Two years after losing his mother, Caleb Farley was motivated to protect his only living parent at all costs. So when the pandemic hit, the Virginia Tech cornerback became the first college football player to opt out, a move influenced by his mom's deep faith and a willingness to be bold and different.
By Chase Goodbread | March 25, 2021
Maiden, N.C. -- It had to be someone bold. Someone unflinching, self-assured, steel-nerved.
As COVID-19 wobbled major college football off its $4 billion axis last July, conference commissioners fretted over whether to even put their product on the field, and on an individual level, NFL draft prospects grappled with the very same question. The virus was raging. Case numbers spiked. And only two things were certain about 2020 college football: The season would be disrupted in some measure, and some of the game's draft-worthy stars would opt out.
But who would be first?
It would take someone unconcerned that skipping an entire college season -- and losing a year of development -- might damage their draft value. After all, this wasn't like opting out of a bowl game; this was volunteering to wedge 20 months between one's last college game and one's NFL rookie debut. And asking pro scouts to lean on 2019 tape to evaluate a 2021 prospect. It would take someone who could ignore backlash from his school's fan base, someone who wouldn't care if other prospects followed suit.
It would take a leader.
It would take a Caleb.
Robin and Robert Farley named their two sons after the biblical Caleb and Joshua, two Israelites among 12 who were sent by Moses to scout the Promised Land. Caleb, above all others, had the gumption to suggest taking the territory occupied by powerful giants. Unafraid of the unknown.
Caleb Farley, after a stellar 2019 season playing cornerback at Virginia Tech, was unafraid to be college football's first opt-out last year in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. With roots of Baptist faith sewn in this tiny North Carolina town, he trailblazed for a score of top draft prospects who skipped 2020, including Oregon OT Penei Sewell, Penn State LB Micah Parsons, LSU WR Ja'Marr Chase, Northwestern OT Rashawn Slater and Miami pass rusher Gregory Rousseau.
"He wasn't even 2 or 3 years old when I told my wife he was determined to make a mark somehow," Robert Farley said. "I told her I hoped it would be positive more than negative, but I knew he was going to leave a mark on this world in some kind of way. And it wouldn't be a small mark. He was going to be known."
Farley was uniquely equipped for the fallout of opting out by his late mother Robin's unwavering positive influence. He'd seen her die of cancer after his first semester at Virginia Tech, and he feared playing college football might put him at risk for catching COVID-19 and then unwittingly spreading the deadly virus to the only parent he had left. He knows the biblical story of Caleb well and has found it to be analogous for some of the biggest moments of his life -- opting out included.
"Caleb," the highly regarded Virginia Tech corner said, "was a different spirit."
More than anything else, Caleb says, his mother instilled in him an ability to squelch negative feelings -- jealousy, pettiness, bitterness -- and be guided instead by the best of himself. Her positivity touched the community in ways that were profound and, at times, hard to explain. Once, while driving, she accidentally butt-dialed her boss -- she worked in an administrative job at Catawba Valley Medical Center -- and he answered his phone to only hear Robin humming and singing hymns in the car. He listened for half an hour.
"People in public conduct themselves one way in public and another way at home -- a different attitude or tempo," said Robert Farley. "(With Robin,) what people saw outside the house was exactly who she was inside the house. She was lovely and pleasant. It was something people gravitated to."
Cancer took Robin Farley way too soon, at 53, but if it hoped to limit her spiritual influence on Caleb, it was way too late. He carries her daily, and her voice still speaks to his conscience. As he weighs the world as he was taught it should be against the world as it is, he uses the word conflicted again and again.
"I can't even do some things people my age do. The rap music, I can't really ride in the car and hear some of that with my friends. It conflicts me. It conflicts my spirit because I don't agree with it. To me, a lot of that stuff is evil," Farley said. "I went to parties, but mainly to just get out of the house, talk to girls, but I wasn't a big drinker. I like staying in my right mind. It's conflicting. Sometimes I'd stand there watching some of what was going on, and it would conflict me. Half of me would say, it's cool, it's just fun. Half of me would be conflicted to where I couldn't enjoy myself."
Farley was in middle school when he first learned that breast cancer had attacked his mother. She underwent chemotherapy, shaved her head and beat it back into remission. For a year or two, normalcy returned. Then, cancer did -- this time, in her bones. For months, her smiling countenance was unwavering, such that some who knew she was terminally ill, and had seen her in her final weeks, were surprised by the terrible news.
“She’s in a better place now because this world is getting evil. She shouldn’t have been here. Every day, the world grows further away from God.” CALEB FARLEY
When Farley tore an ACL on the first day of preseason practice as a freshman in 2017, he was redshirted and thus afforded a better chance to spend some time at home -- a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Virginia Tech's Blacksburg campus -- as Robin's condition steadily worsened. He began making the trip south to Maiden on Fridays and wouldn't always return for class on Monday. He found a rehab facility at home so that his knee recovery wouldn't be interrupted, and he came to realize that an ACL tear -- devastating from a purely football standpoint -- was something of a blessing, in that he was afforded precious time with his mother.
"Late Sunday nights, Monday, sometimes wouldn't even go back until Wednesday," Farley said. "Tech was so understanding about it. They wanted me in class, but if it wasn't football-related, I didn't really care about it."
In early December, doctors told Robert Farley that his wife's cancer was beyond reversal. To be with his mother in her final days, Farley skipped Virginia Tech's trip to the Camping World Bowl in Orlando, a 30-21 loss to Oklahoma State. He'd hold her hand and play her favorite gospel song -- CeCe Winans' "Alabaster Box" -- repeatedly. Her nausea was a constant, and near the end, she was in pain in every waking moment.
"It sounds selfish, but she was in so much pain, it was tough to sit around," Farley said. "It was so constant -- 24-7. It would hurt you."
Robin Farley died Jan. 2, 2018, just short of the couple's 31st wedding anniversary. Maiden couldn't be much smaller, with a population of just 3,400, yet by the estimate of Maiden High football coach Will Byrne, around 1,000 people paid their respects at the memorial service. Children who survive loved ones frequently respond with something of an emotional and social shutdown during the grieving process.
Caleb was a different spirit.
Robert Farley suspects his son's grief was greater than he let on, but nonetheless, Caleb outwardly projected a level of optimism and peace after his mother's death, much as she did throughout her illness. He encouraged those who loved Robin most, lifting more sorrow than he displayed. Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente said when he tried to console his player, "Caleb instead made me feel better." Caleb had once hoped his mom could survive long enough to see him play a game for Virginia Tech, but she'd been gone eight months by the time he intercepted two passes against Florida State in his 2018 college debut.
More than three years after her passing, he's now found some solace in her absence.
"She's in a better place now because this world is getting evil. She shouldn't have been here," Farley said. "Every day, the world grows further away from God."