ALLEN PARK, Michigan. — On the track, seen live on Zoom and on television for all the world to see, Dan Campbell was at the center of the stream of consciousness.
A few days earlier, he had been hired as head coach of the Detroit Lions. He spoke with a lot of emotion, thanked a lot of people and at one point joked that he was being compared to The Dude in The Big Lebowski – and Campbell looks a bit like Jeff Bridges. It lasted 90 minutes, an eternity in the world of often carefully organized press conferences.
Campbell oscillated between almost tearful and thoughtful responses. But those abs will only be remembered by one thing: the kneecaps.
If you take us down, we get up again. We’re going to bite our kneecap on the way up, right, and get back up, then two more shots to take us down, Campbell said. And on the way up, we take your second kneecap and stand up and it takes him three strikes to take us down.
If we do, we’ll get another piece of you. Soon we will be the last. That would be the mentality.
Group text messages catch fire in Texas. The same thought was passed along – message after message, thread after thread – by his old friends at Texas A&M: The world has just met Dan Campbell. And the man they saw, bleeding kneecaps, was as real as Dan Campbell.
That’s right, said Seth McKinney, a former teammate and friend of the Texas A&M team. Dan’s in his Dan nest, I’d say.
Campbell, 44, no longer has the wavy blond curls of his decade as an NFL tight end – his hair now looks more like a thick cut – and he won’t be competing anytime soon. But what Campbell did that January day was breathe immediate life into a moribund franchise that has been marked by apathy and heartbreak for the last three years and even the last six decades. Campbell understood this when he took the job and released something in one of the press conferences that eliminated Detroit.
He gave the town another reason to believe.
Campbell grew up in the middle of nowhere. Literally. He is listed as coming from Glen Rose, Texas, but he did not live in the small town, but in the depths of Texas.
You take this country road and turn right onto this other country road, said R.C. Slocum, his coach at Texas A&M. And then you turn down to another dirt road.
It wasn’t [the house] you were headed for. You should have a small map so you know how to get here.
Campbell spent his childhood herding cattle, and he had to make sure the barn was clean – really clean – before he could go out with his friends. Where he lived, Campbell said, there were four television stations. Even though it was the 80s, Bonanza, Homer Pyle and Shooter were staples of TV.
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Like a 1960 show called Daniel Boone. His older brother watched the show and said his brother was the main character because his name is Daniel and kids are kids. But the name has endured for decades.
Soon my family will just call me Boone, Campbell said. Everyone in my family. The good thing is that I always knew I had issues with Mom and Dad. If they called me Daniel, I knew I was in trouble, because they always called me Boone.
To this day, Campbell has stated that in his family and hometown he is not Dan, Daniel or Campbell. It’s Boone.
Many of the values Campbell brings with him to Detroit, he learned on the ranch. His mother, Betty, taught him patience and passion. His father Larry was in the Navy and taught him that hard work and humility can pay off.
Before school, Campbell got up to feed the horses and cattle. On the weekends he helped his father load hay bales, bring them to the barn, unload them and stack them. Campbell checked vaccinations and administered medication to the cattle to make sure they were free of fleas and ticks.
They recognize its value, Campbell said. Let’s hope it’s quality work. It’s not about going in and doing a sloppy job. When I ask you to do something, you’re proud of it and you do it.
As a player, Dan Campbell had a fierce appearance that emphasized his desire to control and dominate the opponent. Otto Greyle Jr./Getty Images
When he went home for spring break, he had learned a lot. His A&M teammate, Steve McKinney, saw him pushing calves through the slide on another morning.
One down. Campbell ran to the action as if he were in a pasture and caught a small calf, about 250 pounds, which jumped over the fence onto a neighbor’s property and brought it onto his land.
I pushed on the parachute lever and didn’t pull it in time and it came loose, Steve McKinney said. Dan literally jumped on her and sent her to the ground. It was, I am: Man, this guy is really good at this.
He was a real cowboy, a real one.
Don’t put Campbell in a 10-gallon hat with a flannel shirt. He was a cowboy in a T-shirt, doing what he had to do to get the job done.
Growing up on the ranch, Campbell learned more and more about football. At the end of the workday, Campbell’s dad made sure he had a football in the trunk of his truck.
The sun is setting, we’re in the middle of the pasture and he’s throwing me a ball, Campbell said, choking up. These are the things you remember. And that means something to you.
When Campbell went from his ranch to college, he went from Boone to Dan. Everything else remained the same. At Texas A&M, he made friends quickly: Steve McKinney and Hunter Goodwin. In his second year, he found a group of people to attend and a path to follow.
Four football players share a three-bedroom apartment to afford college. They are rarely home, and when they are, they play dominoes or Campbell amuses himself with what Goodwin calls a weird Jim Carrey imitation. Rent and utilities cost about $600 a month, according to Goodwin.
One summer we had a house, there were four of us, we shared a room, a very small room, says Steve McKinney. We each had two single beds. We could literally shake hands and congratulate each other. We were so close.
While Campbell lived frugally off the field, he thrived on the field. Campbell was never supposed to be a great pass catcher, but that’s okay. He was… still is… a player who loved the subtleties of blocking, a small move to create a hole that triggers a big play.
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His college and NFL teammates liked him. They could see how hard he worked, at least when they kept him busy with the huge jars of cherry pepper and mayonnaise and the giant bags of spaghetti he brought from home to school.
He was a strong man who could also inspire by his actions. Similarly, a football player practices in the middle of the day in the Texas summer heat to be as prepared as possible, even if it means the occasional full-body cramp during training camp. After his senior year, he received the Aggie Heart Award, given by the players to a teammate who gave his all every day.
He was a vocal leader, Slocum said. He didn’t bite his kneecaps, I don’t know where that came from. He was one of those guys who knocked people out and then stayed. He was a tough player.
The job crowned Campbell’s final year as captain of one of A&M’s best teams, and Campbell caught a fake field goal, a play that is still noticeable in Slocum decades later. Slocum added a fake this week, telling Campbell that if they do well against Texas Tech, he’ll be wide open.
Dan Campbell returns to Detroit, a city he knows well and where he enjoyed three exciting seasons from 2006 to 2008. Todd Kirkland/Sportswire Icon
You practiced once. Maybe twice. Then came the match. Campbell’s neighbor, kicker Shane Lechler, caught a pass. Campbell was wide open for a touchdown, which helped the Aggies outscore their opponent. It’s a play that Campbell remembers: A bone for a blocker like him.
Campbell was instrumental in Texas A&M winning the Big 12 in 1998 and making it to the Sugar Bowl, where it lost to Ohio State 24-14, Campbell’s last college game. Even in this emotional moment, he took charge.
He sat next to quarterback Randy McCown on the bus as he left the Superdome, the place where he coached New Orleans two decades later. Mack and DC have been neighbors down the street all year. McCown, who was injured, did not play in the game. But McCown was the future of A&M. They talked about leadership and succession. Like it was McCown’s team that is now supporting the race.
That was good, Mac, don’t let him… Finn, don’t let it finish him, McCown said. I sound like Dan now. Don’t let it stop, let’s keep building it.
It was kind of a big brother, little brother moment, but at the same time, like: Okay, man, my trip is over, but you gotta move on.
Campbell played 10 NFL seasons for three teams and played his final season with the New Orleans Saints in 2009, which ended with an injury before he had even started. The question is whether Campbell wanted to be a coach.
He had a long conversation with Goodwin, his former teammate and still one of his best friends, about his career path. Goodwin advised Campbell to focus on coaches who didn’t need the money – Campbell made more than $13 million in his career, according to Spotrak – but wanted the opportunity to learn.
He contacted Mike Sherman, A&M’s head coach at the time, and volunteered in the spring. He then landed with the Dolphins as an intern before becoming Miami’s tight ends coach in 2011 and interim head coach for 12 games in 2015.
Campbell learned on the job and imported the lessons of Bill Parcell and Slocum to develop his own style. Slocum has always talked to his players about discipline and structure, values he believes will apply to their lives after football.
This is a smart game. It’s about never hurting yourself. Don’t get me wrong. Let the team you’re playing against fight themselves. That was the most important thing, Campbell said. We’re not going to pass the ball. We will not be the ones to make a personal mistake at the most inopportune time. We will not be undisciplined.
What’s the situation in the game? Oh man, we have no idea what we’re doing and guys run around, the clock runs out and we lose the game. We were ready for anything.
Campbell’s X-and-O philosophy can evolve. These principles and his passion have remained unchanged.
Dan Campbell got his first taste of the head coaching role during his tenure as interim coach after the Dolphins fired Joe Philbin in 2015. Andrew Inside/USA Sports Today
After playing 12 games in Miami, where he was not permanently committed, Campbell went to New Orleans. He became an assistant to head coach Sean Payton and continued to work with the tight ends. It is here, at the drill site, that his personality and creativity emerge.
Coby Fleener will never forget how he coached, or more specifically, what he did when he coached. It was the usual blocking drills that every team tries to do.
Instead of using a blocking dummy or a low-level assistant or equipment man, Campbell did what only a former player could do. He tensed his shoulders and turned into a defender when his teammates tried to block.
He was ready to take the hit, and he’s big and strong enough to take it, Fliner said. But it’s also impressive that he didn’t shove the responsibility onto someone else. Campbell sprung up when asked about it – first about his former player, he raised his voice and called Fleener’s name as if he had just walked into the room. He wasn’t angry. He was drugged.
If it seems like someone missed the game by taking another chance to take the pads off, they didn’t. Campbell got serious and explained that it had nothing to do with his game. It was a strategy of understanding. To get a better view of the players he was trying to teach and coach.
I’m sure it’s seen as Oh, you think you’re a bad guy. That’s the only reason I wore shoulder pads, because when you play offense, especially offensive line and tight ends, and really receivers, there’s an art to working with receivers, Campbell said. It literally depends on your hands and where you put them. And that’s what I call a steering wheel, right? So when you put these pads on, they should be here, on the side, there, by your armpit.
When you hit and catch, you come under the shoulder guard and the way I felt you had to teach, but I also wanted to feel their strength and power and so it was a double throw. Actually, I was a blocking dummy, that’s all.
Campbell was always looking for innovative ways to learn and was open to suggestions. If a player had an idea, Fleener said he would try. If it had worked? That’s great. What if I don’t? At least we listened to him. Campbell was not arrogant. It was all about positivity and learning how to coach each player. The expectations were the same. The approaches were different.
Fleener said he has seen many coaches from the player’s perspective, and he has seen many coaches from the coach’s perspective. When I see how other coaches work, I think he has a broad understanding of how coaches talk to players.
All his experience led him to January. He surprised the Lions by applying for a job he so desperately wanted. He did… and before it was announced, he wrote Slocum to thank him for everything.
Playing for R.C. Slocum will always mean something in football, Slocum said Campbell wrote him. People immediately think we are smart, strong, competitive and trustworthy. Everything you are, you’ve passed on to us. I’m more than proud to have played for you, coach.
Dan Campbell says his Lions players will fight for their positions and give nothing away. Detroit Lions via AP
Forget the bragging and listen to Campbell’s entire first press conference – these are the messages he’s trying to get across. The ones he learned from his father and coaches, and his own attitude as a player.
Yes, he had a viral moment that will be remembered as long as he coaches Detroit. Some fans and media called him a butcher based on 90 seconds of 90 minutes instead of listening to the whole thing. His friends saw it too.
Goodwin sent him a message reminding him what he had done to get to this point and that no matter what others say, he remains true to the man he is.
Then, don’t let the outside world change you, because that’s what you are, a text reader. People will love you or hate you, but don’t change. Don’t try to be something you’re not.
Campbell’s got it. That’s why the Lions hired him. Detroit knew they wouldn’t get a business coach. They had a man who was maybe a little rougher, a little tougher. Someone who wore her competitiveness openly and had no problem showing it to the world. Someone a little different, which could be exactly what the Detroit Lions need.
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