“There are lots of good stories in the NFL Draft,” Trey Wingo said late in ESPN’s Sunday coverage of the draft’s second day. “But you’d be hard-pressed to find one better than this.”
He spoke, of course, of the U.S. Military Academy’s Caleb Campbell, a defensive back drafted with the 218th pick by the Detroit Lions.
But that phrase came at the end of at least a half-hour of laudatory, perhaps fawning praise for a man who, despite a lengthy bio, would be absolutely unknown outside West Point.
Caleb Campbell’s story was detailed by E:60, ESPN’s 60 Minutes-esque magazine journalism show, with all the requisite notes of somber reflection and respect, at one point calling the divergent scenarios of being drafted by the NFL and that of a five-year active duty requirement “literally a matter of life and death.” Additionally, he was profiled by Sports Illustrated, with a similar angle and only slightly different language.
Campbell’s chance with the Lions, some would say, is thanks to a policy change the Army instituted in 2005 that allows graduates of West Point to serve as a sort of high-profile recruiter in lieu of active duty service.
That’s not the story I’d like to tell.
That story will end well for Campbell, no matter what. Either he sticks with the Lions, notoriously and chronically poor in pass coverage, or another team, and makes close to the NFL’s rookie minimum of $285,000 this year, or he will serve his five years of active duty after being trained by the Army’s best at West Point.
And it will probably end well for the U.S. Army, too, considering they either get a public relations windfall (in a working-class area, too) in the form of an NFL player telling impressionable youth to consider the Army or another office vetted by West Point in active duty.
But those are the fairytale endings.
What of the undrafted early entrant, the stud who thought he was better off as a borderline NFL player than a scholarship-receiving member of a college team?
First, he is not guaranteed the same spot a draft pick is in a camp. The days after the draft are the most trying for them, as they, with less connected agents, try to earn invitations to training camps and wiggle their ways onto practice squads or deep depth charts.
Certainly, there are undrafted free agents that work their way up through the Arena Football League (Kurt Warner) or the slew of players who’ve cut their teeth in the former NFL Europa.
But NFL Europa no longer exists, and Arena success stories are rare.
Second, the early entrant, in all likelihood, does not have the same college degree an undrafted senior would, and has probably burned his chance at continued athletic scholarship, if receiving any.
When the NFL passes him up after the long, detailed look of the exhaustive combine and workout process, not only do chances at a career in football dwindle, his prospects for a career outside that world dim as well.
Maybe most unfair, in this instance, is the case of the undrafted early entrant who would have been picked if not for Caleb Campbell.
Given the mini-blitz Campbell got from SI and ESPN, it would have been exceedingly suprising if he wasn’t picked up as a flier in a late round. The Lions come off smelling like roses, tabbing a player who ESPN’s NFL Draft crew stood up and applauded on camera and giving him a chance to make it, but wasting very little in terms of value with a middle 7th round pick.
Additionally, Rod Marinelli, Detroit’s head coach, was cited multiple times by the crew as a Vietnam veteran, and got an opportunity for some face time in a “surprise” interview with ESPN, which, to me, pointed to the possibility of this move as another way to fill the airwaves.
And the relationship of Campbell to Marcus Millen, son of Detroit GM Matt Millen and Army defensive end, smacks of nepotism.
So the pick could be a low-risk, high-reward gambit on talent, or a trade of limited on-field value for some off-field publicity, or an instance of nepotism.
If the Lions, or any other team, selected Campbell over an early entrant because of his PR value, because of respect for his military, or because of family ties, or for any reason other than because he’s a better football player for their team than the next guy, that’s a disservice to the early entrant whose name we’ll never know.
To his credit, Marinelli insisted the pick was not a “flier,” that Campbell is as likely as any other player to earn a contract in camp.
But an NFL roster spot is like Willy Wonka’s Golden Ticket, and Caleb Campbell is Charlie Bucket with a dash of ESPN exposure and a West Point pedigree.
Rightfully, on Sunday, fans at the Draft chanted “CAY-leb CAM-bell” in recognition of a good man given a chance to be a good NFL player.
His tale is a better story than that of the kid who didn’t go to the Chocolate Factory.
But the world has very few Charlie Buckets, and many more stories.