There is no better feeling, Kelly Campbell says, than running around a track with the finish line in his sights and his competitors in his wind.
As a sprinter, he controls his own destiny. He can't follow his blocks — there are none. He can't rely on teammates — there aren't any. He can't listen to his coaches; when a race starts, their work is done.
When the gun goes off, Campbell takes off. Once he becomes the leader of the pack, the only thing that separates him from the finish line is a rapidly decreasing length of real estate. It is at that moment — which in reality flashes by quicker than the human eye can focus — when Campbell realizes why his passion for running is so intense.
"To win," Campbell says. "To not let the guy behind me catch up to me and beat me. That's why I run."
That, and the God-given, uncoachable talent of being able to take off and fly quicker than most human beings, is why Campbell has always loved playing in sports where he could use his greatest strengths.
Campbell, a Vikings wide receiver who played his first NFL game Nov. 17 against the Green Bay Packers, is a sprinter in a football uniform. If Daunte Culpepper threw him a screen, Campbell could go the distance, take a wide corner around the end zone, then come flying back the other way until he completed his 400-meter run. His only problem would be finding the ribbon at the end of the race.
What makes Campbell unique is he is a sprinter with a schedule. "Just like in any other sport, you have to have a plan," Campbell said. "Most guys in track don't have a plan. They just go out and run as fast as they can. That hurt me my first year (at Georgia Tech).
"I had to find a plan, that was the biggest thing. Once you find a plan — if you have speed and talent — you'll do well."
It was evident at an early age that Campbell possessed the speed and the talent. In high school, he was Georgia's Class 4A state champion in the 400-meter, the 4-by-400 relay and the triple jump. He was the state runner-up in the 200.
Admitting he had speed, Campbell credited his plan. "The biggest thing of being a 400 runner is you have to get ahead of everybody right away," Campbell told VU. "Than I let everyone feed off me."
Once he turned the second corner, all systems were go. "In the final 200, I just go at it," Campbell said.
As if he needed any, Campbell had additional motivation to run and win. By the time he was competing in state tournaments, he often had more college scouts watching from the stands than fans from Mays High School. It wasn't uncommon for Campbell to see more stopwatches than students in the stands.
"It was unbelievable," Campbell said. "I had a lot of scouts at track meets. Knowing that you have a lot of guys out there who were watching you, you could be nervous and try not to make a mistake or lose a race. You don't want to mess up. But once you got on that track and knew who you were going up against, all you had to do was run and win."
For Campbell, it was a simple plan.
As a child, he knew nothing but sports. Sports were even used as the bargaining chip to persuade Campbell to keep up with his schoolwork.
"She just made it short, simple and sweet," Campbell said of his mother. "In order for me to play, I had to do my homework."
He also did his share of studying the NFL. Ever since he can remember, Campbell has been a fan of pro football's biggest stars.
"Speed-wise, I watched Deion Sanders. Receivers-wise, I watched Jerry Rice," Campbell said. "I watched a lot of 49ers and Cowboys when I was growing up. From the very first time I started playing football when I was 5 years old, I dreamed of playing in the NFL."
He knew he could not get there by speed alone.
Campbell went to college at Georgia Tech and played under former Yellow Jackets head coach George O'Leary. By the time Campbell was a senior, he was regarded as one of the top receivers around the nation. As a senior, he led Georgia Tech with 56 catches for 708 yards. He was a semifinalist for the Fred Biletnikoff award. He left Georgia Tech as the only three-time All-Atlantic Coast Conference receiver in school history.
As a senior, he knew that only time was standing between his college and NFL careers.
After being told he was a top-10 receiver who would go in the 2002 draft, Campbell organized a draft party and filled his house with family and friends for the April draft weekend.
Then the rounds passed Campbell by like he used to pass competitors in the 400. Finally and frustratingly, the draft ended without Campbell ever hearing his name, without his phone ever ringing. For the first time, Campbell saw a different kind of finish line that caused more sorrow than celebration.
"To be honest with you, when I didn't get drafted, I felt like I didn't want to play football anymore," Campbell said. "I thought teams thought I didn't have the talent to make it. It really hurt. It still hurts me to know that I wasn't drafted.
"But my mom kept pushing me and told me I could do it."
Eventually, the phones would ring. Sunday night, hours after the draft concluded, Campbell's phone began to ring. NFL teams were on the other end of the line, courting the college free agent. First it was Miami and Washington. Then other teams began to call.
Campbell had decided to accept the Washington Redskins' offer. He verbally committed to sign with them, then waited for the Redskins to fax the contract.
While he was waiting for the contract, he began to reconsider. "I thought about Steve Spurrier and that he would have most of his Florida guys there. I figured my chances were better with another team," Campbell said. "Once I found out O'Leary was up in Minnesota, that's when I thought of turning Washington down."
Campbell's reasons for being a Viking were twofold. First, there was the O'Leary factor, who is now an assistant head coach and defensive line coach for the Vikings. Second, there was the "Randy Remedy."
"One of the biggest reasons for me being up here with the Vikings is I knew Randy Moss needed help," Campbell said. "Before they signed DA (Derrick Alexander) and the other receivers, I knew that coming up to Minnesota would give me a chance to play."
The Vikings added free agents D'Wayne Bates and Alexander to their roster. Campbell was inactive or on the practice squad for the first nine weeks of this season. With Cedric James injured and Alexander out for the season, Campbell saw his first NFL action against the Packers.
"It was fun. I had a lot of fun," said Campbell, who had one carry for 11 yards on the Vikings' first play of the game and one reception for 11 yards in his debut. "I was nervous. I knew that one slip-up or one mistake could cost us the game."
In his second start, Sunday in New England, he had six catches as he continues to show improvement with more opportunities.
What the Vikings like in Campbell is what endless college scouts saw when they went to Georgia to watch high school track meets.
"I think Kelly, down the stretch, will be able to give us some plays," head coach Mike Tice said. "How many? I don't know. But he'll be able to give us some."
Campbell relishes every opportunity.
"I knew at some point of the season my name would be called," Campbell said. "I knew at one point or time I'd do something in practice that would open up coaches' eyes."
As always, it is still his speed that is giving him a chance.
Favorite movie: Friday
Favorite actor: Martin Lawrence
Favorite actress: Jennifer Lopez
Favorite TV show: Martin
Favorite vehicle: Mercedes Benz
Current vehicle: Cadillac
Toughest player ever faced: Champ Bailey
If I weren't playing football: I'd be running track and training for the Olympics.
Getting To Know: WR Kelly Campbell
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