The NFL draft is typically full of images of athletes celebrating with their families when their name is called. When the Tennessee Titans selected cornerback Caleb Farley with the No. 22 overall pick on April 29, the broadcast instead showed a solo Caleb, watching the draft coverage alone in his father Robert’s living room. Robert and the rest of the family were watching from the garage.
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After being invited to the NFL draft in Cleveland, the Virginia Tech star tested positive for COVID-19 and was unable to attend. Though he tested negative the day of, given the health issues he and his family had gone through the past several years, they opted to celebrate at home and in separate rooms.
It was difficult, but it was just another hurdle for Farley to jump over in his journey to the NFL — one that he said has brought him closer to God along the way.
“This whole situation has been eye-opening,” Farley recently told ESPN.com. “I’ve gotten closer to my family and to God. I am just thankful to wake up every day and breathe air and still have football and carry out my dreams.”
There was a moment when he wasn’t sure that would still be possible.
Farley entered college as a highly-touted quarterback — throwing for 1,776 yards and 21 touchdowns while rushing for 2,574 yards and 37 touchdowns as a senior at Maiden High School in North Carolina — but he switched to play wide receiver when he arrived at Virginia Tech.
His freshman season in 2017 ended abruptly with an ACL tear, and he suddenly found his football future in jeopardy. What initially started with bad news that led to him calling his father in tears ended up being a blessing, he told ESPN. His mother, Robin, had been diagnosed with cancer for a second time, after beating it once when Caleb was in junior high. While he rehabbed his knee, he supported his mother as he watched her fight for her life.
This time, Robin’s body was unable to beat the cancer and she died in January 2018 at just 53 years old. It was during that season of life, though, that Caleb felt his faith in God grow deeper.
While it set him back on the field some, the injury allowed Caleb to spend those last few months with his mother. Robert said that Robin never showed how hard it was to go through chemotherapy, adding that she never questioned God or asked why God was allowing her cancer to come back.
“I can say that was the start of me maturing in my faith,” Caleb told ESPN. “I’ve always been built up in the Scriptures and known what you should and shouldn’t do. It wasn’t as intimate or as pure of a relationship as it could have been.
“When I saw my mother go through that and believe that she could be healed and then I saw it come back and kill her, it hurt my faith in the beginning. But I believe you have to serve the Lord when it’s good and bad. I made the decision that I was going to trust God. I would be lost without Him.”
Robin was Caleb’s biggest supporter, and when others didn’t believe in his chances to make it to the NFL, his mother did.
“My mother had a crazy belief in me and things that I could do,” Caleb told ESPN.
With that confidence still instilled in him, Caleb switched positions again, this time to cornerback, before the 2018 season. He made good on the move with a stellar 2019 season, tallying four interceptions — including one returned for a touchdown — and 12 pass breakups. He was garnering a reputation as one of the best cornerbacks in the country.
But once again, the chances of making it to the NFL took a hit with a back injury toward the end of the 2019 season. He suffered a herniated L5 disk and bulged S1 joint while doing a deadlift exercise, and was forced to miss the final two games of the season.
Then came the COVID-19 pandemic.
He was at a crossroads: play and bolster his draft stock, or potentially expose himself to the virus and pass it on to people who might be vulnerable, like his father. Robert wanted him to play, but Caleb ultimately decided to opt out of the 2020 season.
Here is former Virginia Tech CB Caleb Farley’a announcement that he is opting out of the college football season to train and turn pro, sent to ESPN: pic.twitter.com/5j4FmQvGKy
— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) July 29, 2020
“My faith taught me to be smart and cautious,” Caleb told ESPN. “I had to identify and target what was disturbing my peace. With everything going on with my living arrangements, I couldn’t see me playing being the best decision. I had to be cautious and protect my father.”
Next up was preparing for his pro day. But the bulged S1 was still causing him pain, so he elected to have surgery this past March, meaning he had to miss the pro day. He remained hopeful his draft stock would stay high.
“For him to have endured that and went through that adversity, there could not have been any bigger adversity that he could have faced,” Robert told ESPN. “He faced that and moved past it. The rest of it is just small matters.”
The Titans remained high on him, making him their first selection in the 2021 draft. He’s hopeful he can make an impact quickly and show that all the adversity was worth it.
He said he’s dedicating this season to his mother.
“If she were here,” he said, “I would be talking trash to her about what I’m about to do to everybody and she’d be telling me, ‘Yeah, baby, that’s what you’re going to do.'”
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