While Keith L. Craig was in the Army, he never thought he would make a career out of it.
“I was always doing only three more years, then getting out,” he said.
At nine-and-a-half years, Craig was stationed in Germany and lucky enough to be playing professional football at the same time, but it was finally time for him to make a decision.
Jack Elway, his head coach on the Frankfurt Galaxy, an NFL Europe team, was returning to Denver to work with the Broncos. “He reached back for a few players, and I was one of them.”
Craig had a choice to make — stay in the military or return to the U.S. to play football full-time.
“I chose to take the most secure route,” he said, as staying in the Army meant security for him and his family.
Craig said he wanted the best of both worlds — playing football in Germany while continuing as a soldier. “I still think I made the right choice.”
That decision changed the course of Craig’s life, yet led him to where he is today, managing central division sales and distribution for Walt Disney Studios and the CEO of Clever Talks, a nonprofit that teaches the skills of military and first responders to the general public through a free online library.
Craig was born in Mobile, Alabama, on Nov. 29, 1966, but spent the majority of his childhood in Yantley, Alabama.
He was big into football as a child and started playing in the city league around age 10.
“It was there that they started telling me that I had special skills,” he said. “My first recognition made me fall in love with it.”
He played on the high school team as an eighth-grader and continued through high school.
With an almost photographic memory, Craig did well in academics, as well, finishing at the top of his class.
As a senior, he started to receive multiple scholarship offers to large universities in Alabama and Mississippi, yet, at 17, he decided to forgo those offers to enlist in the Army.
“My father had left the reservation, if you will, and I wanted to take care of my mother and my sister,” he said.
Craig was sent to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, for eight weeks of basic training in August 1984.
As a seasoned football player, he knew he’d be able to handle the physical challenges, but training with his fellow soldiers got him back into the team mentality. “It’s where I needed to go to teach me more about discipline and responsibility.”
Craig had told the recruiter that he wanted to work on computers and, consequently, was assigned as a nuclear weapons specialist.
“They don’t always get you exactly what you want … but there are computers associated with nuclear weapons,” he said. “But it turns out that that was a good thing for me.”
After basic training, Craig remained at Fort Sill for an additional three months of nuclear weapons training, where they taught soldiers “about the different chemicals associated with nuclear weapons and what makes a nuke a nuke,” he said.
Though Craig never thought he was interested in science, once he got to work, he realized it came naturally.
“It felt like it was part of my mental makeup when I delved deep into it and was taught the how’s and the why’s,” he said, adding that he enjoyed learning the science behind it all. “That was kind of what motivated me and inspired me because I realized that I could be good at this.”
Craig was assigned to remain at Fort Sill after completing training and enjoyed his position once he actually got to work as a programmer in a nuclear brigade. “Your job mostly consists of a lot of rehearsal … because you can’t get this wrong.”
His unit would practice elevating the large, cone-shaped missile, running cords to safe areas, then mock launching it at just the right speed to hit the target.
“There were only a couple places we could go fire stateside,” he said, adding that they’d frequently travel to a range in White Sands, New Mexico, to fire the missiles.
While working, Craig played a number of sports on base, including basketball, flag football and track and field. Though he wasn’t able to go to college to play, he still got a taste of it. “It put me right back in my happy place.”
In 1987, he received orders to Camp Pieri, Germany, a field artillery base, doing much of the same as his former unit — rehearsal.
While there, he was able to continue playing football for the Bundesliga, now called the German Football League. Craig loved playing for the league and said it wasn’t hard for him to balance work and football because of the support he received from leadership.
“When you have good leaders in your organization, they understand that if they support what you’re interested in, that you’ll work that much harder for them,” he said. “I think great leadership is the key, and I had that.”
In 1991, he was drafted to the Frankfurt Galaxy under big names in the industry, such as Elway and general manager Oliver Luck. “There were only a few players that were ever assigned to a military contract and that were also allowed to sign a professional sport contact at the same time — and I was one of those.”
His unit released him for the season, and the team did well, finishing with an 8-2 record.
“To be able to somehow find yourself in a place where you know you should have been initially anyway, coming up through college to be in the pros, it was amazing,” he said.
Around the same time, the Army was terminating part of its nuclear weapons program, so when Craig got back, he was sent to a logistical unit at nearby Wiesbaden Army Airfield. He didn’t mind the change of pace, as his new position also fit his spirit, he said.
He continued playing in the German league, and at one point, even ended up playing for three different countries in the same season — the U.S., Germany and France. “You can say I’ve been blessed.”
Craig remained with the logistic unit until 2002, when he transferred to military intelligence. He deployed to Iraq in 2003 for a year, then again in 2005, collecting intelligence.
“We were part of the organization that collected the intel for the capture of Saddam Hussein,” he said.
Craig loved Germany and was able to remain there until 2006 when he went to the U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy at Fort Bliss, Texas, bringing his football career to a close after 15 years.
“It was a great learning experience,” he said regarding the academy. He had made it to the top, earning the highest enlisted rank possible, which he said was a huge honor.
Once he had graduated in 2007, he remained there two additional years as an instructor, then went on to Fort Eustis, Virginia.
“I was the support operations sergeant major,” he said. “I was the head non-commissioned officer in charge of all the logistics for the brigade.”
In 2010, when the devastating Haiti earthquake struck, the battalion commander requested Craig to join her on a six-month humanitarian assistance mission, helping to coordinate various disaster relief efforts.
“We built a city with everything from a laundromat to a mortuary and dining facility — the whole nine yards,” he said. “The mission initially was to go over there and help restore order, get the bodies off the streets … then we partnered with non-government agencies, like the World Food Programme, to feed the country.”
During that time, they were able to deliver more than 13,000 tons of rice and 17 million prepared meals to 2.98 million Haitians.
After returning back to Fort Eustis, he was deployed to Afghanistan for a year in 2011, where he served in support operations for the whole Southeast.
“I was responsible for the logistics for over 55,000 soldiers that were out there,” Craig said. “I don’t think I did anything different than anybody else — I just did my job, but my job was seen.”
It was his recognition for that position that got him sent back to Germany as sergeant major for Army and Air Force Exchange Service for Europe, Southwest Asia and Africa, serving as the liaison between leadership and the soldiers. “AAFES sent me everywhere — I ended up going to 50 countries.”
Craig finally retired from the Army after 32 years on Aug. 21, 2016, with numerous awards, including three Bronze Stars and the Legion of Merit, among others.
Leaving Europe was hard for him, as he had not only grown up there, but also spent the majority of his life there and assimilated into the culture.
“Every war, every humanitarian (effort), everything that had happened to the Army in the last 32 years, I was there,” he said. “I was in Europe when the Berlin Wall came down, I was in Iraq when Saddam Hussein was captured.”
After retiring, Craig joined Walt Disney Studios as a sales manager, becoming part of the Disney Theatrical Sales and Distribution Team that worked to release “Avengers: Endgame,” Disney’s highest-grossing film as of yet. He also became co-president of Salute, a Disney organization that provides support to veterans and their families, and was recently named CEO and president of Clever Talks.
“I’m trying to give military, veterans and first responders a platform and close the gap between them and civilians, so society and the public can understand their intent — they come from a good place,” he said.
Craig’s new mission is to remain a leader for others in his position.
“I am a wounded warrior and a disabled veteran, but there’s so much stigma associated with that,” he said, adding that, as a leader, he didn’t want to announce that at first until he realized the importance in doing so. “If you’re going to be a leader in all these spaces and be that person that is a symbol you want to follow, you also have to be honest about what you suffer from and not worry about the stigmas.”