In high school in Aliquippa, Pa., Tommie Campbell played football and ran on the same 400-meter relay team with current New York Jets star Darrelle Revis.
Four years later, Campbell's promising career had crashed and burned, as he had washed out of not only Pittsburgh and Division II Edinboro, but was cleaning toilets and mopping floors at the Pittsburgh International Airport.
After six months of that, fortune smiled on Campbell and another opportunity to play football came his way – at Division II California, Pa.
“I left Pittsburgh and Edinboro and ended up at Cal after I was working at the airport as a janitor. I worked at the airport as a janitor for about six months,” Campbell said. “I didn't expect to play football ever again at one point, and I got a call from Cal, and I went up there and did everything they asked me to do.”
Campbell is determined to make the most of it, and on Saturday took a big step toward fulfilling his once vast promise, as he was the Tennessee Titans final pick in the 2011 draft, No. 251 overall.
It didn't hurt that Campbell played in the Cactus Bowl All-Star game and ran 40 times of 4.31 and 4.33 there in front of scouts.
Titans vice president of player personnel Ruston Webster said at that late juncture, and with no college free agency available because of the lockout, that it was time for the Titans to take a risk on a player with some upside. He also said that regional scout Richard Shelton lobbied hard on Campbell's behalf when the Titans' final pick game.
“He is well-traveled. Really what we saw in him was he was 6-2, 203 and he ran a 4.3 down at the all-star game. He was somebody that had some ability, and when you get here so late in the seventh, corners with that kind of size and speed, they're hard to find,” Webster said. “And usually when you try to sign them as free agents, when that opportunity came, we felt like that would be hard to do. Without any free agency, and that type of thing, it was the time to take a flier.”
Campbell's troubles began at Pittsburgh when he had academic issues after playing there in 2005-06. He later transferred to Edinboro for the 2007 season, but was booted from school for not attending classes. With two children depending on him for support, it was time for Campbell to go to work, which he did at the airport.
He said his five-year-old son watching him has motivated him not to squander what might be a final chance at football success.
“It puts a lot (on me). My five-year-old looks up to me. Everything I do, he emulates,” Campbell said.
Now, he is just grateful that the Titans took a chance on a player who played at three different schools and was even out of football for a time, having wasted a Division I scholarship and a starting role (then as a linebacker) at Pittsburgh.
“I was very worried about that, because I knew going in there would be questions about my character. I wasn't a bad person,” Campbell said. “I just didn't take care of my off-the-field responsibilities as a student-athlete. ...I had a couple of teams call me and tell me they probably weren't going to draft me, but that they'd give me a free agent tryout.”
“The sense we got from him is that he's hungry. He's gonna get his chance and with that kind of speed and ability, if he does what he's supposed to do, then he's got a chance to play in the National Football League,” Webster said.
Campbell obviously has a long road to travel in order to make Tennessee's 53-man roster as a seventh-round draft choice. Ironically, this year, the Titans are scheduled to travel to Pittsburgh to face the Steelers on Oct. 9. Their charter flight will arrive in the very same airport where Campbell performed his janitorial duties. What might it feel like to return there?
“It's just going to remind me to keep working hard, because that's where I used to be at. It's going to remind me that you can go back to cleaning toilets, or you can play football,” Campbell said.