NASHVILLE — Caleb Farley, a Tennessee Titans cornerback, swears he is not an emotional person and rarely cries. But on a Monday night last October, tears fell, he said, as he lay on a football field with a shredded knee.
The reaction was not only because of the physical pain.
Farley became only “numb” after watching his mother die of breast cancer. He stayed strong in 2020, when he was the first major college football player to tell his college coaches that he would not play football that season because of the coronavirus pandemic. And he remained resolute during the 2021 N.F.L. draft, when he slipped from being a projected top-10 pick to the 22nd 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 professional start that year was too much, he said.
“I was like, ‘How can the hole 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 among the best at his position in college. Now healthy, he hopes his skills translate to the pros in the same way, despite the two-year delay.
“My name was up there right with those guys in college, andto see them make the transition so easy and so smooth — it gave me a little more motivation,” Farley said. “It gave me a little more encouragement to know that I can put in the work and get this thing figured 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 high school 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 with his father. Shortly after his wife’s death, Robert moved in with his son in a rented home near campus.
“I just wanted him to know there was someone in his life who had always been there so he could be comfortable and not 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 year in which most players know N.F.L. scouts will be watching, the coronavirus outbreak began. Farley looked around at teammates who could not remember to stick to social distancing protocols and thought about what would happen if he infected his only remaining parent.
“He was telling me, ‘Kids are still socializing and doing everything kids do, and this virus is out here killing old people,’” Robert Farley said. “‘As close as you and I are, I would hate to bring Covid home to you.’”
He became the first high-profile draft prospect to opt out, at a time when the college conferences were scrambling to enact policies for their shortened seasons. More than 150 football players eventually decided not to play in 2020, citing reasons as varied as concern for family members 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 depended on his wowing N.F.L. scouts in live drills such as the 40-yard dash.
But a lingering back injury grew worse, and Farley needed surgery that would sideline him throughout the pre-draft process. When scouts asked him, via teleconference interviews, about his decision to opt out of the college season, Farley did not sugarcoat his answer.
“Ididn’t play football for a year, I had surgery since the last time I played football, I didn’t do a pro day and I had one year 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 bigger receivers.
“You don’t always have extensive film, but you evaluate the film you do have, you look at the skill set, see if it carries over and that’s what we did with him,” Robinson said.
Then, in his first professional 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 though “the universe was messing with me.”
Farley faced another yearlong stretch without football, his second surgery in seven months and another slog through intensive physical therapy.
“I was under a lot of distress,” Farley said, adding, “I was sad and down and really confused.”
Farley said he did not seek professional counseling during those moments, but instead leaned on his family, especially his father. Kevin Byard, the Titans’ two-time All-Pro safety, said he constantly saw Farley during the winter and spring in the team’s practice facility rehabilitating his knee or working out in the weight room.
“He’s taken it with great faith because stuff like that can derail a player’s confidence,” Byard said. “He has a great mentality, and I’m proud of 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 worst pass defenses in the league in 2021.Robinson and Coach Mike Vrabel said they were pleased with Farley’s recovery and how 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 want to make it back to the mountaintop so my story might be able to give someone hope,” Farley said. “There’s been times where I never had the answer and asked, ‘Why me?’ I’ve truly had to humble myself, and maybe my story can help someone going through dark times to keep pushing.”