"I got downhill on him," says Caldwell. "I really stuck it to him."
Caldwell's mind set on the field is simple: Keep coming. Hard. Never stop until you get to the ball.
The hard-nosed kid with the Dick Butkus mentality could serve as the face of Navy's defense this fall. A defense that returns nine starters from last year's 8-4 squad.
Caldwell is coming off a dominant junior season. He led the Midshipmen with 140 tackles, the most by a Navy player since Javier Zuluaga recorded 144 in 1993, and the seventh most in school history. Caldwell ranked 10th in the country in tackles per game (11.67) in 2005 and is the second-leading returning tackler behind Patrick Willis of Mississippi (12.80).
A First-Team All-East selection, Caldwell is one of 13 players nationally to record 20 or more tackles in a game last year, recording 21 against Air Force. But stats aren't what motivate Caldwell. Playing hard is.
His blue-collar mentality was born playing CYO football outside Chicago. Caldwell made his debut as a third-grader in league with players as many as three years older than him. "I went out there with something to prove," says Caldwell, who is 6-foot, 222 pounds. "I knew I had to play hard and my parents always pushed me hard. That's something that has always stuck with me."
Teammates can't help but respect Caldwell's intensity. His focus. The way he plays the game. In fact, the Midshipmen feed off Caldwell. "Playing next to Rob, you know he's never going to slack," says Navy linebacker Joe Cylc. "You can always count on him. He never let's us down. Rob will never miss a practice, he plays in pain and you would never know it."
Caldwell showed his old school toughness last year against Duke. During a key part of the third quarter, Caldwell split three stitches across the bridge of his nose, making a tackle. As blood poured down his face, team doctor Jeff Fair fitted a plastic, protective piece over Caldwell's cut to stop the bleeding.
Caldwell couldn't stand being off the sidelines, and when the stitch job was done, he ran back on the field. He came back in time to force Duke to settle for a 43-yard field goal and Navy went on to win 28-21. Caldwell finished the game with a game-high 14 tackles.
"I was a total mess," Caldwell says. "But I wasn't going to stop playing. I'm always playing hard-nosed. I'm the guy out there going 100 miles per hour."