tech was in Orlando, Florida, for its bowl game. Farley skipped the trip. He was four months into rehabbing his knee, and his mom was struggling. She wanted Farley to go to the game, but he wanted to be home with her.

A few days before she died, Robin talked with her boys. She'd fought long enough, she told them. She was ready.

Farley thought he was ready, too. They'd been bracing for this for a while. But the reality still rattled him. Faith was his foundation, and no one had more faith than his mom. Why would God take that from him?

It's a question that still lingers for the Farleys 10 months later. Robin was the rock, and it's hard not to feel adrift in her absence.

"I still don't know why God would let her suffer," Caleb said. "My father tells me not to question it. It's more, I'm going to have to humble myself and accept it."

Fuente was worried about Caleb after Robin died. He has been down this road before. A year ago, receiver Sean Savoy's brother was killed. Just this week, defensive lineman Houshun Gaines lost his mother. But Caleb was different. He was upset, sure. But he was at peace, too. Fuente had never seen anything like it.

"There've been two times in his life that I've gone to him to try to make him feel better about a bad situation -- his mother's death and his injury," Fuente said. "And both those conversations, he's made me feel better. If the shoe was on the other foot, I don't think anyone would walk away saying, 'Man, coach made me feel better.' It's a remarkable gift."

By the spring, Farley's knee was improving. The team had a need at corner, and Farley agreed to make the switch. He spent the spring and summer working on his technique, trying to refine a skill set he'd never needed before. And he thought about home.

The dream, Farley said, is to play in the NFL, and, if he's lucky enough to make it, he hopes he can move his family with him wherever he lands. But when it's all over, there'll be Hickory and Maiden High School and home. That's all he's ever really needed.

"To tell you the truth, I want to just go back home and coach at my high school and live with my Pops," Farley said of his plans after football.

This summer, that's mostly what he did. On weekends, when the team was off from practice, he'd hop in his car, drive three hours south, and reconnect with his roots. He'd see his dad. He'd visit friends. He'd stop by to see his grandparents, who live just a few miles away. He'd go by his old high school, lift some weights, coach up the current crop of Maiden players.

He bought a dog, too. It's a black Presa Canario named Legend. He's a handful, full of energy and eager to explore. He's a lot like Farley was as a kid.

Still, there's something missing from the experience. Farley calls it "the feminine touch." It's just the boys now -- Caleb, his dad, Legend.

If Robert's being honest, it has been harder on him. His boys are still building their lives. Robin was his life. He owns a barbershop in town with his brother and two nephews, though, and talk there often circles back around to Caleb and Virginia Tech and football. It's a distraction, a bandage on a still open wound.

"It's allotted me a little comfort to have something else I can put on my mind that's truly meaningful to me," Robert said. "Does it fill the void? No. But it's been some assistance, and just knowing how much she loved to see him in pursuit of his dreams."

The whole family traveled to Tallahassee, Florida, for Caleb's first game. They got there early because his grandparents didn't want to miss anything, and, by the time it was over, they were all exhausted. They'd seen Caleb take the field for the first time as a college player, seen him clinch the game with his second interception of the night, celebrated the victory with him alongside the team buses. And, for the first time in a long time, they felt whole.

That's why Farley plays, he said. Before his mom died, way back in his pee wee football days, he loved to whiz a touchdown pass, then look over into the stands and see Robert and Robin and Joshua there cheering. That's the best part.

"That's all Caleb talks about is what he wants to do for other people," Joshua said. "That's what drives him. And what he wanted to do for my mom, that drives him even more."

Farley's game is still a work in progress. Until this year, he'd never needed to tackle. His footwork and technique are unrefined. He's figuring a lot of it out as he goes, but he's so talented that sometimes he looks as if he has been playing corner his whole life.

There's a bright future there, Foster said. If Farley works at it, learns the little details, Foster said Farley could be the best cornerback he has ever had at Virginia Tech, and that's an illustrious list.

And one day that will end, too, as all things do. And Farley will be at peace. He'll go home and coach football and be with his family.

"That's all you got," Farley said. "You know they'll be there by your side, 'til death, no matter what."