NASHVILLE — Caleb Farley, a Tennessee Titans cornerback, swears he shouldn’t be an emotional person and barely cries. But on a Monday night last October, tears fell, he said, as he lay on a football field with a shredded knee.
The response was not only due to the physical pain.
Farley became only “numb” after watching his mother die of breast cancer. He stayed strong in 2020, when he was the primary major college football player to inform his college coaches that he wouldn’t play football that season due to the coronavirus pandemic. And he remained resolute through the 2021 N.F.L. draft, when he slipped from being a projected top-10 pick to the twenty second overall selection, though he could never know whether opting out of that Covid season had turned teams off.
But tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during his first skilled start that 12 months was an excessive amount of, he said.
“I used to be like, ‘How can the opening get deeper when it’s already so deep?’” Farley, 23, said in an interview last month.
While he recovered, Farley watched as other players who had opted out in college did what he had hoped to: proved their football dedication and impact. Like Micah Parsons, a Cowboys linebacker, and Ja’Marr Chase, a Bengals receiver, Farley had been considered amongst the very best at his position in college. Now healthy, he hopes his skills translate to the professionals in the identical way, despite the two-year delay.
“My name was up there right with those guys in college, and to see them make the transition really easy and so smooth — it gave me slightly more motivation,” Farley said. “It gave me slightly more encouragement to know that I can put within the work and get this thing found out.”
Farley grew up in Maiden, N.C., a rural town with a population of about 3,400, and was raised in a household that valued religion and athletics. His older brother, Joshua, ran track in college, and even before Caleb was born, his father, Robert, anticipated that he would play sports.
He made good on that dream, excelling as a highschool quarterback before joining Virginia Tech as a receiver in 2017. But Farley tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in preseason, ending his true freshman campaign early.
His mother, Robin, died that January, a pivotal moment in Farley’s life that strengthened the already-tight bond along with his father. Shortly after his wife’s death, Robert moved in along with his son in a rented home near campus.
“I just wanted him to know there was someone in his life who had at all times been there so he could possibly be comfortable and never be overwhelmed by the situation,” Robert Farley, 60, said.
He bounced back well that next season, transitioning from receiver to starting cornerback, and he put up a monster campaign in 2019, earning first team All-Atlantic Coast Conference honors.
Before his redshirt junior season, a pivotal 12 months wherein most players know N.F.L. scouts will probably be watching, the coronavirus outbreak began. Farley looked around at teammates who couldn’t remember to persist with social distancing protocols and considered what would occur if he infected his only remaining parent.
“He was telling me, ‘Kids are still socializing and doing every little thing kids do, and this virus is out here killing old people,’” Robert Farley said. “‘As close as you and I are, I’d hate to bring Covid home to you.’”
He became the primary high-profile draft prospect to opt out, at a time when the faculty conferences were scrambling to enact policies for his or her shortened seasons. Greater than 150 football players eventually decided to not play in 2020, citing reasons as varied as concern for relations and worries that the delayed college season would affect their preparation for the N.F.L. draft.
Farley focused on training for pro-day workouts, knowing that without game-day performances his draft stock relied on his wowing N.F.L. scouts in live drills reminiscent of the 40-yard dash.
But a lingering back injury grew worse, and Farley needed surgery that may sideline him throughout the pre-draft process. When scouts asked him, via teleconference interviews, about his decision to opt out of the faculty season, Farley didn’t sugarcoat his answer.
“I didn’t play football for a 12 months, I had surgery for the reason that last time I played football, I didn’t do a professional day and I had one 12 months of film,” Farley added. “My stock was completely blown at this point, so I didn’t really care.”
For Jon Robinson, the Titans general manager, Farley’s size and his coaches’ glowing recommendations outweighed the yearlong layoff and injury history. Impressed by Farley’s acceleration and change-of-direction ability, he drafted the 6-foot-2 corner to cover greater receivers.
“You don’t at all times have extensive film, but you evaluate the film you do have, you have a look at the skill set, see if it carries over and that’s what we did with him,” Robinson said.
Then, in his first skilled start in a Week 6 prime-time matchup against the Buffalo Bills, Farley’s knee buckled and his hopes of validating the Titans’ faith in him shattered. He said he felt as if “the universe was messing with me.”
Farley faced one other yearlong stretch without football, his second surgery in seven months and one other slog through intensive physical therapy.
“I used to be under quite a lot of distress,” Farley said, adding, “I used to be sad and down and really confused.”
Farley said he didn’t seek skilled counseling during those moments, but as a substitute leaned on his family, especially his father. Kevin Byard, the Titans’ two-time All-Pro safety, said he always saw Farley through the winter and spring within the team’s practice facility rehabilitating his knee or figuring out in the load room.
“He’s taken it with great faith because stuff like that may derail a player’s confidence,” Byard said. “He has an ideal mentality, and I’m happy with him.”
The Titans released their former starting cornerback, Janoris Jenkins, this off-season, opening the door for Farley to potentially start again for a team that was among the many worst pass defenses within the league in 2021. Robinson and Coach Mike Vrabel said they were pleased with Farley’s recovery and the way he attacked the rehabilitation process.
Farley said returning to football had helped give him added purpose, and he said his goal now wasn’t to silence perceived critics.
“I need to make it back to the mountaintop so my story might have the ability to provide someone hope,” Farley said. “There’s been times where I never had the reply and asked, ‘Why me?’ I’ve truly needed to humble myself, and possibly my story can assist someone going through dark times to maintain pushing.”