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A closer look at Detroit Lions head coach Dan Campbell’s playing career

A look back at the playing career of Dan Campbell

San Francisco 49ers v Detroit Lions Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Life has always been about football for Detroit Lions head coach Dan Campbell—going all the back to when he played tailback and tight end for Glen Rose High School in a small town in Texas. A town so small that Campbell said there were no stop lights in the entire town, and there were only 6-10 kids per classroom in his high school.

It’s a wonder that Campbell even made it to the NFL, but he did. He’s made quite the career out of it, too. Today I want to do career retrospective on Dan Campbell the player and see how he got here. Let’s jump into it.

Glenn Rose and Texas A&M

While Campbell lived in a small town named Morgan, he didn’t play football there. Morgan was only offering six-on-six football at the time. so he had to travel 30 miles away to Glen Rose to play ball there. Campbell was a star athlete in every sport he played at Glen Rose and had multiple offers from several schools to play division one football. Miami wanted him pretty bad, but he chose to stay home and play for Texas A&M.

At A&M, Campbell only played special teams his freshman year. He started to play more in the offense his sophomore year before becoming one of the team’s starting tight end his junior year. That year, he helped the Aggies get to the Cotton Bowl to play against UCLA. This was his best statistical year in college. He caught 12 passes for 143 yards and two touchdowns.

In his senior year, he was a part of one of the best teams in the country. Texas A&M finished the year with an 11-3 record and a Big-12 Championship. Texas A&M went to the Sugar Bowl and lost to Ohio State, but perhaps the biggest thing that happened that year is when the Aggies beat No. 2 Nebraska in a big upset. Campbell couldn’t talk about it without tearing up when he was interviewed after the game. Give it watch, maybe you’ll cry too?

New York Giants

Campbell was invited to the 1999 NFL combine and posted some pretty good numbers. His 40-yard dash time wasn’t spectacular (4.85), but just about everything else was. Campbell’s combine gave him a RAS score of 10 out of 10. His athleticism and blocking ability is what got him drafted by the New York Giants in the third round of the 1999 NFL Draft.

While he did not play in any playoff games that year, the following season the Giants made it all the way to the Super Bowl before getting blown out by the Ravens in the championship game. The next year he became the Giants’ starting tight end. Over the next few years, Campbell would become a key cog in the Giants’ blocking scheme, helping Kerry Collins and Tiki Barber post franchise records in passing and rushing, respectively.

The Giants drafted Jeremy Shockey in 2002, and Shockey’s rise signaled the end of Campbell being the top receiving tight end for the Giants. However, it was with Shockey that Campbell’s ability to coach players started to get noticed.

“I tell you what, Jeremy Shockey will forever be in Dan’s debt because of what Dan did to get him ready to deal with off the field things,” then Giants tight end coach Mike Pope said. “He taught him how to be a pro. Dan Campbell taught him how to work, study and watch tape. He taught him a lot of little things about the players Jeremy would eventually face.”

“He’s definitely a guy to follow, someone you want to be just like,” Shockey said. “He’s a true pro in the sense that he came to work every day and just pushed me to get better. There were plenty of days when I didn’t really feel like doing the work and Dan would come up to me and say, ‘Hey, push through it, get your work done.’”

That year, Campbell recorded the only playoff catches of his career. He caught two passes for 13 yards in the Wild Card game against the 49ers. You may remember this game because the 49ers had a miracle 39-38 comeback win after scoring 25 unanswered points.

Dallas Cowboys

Campbell parted ways with the Giants after his rookie contract expired and landed with their NFC East foes, the Dallas Cowboys. At the time, the Cowboys were led by coaching legend Bill Parcells—who would go on to be one of Campbell’s biggest influences in his life.

Campbell was immediately the team’s number one tight end alongside rookie Jason Witten. Campbell helped the Cowboys make it the playoffs that season, but that would end up being the last playoff appearance of his career.

In 2004, Campbell tore ligaments in his foot, giving way to Jason Witten taking over the top tight end spot and never relinquishing it. Witten did consider Campbell to be his mentor in the early years of his career and, like Pope and Shockey, he could see that Campbell had the ability to coach.

“I think more than anything is his leadership ability,” Witten said. “He was able to find a way to get men to follow him and listen to what he said. I think that will be one of his greatest traits as a coach is to get guys to play hard. They’ll like having him lead the way, and that’s what you want your coach to do. You want a coach to lead the way and really show you what will allow you to have success.

“I was with him for three years and you could see those qualities that would make him a good coach, a good motivator and a good leader.”

Random story from his Cowboys days: Campbell had his appendix removed in 2015 after it exploded while he was on the plane ride to training camp. He was back at practice 10 days later, so he’s always been crazy.

During this time, Campbell also crossed paths with Aaron Glenn (a cornerback at the time) and Anthony Lynn (the team’s running backs coach).

Detroit Lions

Campbell signed with the Lions in 2006 and would have the best receiving year of his career in Detroit in 2006. He caught 21 passes for 308 yards and four touchdowns. This would be the last full year that Campbell would stay healthy and play a full season. He hurt his elbow and went to the IR in 2007 and then in 2008, Campbell suffered a hamstring injury in Week 1 against the Falcons. This would be his last NFL game. He caught a 21-yard pass in that game and then limped off the field afterwards.

Luckily for Campbell, he wound up missing the rest of the Lions’ infamous 0-16 season. Campbell would only play 19 games for the Lions over three years. It must have left an impression on someone, because here he is coaching the team today. I know it left an impression on him. He showed some emotion during his tour of the practice facility in Allen Park after the Lions hired him as their new head coach.

New Orleans Saints

Detroit wasn’t Campbell's last stop in the NFL. Sean Payton, who served as Campbell’s offensive coordinator with the Giants and was assistant head coach when Campbell was with the Cowboys, signed Campbell in free agency in 2009 after the Lions released him.

Unfortunately Campbell would tear his MCL in training camp and never played a game for the Saints. In an even more unfortunate part of the story for Campbell, the Saints would go on to win the Super Bowl that year and because Campbell did not play a game that year, he is not acknowledged as a Super Bowl champion and was not issued a ring. Campbell would retire after the 2009 season, and the Miami Dolphins would hire him as a coaching intern a few months later. The rest is history.

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