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Two of a kind: Ravens' Calais Campbell pursuing titles in NFL and poker

Calais Campbell has earned $11,487 since he began playing poker in college, and he aspires to win the WSOP main event after he retires from football. Courtesy of Poker News

Baltimore Ravens defensive end Calais Campbell wants to be a champion before he retires from the NFL -- and after it as well.

This offseason, the 35-year-old Campbell decided to return for his 15th season to chase that elusive Super Bowl ring. When he does walk away from the game, he will shift his title pursuit to winning the World Series of Poker main event.

Campbell has played poker since college and has totaled $11,487 in live earnings. He has participated in other WSOP events annually but has never entered the main event because the end of the tournament is too close to the start of training camp. But Campbell plans to put up the $10,000 buy-in for the no-limit hold 'em world championship every year after he’s finished with football.

“I want to win the WSOP main event,” Campbell said. "It’s a tough thing that very few people have done, but I feel like, why not? If it can be done, why not me?”

Campbell has made strides at the poker table this year. In January, he had his biggest cash payout, winning $6,405 at the World Poker Tour’s Lucky Hearts Poker Open after finishing 191st.

Last month, Campbell outlasted over 17,000 players at the WSOP Housewarming event, which featured the fourth-largest field in WSOP history (20,080 entrants). He earned $801 after getting knocked out in 2,405th place on a bad beat (his opponent turned a flush with king-deuce suited).

It is believed that Campbell is the only active NFL player at this year’s WSOP, which is in its 53rd year and runs through July 20. This event has for a long time drawn athletes, from former NBA standout Paul Pierce to Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps to Brazilian soccer star Neymar. But none have come close to winning the main event.

Does Campbell have a chance to ultimately win poker’s top prize?

"I think it's an absolute realistic possibility,” said Jack Effel, the vice president of the World Series of Poker. “Poker is a game where anyone can enter and anyone can win.

“At the same time, we’re talking about trained athletes that have spent their lives dedicated to competing at the highest levels and under pressure. Thinking strategically and making fast decisions are all the things that are necessary to be able to win a poker tournament. So they definitely have the skill sets.”

Campbell quickly learned he had a feel for poker. In 2009, he won the second tournament he ever played in, beating a 70-player field in Arizona.

There are parallels that Campbell sees between poker and football. Both take discipline, patience and a lot of reps to improve. To excel in both sports, you also need to have an awareness about your opponent.

When offensive linemen break the huddle, Campbell is watching their eyes, how they stand and whether they lean in a certain direction. In football, that information helps Campbell with anticipation. In poker, players look for similar “tells,” which provide clues on what cards an opponent is holding.

Just recently, Campbell enjoyed an experience at the poker table that was close to one of his 93.5 sacks. He got reraised by poker pro Cliff Josephy, who has over $7 million in career earnings.

If Campbell had called Josephy, he would’ve been all-in and in jeopardy of getting bounced from the tournament. He laid down his hand, telling Josephy, “I see you got jacks.” Josephy then turned over two jacks.

"It’s a thrill when you’re out there competing and you’re in the hand and you try to get good reads on people,” Campbell said. "I feel like with football, I've been very good at seeing things before they happen. It allows me to really spot my keys and give me information and allow me to process it. In poker, it’s the same thing.”

Campbell has been among the NFL’s most dominant defensive linemen, reaching the Pro Bowl six times. Since 2008, his 160 tackles for loss rank second only to J.J. Watt.

He contemplated retirement after last season but announced he was coming back after watching the Los Angeles Rams win the Super Bowl, saying he still had a desire to play the game. In April, Campbell signed a two-year, $12.5 million contact to remain with the Ravens.

“Calais, he’s an all-timer,” Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald said. “He’s going to be putting on a gold jacket [at the Hall of Fame] one day.”

Campbell is the oldest player on the Ravens' roster and is nine months older than Macdonald. He knows he will have more shots at winning a poker title than an NFL one.

But Campbell didn’t hesitate when asked what championship he covets the most.

“The main event bracelet might be on the level of getting a Super Bowl ring,” Campbell said. "But with the Super Bowl, I feel like it adds more to it because not only do I have to play well myself, but I have to inspire guys around me to play well. I take great pride in bringing a group of guys together.”