The name Caleb Campbell may ring a bell. Just a few short years ago, he was at the center of a national news story — a talented college football player at West Point whose dream of playing in the NFL was delayed due to his military commitment.
The story goes like this: Shortly after being drafted by the Detroit Lions in 2008, the talented linebacker headed to the Lions training camp to pursue his dream. Shortly after reporting to camp, he was informed that the Army had suspended the Alternative Service Option rule that would have allowed him to join the NFL while still technically a soldier. Consequently, he would have to leave the NFL to serve two years of active duty before petitioning the Army for early release.
Campbell would rejoin the Lions again in 2010, only to be released just prior to the season opener. His NFL career would include time on the practice rosters of the Detroit Lions, Indianapolis Colts and Kansas City Chiefs. His career was limited to just three NFL games with the Lions, during which he was credited with three tackles.
Born and raised in Texas, Campbell currently calls Buffalo, N.Y., his home, at least temporarily. And that’s where I caught up with him one recent morning.
First things first ... what are you doing here in Buffalo?
Caleb: I have some close friends here and I came out and visited a church in Fort Erie about a year-and-a-half ago. I fell in love with the church — Victory International. I visited twice, and the second time I really felt that I wanted to become part of it and to serve. I attend there regularly and I’ve just started to get plugged in with serving in the church. It might be in the sound booth or ushering ... whatever role that might be.
Are you working right now?
Caleb: I do speaking on the own side and have my own business (www.iamcalebcampbell.com). That’s where I make my income — I do some traveling and some speaking. People think that football is a glorious life, but last year going to training camp, getting released, waiting to get picked up ... I made less than $15,000.
I’m not a career-oriented guy. I’m not going to sit in an office and I don’t want to build my own empire. That’s my mentality. Does everyone agree with me? Hell no! But that’s how I ended up in Buffalo. People will ask me, “You turned down this position and x amount of dollars to go live with two girls in Buffalo and sleep on their couch while you go and serve the church?” And I say, “Yes, I did.”
You’re not a household name, but people know your story. Is there a lesson that you want people to take away from your experiences?
Caleb: I think there’s a lot of lessons in there. Ultimately, one of the key components of that story is a simple idea and it’s easy to understand. We crave security and comfort from society, and what I really believe is for your life to have any value you are going to have to consistently choose vulnerability. And I think over my two-year stint of pursuing the NFL and trying to make it — while everyone told me not to while I was in the military — I woke up to choose vulnerability every day. Value comes with living with a constant state of vulnerability in your life.
Is the dream of playing professional football over?
Caleb: Yes, it is. It definitely served its purpose in my life. A lot of athletes will say this (the NFL) is the epitome of life, and it is what I worked my whole life for. But it’s merely a building block and a foundation for what I’m now building in my life.
It seems like you have all of the characteristics that go into creating a good coach. Did you ever consider anything along those lines?
Caleb: Not as a football coach necessarily, but more of a life coach using football as the vehicle to teach kids or people different aspects of life, if that makes sense. My job now is to prepare myself and make myself available for whatever does come my way and wholeheartedly attack it. A lot of people will sit and wait for the next thing to happen in their life, but they’re not preparing for it.
So your career right now is your speaking engagements. Can you tell me about that and what type of message you deliver?
Caleb: I started speaking in a lot of churches a couple of years ago. They invite me in to talk about my story and things like that, and I really enjoy it and enjoy inspiring other people. I speak as often as I can and my ultimate goal would be to team up with my younger brother (Jeremy), a three-time gold medalist paralympian for USA Track & Field. His story is phenomenal. But right now my sole message is the idea of authenticity and building your life in a bedrock foundation and finding out who you are at the core of your being. There’s a big difference between approaching life every day trying to prove who you are as opposed to living life knowing who you are.
In my life I was constantly trying to prove who I was to people. There was a wide gap between who I am and who I need to be, and whenever I couldn’t diminish that gap, I would have to find ways to cope with my pain. And that was a vicious, never-ending cycle. It was the pain of never measuring up and never being good enough.
There comes a point when you have to ask what is motivating your life? For as long as I can remember, fear of rejection was a consistent motivating factor in my life. As long as fear is motivating your life, it never gives what you’re seeking. It offers you the world but it never delivers, and that’s what I experienced when I got to the NFL and everyone told me that I should have this huge sense of gratification, yet I was so empty. My entire journey to the NFL was motivated by fear — fear of never being good enough, fear of being rejected, fear of never being accepted. So I get there, yet I’m still so empty.
So this is when I woke up and said something has to change. Here I am at the level that so many people aspire to and I’m the emptiest I’ve ever felt in my whole life. I took this journey to find out why I feel the way I do and why I crave success the way that I do. What I realized is that success became a drug to me. Success gave me validation and affirmation in life. I craved success because there was a fear motivating me to achieve success and numb the pain.
So how did you break away from your addiction to success?
Caleb: I’m still working through that today. A lot of people will hear this message and think I’m knocking success. But no, success is a wonderful thing. However, we cannot reduce success to power, position and authority. Success is much more than the things that the world says success is. I’m challenging people to redefine success in their lives because my theory is that through success or failure, you gain experience and experience is what leads you to your destiny in life. Your destiny is found within the journey of life ... experience after experience after experience.
A lot of people are hesitant to hear this message because it is completely counter-culture to our lunatic lust for pride, possessions and money.
So how do we find a most fulfilling life? For me, the answer is serving and understanding that the purpose of life has absolutely nothing to do with the American dream and the fear that’s motivating our lives.
You’ve already done a lot in 28 years. What do you view as the next chapter in your life?
Caleb: I don’t know what that looks like, but I know how to get there though, and that’s just the idea of serving. I wholeheartedly believe that I will surrender and live a life of sacrifice, obedience and commitment. I don’t know what it looks like, but I know that I’ve been called to serve, and serving is not limited to just the church. It’s about serving the person next to you and approaching everyday life with you not being the center of focus. That’s my job.
You’re a pretty intense guy? What do you do in your down time when you take away the military background, the football background, and even the church?
Caleb: I really enjoy reading, writing, journaling. I just started writing and I now have a handful of blogs on my website. I also crave intimate conversation, conversation that’s much deeper than “how are you doing today?” I like getting down to the core belief system of a person and discovering what they really believe in life.
That almost sounds a bit intrusive ...
Caleb: No, they control it. I’m just asking questions that maybe nobody has ever posed to them before and maybe causing them to think outside the box or eliminate the box all together. Our whole life we’ve been taught what to think and what to know, but do you actually believe it? I like to tear down the walls that hinder growth. Personally, I’ve been lied to my whole life, and until I had the courage to face and challenge these lies, I was held captive.
And finally, what do you think about our city?
Caleb: I love the history. The buildings here are phenomenal. Just to sit back and learn the history of some of these buildings and know what was going on when this was a dominant city and a port city is really astonishing. And on top of that, the food is great. I’m a big fan! I’ve also been to a lot of museums; I’m a big fan of art.
I’m excited to see where all of this goes. Up to this point it’s been all about me in a sense, and I’m ready to shift to where I can use everything that I’ve accomplished for something so much greater than me. That’s why I’m really excited about my future. Every one of us has a purpose in life that only we can fulfill.
For more information about Caleb Campbell, please visit his website at www.iamcalebcampbell.com. To book Caleb for a speaking engagement, please email firstname.lastname@example.org and/or email@example.com. You can also follow Caleb on Facebook, and on Twitter at @caleb_campbell.