DETROIT -- As a newcomer to the Big Apple, a 23-year-old Dan Campbell could feel the pressure immediately.
The former tight end was selected by the New York Giants in the third round of the 1999 NFL draft. One day, his wife Holly -- who would often read the local tabloids -- approached him with something that he’ll never forget.
“I remember getting labeled as a bust by a reporter too early because I was a grunt. That’s really what I did best. I was a blocker,” Campbell told ESPN. “I didn’t catch 50 balls in a season. That came once we drafted Jeremy Shockey, who I played with when he was a rookie.
“So, you hear these things and it’s like, ‘my God, what do you do with that?’ And when you’re young, you don’t know any different and when you hear it, it can affect you a little bit, but man, it doesn’t take long if you block that out and stay true to what your coaches are telling you.”
That moment taught him a valuable lesson: How to deal with the adversity -- something he is now facing as the 46-year-old head coach of the Detroit Lions.
Detroit (3-6) is riding its first two-game winning streak under Campbell into MetLife Stadium to face the Giants (7-2) this Sunday (1 p.m. ET, Fox). The game represents a return to a place near and dear to Campbell, a place where he suited up as a player from 1999-2002 and developed his foundation as a coach.
“I think it’s cool, definitely for him," Lions wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown, whose brother Equanimeous plays for the Chicago Bears, said. "Because I know for me playing in the last game against my brother it’s always fun, special and you want to play good. I wanted to play good against my brother and I’m sure he wants to coach well against his former team that he used to play for so it always means a little more when you have a past or history with that team or you know someone or family’s on the team so I could feel where he’s coming from, if he is at all, playing the Giants this week.”
For Campbell, his time in New York was a hugely important experience for his career as a player and a coach.
“Honestly, it was the best thing that ever happened to me because had I not had that experience, I wouldn’t be sitting where I’m sitting right now. That’s a fact,” Campbell said. “I was fortunate to get drafted there and won a lot of games, went to the Super Bowl, was around some really great players and some of my closest friends were still guys that I played with there.”
Among those with the Giants were longtime New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton, who was the offensive coordinator, and former tight ends coach Mike Pope. Campbell still maintains close ties to both.
Pope, now 80, was on the coaching staff for each of the Giants' four Super Bowl titles. He follows Campbell’s career closely from week-to-week and recalls Campbell as being a “cold-blooded, tough” player who played through injuries while never complaining.
As a coach, he still notices those traits.
“If there’s any such, and I’m not sure what the term throwback means, but he could’ve been born 100 years ago and he would’ve been a good NFL coach,” Pope said. “He has the toughness of a Lombardi or Halas and some of those people as far as work ethic and toughness. Teams generally follow the lead of their coach, but you have to get enough players with enough ability to compete with the competition and Dan is starting to do that.”
Though Campbell couldn't have been aware of it at the time, his stint with the Giants helped prepare him for the pressures of coaching and those that come with guiding a difficult Lions rebuild. Through the highs and lows, Campbell, who is 6-19-1 in Detroit, said he remains committed to bringing a winner to Detroit.
“There’s no amount of pressure that can be exerted outside of this building than what I put on myself and I already know that so any of that doesn’t matter. And I’m not naïve. I know you’ve got to win,” Campbell said. “I mean, I’ve been around this business a long time as a player and a coach, so I know and look there’s no hard feelings one way or another.
“This is still a business at the end of the day and so for me, what I’ve learned over the years is I do know this, man you can’t read all of it [from the media] -- the good or the bad,” he continued. “All of a sudden, things start working out good and you get labeled a certain way, but that’s not reality. Just like when you don’t win, that’s not reality either when it goes into the dumps. So, you’ve got to stay true to what you believe, what you trust and lean on people you really trust.”