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Darrell Campbell: Finding his way

Andrew Soukup | Friday, November 14, 2003

Editor’s Note: A version of this story originally ran in the Oct. 17, 2003 edition of The Observer.

Maybe the reason Darrell Campbell rips through offensive linemen is because he’s learned to harness the rage he felt at never, ever having Darrell Campbell Sr. be a part of his life.

Maybe the reason Campbell appreciates Tyrone Willingham’s attempt to turn football players into men is because, for the longest time, he never really had one in his life.

Maybe the reason Campbell respects Willingham and position coaches Kent Baer and Greg Mattison so much is because they act as fathers to a player who never experienced a relationship with his biological one.

“Me growing up and not having my biological dad there, or him not doing the things that he was supposed to do when he was there,” Campbell shrugged, “that’s all the more testament to what a man is not.

The anger has always existed. Campbell just had to learn how to find a place to control it.

Luckily for Notre Dame, he did.

Worrisome of commitment

Campbell was three years old when his father exploded into a fit of rage, climbed into his blue Buick and drove away from his son and his wife. Since Jeannette Campbell filed for divorce 19 years ago, her son can count on one hand the number of times he’d seen his father.

That’s not to say he didn’t want to see him. Campbell often cried that he wanted to talk to his dad, not understanding why he couldn’t have a father in his life like the rest of his friends did.

“There weren’t really instances where he came through,” Campbell said. “There were only glimpses, and they only lasted for a moment in time, and then they were gone.

“For those moments, I almost had him, but at the same time, I was so far away.”

Jeannette, however, was determined to raise her son not to follow in his father’s footsteps. With a strict hand, she made sure he excelled in the classroom, treated people with respect and made sure he kept his word to others. Sports, however, came after the homework and the chores were done.

Ironically, the long hours Jeannette worked at a Chicago power plant brought the two-person family more than money. It also gave Campbell a father figure.

Jeannette married Milton McGee, whom she had met at work, in 1995 when Campbell was 12 years old. But Campbell wasn’t so accepting of his new stepfather at first. McGee couldn’t understand how important Campbell Sr. was to his stepson, and Campbell Jr. couldn’t understand how badly McGee wanted to give him the father’s love Campbell had been missing his entire life.

“What Milton did was give me the space to kind of make the determination for myself when I was growing up to know who to put my faith in,” Campbell said. “But at the same time, he stayed there and gave me everything I needed to let me know he was there.”

That was something Campbell’s biological father had never done. But Campbell didn’t understand that yet.

Relieving his frustration

Time after time, Campbell had hoped his biological father would come back into his life. Time after time, he was let down.

There was the eighth grade graduation, where the father promised his ex-wife he would show up to see his son give a welcoming speech. As Campbell stood at the podium speaking, his eyes were fixed on the rear doors to the auditorium, waiting for his father to walk in. He never did.

While Campbell inexplicably waited for his true father, McGee unwaveringly waited for Campbell.

“We were on a rollercoaster going up at that point, and it stopped because I detoured and focused on my biological father instead of focusing on him,” Campbell said. “It takes a man who really loves his son to step back and say, ‘Go ahead, do what you have to do – just know that I’m here if you need me.'”

As much as Jeannette and Milton tried to alleviate Campbell’s loss, they couldn’t.

“There was a lot of anger, a lot of animosity, a lot of hard times, hard feelings that I had to deal with,” he said.

So Campbell, a future English major, turned to writing and poetry as a way of expressing his feelings. He turned to football as a way of venting his anger.

“That was a way to relieve my frustrations on people,” Campbell grinned wickedly, “in a legal sort of way.”

He just didn’t know how good he’d be at it.

Change of plans

Two national publications named Campbell, who had emerged as a terrifying defensive force, one of the top 100 players in the nation. USA Today gave him honorable mention All-American status. He was his high school football team’s MVP for three years, qualified for the state track meet, played basketball, wrestled and even played baseball for a year.

When football recruiters tripped over themselves trying to land the highly-coveted Campbell, the choice was easy.

He picked Northwestern.

“My mom was just bleeding purple,” Campbell said, who committed to the Wildcats because of the school’s strong academic reputation. “She had purple coming out of every orifice, purple robes, purple everything.”

But his commitment didn’t deter Notre Dame or Mattison, the coach assigned to recruit Campbell.

Even though Campbell never took a visit to Notre Dame, Mattison loved everything about the talented defensive prospect. One night, he drove to watch Campbell at a wrestling meet. Before he left, he told Campbell he was making a mistake if he didn’t at least check out Notre Dame once.

“I liked the kid,” Mattison said, “and I felt in my heart that he belonged at Notre Dame.”

So Campbell drove two hours east on the Indiana Toll Road to visit Notre Dame. There, he got the royal treatment – seeing his name on an Irish uniform, wined and dined by a coaching staff begging for his services, a tour of everything Notre Dame.

But it took a conversation from someone he had never met before coming to Notre Dame to convince Campbell to play for the Irish.

“If you want to be good, go someplace else,” alumni association president Chuck Lennon told the prospect during his visit. “If you want to be great, come here.”

Coming into his own

Buoyed by his trip to Notre Dame – and the fact that Northwestern coach Gary Barnett had left the school for Colorado – Campbell changed his mind and decided to play for the Irish. His mother wasn’t happy.

“His mom is a very loving mother and taught him that he’s a man of his word,” Mattison said. “I don’t think she understood that until you sign the name is when you become attached to the university. She wanted him to go where he originally said he was going to go.”

When Mattison promised Jeannette Notre Dame had everything Northwestern had academically, Campbell’s mom started wavering. With McGee’s calming influence, she caved in and allowed Campbell to go to Notre Dame.

“She probably wasn’t convinced until the first time she came up here and saw the alumni,” Campbell said. “Up until that point, she was like, ‘Yeah, you’re making a mistake.'”

Since then, Jeannette Campbell has seen her imposing son wreak havoc on opposing offenses and graduate from the University last May with a degree in English and computer applications. In his four-year career, Campbell has started 30 of the 40 games he played in, recording 81 tackles and 11 sacks.

But Campbell knows he owes who he is now to his mom and his dad. Not his biological dad, who has pulled a disappearing act one too many times, but McGee, who Campbell always introduces as his father.

As for Darrell Campbell Sr.? Twice, he contacted his son to try to re-establish a relationship. Twice, he left phony contact information, leaving Campbell frustrated again. If his biological father called again, Campbell would talk with him, but nothing more.

No longer will Campbell chase a blue Buick. Instead, he’s hunting down quarterbacks.

“I’m older, I’m 22 years old. I’m coming into my own,” he said. “The weaning way from the childhood where the son always wanted his father to be there, it’s kinda gone.”

“He’d have the biological tag, but he wouldn’t be my father.”

It took Campbell a while, but he found plenty others who want to fill that role.