by Ken Kleppel
Try as you might, not even the worst of days can crack senior Darrell Campbell’s giant smile and amiable nature.
Not the stress of two-a-day workouts or the academic rigors of a dual major. Win or lose, rain or shine, Campbell is faithfully himself.
Although his massive 6-4 and nearly 300-pound frame demands complexity, his desire to serve as the model Notre Dame student-athlete represents the most simple and truest of convictions.
“I’m a big kid,” says Campbell. “I like to have fun.”
But while immaturity and a lack of responsibility are characteristics generally associated with children, Campbell embodies maturity and responsibility in all that he does.
With the grace of a 10-year old, he can play football and kickball against the children of There are Children Here, a child safety house just south of South Bend.
Displaying the resolute tenor of a preacher, as well as the ability to pique the interest of an attentive crowd, he speaks to the children at the Pediatric Center of Saint Joseph’s Memorial Hospital, or presents his role as student-athlete to a class of ambitious Notre Dame Law School students.
With all the force and might of a laborer under the steady sun of the summer months, he constructs a house for Habitat for Humanity to allow a disadvantaged family in the South Bend area the opportunity to label a residence its home.
Despite the complex, analytical mind of a computer expert he can speak and write with the delicate prose of a master poet.
He has memorized the lines from his beloved cartoon DragonBall Z to the Dao of Jeet Kune Do.
Entering their fifth season together, perhaps senior linebacker Courtney Watson best understands these sharp contrasts in personality.
“He is a very adult person but his habits are things that people wouldn’t expect a 22-year-old, fifth-year tackle at the University of Notre Dame to be particularly interested in,” laughs Watson.
“He could sit down and have a very convincing conversation with an eight-year old about cartoons.”
For all the density in his large frame, a certain sense of balance defines Campbell. That is, a feeling of peace with his person, his surroundings and his well-rooted niche as a member of the Notre Dame family.
And the most tangible symbol of this poise which balances the brute force of an interior defensive lineman and the docile nature of one of the University’s most beloved ambassadors?
An accomplished poet who hopes to one day publish his writing, Campbell first discovered the art of poetry as a way to cope with problems he dealt with as a youngster in an environment which he describes as not conducive for childhood growth.
“There really wasn’t a way out for me except through the church. My mom got me to the church and I finally had my own outlet,” says Campbell.
“Before football, it was poetry. It didn’t start out as poetry, but rather as whatever would come to my mind that I could vent out on paper. Instead of hitting something and being destructive, I got a pen and paper, and just wrote until I was tired.”
What was once this outlet for growth has become much more than a passing fancy. While the majority of his poems and short stories detail God and religion and life, his works often appear as visual reminders to his teammates, albeit taped to the brick walls of the Notre Dame lockerroom or to the hallways of the team residence during fall camp.
“The way he is able to construct words and put them together makes you able to imagine things in your mind,” says Watson.
“It is a great compliment to him and his creative abilities.”
I use no way as way Having no limitation as limitation My power is absolute.
“In two-a-days things get hard and bogged down, your head is in the ground,” says Campbell.
“I wrote this so the younger guys could walk past it and have something to inspire them and keep on going. That way you keep your head-up, read it and take something with you.”
Campbell, however, has never found lack of energy to be a problem. From the first day of workouts as a freshman, Campbell put on display his irreproachable work ethic and energetic innocence. No task was too routine, no drill too commonplace for Campbell to linger near the end of the group. The first in line for everything, Campbell made an immediate impression on the Irish coaching staff and his teammates, even on roommate and close friend senior defensive tackle Cedric Hilliard.
“I would wake up in the middle of the night and find Darrell sitting in his bed, wide awake and ready to begin another day,” says Hilliard.
“He’s got it at midnight, he’s got it at 6:00 a.m.”
Campbell also reflects on his brief poem when talking about his best friend Jonathan Sanders, who serves as a tremendous source of inspiration for him. Although inflicted with cerebral palsy, Sanders has motivated Campbell over the past five seasons in much the same manner that Campbell has inspired Sanders.
“He basically taught me that cerebral palsy is a blessing,” says Sanders.
“Everyone has their problems. He’s said that is what makes you human, that is what makes you grounded. Darrell taught me that when you get down and you think you’re at a disadvantage, you’re not. He told me that because I have had to work for things, I can appreciate it a lot more. It’s almost like he has recited one of his poems for me.”
Graduating from Notre Dame in August of 2001, Sanders currently lives and works in Detroit.
“He’s one of my best friends, like my brother,” Campbell says.
“All he ever wanted to do was to come out of that tunnel and play but he couldn’t because of his illness.”
As part of an amazing act of kindness, Campbell gave his only varsity jacket to Sanders after earning his first monogram as a sophomore. Without any solicitation, Campbell walked with Sanders to the equipment room of the Joyce Center and simply gave Sanders the jacket-one that was already fitted in Sanders’ size.
“It is totally without any thought of getting anything back,” says Sanders.
“It shows how giving and how selfless he is. His mom makes me tell the story to her every time I talk to her. Coming from where he is from and living a hard life like he has lived, it is easy to expect the world owes you something. He doesn’t do that though. He is truly a wonderful person.”
For Campbell, Sanders puts everything into its proper perspective.
“Everyday is a blessing to get up, to be a part of the team, to be able to come out here and have full control over mind and body,” says Campbell.
“So many people in the world don’t have that, the facility to be able to carry themselves around like I do, being able to run and walk.”
Before I put on my pads, I ask myself one question: ‘Am I worthy to wear this jersey?’
YES I AM.
Yes, he is.
A fifth-year senior and three-time monogram winner, Campbell is in his third-season as the starting defensive tackle after making the transition from the defensive end position prior to the start of the 2000 season. A starter at defensive tackle in all 13 games for the Irish in 2002, Campbell served as team captain against Michigan and Boston College. His 24 career starts are tops among the entire roster.
“I get to put on a jersey that I know somebody else wore and went through the same things I’m going through, if not worse, and came out on top,” says Campbell.
“Notre Dame is heaven because the transformation into becoming a man is so uplifting that you can feel it, and when it finally happens to you, it’s just like heaven.”
Campbell became the first member of his family to attend college when he enrolled in Notre Dame in 1999. Four years later, he graduated from the College of Arts and Letters with a dual degree in computer applications and English. Today, each of Campbell’s cousins excels in school and hopes to attend college.
“To see Darrell become the man he is and the football player he is, is really what coaching here is all about,” adds defensive line coach Greg Mattison.
The true warrior enters the arena with all his powers at the ready.
Slowly but surely, those before him have come, played, and graduated. At team meetings a row, or more, of seats no longer separates Campbell and his fellow fifth-year seniors from the rest of the squad.
“There is nobody to look in front for me to think ‘I’ve still got more time here,'” says Campbell.
“You eventually move up to the front and you only have one more shot.”
Citing his role with the Irish as one that gives back to the younger classes, Campbell ensures that his teammates become leaders in every facet of their Notre Dame experience-from the field of play to the classroom of study to even the refuge of worship.
“Leaders come in different shapes, sizes and forms,” says Campbell.
“You have quiet leaders and ones that go by example, the ones you don’t even see but you know that they are leaders because, maybe, after the fact you see what they’ve done and what they’ve contributed to. At the end of the day, you think, ‘how did this happen.’ That person was there and leading and you never even knew it.”
The same can be said of Campbell.
The work of many former student-athletes in the South Bend community has been well-documented. But at their side has stood Campbell. Others would be recognized with university awards for charity.
The media bestowed great praise upon many members of the Notre Dame defense as part of its well-chronicled Return to Glory in 2002. But despite starting all 13 games for the Irish and laboring in the trenches, Campbell’s name was rarely mentioned in the headline or as a feature story.
Like the leader that has always been there but rarely acknowledged, Campbell has always led by example for his teammates. The only twist is that while his teammates have recognized this, others are just beginning to discover it.
“He came here as Darrell and he is going to leave here as Darrell,” says senior free safety Glenn Earl.
“He is his own person. Darrell is unlike anyone you’ll ever meet. He taught me to be who you want to be and to not really worry about what the world thinks. You realize it is alright to be you.”
So go ahead and do your best to change him, but there is only one Darrell Campbell.
Ask area South Bend youth, ask Habitat for Humanity, ask his peers at Fisher Hall and in the Notre Dame lockerroom, ask his parents and ask his cousins. But most of all ask his best friend Jonathan Sanders.
“I love him like a brother and I consider him part of my family,” says Sanders.
“His innocence keeps him grounded. He is destined to do something great.” In the end, his good works through others serve as testament to who Campbell is as a person.
“The key is to just have faith in yourself,” says Campbell.
“If you’re a spiritual person, keep faith first in God and the sky will be the limit. Focus on that and everything else will fall into place.”
Take your time and look around you for just one moment, Darrell. For you, it has already fallen into place.