After losing his mom to cancer, Titans' Caleb Farley leaned on faith to help realize his NFL dream

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Robert Farley was sitting at a card table playing spades when his phone rang. His son Caleb was on the other end and burst into tears as he began to explain that he just tore the ACL in his knee.

Caleb was then a freshman wide receiver at Virginia Tech and thought his playing career was in jeopardy.

"OK, it's all right," Robert said, recalling that 2017 conversation. "No, baby, the advancement with medicine and everything they have going now, they'll have you back in no time. You still have your career ahead of you."

Robert was right. Caleb, who developed into a top cornerback prospect, was taken by the Tennessee Titans at No. 22 in the 2021 NFL draft.

The knee injury turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Not playing afforded Caleb opportunities to travel back to Maiden, North Carolina, to spend time with his mother, Robin. She was being treated for a second bout with cancer. She was first diagnosed with breast cancer when Caleb was in junior high, but it went into remission after two years of treatment.

But the cancer returned and this time it was too much -- Robin died when she was just 53 years old. But what Caleb learned from his mother's struggles with cancer ultimately strengthened his faith and prepared him to deal with his own health challenges that laid ahead before he could realize his NFL dream.

According to Robert, his wife never asked why God allowed her, a faithful person, to get sick. Despite the bad days that came from chemotherapy treatments, Robin made sure it wasn't obvious how much she was struggling.

Robin's strength and steadfastness to her faith while enduring such a trying fight left an impression on Caleb, underscoring the importance of having a close relationship with God.

"I can say that was the start of me maturing in my faith," Caleb said. "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."

Working through the loss of his mother was a test, but Caleb knew his mother would want him to press onward toward his goal of being a professional football player -- something he wanted to do since he was little.

Like many young kids, Caleb was told his NFL goals weren't realistic. But his mother was always the one telling him he could do whatever he put his mind to doing.

"My mother had a crazy belief in me and things that I could do," Caleb said

Robert added: "It was all about his little will. He was so determined at such a young age."

Caleb was a star quarterback at Maiden High School, passing for 1,776 yards and 21 touchdowns and rushing for 2,574 yards and 37 touchdowns as a senior. But after enrolling at Virginia Tech, he became a wide receiver. Then came the knee injury that ended his freshman season.

That will Robert noticed in Caleb at an early age was put to the test when he changed positions again, this time converting to cornerback before the 2018 season.

But Caleb quickly found success. He notched two interceptions and a sack against Florida State in his first start at corner. Then in 2019, Caleb established himself as one of the best cornerbacks in the country when he posted four interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown, along with 12 passes defended.

Then adversity struck again.

Caleb suffered a herniated L5 disk and bulged S1 joint while doing a deadlift exercise. The injury caused him to miss the final two games of the 2019 season. He had a discectomy performed on the L5 in February 2020 and was advised to let the bulged S1 heal on its own.

Next came another curveball: The COVID-19 pandemic, which complicated things even more because of the uncertainty surrounding the college football season. Caleb understood how much another year of experience would bolster his draft stock.

Robert thought another season would solidify Caleb as the best corner in the 2021 draft class.

"I knew that if he came out of college playing another year, he was going to grow by leaps and bounds," Robert said. "I knew if he played another year, it would be without question that he was something special, something you don't see often."

But Caleb's mind was on his family. Having lost his mother already, he was not about to put his father at risk by exposing him to COVID. He wasn't comfortable with how procedures were being followed at Virginia Tech. In July, he made a decision to opt out of the 2020 season.

"My faith taught me to be smart and cautious," Caleb said. "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."

Robert wanted Caleb to play, but understood his reasoning. He didn't want Caleb to carry that weight on his shoulders, so he supported the decision.

Caleb was still widely projected to be top-10 draft pick, but adversity found its way back into the picture.

The bulged S1 was still causing Caleb discomfort when training for his pro day. He elected to have a microdiscectomy in March, which kept him from being able to perform at his pro day, where he could have showcased his speed and athleticism for NFL personnel executives and scouts.

Suddenly a player who was a likely top-10 pick was projected to go in the latter half of the first round. But Caleb remained positive and maintained his faith that everything would work out. This was what all of the other obstacles he faced prepared him for.

"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 said. "He faced that and moved past it. The rest of it is just small matters."

But there was one more twist in store for Caleb: The NFL invited him to Cleveland for the draft, but he was unable to attend when he tested positive for COVID.

Instead of traveling to Cleveland to celebrate, the Farleys spent the day at Robert's home. Caleb tested negative the morning of the draft, but the family celebrated in separate rooms to be safe. Caleb was in his father's living room by himself while everyone else was in the garage.

Caleb says he views what happened to him over the past year as a chance to prove his faith and not take anything for granted.

"This whole situation has been eye-opening," Caleb said. "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."

He remains confident he will be ready to play when the Titans report for training camp and says he's felt great since the day he had the surgery in March. Caleb laughed as he reflected on how he woke up from surgery and walked out a day later to jump on a flight from Los Angeles to Virginia to attend the Hokies' pro day.

Caleb knows that in due time he will fulfill his dream of being an NFL player with his mother proudly looking down from above. He is dedicating this season to his mother.

Added Caleb, "If she were here, 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.'"