Three months ago, Caleb Campbell looked like he had no shot of making the Lions.
He hadn't played competitive football in two years, since the Army ordered him back to West Point on the eve of training camp in 2008. He was switching positions, learning a new defense and looking rusty.
"It was beyond rust," defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham said. "It was like dust."
But two weeks into training camp, Campbell has been a pleasant surprise on a defense still seeking playmakers. Cunningham said he's coming off some of his best practices of the summer this week and was expected to see plenty of playing time at linebacker and on special teams in Saturday's exhibition opener against the Steelers at Heinz Field.
"I'm surprised he's grown as much at the linebacker position as he has," Cunningham said. "We made a commitment to him, and we're going to try to keep him around to see if he can eventually get there."
Already, Campbell has persevered through more twists and turns than most in his road to the NFL.
A seventh-round draft pick, he was set to join the Lions two years ago, when the Army changed its policy to conform with Department of Defense protocol, requiring service-academy cadets to perform traditional military duties after graduation.
He spent a season as a student-assistant with the Black Knights football team, completed officer training at Ft. Sill, Okla., and nearly gave up his boyhood dream to play professional football.
"I was done with it," Campbell said. "And honestly, I remember waking up one morning and kind of just being like disappointed in myself that I was giving up on a dream. Not to get cheesy on you, but I honestly listened to my heart. Something was telling me, 'Don't stop, don't stop. This is your desire, this is what you've wanted to achieve your entire life, don't give up now.' And it just kind of pulled at me and I listened."
At West Point, Campbell trained on weekends with the Olympic bobsled team in Lake Placid, N.Y., -- "I'd put them against any NFL athlete, really, when it comes to squatting, straight-ahead speed and the sheer power and strength," he said -- and designed his own backyard workout using half-empty kegs of beer left from a party.
"I trained for two years ... doing everything I could to find an edge," Campbell said. "I didn't know two years later I was actually going to get a shot. That was the hardest part, mentally waking up in the morning, knowing that you had to train at such a rigorous pace and such a tough workout to compete at this level, but not knowing if I'm even going to get the chance to play."
The workouts paid off.
When Campbell showed up at the Lions practice facility in March for a free-agent tryout -- the Lions lost his rights when they didn't sign him a year after the draft -- he weighed 239 pounds and ran two 40-yard dashes in 4.49 and 4.5 seconds, better times and at a heavier weight than when he went to the NFL combine.
He signed a few days later.
"I came back physically prepared, but mentally it's been an absolute challenge," Campbell said.
Regardless of what happens, Campbell said he's glad he took the "leap of faith" and pursued his football career. (He agreed to pay $65,000 to buy out his remaining years of military service for the opportunity and remains in the inactive reserves, meaning he's subject to a call to active duty, however unlikely, through 2016.)
"Like I said, I've learned a lot over the last two years," Campbell said. "I grew as a person. It would have been nice playing in 2008 as well, but now I think I have a little bit more soldier inside of me, knowing what these guys do every day to protect our country. Just being stateside with them at Ft. Sill, Okla., it was a blessing."