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Untold stories of Lions coach Dan Campbell as a player

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Eric Woodyard: Dan Campbell is really the guy he says he is (1:24)

Eric Woodyard relates what he learned about Lions coach Dan Campbell in preparation for a story. (1:24)

DETROIT -- Not even a torn triceps muscle could keep Dan Campbell off the field.

On Christmas Eve 2006, Campbell, then a Detroit Lions tight end in his eighth NFL season, faced the Chicago Bears wearing a knee brace on his right arm as protection.

With under three minutes remaining in the first quarter, Lions quarterback Jon Kitna anticipated a post-corner route from Campbell on the backside, but Campbell instead beat his man on a corner post. Kitna adjusted and let it fly for a 23-yard touchdown. After securing the catch, an ecstatic Campbell raised both arms to celebrate in the back of the end zone before being mobbed by his Lions teammates.

"I think about those times with Dan, and he just never ever complained," Kitna said. "Like to have to wear a brace on your elbow and not be able to straighten your arm and block people out, but still just kicking people's tail, you just know there's tough and then there's Dan Campbell.

"There's a reason why in Texas, you don't mess with dudes that wear boots and hats, man. Do not mess with them -- and Dan is a boot and a hat guy."

The touchdown against Chicago would prove to be the last of Campbell's career, which ended after three more seasons and just four games. His final numbers -- 11 seasons, 114 games, 91 receptions, 11 touchdowns -- show a career that lasted longer than most but don't tell the full story of Campbell as a player and the blend of toughness, intensity, intelligence and humor he brought during his stints with the New York Giants, Dallas Cowboys, Lions and New Orleans Saints.

"When I played with Dan in my first year [2007], he was playing with one arm, but he was still out there starting and playing with beasts out there, but still sustaining," said Lions Hall of Fame receiver Calvin Johnson of Campbell, whom teammates jokingly nicknamed "RoboCop" because of the bulky brace on his arm. "So, mad respect to him."

Campbell's football life has since extended into a promising coaching career. Now considered one of the NFL's rising stars, Campbell -- who was a member of the Lions team that finished 0-16 in 2008 -- has drawn praise throughout the league for helping reverse Detroit's fortunes with his no-nonsense approach and attention to detail. And on Christmas Eve 2023, his Lions clinched the franchise's first division title since 1993 with a 30-24 win at the Minnesota Vikings.

"It's really hard for people, to think it's real, is how much he loves the game. There are not many people who love the game like that," Kitna said. "I truly think Dan would've been one of those guys that would've played as long as he could for free. Like, he just loves ball.

"He loves teaching it, he loves everything about it, he loves being with the guys and it just seems like that's the culture he's created there."

While Campbell the coach is focused on creating memories for a franchise that hasn't seen a playoff victory in more than 30 years, Campbell the player's legacy lives on through the teammates, coaches and friends with whom he crossed paths during his college and pro careers. Here are some of their favorite stories.


'You see Betsy, you know that's Dan'

"Betsy" was with him in New York.

Not to be confused with his wife, Holly.

It was his transportation: a 1990s-style, white Chevrolet single-cab pickup truck.

Upon being selected by the New York Giants in the third round of the 1999 NFL draft, one of the things Campbell brought with him from college to the professional ranks was his ride.

"He was proud of it. He loved that truck ... ol' Betsy," said Steve McKinney, Campbell's close friend and former Texas A&M teammate.

"I had to go get him a couple times," added longtime Raiders and Texans punter Shane Lechler, another former Aggies teammate and roommate. "He was trying to drive to Glen Rose [Texas] one day and I think something happened and I had to tow him back or some s---, I don't know."

Taken six spots later in the same draft class by the Dallas Cowboys, Campbell's former Texas A&M teammate Dat Nguyen was amused when he learned Betsy made it to the league and stayed the whole time Campbell was with the Giants. Nguyen can't confirm if Campbell drove the truck or had it shipped, but Nguyen is 100% positive Campbell had Betsy there with him.

"It was a white pickup, beat-up, it was ugly, too. I don't know if it had rust and I don't know how he got it, but I know we didn't grow up with much, so I'm assuming it might've been passed down from his dad to him," Nguyen said. "He had it a few years in college. That was his ride in college.

"You see Betsy, you know that's Dan," he said, laughing. "If he parked in front of the weight room, that's Dan. Your ass better get in there quick because he's going to be on you because he's already started."

Campbell's truck has become Texas A&M folklore among teammates and friends. When you mention "Betsy" to his former college quarterback, Randy McCown, it takes him back to riding as a redshirt freshman with Campbell to the local Wings'N More restaurant for his Thursday night tradition with teammates McKinney and Hunter Goodwin in 1996.

"He asked me what I was doing but then said, 'Come on, you're going with us,'" McCown recalled. "And it was kind of like that training of the mindset of like this is how we do it, this is the winning formula, and when I'm gone, you're going to be expected to keep it going."

Perhaps the most notable memory of Campbell and Betsy came when a recruit's visit went badly.

"We were hosting a recruiting trip for somebody that came in, and me and Dan were taking the guy out. And the guy is like, 'I really like it here, but I think I'm going to go to the University of Texas.' Dan just pulled the truck over, kicked him out of the truck and we left," Lechler said, laughing.

"He's like, 'You got to go, you've got to get out.' I thought Dan was going to drive like a mile down the road, then turn around and go get him, but we never went back. We were at a party out of town too, not a fraternity party, but someone was hosting a party out of town like away from town. Man, next morning [Aggies coach] R.C. Slocum was so mad at us."


'It was always like he was mad, but he wasn't'

Standing 6-foot-5 and weighing 265 pounds, Campbell's build is what initially stood out to Giants quarterback Kerry Collins when he reported to training camp as a rookie in 1999.

His skill set and frame leaned more toward a blocking-first tight end, but as his role increased, Collins would hit him on a lot of bootlegs and short passes over the middle.

From 2000 through '03 they connected for five touchdowns, but Campbell made his mark by blocking and opening holes for the running backs. Collins doesn't recall Campbell as being the most vocal teammate early on, but his intensity and work ethic screamed out of him from the beginning.

"Truthfully, as a younger guy, I wouldn't consider him to be an outstanding communicator, but boy, has that changed," Collins said. "He has really blossomed into a guy that can express himself and communicate who he is, what he believes and what kind of coach he is.

"A lot of what comes out now is how he was as a football player, he just didn't say it."

Campbell was a member of the Giants team that appeared in Super Bowl XXXV following the 2001 season, and the country boy left his mark on many of his teammates.

Former Giants running back Tiki Barber describes him as the "grimy" tight end in the 12 and 22 personnel groupings that featured two tight ends.

"His personality was very fiery. It was always like he was mad, but he wasn't," Barber said. "He was just aggressive. When you think of 1950s-60s football player, that's the mentality that he carried. You think he's crazy, but he's not. He just can work himself into that kind of player."

Hall of Fame defensive end Michael Strahan also remembers Campbell possessing the same intensity every single day. He sees many of the same traits in his coaching style.

"I'd show up to practice and I'd realize there were no days off. I was like, 'Dude, chill. I need a break,'" Strahan, who played with Campbell from 1999 to 2002, said. "But it was no days off with Dan, and it's amazing that he was able to take his personal attitude about everything and transfer it into a whole team that in the grand scheme of things always did good enough, but not well enough. But now he has turned that thing around. This team has the confidence that he has. They know he believes in them."


'I was so miserable, and I did not want to tell him'

Two days ahead of the Lions' Week 10 road game against the Los Angeles Chargers this season, Campbell's favorite music group, Metallica, rolled into Ford Field.

However, the superfan had to pass on attending while preparing for Detroit's first game coming off the bye week.

"Don't think I'm going to be able to make that," Campbell said.

As a sign of respect, Metallica frontman James Hetfield shared a photo on X of him standing outside Campbell's office with the caption: "Wish you were here, Coach! Too bad the @NFL didn't give you that bye we asked for..."

For anyone who knows Campbell, he has had a long appreciation for the group, often blasting Metallica's music around the house and in the weight room to keep himself pumped.

"From the time I was young, I had a couple of cousins that they played the guitar, they'd come see us. I'm out in the middle of nowhere, dirt roads and here they come with the electric guitar, and they loved Metallica, and they played all of them back in the day," Campbell said. "So, that's where I began to really love them and then over time, they just stood the test of time.

"One of these bands that just -- they always I guess reinvent themselves, right? They never get stale, they never get old, they just adapt, adjust and just keep putting out hits. And I love that. I respect that."

The mentality certainly applies to Campbell's approach in the rebuild of the Lions. He's always consistent and rarely gets bland in his delivery to players.

Lechler, his college roommate, remembers Campbell always being the life of the party, and people rarely wanted to fall asleep before him because of the pranks he'd sometimes pull, from writing on faces to pouring water on friends, but all in fun.

"One night, he made us stay up all night and the sun came up and we had to go to a Metallica concert in Conroe [a little over an hour away] and that was the most miserable day of my life," Lechler said, laughing. "I mean no sleep, of course felt like s--- and then had to go down there. I don't know how he got the money, but Dan bought some great seats, so we're like right there and it's so freakin' loud, but I was always scared to tell Dan like, 'Man, this sucks, let's go home.'

"It was so loud. You know we're hungover, no sleep and he was up there just enjoying every second of it. I was so miserable, and I did not want to tell him."


'Man Campbell'

During their last scheduled OTA session in 2005, the Dallas Cowboys wrapped the day of practice early.

So, Campbell found the closest teammate's house and delivered orders for different guys to get meat, beer and other items for an impromptu afternoon barbecue session to build camaraderie.

"I'm out there at the grocery store getting food and the other rookies got their assignments and we met back over there and hung out," former Cowboys quarterback Drew Henson said. "So, yeah, it was an impromptu thing, but he was the one that said, 'Hey, man, we've got the day, we've all got families and I don't think we'll be here so let's get together and hang out.'"

Henson remembered Campbell developing the nickname "Man Campbell" because of his alpha male personality and intensity on the field, but he also had the ability to dial back when necessary.

As a member of the Cowboys, Campbell reunited with Nguyen, his close friend. After a Week 4 loss at Oakland that season, the veteran Nguyen suffered a neck injury. Because of their friendship, he felt comfortable revealing a secret to Campbell on the flight back home.

"I told Dan, I could see the play, but I couldn't get there anymore. And that's when I knew my time was over and I couldn't play no more, because I worked so hard in the offseason with Dan and them just to get a chance," said Nguyen, who retired after that season. "Then, I knew during that game.

"Really you can't tell that to everybody, right? I think it was kind of a shock for him, too. We were just trying to survive."

In Dallas, Campbell's mentor, Sean Payton, was the assistant head coach and quarterbacks coach. Payton often leaned on Campbell to motivate the offensive group throughout the week.

As a player, Campbell developed a reputation as a tough-nosed, blocking tight end who allowed teammate Jason Witten to emerge as the leading pass-catching tight end, but his knowledge of the game was also respected even back then.

"He was an awesome teammate and Danny was one of those guys, who was a hell of a player obviously, but his impact as a teammate was a lot more from Monday to Saturday than it was on Sunday," said former Cowboys quarterback Drew Bledsoe, who spent the 2005 season in Dallas with Campbell. "And he was obviously a hell of a player on Sundays also, but the intensity and intelligence and attitude that he brought to practice and brought to meetings and all of that from the rest of the week was an even bigger impact than what he'd done on the field.

"So, when you look at that, it's no surprise that he's gone on to be a hell of a coach because that's kind of what he was when he was playing."