Napoleon McCallum is the greatest running back the U.S. Naval Academy has ever produced.
A slashing, blue-collar workhorse, McCallum combined speed and strength like few running backs before or since. With sprinter’s speed and 235 pounds of Midshipmen muscle, he was a straight ahead, try-and-stop-me grinder. A two-time consensus All-American, McCallum was Navy’s greatest player since Roger Staubach, who won the Heisman Trophy in 1963.
Humble, selfless, bright and determined, McCallum embodied the service academy mindset.
Navy coach Gary Tranquill simply called him “the big guy.” McCallum once carried the football eight straight times to ice a win over Syracuse.
To beat Princeton, he toted it 32 times in the first half, tying an NCAA record, for 213 yards. In four career games against Army, McCallum rushed for 489 yards, scored two touchdowns, and never lost.
In his final game for Navy in 1985, McCallum single-handedly outgained Army with 217 rushing yards on 41 carries to lead the Middies to a 17-7 victory while becoming the NCAA career leader in all-purpose yards.
The punishing runner was carried off the field by teammates and fans in what he calls his “greatest moment at Navy.” He graduated holding 23 school records and Navy retired his jersey, joining Heisman winners Joe Bellino and Staubach.
After finishing sixth in Heisman Trophy voting as a junior, Navy promoted their rugged All-American with posters of McCallum dressed as John Paul Jones with the caption, “I Have Not Yet Begun To Run.” McCallum then broke his leg at Virginia, the second game of his senior year. Out for the season, he became the first redshirt in Navy history.
Born in Jefferson City, Missouri, October 6, 1963, Napoleon Ardel McCallum is the son of two teachers. He grew up in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood of Cincinnati before the family moved to suburban Milford, Ohio. McCallum attended Milford High School. A two-way player for the Eagles, he rushed for 1,625 yards, scored 17 touchdowns and intercepted 12 passes as a senior. After being named All-Southwest Ohio and All-City, the 6’2”, 220-pounder had offers from Syracuse, Tennessee and North Carolina State, all of whom coveted him as a defensive back. Determined to prove himself as a running back, McCallum committed to attend the U.S. Naval Academy.
Napoleon McCallum returned punts, kickoffs and was a workhorse in the Navy backfield.
In his sophomore season, he led all FBS independents in punt return yardage. As a junior, he led the nation in all-purpose yardage, was second in rushing attempts and third in rushing yards. McCallum rushed for a Navy-record 1,587 yards in 1983, still the best in school history. McCallum capped his junior season by becoming Navy’s first consensus All-American since Chet Moeller in 1975.
Following his medical redshirt season of 1984, McCallum returned from a broken leg to lead the nation in rushing attempts, yardage, and plays from scrimmage.
After setting school records for career rushing and all-purpose yards, McCallum was again named consensus All-American and finished seventh in Heisman balloting. In the fall of his senior year, he visited the White House with his parents to meet then-President Ronald Reagan.
The Los Angeles Raiders selected McCallum in the fourth round [108th overall] of the 1986 NFL draft.
He received permission to play on weekends – an unprecedented move by the Navy – while serving his five-year military commitment. Ensign McCallum’s schedule was exhausting. Stationed aboard the USS Peleiu, an amphibious helicopter carrier docked in Long Beach, he would sleep in the car while his wife drove him to Raider practices. After one season in the NFL, during which he rushed for 536 yards, McCallum was transferred to a ship in the Indian Ocean where he “did a lot of working out and dreaming.”
Navy duty kept McCallum off the field for two seasons, during which time he was traded to San Diego. After he was cut in the summer of 1989, he spent a year working in San Diego as a Navy recruiting officer. New Chargers GM Bobby Beathard offered him one more shot, in April 1990. McCallum asked what he needed to do to make the team. “Run a 4.6 40 [-yard dash],” said Beathard. He ran 4.58, but the team said it was wind-aided. McCallum ran it again – this time against the wind – and posted a 4.63. The Chargers averaged it. “I called the Raiders and they said, ‘don’t let them cut you, we’ll trade for you,’ recalled McCallum. “That’s how I got back to the Raiders.”
McCallum returned to the Raiders in 1990 and played five more years, mostly as a kick returner, before an ugly injury ended his career.
On the opening MNF game of the 1994 season – the Raiders’ last in Los Angeles – McCallum had his left leg grotesquely twisted by a tackle by Ken Norton Jr. at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. It was the type of injury only seen in car accidents. McCallum 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. Doctors feared his left leg may need to be amputated.
Six surgeries and nearly three decades later, McCallum is healthy. An avid golfer, he is married and has four daughters. He lives in Henderson, Nevada – outside Las Vegas. A key piece in the Raiders move to Vegas, McCallum connected Raiders owner Mark Davis with billionaire casino owner Sheldon Adelson, the man and money behind the NFL move. The former Raider, who shared the backfield with Marcus Allen, Bo Jackson and Eric Dickerson while wearing the Silver and Black, works for Adelson’s Las Vegas Sands Corp. as the director of community development.
Napoleon McCallum, who was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 2002, remains the U.S. Naval Academy’s career leader, with 7,172 all-purpose yards.