EIU's Campbell excited about draft

The story of Chris Campbell is one football players at Chicago's Marshall High School and Eastern Illinois University can expect to hear for years to come.

From his high school days of being a slightly above-average offensive lineman at Marshall, a school best known for its basketball, to walking on at Division I-AA Eastern Illinois, to earning a starting role as a senior to now possibly being an NFL draft pick, Campbell will be the example used to motivate young players. Campbell's former coaches will tell their incoming players, If you remain focused, work hard and keep at it, there's no reason why you can't be the next Chris Campbell.

For most of Campbell's high school and college careers, his coaches raved about his potential. He was always one of the biggest players on the field -- today he stands just short of 6-foot-5 and weighs 325 pounds. His coaches saw his size and flashes of his athletic ability and realized what sort of player he could be if he ever put it together.

"Real tall, big feet, I can see him now," Campbell's former Marshall football coach, Ben Ward, remembered. "Chris Campbell, all his teachers will say the same thing, always had potential.

"I told him in high school if you don't push yourself in high school, when you get in college people won't know you. If you're lackadaisical about playing and in your attitude about football, you can't get that recognition that you want. He needed a fire lit under him. He reminds me of Michael Oher in 'The Blind Side.' He was a lost soul sometimes. He had to discover himself, and people started to discover him."

The discovery began his senior season at Eastern Illinois. After walking on as a freshman and spending a majority of his first four seasons -- he also redshirted -- on the sideline, on special teams or as a backup offensive lineman, Campbell began realizing potential as a senior. He earned a starting spot at offensive tackle, was an integral part to the Panthers' winning a share of the Ohio Valley Conference title and went on to earn second-team all-conference honors.

Campbell's success in his final collegiate season would be have been a great last chapter to his career in itself, and many believed that it was. The NFL didn't seem realistic when the team's year ended in late November. He hadn't even been considered Eastern Illinois' top offensive lineman.

"When the season ended, I didn't know if he would have a chance or not," said Eastern Illinois coach Bob Spoo, whose last NFL draft pick was Chris Watson in 1999.

In stepped agent Joe Linta of JL Sports.

Linta's reputation in 20 years as an agent has been made by identifying unknowns and turning them into knowns. He's located the likes of Pro Bowl center Matt Birk from Harvard, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco from Delaware, Steelers starting offensive tackle Willie Colon from Hofstra and Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher from Maine.

Heading into this year's draft, Linta had been doing research on another one of Eastern Illinois' players when he first noticed Campbell. Linta became intrigued by Campbell's size, long arms, athleticism, balance and work ethic, and he quickly began watching more and more film on him.

Campbell received a call from Linta on Jan. 15.

"He told me he thought I had a lot of talent," Campbell said. "He thought I could play at the next level. It just took off after that."

Linta's first move was getting Campbell into an all-star game. He called the organizers of the Texas vs. The Nation game and asked them to take a look at Campbell. They did and invited him to play.

"Thank God the guy at the Texas vs. the Nation game let him in," Linta said. "Once Chris got into that game, he walked on the field, kicked a few butts and at that point people took notice. From that point, it was me calling people and not taking no for an answer."

NFL scouts liked what they saw in Campbell at the all-star game, and it led to meetings and visits with the Eagles, Falcons, Lions, Packers, Patriots, Rams and Seahawks.

ESPN NFL draft analysts are predicting Campbell will go undrafted, but Linta has heard otherwise.

"I would bet a thousand dollars right now that he'll get drafted," Linta said. "I would almost use the 'G' word. I would almost guarantee it. He's a classic illustration that scouting isn't an exact science. I didn't make him a draft pick. He was always a draft pick. Someone had to open their eyes to his to ability.

"We stumbled upon. We're fortunate. He's going to get picked higher than a lot of All-Americans. I get a kick out of that."

Campbell isn't sure what to expect on the final two days of the draft.

"Honestly, I don't," Campbell said, laughing. "My name is going to come up on the screen, but I don't know what round, I don't know what team.

"It's definitely exciting. My family is really more excited than me. They tell me, 'I heard your name on ESPN; I heard your name on the NFL Network.' I'm getting excited little by little. I know at the end of the day it's still football and I have to prove myself. To be drafted would mean to me having another opportunity to prove myself, to keep playing football and continue what I'm doing."

For others, it'll add to the tale of Chris Campbell.

"It would mean a lot to the Marshall program, but also the West Side," Ward said. "Anytime a kid gets drafted in the community, it means something to everybody. It brings the whole community up on the West Side. We're hoping he does. It might be a 'Hoop Dreams' moment for us, but in football. Basketball has been such a dominant thing for us."

Spoo hopes so, too.

"It's a great story, a kid coming from nowhere and all of sudden putting himself somewhere," Spoo said. "It's really quite a remarkable story.

"We will use his name from here on out, believe me."

Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at spowers@espnchicago.com.