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‘It was like love at first sight’: Six stories that explain Lions coach Dan Campbell

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‘It was like love at first sight’: Six stories that explain Lions coach Dan Campbell

ALLEN PARK, Mich. — A familiar face was reintroduced to the Detroit sports community Jan. 21, 2021.

And he could hardly contain his excitement.

On this rare occasion, Dan Campbell eschewed any team-issued gear for a dark suit while addressing reporters for the first time, via Zoom from the broadcast room of the Detroit Lions‘ Allen Park practice facility, as the newly installed head coach.

During an hourlong introductory news conference, the 6-foot-5 former Lions tight end assured everyone of how badly he wanted the job while expressing his vision for the franchise in addition to displaying his candor and, at times, humor.

In Detroit, that fiery message would become known as the “kneecaps” speech.

It was an instant classic among fans, and created a long-lasting impression that has remained attached to him throughout a rough start to his Lions coaching tenure.

“So, this team is going to be built on, we’re going to kick you in the teeth, right? And when you punch us back, we’re going to smile at you,” Campbell told reporters. “And when you knock us down we’re going to get up and, on the way up, we’re going to bite a kneecap off. All right?”

Viewed through the lens of his viral video clips and off-the-cuff media encounters, initial impressions about Campbell centered on his passion and personality. To those who know him best, there is much more. He’s the son of cattle ranchers who became one of the most competitive athletes his college coach at Texas A&M has ever seen; an unlikely source of inspiration and mentorship to fellow coaches, including one of the NFL’s best and brightest; a compassionate and fiercely loyal leader to his players; and, yes, a guy who — depending on whom you ask — tossed chairs around the room when demonstrating blocking schemes during a job interview.

“He’s twice as smart as anyone gives him credit for because of the way he looks, which is badass personified,” said Ken Rodgers, lead creative producer of HBO’s “Hard Knocks,” which spotlighted Campbell and the Lions during training camp. “He has the look of physical dominance, but when you see him at work, you understand that the amount of brainpower that is put into his job is more impressive than anyone could imagine.”

The role of a head coach is tough enough, and when you are rewiring the culture of a losing organization, it becomes that much harder. But things appear to be turning around in Detroit, which hasn’t won more than six games since 2017. After starting the season 1-6, the Lions have won five of their past six, sit in second place in the NFC North and have emerged as an unlikely playoff contender. But through the downs and the ups, Campbell has remained true to who he is.

What is Campbell really like? These are stories that shed more light.


‘I want him on my team’

TEXAS OR TEXAS A&M.

Those were Campbell’s final two choices as he mulled his college decision.

When Campbell invited then-Texas A&M coach R.C. Slocum to his home for a recruiting visit, they first met up at Campbell’s Glen Rose (Texas) High School — a location easier for the coach to find than the Campbell family’s tucked-away house.

“I lived in the middle of nowhere,” Campbell explained. “And he had to follow me home, actually, because I could give him instructions but it’s like you’ve got to turn down this dirt road, there’s this road, there’s this landmark.”

Slocum trailed Campbell on a 30-minute trek to his house on a cattle ranch near Morgan, Texas, which has a population of fewer than 500 people. It was there where he was introduced to Campbell’s parents, Larry and Betty.

A couple of weeks prior, a University of Texas recruiter made a big mistake, which likely cost him the future NFL player.

“When we get out, my mom and dad come out. My dad, he’s a cowboy, we raise cattle and all this, so the guy is like, ‘Man, I’ve never in my life seen a black deer before.’ And my dad’s like, ‘Aw, he doesn’t even know it’s a Spanish goat,'” Campbell recalled. “So, that was already a turnoff. He’s coming from Austin, first of all, and it’s the big city and all this stuff.”

Slocum didn’t have the same confusion.

“Needless to say, when R.C. came in two weeks later, he’s like, ‘Woah, those are some pretty goats you’ve got down in the creek bed,'” Campbell said. “I’m like, ‘they’re not ours,’ they were the neighbors, but my dad’s like, ‘See, he knows it’s a goat.’ Anyway, just stupid stuff, but A&M fit me better.”

“He has the look of physical dominance, but when you see him at work, you understand that the amount of brainpower that is put into his job is more impressive than anyone could imagine.” lead creative producer of HBO’s Hard Knocks Ken Rodgers

That insight left a big impression on the Campbell family, as Dan would go on to become a four-year letterman for the Aggies from 1995 to ’98, which ultimately helped him get selected as a third-round pick in the 1999 NFL draft by the New York Giants. Campbell thanked Slocum for being one of his biggest influences during his introductory news conference in Detroit.

“You could tell he was so wound up and just a great person,” Slocum said. “But you could tell he was wound up tight, very competitive, and I said that night it was like love at first sight. I said, ‘I want him on my team.’

“And what you’re seeing right now, that same competitiveness, the emotion that he had, he was a good athlete, he was a big, strong and tough guy, but he wasn’t like just a tremendous athlete, but there’s never been anybody more competitive than he was, and he was a great player because of it.”


‘[He] walks in the door like this gift from God’

A LONG-HAIRED Campbell returned to College Station, Texas, in a trailer home during the spring of 2010. Recently retired as a player from the NFL following a long career with the Giants, Cowboys and Lions, he was in search of a new path.

He temporarily had his wife, Holly, and two kids, Cody, and Piper, stay at home in Dallas to take advantage of his first coaching opportunity, as a volunteer at Texas A&M.

“He just called me and asked would it be possible for him to come down and watch practice, and maybe if we let him do some coaching?” said Mike Sherman, who was then the head coach at A&M. “And I said, ‘Well the coaching part is a challenge with the NCAA, we can’t break that rule but, yeah, you can come down and watch practice and sit in our meetings at nighttime to talk to the coaches,’ and he did. And he was very good at it.”

For three weeks, Campbell lived in a nearby RV park roughly 10 minutes from campus. Although Sherman didn’t ask many questions about his specific whereabouts, word quickly got around the program about how he was living.

“It was really nicer than you would imagine,” Campbell said. “I know what you could see in your head, especially with my long hair and everything, but I had a little gas stove, I had a little shower, I had a little bed. I did have satellite TV, so it wasn’t like I was really roughing it or anything, but if I had no family, I’d be living in a RV. It’s cheap. You’ve got everything you need and it’s easy to clean.”

Although his role at Texas A&M was limited to observing practices from the sidelines, per NCAA guidelines, he would collaborate closely with graduate assistant and future Cincinnati Bengals coach Zac Taylor. Campbell assisted Taylor as he transitioned into becoming the tight ends coach with the Aggies.

“He shows up the first day I’m supposed to coach tight ends,” Taylor said. “This guy who had just retired after playing [10] years in the league … and walks in the door like this gift from God to coach me up to help me coach these tight ends, so he spent the entire spring with me at A&M,” Taylor said. “… [He’d] just come and kind of educate me on tight end play, protections and run game.”

“You could tell he was so wound up and just a great person. But you could tell he was wound up tight, very competitive, and I said that night, it was like love at first sight.” former Texas A&M coach R.C. Slocum

That experience led to Campbell officially entering the coaching ranks as an intern with the Miami Dolphins later that year. He would earn a spot as Miami’s tight ends coach and later as the interim head coach in 2015. Taylor joined him on the Miami staff in 2012 and was Campbell’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach in 2015. Sherman, meanwhile, worked as Miami’s offensive coordinator from 2012 to 2013.

Taylor said the Dolphins players believed in everything Campbell asked them to do, although some of it was unorthodox. He still uses some of those methods with the Bengals, who advanced to their first Super Bowl berth in 33 years in Taylor’s third season.

“We did tug-of-war in the middle of practice. We did all sorts of competitions that just livened things up and kind of broke the norm up. … Guys really rallied around that and played really effectively,” Taylor said. “It was just a different event every day that was going to pop up in the middle of practice, and I’ve taken that here [in Cincinnati] because of what Dan did there.

“Now, we don’t do tug-of-war, we do more like one-on-ones with receiver, DBs, scout team guys, but really it was taken from Dan’s kind of philosophy of let’s throw a wrench in the middle of practice and not just go from period to period,” he added. “Let’s do something where all the attention is on two guys, and I’ve taken that. We do that here for that reason.”


‘It was an entertaining interview’

NEW YORK GIANTS coach Brian Daboll loves to share the story of his first encounter with Campbell.

It was 2011. Dolphins coach Tony Sparano approached Daboll, who was then the team’s offensive coordinator, about interviewing Campbell, who was looking to join the coaching staff after being an intern the year before.

“‘Hey, I got this guy that I think would be good,'” Daboll said Sparano told him. “‘Why don’t we interview him? You take care of the interview.'”

As they met, Campbell couldn’t hide his energy as he excitedly demonstrated blocking drills with the chairs around the room, huffing and puffing along the way.

“He’s slamming chairs on the ground and hitting walls and going through all these drills,” Daboll said. “You guys know him; he’s a fantastic person, great family. It was an entertaining interview. [He] knew a lot. Obviously, he was very passionate, tough as nails, you could tell. He was out of breath in half that interview with the stuff he was doing.”

Ultimately, the Dolphins hired Campbell to coach the tight ends.

“And he was there the next day at 5:30 [a.m.] power cleaning and squatting,” Daboll said.

Now, every time Daboll sees Campbell, he loves to bring up that story. The Lions coach claims he didn’t throw a chair and the story has been “definitely exaggerated” over the years, but he didn’t deny that he demonstrated blocking with the chairs. He also confirmed he was sweating and out of breath after the interview.

“Running routes, blocking, everything,” Campbell said. “It was an hour of technique work, talking through things, then he’d give me scenarios and ‘how do you handle this? What do you do on this coverage? What if it’s this front? What if you’ — so I just did the whole thing. That was the best way for me to go through it all.”


‘You’re thinking about cutting your what?!’

AS AN AFRICAN AMERICAN looking to enter the coaching ranks, former NFL linebacker Kelvin Sheppard was conscious of his appearance. After some research, he realized not many Black coaches were rocking tattoos and dreadlocks, like he was, across the league. Sheppard thought he had to change his look to be accepted.

“I reached out to Dan from that point of view and he’s like, ‘You’re thinking about cutting your what?! Are you crazy?! First of all, I love your hair,'” Sheppard said. “And then he’s like, ‘But seriously Shep, if I’m hiring you, if anybody’s hiring you, they’re hiring you because of you. You got those calls because of who you are, not because of somebody you’re trying to become.’ And that resonated with me.”

That initial conversation with Campbell took place in 2020, right before Sheppard joined LSU’s football program as its director of player development. When Campbell accepted the Lions position in 2021, he hired Sheppard on his staff to coach the linebackers. During the hiring process in Detroit, Sheppard still wondered if his appearance would hold his career back. Campbell again buried the topic, telling him he wasn’t cutting his hair.

“…if we’re gonna get hung up on the way somebody looks, we’ve got issues.” Dan Campbell

“At the end of the day, it gave me that confidence. This was a man who I highly respected, highly regard as one of the best coaches in the NFL telling me, ‘Are you crazy? What are you talking about right now?'” Sheppard said. “‘You’re being hired and being considered because you’re you.’ And that just resonated with me and I try to carry that down to my players as well because you deal with things in society, in and outside of a football facility where the facts are the facts.

“People can hide it, but it’s real so you might as well say it.”

Campbell’s relationship with Sheppard dates back to 2014 in Miami, when Campbell was on the coaching staff and Sheppard was a player. Their friendship continued when Sheppard left the Dolphins in free agency and entered retirement.

In 2018, when Sheppard was considering the options available to him once his playing career was over, Campbell was on the short list of people he reached out to. And his message remains the same to this day: Look the way you want to look.

“I felt like it was important to say, ‘Man, if you want to look that way, you should look that way,’ because ultimately, especially in our business, you know what matters? It’s the way you coach. It’s the way you coach and the way you communicate,” Campbell said, lightly beating his hands on the table for emphasis. “Not the way your freakin’ hair looks. And so, that’s why it was important to me because if we’re going to get hung up on the way somebody looks, we’ve got issues.”


‘He showed his considerate side’

LIONS RUNNING BACK Jamaal Williams is often in a jovial mood. He can be spotted dancing, cracking jokes and bringing good energy to practices and games.

But that positive spirit wasn’t on display during a Lions OTA workout in late May. And he couldn’t hide it.

“This offseason, I just dealt with a lot of family deaths, and when I was going through a lot, I was trying to be here for the team and do everything, but at the same time I was hurting and I didn’t know how to really handle my mental at the moment, so I was going through a lot,” Williams said.

Williams could no longer compartmentalize the trio of deaths that were affecting him.

He was mourning the deaths of ex-teammate Aaron Jones‘ father, Alvin Sr.; his own father, Larry Williams; and his 92-year-old great-grandmother, Alton Smith. On this particular day, he couldn’t fully focus on football.

As the team was practicing, Campbell pulled him to the side to see what was going on. Williams couldn’t contain his emotions. “You could feel something was off, and it was almost like he was trying to fight through it, and you could see it. So, I just asked him how he was doing, and he broke down,” Campbell said. “So, I knew right there, it’s like, ‘Man, this is not some normal thing. How can we help?'”

In addition to sharing words of encouragement, Campbell sent Williams home for the day.

“Because all of us need a little help,” Campbell said, “and I think more than anything, that’s what it was about, was I just wanted to be there or help him in any way that I could and even if it meant, ‘Hey, why don’t you go home and just take a load off and reflect and do whatever you need to do, but make sure you stay in contact with us, just so we’ll all know that everything is all right,’ and we did that.”

The moment in the offseason with Campbell isn’t something he takes for granted.

“He could’ve been an a–hole and said, ‘Everybody’s going through something, go back out there and practice and get through it,’ but instead he showed his considerate side and heart by saying, ‘We know you’re hurting, we know what you can do, but at the same time you don’t need to be here right now if your mental isn’t right,'” Williams said. “He gave me just the time to get away from football real quick to get myself and reflect for myself and just be ready for the team.

“I feel like my mental space is so much clearer now and knowing that I’m safe to tell my head coach that something’s wrong and he’ll really consider it and understand from a player’s perspective.”


‘He wears his emotions on his sleeve’

FRESH OFF A heartbreaking Week 5 loss at the Minnesota Vikings in 2021, Campbell stood at the postgame podium with tears in his eyes.

Earlier, Vikings kicker Greg Joseph had kicked a game-winning field goal as time expired to hand Campbell’s Lions a fifth straight loss. It was the second game-winning kick on which Detroit had lost in three weeks. Two games prior, Baltimore Ravens kicker Justin Tucker booted an NFL-record 66-yarder to beat the Lions — a kick that compounded the misery by bouncing off the crossbar before going in.

Even through the adversity, Campbell received support across the league. Among those were former New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees, who developed a close bond with Campbell during his 2016-20 stint as assistant head coach and tight ends coach with the Saints.

“He shot a text to me just talking about how impressive it was. It was like, ‘My god, man, those guys are fighting — those guys are not giving up, they’re fighting.’ He goes, ‘You guys are close.’ And he doesn’t send me a text every week,” Campbell explained. “I know him well and we’re friends, but I know if he’s sending me something it’s because it means something, so that’s why it kind of spoke volumes.”

Detroit had dropped to 0-5 for first time since 2015, reminding fans of the 2008 squad that infamously finished 0-16 — which Campbell experienced as a player.

“I know, I know. And look, nothing I’m going to tell them is going to make them feel any better,” Campbell said during his news conference. “All I can do is try to prove it, show it, and — not me, us, all of us, staff, players. Look, everybody is frustrated.”

For the players, that day meant something.

“It shows that he cares,” Lions running back D’Andre Swift said following the Vikings loss. “That it means something to him, as well as us as players. We’ve just got to find a way to capitalize and finish games and get a win. I mean we knew what type of coach that Coach Campbell was when he got here … really high energy with passion about his job. Like, he wants to win.”

Lions safety Tracy Walker agreed that “he wears his emotions on his sleeve.”

Campbell’s public display of emotion was not only an eye-opener to the Lions organization, but also those across the league, proving he was serious about changing the culture in Detroit.

“They lost a game with no time left on the longest field goal in the history of the NFL that hit the crossbar and bounced over,” former Saints coach Sean Payton said. “I mean, they’ve lost some tough games. And one of the challenges when you’re a first-time coach is you implement a certain way of doing things, and early on whenever there’s change, there’s an initial buy-in.

“It’s important to pull a withdrawal out at some point. And I’m sure he and all of those guys feel a little bit frustrated. But there’s never been a more competitive, more caring person.”

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