These are the times and moments Christian Campbell dreamed of experiencing when he was a youngster growing up in Phenix City. From playing football in his neighborhood to being a standout defensive back at Central, Campbell hoped to play football at the college level and then, hopefully, in the NFL.
He was an all-star at Central and at the end of his prep career he signed a scholarship to play at Penn State University for James Franklin, who had first recruited Campbell when Franklin was head coach at Vanderbilt and continued to recruit him when he took the job as Penn State’s head coach.
Campbell earned starts as a true freshman for the Nittany Lions and this past season, his senior year, he was named an honorable mention All-Big Ten selection as a defensive back. He earned an invitation to the recent Reese’s Senior Bowl in Mobile and soon will be heading to the NFL Combine, big steps toward the April draft and his goal of playing in the NFL.
His dreams are close to being realized.
“It’s crazy, all the hard work that has been put in is finally paying off,’’ Campbell said in a telephone interview from California where he is training for the Combine and individual workouts with NFL teams. “It’s been my dream since I was a kid. It was my dream to get to the NFL, but it was my dream to get to college first. That was my first accomplishment. It was a crazy experience and a blessing and it’s a wonderful experience to be in this position.’’
The 6-foot-1, 195-pounder is expected to be selected in the NFL Draft. He helped his cause by taking part in the Reese’s Senior Bowl, taking part in the week’s practices under the direction of the Denver Broncos coaching staff and the watchful eyes of scouts, player personnel directors and coaches for all 32 NFL teams. He suffered a slight injury and did not play in the Senior Bowl game, but he was a participant in the more important practices and had the opportunity to sit down and speak with NFL scouts and coaches throughout the week.
“I felt like it was a great opportunity to meet some of the scouts,’’ Campbell said. “I’ll meet with all of them again during the (NFL) Combine, but I already know pretty much what they are going to ask. I know the formations that we ran at Penn State and things such as that, which are things they’ll ask me at the Combine. The Senior Bowl was pretty fun. It was real busy but a great experience and great opportunity. I didn’t have any idea it was going to be like that. It was more than what I expected.’’
Campbell moved up the NFL draft lists with a solid senior season that found him playing and starting in each of Penn State’s 13 games. During his four seasons with the Nittany Lions he collected 102 tackles in 44 games, 61 of which were solo stops. He also had one sack, five tackles for a loss, one fumble recovery, two forced fumbles, 21 pass breakups (including a team-high 12 this season) and three interceptions.
“I felt like my senior year went well and that I matured as a player and developed as a player,’’ Campbell said. “I became smarter and better and I feel like that year I had to prove a lot and I had a couple of goals and accomplishments to achieve. Every game I went in with a goal to help me play harder and faster.
“I would say I improved my man coverage, being a physical corner, a strong corner. That’s the thing I worked on all the time. I feel like that’s one of my strengths now and I believe I proved that at the Senior Bowl. It was a good opportunity to do that.’’
Finding the right college home wasn’t simply a matter of choosing between several suitors. But the process fell into place perfectly for Campbell, who during his senior year at Central became one of the state’s top defensive back prospects, though perhaps not as popular with recruiters as some.
“I was underrated coming out of high school and I didn’t get a lot of offers that I wanted to get,’’ Campbell admitted. “I really had just a few offers that I wanted to have. Georgia, Alabama, Auburn, Florida State, they didn’t offer me. Vanderbilt and coach Franklin placed their trust in me. He started recruiting me early and I fell in love with the place and the coaches too.
“When he went to Penn State he kept recruiting me. That’s why I went to Penn State. I felt the coaches gave me a lot of support and made me feel like family. I wanted to be somewhere that I felt comfortable and I was comfortable with that coaching staff and I had a great connection with them. It was about feeling comfortable with them and Penn State too.’’
Of course, the comfort zone took a little time for adjustment, especially for a player from Alabama moving to Pennsylvania.
“It really was (a big cultural change),’’ he said of arriving at Penn State. “The weather changed so much, all the snow. I had to get adjusted to the food; they don’t have the good food like we have in the South, and the weather is really different. I eventually got adjusted to it and it was fun.
“I feel that will give me a lot of experience with whatever team I go to (in the NFL). I’ve played in blazing hot temperatures and freezing cold. So any team I go to I will have experience having played in that weather.’’
And he enters the final stages of his road to the NFL with some solid advice, provided by his former Central coach — and former NFL player himself — Woodrow Lowe.
“Really, just make your mom proud, make your family proud and just keep God first,’’ he said of Lowe’s advice to him. “He told me to always remember that you are always blessed and do what’s right for you. He always says that to me — do what’s right for you and don’t let anybody else make your decisions; take advice, but do what’s right for you. That was his motto to me all the time. Every time coaches would come up to the school and recruit me, he kept telling me to do what was right for me.”
And so the time has come to take that advice and apply it toward his future, the future he has often dreamed of experiencing.
Tommy Hicks, a Phenix City native, has covered sports in Alabama for more than 40 years. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.