During his days as Notre Dame’s starting defensive tackle from 2001-03, Darrell Campbell often was overshadowed by the likes of Anthony Weaver and Justin Tuck – second- and third-round draft picks respectively.
The 6-foot-4, 296-pounder from South Holland, Ill., was a significant contributor in his own right, combining for eight sacks and 13 ½ tackles for loss his last two seasons in an Irish uniform while helping spearhead the ultra-productive 2002 defense under coordinator Kent Baer.
That defense ranked No. 9 nationally in scoring defense, No. 10 in rush defense and No. 13 in total defense for a Notre Dame team that won 10 games under head coach Tyrone Willingham – the first double-digit-winning Irish team in nine seasons.
What Campbell lacked in sheer statistics, he compensated with off-the-chart energy and enthusiasm, traits that carried over into a dogged pursuit of an NFL career and spilled into an equally resilient effort to apply his English/computer applications degrees to an internship at NFL Films.
A recent full-time addition as Graphics Producer/Editor at NFL Films, Campbell, 34, has made a game-changing contribution on NFL Matchup, an ESPN presentation and NFL Films production featuring X’s and O’s aficionados/former NFL standouts Ron Jaworski and Merrill Hoge.
“He’s about as good as it gets,” said Greg Cosell, executive producer at NFL Matchup, co-founder of NFL Matchup, and nephew of legendary sports broadcaster/journalist Howard Cosell. “He’s really, really advanced when it comes to anything that’s IT related.
“But it goes beyond just the physical ability to know which buttons to press. It goes to the creativity and the thought process and the way he sees things. He takes tremendous authorship in how he sees that show. Quite frankly, the show could not exist at the level it does without the work he’s done the last six years.”
For senior producer Paul Camarata ‘02, one of seven Notre Dame graduates currently working at NFL Films, the Darrell Campbell story had to be told to the Notre Dame community.
“Darrell Campbell has more juice than Tropicana,” Camarata said. “He’s just such a positive, inquisitive, energetic guy.
“What he’s brought to the show in terms of creativity, technical skills, and knowledge of the technology – particularly with what NFL Matchup does with graphics and computers systems – is incredible.
“I’m watching this guy, working shoulder to shoulder with him, and I’m thinking, ‘This is a guy Notre Dame football should be writing about.’ He’s such a great story.”
Notre Dame head coach Bob Davie recruited Campbell out of Thornwood High School in Illinois in 1999. After preserving a year of eligibility, Campbell served as Anthony Weaver’s backup at left tackle in Notre Dame’s 4-3 front in 2000.
When end B.J. Scott and tackle Lance Legree concluded their college stints in 2000, Weaver moved to left end, Campbell took over at tackle, Cedric Hilliard emerged at nose guard, and Grant Irons moved into the starting lineup at end in 2001.
Campbell teamed up with Hilliard on the interior of the Irish defensive line in ’02 with underrated defensive ends Ryan Roberts and Kyle Budinscak. Campbell recorded five sacks and seven tackles for loss for that great ’02 Notre Dame defense. He remained in tandem with Hilliard on the interior in ’03 – recording another three sacks -- as Justin Tuck began his ascent to stardom at right end.
“Notre Dame was the best decision I ever made,” Campbell said. “You don’t understand while you’re playing, but once you’re done playing and out of Notre Dame, you understand what it means to be a Notre Dame man.
“The university, in and of itself, prepares you how to operate within a realm of excellence in everything you do. From the camaraderie with the student body, your teammates, the overall experience of how beautiful Notre Dame is, and how you have to appreciate every moment, being a student-athlete was an incredible experience.”
For Campbell, it was about more than football. He was the first college graduate in his family, and not only the first college graduate, but a graduate of the University of Notre Dame. The magnitude of the achievement still stirs up emotion within Campbell.
“I didn’t fall in love with football until I went to Notre Dame,” Campbell said. “Honestly, I cared more about academics than I did about the game. I just wanted to be the first in my family to graduate from college.
“To me, Notre Dame was the mecca you worship. Notre Dame prepared me for what I was to encounter over the course of my football career. Coach Davie would say, ‘It’s not going to be easy. This a game for men.’ Coach Willingham created men who were ready for life once the game was over.
“You take all those things from Notre Dame when you leave and apply them to every situation. I’m blessed to have had the opportunity.”
Campbell was a mid-to-late round draft projection following the 2003 season. He signed with IMG (International Management Group), the talent representation company that normally gravitates to the bigger stars in college football.
IMG’s Ken Kramer and Tom Condon took a chance on Campbell. They saw a rising talent, due in part to Campbell’s unbridled enthusiasm and willingness to pay the price.
He went to the combine in Indianapolis, took part in the Senior Bowl, and answered every request for a workout with each NFL team that inquired. Campbell’s pre-draft profile began to shift.
“My draft stock rose,” Campbell said. “I was a hustle guy and my technique was solid, which was a direct result of Coach (Greg) Mattison at Notre Dame. I trained in Bradenton (Fla.) with Eli Manning and other guys that went on to play in the NFL. I worked out wherever (IMG) wanted me to work out.”
About a week before the ’04 draft, IMG told Campbell the Baltimore Ravens had designs on drafting him in the second or third round. The Ravens wanted to send their defensive line coach to Notre Dame for one last look at Campbell and his interior-line running mate, Hilliard.
“Everything in my body told me not to go to this workout,” Campbell recalled. “I didn’t have anything left, but if somebody tells you this is a team that could draft you in the second or third round, you go.”
So Campbell showed up at Notre Dame’s Loftus Center and went through the paces. On the second-to-last rep of the workout, he felt something pop in his knee.
“I went back to watch the film later,” Campbell said. “You could just tell by the way the knee went that it was an ACL.”
Draft day came and went a week later. Campbell’s phone remained silent.
“I watched every pick in the draft go by,” Campbell said. “I think I cried for a couple days straight.”
Campbell underwent knee surgery to repair the torn ACL and the long rehabilitation began. He was still in the immobilization stage when he received a call from the Chicago Bears.
Rex Hogan, formerly in recruiting and operations at Notre Dame, had moved on to the scouting department with the Bears. Hogan spoke highly of Campbell. When Campbell’s phone rang, there were three people on the other end of the line – Chicago head coach Lovie Smith, general manager Jerry Angelo, and ex-Bear-turned-defensive coordinator Ron Rivera.
The Bears said they had him slated as a fourth-round draft choice before the injury. How about coming to Halas Hall and rehabbing on Chicago’s dime?
So Campbell packed his bags, crawled into the back of his dad’s Dodge Durango SLT, and stretched out across the back seat – leg extended – a long way from being in the physical condition necessary to compete.
“At this point, I felt like I was totally within God’s grace and mercy,” Campbell said. “I had to ride the wheels until they came off.”
Nearly six months later, Campbell had recouped enough to warrant placement on Chicago’s physically-unable-to-perform (PUP) list. Fully recovered by the start of ’05 camp, Campbell was placed on the 53-man roster, only to be cut two days later when the Bears found an alternative at defensive tackle.
The Bears wanted Campbell to play in NFL Europe. Before he made the trip, IMG – which had cooled on Campbell after the injury – had found a suitor in Cleveland where Romeo Crennel had taken over as head coach.
Campbell’s time in Cleveland was short-lived, as it was at Tampa Bay. He did some high school coaching and put his computer applications degree to use. He bounced around to six Arena Football League franchises, and even helped the Montreal Alouettes win the Canadian Football League Grey Cup in 2009.
Campbell garnered an internship at NFL Films while still keeping his NFL flame stoked. Ron Jaworski, one of the owners of the Arena League’s Philadelphia Soul, met Campbell during his stints at NFL Films.
“It got me back to the game I love,” said Campbell of his two seasons with the Soul. “At the same time, it was in tandem with NFL Films.”
For every praiseworthy offering from NFL Films executives comes an equally gushing response from Campbell, who feels blessed to have found a niche within this passionate pursuit.
“Greg Cosell is like a beautiful mind when it comes to his wealth of knowledge and his body of work,” said Campbell of NFL Matchup’s executive producer. “His mind is ridiculous. I have to catch myself from calling him coach because he gives you a pride of authorship similar to how you would from your coach.”
Campbell watched NFL Matchup, which began in 1984, while growing up in Illinois. Originally, it was a part of Monday Night Football, featuring former New York Giants coach Allie Sherman and the late Steve Sabol -- the “founding son” of NFL Films -- whose father Ed got it all rolling in the early ‘60s.
“The graphics were dated,” said Campbell of NFL Matchup when he began working as an intern in 2011. “We provide ESPN with an X and O show, but they don’t send us graphics. I thought we could make some adjustments.”
When Cosell saw Campbell’s insight, creativity and fresh ideas as they related to the NFL Matchup graphics, he began to lean more on the rising star. The bulk of the fresh, pop-off-the-screen graphics that can now be seen on NFL Matchup are the brainchild of Campbell.
Campbell’s talent is a small part of what has endeared him to the people at NFL Films.
“In all my 36 seasons working at Films, I don’t know if I’ve ever met someone that’s as good a person as Darrell Campbell,” Cosell said. “Then you get the work part of it. The commitment to the work is absolutely remarkable, which stems from the kind of person he is.
“He understands that hard work is a part of life. Always upbeat, great personality, really smart…there’s nothing negative about him.”
Campbell has found a new love outside of playing football. It’s teaching the game of football to the masses.
“When you’re done playing football, you miss the camaraderie more than the game,” Campbell said. “That’s the stuff I get with NFL Films. Every project is a new game. You execute, you win and you have to finish like a pro. That’s a mantra at NFL Films.
“We treat it like it’s an intellectual exercise. We try to get people to understand the subtle nuances and how this chess match works. You want to put something on display that people want to watch over and over. You want to produce something they’re going to remember.”
Cosell, 59, is in the home stretch of his career at NFL Films after 36 seasons. His successor may already be intimately involved in the labor of love known as NFL Matchup.
“I can’t speak for how he sees his future, but he takes tremendous authorship in how he sees that show,” Cosell said.
Campbell’s vision is pointed in the same direction.
“The cool thing about NFL Films is it’s put together like a family,” Campbell said. “Steve Sabol would say, ‘We’re the keepers of the flame.’ I take that to heart.
“Long-term, I’d love to be a senior executive producer like Greg Cosell. I want to have that type of impact at a place where I could be revered for my knowledge and understanding of the game of football.
“I don’t know where the road will go, but God has blessed me and Notre Dame prepared me for life.”
Look out, Tropicana. Darrell Campbell is gaining ground.