My Sportsman: Athletes in the military

Publish date:

Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 2. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer. For more essays, click here.

There was a chance, however remote, that Caleb Campbell was destined to be the next Junior Seau. A physically gifted linebacker with an off-the-charts football IQ, Campbell was a rare four-year starter in college before the Detroit Lions scooped him up in the seventh round of the 2008 NFL draft.

There was a chance, however slim, that Mitch Harris was supposed to be another Jake Peavy. With a 95-mile per hour fastball and a repertoire that included a changeup and a hard slider, Harris had St. Louis fans salivating over the possibility of adding the right-hander to the rotation when the Cardinals drafted Harris with the 395th pick in the '08 amateur draft.

Both Campbell and Harris may still become the kind of stars fans rush through the turnstiles to see. It will just have to wait. For now, they are charged with protecting the freedom to do it. Campbell and Harris are two of the hundreds of athletes currently serving in the U.S. military. Their stories are more high profile: Campbell was set to compete for a backup linebacker and special teams spot at Lions training camp before the Army abruptly reversed its decision to allow him to play and yanked him back into active duty; instead of wedge-busting on Sundays, Campbell spends five days a week in the sports psychology department at Army's Center for Enhanced Performance in West Point helping cadets manage the demanding schedules of athletics and academics.

The Cardinals were optimistic that the 23-year-old Harris would be major league-ready in a couple of years. Instead they will have to wait at least two years while Harris finishes his commitment as a weapons officer on board the USS Ponce.

In a world where the behavior of athletes can occasionally sink below sea level, these are the ones who should be lauded as true sportsmen and honored, along with every other athlete in the military, by being named Sportsmen of the Year. Fighting in the long shadow cast by the late Pat Tillman, Campbell and Harris are not just putting potential future careers on hold, they are doing it without complaint.

"It's bittersweet, not disappointing," Campbell said recently. "I came to the academy to be an officer. It's a decision I wanted to make."

They do not ask for accolades, but they deserve them. They do not want to be in the spotlight just for doing their duty, but they should be. They should be there, along with 2nd Lts. Milan Dinga and Nick Hill, Army officers and up until two months ago, minor league baseball players. Or Mike Viti, a bruising fullback who briefly held a spot on the Buffalo Bills roster this summer. Or 1st Lt. Brad Roberts, who is putting his hockey career on hold to serve as an armor officer in Ft. Hood, Texas.

Soon the sacrifices of these soldiers will be a memory. Professional sports will go on without them. But for now, we should take a long pause to recognize their sacrifice and immortalize it with the Sportsman of the Year award.