Third time's a charm for Tommie Campbell
In the fall of 2006, Tommie Campbell was in his second year playing football under coach Dave Wannstedt at the University of Pittsburgh. The former multi-sport standout from Aliquippa, Pa., was suiting up alongside future NFL players like Jeff Otah, LaRod Stephens-Howling and Darrelle Revis.
Three years later he was working as a janitor at the Pittsburgh International Airport.
Campbell, now a defensive back for the Tennessee Titans, thought his dream of playing in the NFL was over when academic issues ended his career at Pitt after just two seasons. He transferred to Division II Edinboro University, where he was a strong safety for the 2007-08 season before too many missed classes cut his playing career short once again.
"You can classify me at Edinboro and Pitt as the same person," Campbell said. "I still wasn't taking care of the things I needed to take care of off the field."
After blowing back-to-back opportunities, Campbell found himself out of football and jobless with two young sons to support. He moved in with his mother and spent more than a year going out to bars, "playing games" and doing little to turn his life around.
Eventually, Campbell realized he needed to be a better father to his children. He took a full-time job as a janitor at the Pittsburgh International Airport, about 30 minutes away from Pitt, where some of his former teammates were finishing up their collegiate careers and prepping for the NFL draft.
"I was a janitor for [just less than] a year," Campbell said. "It was humbling but at the same time I knew I was doing the right thing in life. Not so much me cleaning the bathroom, but that I was having an honest living. I was going to work, working 40 hours a week full-time and being the best father I could be to my sons. That was the goal."
Campbell found himself scraping gum off the floors of the bathroom with a metal spatula.
"I was embarrassed at first," he said, "but then I just said 'Hey, I got a job and it is what it is.'"
Campbell was content to stay there, providing for his kids and trying to stay out of trouble, until former Pitt teammate Elijah Fields came through the airport.
"I didn't know if he was gonna look down on me," Campbell admitted. "I just felt like a small person that day. We spoke and everything, but I felt little. It's hard to explain. I just felt low."
Soon after, Campbell got another chance -- a call from California University of Pennsylvania, a small Division II school in California, Pa. -- and this time he was determined to make good.
"I didn't want to give up and live without trying," he said. "I wanted to go back to school and be a positive role model to my sons. When I first went back, it felt far out that I would make it [to the NFL] but I just knew I was going to do everything I could to try. If I made it, I made it; if I didn't, I didn't. I just didn't want to say 'what if?' anymore."
Campbell's third college turned out to be the right fit.
"When I went to Cal, the people there helped me realize there's more to life than football," Campbell said. "I started taking care of all my off-the-field issues and living right. Going to class and being a better teammate. And then my play elevated as those things elevated."
All the advice Campbell had ignored while at Pitt and Edinboro suddenly started to make sense. He realized that coaches who'd urged him to go to class and take responsibility for his children were right.
"Those people know what they're talking about. They really, really do," admitted Campbell. "It really helps if you have your personal life taken care of."
After a successful 2010 season, he was selected to the Eastham Energy All-Star Game and Cactus Bowl, where he impressed scouts with his speed and size. The Tennessee Titans drafted him in the seventh round in 2011 and his dream of playing pro football, once delayed, came true.
"It was a relief," Campbell said. "For everybody. For my whole hometown, matter of fact. Everybody knew what I went through. My mother cried, I cried. Probably the greatest day of my life outside of my kids being born."
He sometimes thinks about how things might have been had he finished his four years at Pitt.
"At times I wish it would have worked out cause my career might be different right now," he said. "Things happen for a reason. I feel like I learned some life lessons early in life to help benefit me later on."
Campbell knows his approach to life as an NFL player is different than some of his teammates who haven't seen the world outside of football.
"At the end of the day I used to go home with $500 every two weeks -- probably closer to $450 -- now I'm making [so much] more than that. I tell [teammates] 'The average human being makes $1.5 million, $2.5 million throughout their lifetime. If you're out of the league in two years from now, it's basically you made the average human being lifestyle but you just got all your money up front. So save your money and just be smart.'
"I view the NFL as once in a lifetime and I approach it that way. There's times I may have messed up here and there, but I get right back on track. The greatest thing about it is I still live my life the same exact same way as if I'm still working at that airport. I don't go out, I don't drink, I don't smoke, I don't party. I just try to be the best father I can be to my children. And if I live my life like that when I'm not around them, it makes it very easy to do that while they're around."
Campbell has three kids now: Jameer (6), Xavier (3) and Jace (1). He's in his second year with the Titans, but he never takes his spot on the roster for granted.
"I go out there every day and practice like it's my last," he said. "I'm a perfectionist. I feel I can get cut any day of the week. I feel l could get cut tomorrow. I give it my all every single day when I get out on that football field.
"At the end of the day it all comes down to numbers. In the back of my mind I always know I did everything possible to make the team. If you're satisfied knowing you did everything you possibly could do then you'll be all right."