After grim NFL injury, Napoleon McCallum remained buoyant
On the night his professional football career ended, Napoleon McCallum was unconvinced.
He had been rushed by ambulance to a Bay Area hospital, his left leg grotesquely twisted when the Los Angeles Raiders fullback was tackled by San Francisco 49ers linebacker Ken Norton Jr. at Candlestick Park.
It was the opening Monday night of the 1994 season, the Raiders’ last in Los Angeles.
And for McCallum, it was the last game of his career.
He just didn’t know it.
More than 15 years later, seemingly none the worse for wear after six surgeries to repair the damage to his leg, the former Navy star looks back on an unusual career abruptly cut short.
McCallum, 46, is director of community development for the Las Vegas Sands Corp. and lives with wife Yvonne and their four young daughters in Henderson, Nev.
A former business owner -- he opened Pro Digital Graphics shortly after retiring from the NFL because he feared a sedentary occupation might be his only option -- McCallum says he runs, cycles, swims and even plays basketball.
Someday soon, he says, he hopes to try a half-triathlon.
“I’ve been active,” he notes, “but I’ve been cautious.”
Once upon a time, of course, McCallum didn’t have to concern himself with stepping lightly.
He was a service academy phenomenon, a two-time All-American in the 1980s and Navy’s greatest player since Roger Staubach won the Heisman Trophy in 1963.
McCallum, a fourth-round pick of the Raiders in the 1986 NFL draft even though he owed the Navy five years of active duty, was an instant hit with the Raiders.
At 6 feet 2 and 250 pounds, he ran for 536 yards as a rookie while also serving as an assistant food services officer aboard the USS Peleliu, an amphibious helicopter carrier docked in Long Beach.
“I was really worn down,” he says of the double duty. “My first wife, she drove me back and forth [between the ship and practices in El Segundo] so I could sleep in the car.”
But that beat the alternative: reassignment by the Navy, which kept him sidelined the next three seasons.
In 1990, McCallum began a second run with the Raiders, lasting five more seasons. His career totals included 790 yards rushing, 17 receptions for 121 yards and six touchdowns.
A 2003 College Football Hall of Fame inductee, McCallum notes that his Raiders teammates included star runners such as Marcus Allen, Bo Jackson, Eric Dickerson and Roger Craig.
“Sometimes, I regret not getting to play more and becoming a starter,” he says from his Las Vegas office, “but at other times I’m thankful because I did play and I beat the odds. Most NFL running backs last, like, two years, and I got six.
“But I definitely think I could have left a bigger mark.”
If not for his gruesome injury, reminiscent of Joe Theismann’s stomach-turning broken leg during a Monday night game in 1985, McCallum very well might have.
He saw the replay at the hospital -- “it looked like one of those little Gumby things that you bend all kinds of funky ways,” he says of his badly contorted leg -- but still was optimistic.
“When the doctor came in,” he recalls, “my first question was, ‘How long before I get back out on the field?’ ”
How about never?
“He’s like, ‘We don’t see injuries like this except in car accidents,’ ” McCallum says.
He’d suffered a dislocated knee. Three ligaments had been torn, ripping his calf and hamstring muscles from the bone, and he’d suffered nerve and artery damage as well.
If surgery didn’t go well, a terrified McCallum was told, his left leg probably would have to be amputated.
Luckily for McCallum, the worst-case scenario never played out.
Still, he wonders what might have been -- not only because of the injury but because of what he calls shortsightedness by the Navy in not making it easier for him to play in the NFL early on.
“I know I was trained as a naval officer,” says McCallum, whose childhood ambition was to be an astronaut, “but we spend so much in recruiting that I thought we’d have gotten more bang for our buck if I’d been used in that way. Every time I stepped on the field, you’d have heard something about the Navy.”
Utilized mostly as a short-yardage specialist by the Raiders, McCallum thought he was poised for a breakout 1994 season after scoring five touchdowns in two 1993 playoff games.
“It was one of those times I got to step up and show what I could do,” he says of his playoff success.
“I wasn’t a quick, graceful, pretty running back. I was more of a lumbering, break-a-tackle type of a guy -- you know, stretch out to get every inch.”
After running into Norton, however, he wasn’t even that.
“It’s disheartening,” then-coach Art Shell noted at the time, “because Napoleon is well-loved by everyone on the team.”
Says McCallum of his final NFL carry, a one-yard gain in a blowout loss: “It was one of those plays that got all messed up in the middle. My leg got planted and [Norton] was trying to stop me from going forward . . . and the way he grabbed me and planted, it put too much stress on my knee and it popped out of place.”
No one was to blame.
“It’s just part of the game,” McCallum says. “It wasn’t a vicious play. I was playing football, and sometimes you get hurt.”
And then you carry on.