Tommie Campbell is happy to not be a rookie anymore. “It’s a relief,” he sighs, “I’ve settled down and I know what to expect.” But Campbell wasn’t your ordinary rookie last season. His path to the league had a few more twists and turns than your usual NFL hopeful.
In 2009, Tommie Campbell was a janitor at the Pittsburgh Airport. It wasn’t necessarily where Campbell saw himself at 20 years old.
He grew up in Alquippa, Pennsylvania, where he was a standout athlete. He was offered a scholarship to play at Pitt, one of the best programs in the country. But after two seasons, he was dismissed from the team for academic issues. A year later he was once again kicked off a team, this time for skipping too many classes at Edinboro University. Campbell remarks, “I really don’t have any regrets. I learned from the mistakes I made. I just wish I had taken my academics more seriously than I did when I was in school.”
In 2008, with no colleges knocking on the door, Campbell took the night shift at the Pittsburgh Airport in order to support his two kids. “It really made me humble, that’s for sure,” he remembers. Six months into the job, he got a call from his former coach Jai Hill, who was determined to not let Campbell drain away his talents. Hill helped him gain entry into California University of Pennsylvania for his senior year, a small Division II school. It surely wasn’t Pitt, but it would do. Campbell says, “They sat down with me and discussed letting me come play, and a few days later they called saying they had found scholarship money and wanted me to come play football again.”
Campbell made sure to take advantage of the little college playing time he had left. He led the Vulcans to a 10-2 record and an appearance in the NCAA D-II
playoffs. Scouts took notice, and invited Campbell to the Valero Cactus Bowl, a game featuring the best D-II players in the country. He played so well he was then invited to the Eastham Energy All-Star Game, as just one of eight D-II players. “At some points, I didn’t see the NFL as a reality. You just don’t know what’s going on,” he says, “I went to those all-star games, but I didn’t know if it would be enough. All I wanted was a chance.”
And Campbell was given that chance. He was selected by the Titans in the 7th round and as 251st pick of the 2011 Draft. “I got that phone call, and next to my kids being born, it was the happiest moment of my life,” Campbell says, “It was a dream come true.” However, being drafted was one thing. But making the 53-man roster was a whole different hurtle.
Campbell didn’t feel confident going into the preseason. He said, “I had been dropping balls all through camp and in practice, and I knew that wasn’t good.” Fast forward to week three of the preseason in Nashville as the Titans were taking on the Bears. The Bears were driving into the red zone when QB Caleb Hanie throws to the sideline looking for his man. Campbell jumps in front and not only makes the interception, but takes the ball 90 yards for a touchdown. “I knew I had to hold onto the ball and once I was taking it down the sideline, man it was a wonderful feeling. It didn’t even feel real at some points,” he remembers. Campbell impressed the team enough to give him a spot on the roster.
During the fifth week of the season, the Titans flew into the Pittsburgh Airport to take on the Steelers, the same airport where he cleaned floors and scrubbed toilets. “It was a weird moment,” Campbell remarks, “It just reminded me what my life was like, and know that I was lucky to take advantage of the opportunity I was given and not waste it.”
This season, Campbell hopes to make more of an impact on special teams and fight for a defensive spot. With a year under his belt, he understands the playbook better and knows what his coaches want. He says, “I just want to be on that field and help the team win in any shape possible.” Not a bad spot to be in for a guy who only a few years ago didn’t see football anywhere on the horizon.