PLANT CITY — The first time football was taken away from Antonio Callaway, the hiatus seemed temporary.
Although his Florida career ended with a season-long suspension in 2017, the NFL draft wasn’t far off. Some team would give the talented receiver a shot, even if his off-field transgressions forced him to tumble out of the first round.
But when the Cleveland Browns cut him in November, the break felt much more permanent. Callaway worried he’d never play again.
“A lot of times,” Callaway said. “Like I said, I can’t control my past. Only thing I can control is my future.”
His future, for now, is with the XFL’s Tampa Bay Vipers. But to understand why one of the most versatile players in Gators history is trying to reboot his career at a pro football start-up, you have to look back to Callaway’s past. And Callaway did that Tuesday at the Vipers’ facility at Plant City Stadium in a way he never did publicly at UF.
Of all the electric playmakers to suit up for the Gators, only one scored a touchdown via rush, catch, pass, punt return and kickoff return: Callaway. But he couldn’t stay out of trouble.
He was cited for marijuana possession and suspended twice, first for a sexual assault accusation (he was later cleared of wrongdoing), then for his role in the Gators’ credit card fraud scandal. Callaway fell from a first-round prospect to the fourth round.
“I was blessed to even be drafted, with my past,” Callaway said. “But if I was to get another chance, I’ll take advantage of it.”
He didn’t take advantage of the first one.
After catching 43 balls for 586 yards and five touchdowns as a rookie in 2018, he failed to last another full season. Callaway started the year with a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy. He was late to team functions and finally waived in November as he faced a 10-game drug-related suspension.
“Things happened,” Callaway said.
So will things happen any differently this time around? That depends on Callaway.
He said some of the same things Tuesday as he did at his pro day 22 months ago. He claimed that being away from the game taught him not to take it for granted. He used the same passive voice to avoid discussing the mistakes he wants to leave in the past.
But there was also an acknowledgement of wrongdoing Tuesday that wasn’t there in Gainesville.
Back when he was auditioning for a spot in the NFL, Callaway blamed his transgressions on immaturity and youthful ignorance. On Tuesday, he didn’t blame anyone —including the Cleveland coaches who cut him.
“That was the consequence of me coming late, being late to meetings, late to a game,” Callaway said. “Just showed my lack of focus then.”
It hasn’t even been two full weeks since the Vipers claimed him off waivers, but focus hasn’t been an issue so far. Head coach/general manager Marc Trestman said Callaway has been engaged in meetings. He has been on time and stayed late Monday for extra practice with quarterback Aaron Murray.
That’s critical because Callaway has a lot of ground to make up. He was admittedly doing nothing when the XFL called, so Callaway arrived out of shape (but still listed at 5-foot-11, 200 pounds). By the time he got to camp, much of the playbook had already been installed.
But after seeing Callaway’s explosive talent and vetting his character, Trestman believes Callaway has earned another shot.
“I just felt like he deserved an opportunity based on his situation…” Trestman said. “He knows this is his only chance to play football again, is to do it here.”
Callaway seems to understand that. He said he isn’t thinking about another shot at the NFL, or anything beyond the Vipers and their Feb. 9 opener at New York. He called it a “privilege” to be in the XFL.
And after squandering such a privilege twice before, Callaway must make the most of this one. If not?
Then his next break from football will likely be permanent.