By Alexa Philippou, Cincinnati.com
Last week’s C-Paw Pride Dinner, which followed the first official practice for University of Cincinnati’s football team, was primarily intended to recognize the team’s top performers from summer workouts. But head coach Luke Fickell had an additional surprise planned for two of his players.
After the sports performance staff gave out awards to standouts from the summer, Fickell took the floor.
“I wish that we all were on scholarship – I wish we could take care of everybody,” he said. “But when we have an opportunity to do it, we want to celebrate that. There are some guys we’re going to take care of tonight.”
He then called out two names – the first, that of Bearcat offensive lineman Garrett Campbell. Entering his fifth and final season as a Bearcat, Campbell, a former walk-on, would finally be put on scholarship.
Along with sophomore safety Sheldon Doss, the second player to earn a scholarship that night, Campbell stood as their 101 teammates leapt to their feet, roaring in applause.
“I was like deer in headlights,” Campbell said.
Campbell’s teammates still tease him that he teared up during the announcement.
“Which I will deny to the day I die.”
The moment was particularly special for Campbell considering his journey to get there was all but certain.
Despite having grown up in Maineville, Campbell didn’t seriously consider going to UC early on in his college application process. Staying close to home for college wasn’t a priority for him, and so he was in contact with schools elsewhere, particularly in the south.
Still, UC and Nippert Stadium were fixtures in Campbell’s life. He played several high school games at Nippert as a player at St. Xavier, and his father would sometimes take him to see UC games. He distinctly remembers one time when he sat right behind former Bearcat and eventual NFL wide receiver Mardy Gilyard’s parents in the southeastern corner of the stadium – he loved getting to meet the parents of the players he watched from the stands.
“Being in this atmosphere... it was unbelievable. I just remember being down here even before the renovations and just thinking it's such an awesome atmosphere, such a cool stadium,” Campbell said. “I kind of fell in love.”
Campbell’s mindset about college shifted late in his senior year, when his mom, who has multiple sclerosis, was admitted to the hospital for a week. Suddenly, having college options away from Cincinnati wasn't important; remaining close to his family was.
Campbell started to reach out more to UC’s program – while Butch Jones didn’t heavily recruit Campbell, then-newly anointed head coach Tommy Tuberville and his staff took more interest in him.
When the Tuberville staff eventually called to offer Campbell a preferred walk-on spot – Campbell remembers exactly where he was when the call came: in his sister’s room, because he wanted some space away from his parents – he was more than ready to say yes.
“I just remember having the biggest smile on my face,” Campbell said. “I sat down on my sister's bed and I was just ecstatic. I said ‘can't wait, can't wait to be there, can't wait to get on campus and start.’”
Big leap to Division I
As a walk-on freshman, Campbell joined the team needing to get in better shape and admitted he was intimidated by some of the guys he was going up against and competing alongside. He was nervous that he couldn’t play at the Division I level and wondered whether he made the right decision to walk on at UC.
“You see big Korey Cunningham,” Campbell said about the offensive lineman. “That dude was unreal for me. Big, southern, Alabama dude. [And] just all of them.”
Playing catch-up on the field would be one of many worries and complications that would emerge during his early years at UC.
With a pre-med course load of chemistry, biology, calculus and labs, Campbell felt overwhelmed academically for the first time. In September 2013, following UC’s game against Miami, UC football player Ben Flick, a close friend of Campbell’s, died in a car crash that also injured two other players on the team. After redshirting in 2013, Campbell was sidelined for the entirety of the 2014 season with a knee injury.
When he finally returned to the field his junior year, it took some time for him to get into his groove – he was apprehensive, as many players are coming back from injury, about getting back into the game, and had a new offensive line coach (the second of the three he would have during his time at UC) to get adjusted to.
After a while, things began to click. Campbell saw action in nine games in 2015 and 11 in 2016 as a backup guard and on the field goal and extra point units. After a strong summer, he is now a contender to start, according to Fickell.
Campbell says he still feels like a freshman at heart, but he certainly isn’t playing like one.
“The one thing that was crazy to me coming in as a freshman was watching these seniors, watching how fast they move, how fast they analyze stuff, how big and fast and strong [they are],” Campbell said. “To see myself on film [now], I kind of look and am like ‘are you sure? Is that me?’
That improvement has helped him gain the trust of UC’s new coaching staff – Fickell is comfortable using him at both guard and center – and his teammates.
“He's the smartest one out there,” quarterback Hayden Moore said about Campbell. “He knows all the plays, he's not going to do anything wrong and he's going to be where he needs to be every single time.”
That being said, Moore may be a little bit biased – after all, Campbell is his best friend. From his early years at UC, Campbell stocked his dorm room with multiple couches, a TV and Nintendo games, and so his room became the hangout spot for many of the guys on the team – that’s how Moore, who lived next to him during his first year at UC, says they became so close.
Which is pretty much the best-case scenario for a quarterback-center duo.
“I love it,” Moore said about having Campbell as his center. “I trust him with everything.”
Campbell likes to take Moore and their teammates up to his house, whether it’s for a day at the pool or for holidays when players can’t make the trip home. He says his mom loves to entertain the team and cook up a feast; she has become a second mom to many of the guys.
It’s moments like those that make Campbell grateful that he decided to stay close to home and walk on at UC. It’s nice that his dad works right down the street of UC at Good Samaritan Hospital. He likes that he can go back to St. Xavier as he does every now and then to reminisce about his high school days. Plus, his friends and family – including, when they’re in town, his two siblings who live on the West Coast – get to go to all his games.
“In just one word, a blessing,” Campbell said. “It's been a blessing to stay here.”
All from a former walk-on who, with a different stroke of fate, may have ended up elsewhere, and whose growth over the course of his UC career he himself finds a bit surreal.
“It's gratifying to see my fear freshman year – can I play at this level, can I do it? – and now here I am, contending for a starter spot,” Campbell said. “Unbelievable. Beyond my wildest imagination.”