Untold tales from Lions head coach Dan Campbell’s playing career

Lions coach Dan Campbell as a player
Source: si.com | Lions coach Dan Campbell as a player

DETROIT — Dan Campbell was able to return to the field despite having a torn triceps muscle.

With a knee brace protecting his right arm, Campbell, a tight end for the Detroit Lions in his sixth NFL season, faced the Chicago Bears on Christmas Eve, 2006.

Lions quarterback Jon Kitna thought Campbell would go post-corner on the backside with less than three minutes left in the first quarter, but Campbell beat him on a corner post. After making adjustments, Kitna launched a 23-yard touchdown pass. In the rear of the end zone, an overjoyed Campbell celebrated with both arms after making the grab before being surrounded by his Lions teammates.

“I think about those times with Dan, and he just never ever complained,” remarked Kitna. “You just know there’s tough and then there’s Dan Campbell. Imagine having to wear an elbow brace and not being able to raise your arm and block people out and yet simply kicking somebody in the tail.

“Dudes who wear boots and hats are not to be trifled with in Texas, for a reason, bro. Dan is a boot and hat person, so don’t mess with them.”

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After three more seasons and just four games, Campbell’s career came to an end with the touchdown against Chicago. In spite of the fact that his career lasted longer than most, his final stats—11 seasons, 114 games, 91 receptions, and 11 touchdowns—do not fully capture the essence of the player or the toughness, intensity, intelligence, and humour that Campbell brought to his roles with the New York Giants, Dallas Cowboys, Lions, and New Orleans Saints.

The bulky brace on Campbell’s arm earned him the nickname “RoboCop” among teammates. “When I played with Dan in my first year [2007], he was playing with one arm, but he was still out there starting and playing with beasts out there, but still sustaining,” said Lions Hall of Fame receiver Calvin Johnson of Campbell. “So, mad respect to him.”

Since then, Campbell’s football career has expanded to include a promising coaching career. As a part of the 2008 Lions squad that went winless, Campbell is now regarded as one of the NFL’s emerging stars. His attention to detail and no-nonsense style have won him accolades from players throughout the league for his role in turning around Detroit’s fortunes.

And after defeating the Minnesota Vikings 30–24 on Christmas Eve 2023, his Lions secured the team’s first division title since 1993.

“People find it really difficult to believe that how much he enjoys the game is true. Few people have the same level of passion for the game as Kitna did. “I really believe Dan would have been among those players who would have continued to play for free for as long as possible. He simply adores balls.

“He loves teaching it, he loves everything about it, he loves being with the guys and it just seems like that’s the culture he’s created there.”

The teammates, coaches, and friends that Campbell the player touched paths with during his collegiate and professional seasons will carry on his legacy, even though the coach Campbell is focused on building memories for a team that hasn’t won a playoff game in over 30 years. These are a few of their most cherished tales.

“You see Betsy, you know that’s Dan.” 
“Betsy” was in New York with Dan.

Not to be mistaken with Holly, his wife.

It was his ride: a white Chevrolet single-cab pickup truck with a 1990s aesthetic.

One thing Campbell carried from college to the professional levels was his ride, which the New York Giants picked him with in the third round of the 1999 NFL selection.

“He took pride in it. Steve McKinney, Campbell’s close friend and former Texas A&M teammate, stated, “He loved that truck… ol’ Betsy.”

Another former Aggies teammate and roommate, punter Shane Lechler, of the Raiders and Texans, said, “I had to go get him a couple times.” “He was trying to drive to Glen Rose [Texas] one day and I think something happened and I had to tow him back or some s—, I don’t know.”

Campbell’s old Texas A&M teammate Dat Nguyen was amused to find that Betsy made it to the NFL and lasted the entire time Campbell was with the Giants. Dat Nguyen was selected by the Dallas Cowboys six spots later in the same draft class.

Although Nguyen is unsure if Campbell drove the vehicle or had it transported, he is aware that Campbell was accompanied by Betsy.

It was a beat-up white pickup truck that was very unattractive. We didn’t have much growing up, so I’m thinking it could have been inherited from his dad to him. I don’t know if it had rust or how he obtained it,” Nguyen said. “He experienced it briefly while in college. That was his college experience.

“You see Betsy, you know that’s Dan,” he chuckled and continued. “That’s Dan if he parked in front of the weight room. He’s already begun, so you better get in there quickly or he’s going to be all over you.”

Among teammates and friends at Texas A&M, Campbell’s vehicle has become a piece of legend. To former collegiate quarterback Randy McCown, bringing up ‘Betsy’ brings back memories of riding with Campbell as a redshirt freshman to the neighbourhood Wings’N More restaurant for his Thursday night ritual with teammates McKinney and Hunter Goodwin in 1996.

“He asked me what I was doing but then said, ‘Come on, you’re going with us,'” McCown recounted. “And it was kind of like that training of the mindset of like this is how we do it, this is the winning formula, and when I’m gone, you’re going to be expected to keep it going.”

Probably the most memorable thing about Campbell and Betsy was when a recruit had a terrible visit.

Dan and I were bringing a new recruit out while we were holding a recruiting trip for him. And he says, “I think I’m going to the University of Texas, but I really like it here.” Lechler laughed, “Dan just pulled the truck over, kicked him out, and we headed out.”

“He’s saying, ‘You have to leave, you have to get out.'” I had assumed that Dan would drive a mile or so down the road, turn around, and come fetch him, but we never did. We attended an out-of-town party as well; it wasn’t a fraternity party; rather, it was an event that someone was throwing far from home. The Aggies coach, R.C. Slocum, was furious with us the following morning.

“He always seemed angry, even though he wasn’t”

When Campbell went to training camp as a rookie in 1999, Giants quarterback Kerry Collins was immediately drawn to his 6-foot-5, 265-pound frame.

Although his body type and skill set were more suited for a blocking-first tight end, Collins would frequently target him on bootlegs and short throws over the middle as his role grew.

They connected for five touchdowns between 2000 and 2003, but Campbell stood out for blocking and creating openings for the running backs. Although Campbell wasn’t always the most talkative teammate, Collins remembers that his energy and work ethic were evident from the start.

“Truthfully, as a younger guy, I wouldn’t consider him to be an outstanding communicator, but boy, has that changed,” observed Collins. He has truly developed into a man who is able to articulate his identity, his beliefs, and his coaching style.

“A lot of what comes out now is how he was as a football player, he just didn’t say it.”

After the 2001 season, Campbell was a member of the Giants squad that played in Super Bowl XXXV. The country lad had a lasting impression on a lot of his teammates.

He is the “grimy” tight end in the 12 and 22 personnel groupings that featured two tight ends, according to former Giants running back Tiki Barber.

“He had an extremely fiery personality. Barber stated, “It seemed like he was angry all the time, but he wasn’t.” “He was simply combative. That’s the mindset you think of when you think of football players from the 1950s and 1960s. He’s not crazy, despite what you believe. He simply has the ability to develop into that sort of player.”

Hall of Fame defensive end Michael Strahan recalls that Campbell had the same intensity every day. He finds a lot of similar characteristics in his coaching approach.

“When I would arrive to practice, I would discover there were no days off. I said to him, “Dude, chill.” I must take a rest.” Campbell’s playing partner from 1999 to 2002, Strahan, stated. “However, Dan never took a day off, and it’s incredible how he was able to instill his own outlook on life into a whole team that, ultimately, performed mediocrely but never outstandingly. However, he has suddenly changed that situation. This group shares his level of confidence. They are aware of his belief in them.

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