Why Calais Campbell is just what the Falcons needed

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IN THE BACK corner of the Atlanta Falcons locker room, the conversations start to flow. A corner locker is not a bad thing to have, usually reserved for a key player or a veteran with some status. In this corner is the newcomer with the most experience.

To understand the influence Calais Campbell has had on the Falcons, at age 37, in his 16th NFL season, all one needs to do is listen to 25-year-old cornerback A.J. Terrell and the rest of the Falcons defense.

"Just the name Calais Campbell, it holds a lot of weight," Terrell said. "And for him to be on our team and to help take us on this run we're getting ready to do is something that's definitely what we need as a team and as a defense."

Campbell uses that corner locker to provide an education. Few can match his longevity or production: 230 games, 99 sacks, six Pro Bowls, 15 playoff games, one Super Bowl appearance and the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award in 2019.

"I sit back and just listen to him," edge rusher Lorenzo Carter said. "I ask him questions about how he was growing up, how he grew through the league, how his transition was from being a player, like an NFL player, to an impact player to an eventual Hall of Famer.

"Just listening to the process, he really breaks it down, and he has a lot of good little nuggets to give you when it comes to what it takes to be great."

Campbell didn't know when he came to Atlanta if he'd be viewed as a has-been -- he was released by the Baltimore Ravens on March 13 -- or appreciated. He tries to be impactful -- admitting he can be "annoying sometimes" -- but he never knows how his messages are received.

In Atlanta, they have been well-received. Over the years, Campbell has received so many questions that he jokes he should start writing down his advice and suggestions. He's seen a lot. He's lived through good seasons and bad, personally and as a team. He's been with four franchises -- Arizona Cardinals, Jacksonville Jaguars, Baltimore and now Atlanta -- and played in at least 12 games every season.

He laughs, acknowledging a Calais Campbell Frequently Asked Questions guide wouldn't be a bad idea. It would save time, but also eliminate one thing which he believes has helped him with teammates more than others in his long career.

"There's nothing better than that personal connection," he said. "The biggest thing I try to do is connect with guys, get a feel for them, talk to them and then try to give them advice."

A COUPLE OF weeks ago, the Falcons had their first defensive dinner. It was on a Thursday night, and it was optional. Life happens. Especially in a metropolitan sprawl like Atlanta, where players live far away from one another.

Carter said they had some dinners last year. Attendance was OK. The past two Thursdays, with Campbell pushing the importance of bonding as people and friends more than in just a work setting, attendance boomed.

At Frankie's The Steakhouse in Duluth, Georgia, for the first dinner, nearly 40 people showed. Campbell picked up the tab and said he budgets for up four or five dinners per year.

"It was the first time I saw the entire defense show up," safety Richie Grant said. "Like, we had the entire back room filled out."

Everyone has a Campbell story, a piece of advice gathered or insight gleaned from a practice or film session.

Grant asked about career longevity and his consistent productivity. Campbell's advice was familiar, similar to what LeBron James has said: "Invest in your body." Campbell told Grant if was going to spend money, spend it on self-care. If he was going to invest time, work on your body.

Grant changed his Tuesday routine. He already lifted, had a film session along with hot and cold tub baths. He added a massage -- his third of the week -- to keep his body nimble.

Carter and edge rusher Arnold Ebiketie listened to Campbell emphasize techniques and football savvy. Athleticism helps early in careers, but those who last and have solid careers are the ones who work the hardest.

Former Bengals safety Jessie Bates III, a newcomer like Campbell, was named a Falcons defensive captain. He's inquired about technical aspects of the game after facing Campbell in Baltimore-Cincinnati matchups. He asked about life, about how to better himself as a man, as a father and how he balanced both.

"He's an easy guy to talk to, not just to learn more about football but about life after football," Bates said. "A lot of people don't get to that point in their career.

"You'd be crazy not to ask him questions."

Grady Jarrett, a captain and Atlanta's longest-tenured defensive player in his ninth season, looks at Campbell as "a big brother figure." Jarrett has his own dreams of playing 15 seasons, so watching how Campbell thrived meant plenty.

The connection with a leader like Jarrett has been important to Campbell, because it's not just Campbell. It's Jarrett, edge rusher Bud Dupree and defensive lineman David Onyemata. It's Bates and Terrell.

Campbell has never had a problem being the guy, but here he can be one of them with Jarrett leading.

"It's nice to kind of just be a, what do they call it in 'The Godfather,' a consigliere," Campbell said. "So I'm a guy at the roundtable, helping him continue to learn and grow but, also, he does a good job already, so I get to kind of be a part of it and be that secondary guy.

"That enforcer making sure that we're on the same page."

WHEN CAMPBELL ARRIVED, a few players were so deferential they waited days to approach him. If you've been around Campbell for five minutes, it's a silly notion.

Campbell is eminently approachable while walking around the locker room and team facility with his always-present water jug. It's something he started doing his 10th year in the league, drinking two gallons of water daily.

"He was just basically like, 'All right, if you're not hydrated, it's almost like being beef jerky, and what is beef jerky going to do, it's going to snap,'" defensive line specialist Lanier Goethie said. "The more hydrated you are, it's like a piece of meat you get out of the store, it's kind of hard to tear that.

"I'm like, 'Cool, I never looked at it like that.'"

The conversation made Goethie drink more water.

After a conversation with Campbell, defensive lineman Ta'Quon Graham altered his water routine. He used to hydrate heavily at night around 7 p.m. and when he woke up in the morning. Now, Graham constantly hydrates throughout the day.

Evidence of Campbell's impact is that more players carry gallon-sized water jugs around the locker room.

Around the time Campbell went from Arizona to Jacksonville in 2017 -- a season when he was a first-team All-Pro and finished second to Aaron Donald in the Defensive Player of the Year voting -- he noticed players started approaching him with questions.

Campbell acknowledges what works for him might not work for everyone. He explained his process of how he practices and how he breaks down film, his body care routine and, yes, hydration.

"There's a lot of things that you can go down that rabbit hole," Campbell said. "A lot of stuff that goes into the game that I try to bring to them, but coaches do a really good job, so I don't have to do too much.

"I just have to echo what they say and put it in more of a player tone."

The conversations aren't Campbell preaching. They're reciprocal. He's always looking for new things to pick up, often asking younger teammates about recovery innovations he could add. Since coming to Atlanta, he connected with one of Jarrett's bodywork guys, and liked what he saw.

One thing Campbell won't change is his electric stim machine. He's seen model after model, but there are some habits old players won't break. Each place Campbell has been, he's brought the same machine from his rookie year in 2007.

"It does work. I had to do maintenance a couple of times, but it does work," Campbell said. "Those things are pretty good. They have a high resale value, because they don't make them anymore."

AS INFLUENTIAL AS Campbell has been in the locker room, it extended to the Falcons coaches, too. Defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen, a longtime defensive line coach, will often discuss what Campbell saw during a play or a film session.

"He'll explain himself, and you'll be like, 'OK, I see what you're talking about,'" Nielsen said. "It's just a player's perspective type of deal.

"So it's a lot of dialogue of, 'I see it like this,' and that helps just within the conversation within the room and the unit and coaching those guys."

Those conversations led Nielsen to consider implementing some of what Campbell has shown him in pass rush or run-stunt maneuvers as part of his coaching evolution.

This was the impact Falcons head coach Arthur Smith believed might happen when the team signed Campbell. He knew early on Campbell was "a real dude," someone with a quality mattering a lot to Smith -- authenticity.

Smith hoped Campbell's presence would instill an understanding of the persistence needed to play, and play well. He hoped it would help the daily focus of his players, too, because of the leadership Campbell, Jarrett, Bates and others provide.

Smith encouraged his players to "use that wisdom that's in the locker room." To ask Campbell and others about their routines, habits and recovery methods and "don't waste" the opportunity they have to learn from him.

Campbell knows his advice might have limits. But he believes he can be helpful, and he has been. Even though he is not pushing his thoughts on the Falcons, they are readily available for anyone who wants to listen.

Just pull up a seat near the corner locker.