Sunday, May 29, 2005
First in a two-part series
TAYLORSVILLE, Miss. -- The weathered and fading sign on the right shoulder of Highway 28, just inside the town limits, is a source of immense pride. That yellow and green rectangle, tucked amid trees, surrounded by muck and far too easily overlooked, chronicles the prolific athletic achievements of Taylorsville High School, a tradition deeply intertwined with the identity of this rural community.
The list of state championships in football and basketball needs updating; the titles come with regularity. And the Washington Redskins are staking their future on the notion that one day there will be reason to plant another sign out there, one proclaiming Taylorsville as the home town of their starting quarterback, Jason Campbell.
Campbell, who was selected with the 25th overall pick by Washington in the first round of the NFL draft last month, is the most prodigious product of the area's sports culture, the biggest thing to happen here in quite some time.
"Jason is the biggest success story we've ever had, no doubt about it," said Shannon White, the head football coach at Taylorsville, as he sat in the spartan white shack that houses the high school athletic department. "And that's not just for being a great quarterback. He's not perfect -- no one is perfect -- but he's as close to perfect as you'll come in a human being."
Campbell led Taylorsville to a state title as a junior and was the Southeastern Conference offensive player of the year as a senior at Auburn. But when the Redskins traded three draft picks, including next year's first-round selection, to land him, it surprised many around the NFL, where most draft evaluators labeled him a second-round pick at best. Even Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs called the selection "kind of wild."
The wisdom of the Redskins' decision will be determined in the years to come. But to understand why Washington might have been attracted to Campbell, a visit to Taylorsville helps. For Campbell is an amalgam of his home town, where a passion for football is matched only by respect for family and religion. It is a community of unlocked front doors, where Sunday mornings are spent in worship and everyone, whether a soon-to-be NFL millionaire or someone working the midnight shift at the Georgia Pacific plant, knows everyone else.
"There's nothing else to do here except go to church and play sports," said Carolyn Campbell, Campbell's mother and a former high school basketball standout in Mississippi. "That's all Jason ever wanted to do."
It is the kind of place, in short, where Joe Gibbs would feel at home. And, as those who know Campbell best tell it, the Redskins' newest quarterback is the kind of young man with whom Gibbs would be comfortable.
"Jason has been Jason since I've known him; he's never changed," White said. "He's always had the same demeanor about himself, the same positive outlook on life, the same mannerisms. Of course, he's not 16 anymore, but all the good qualities about Jason are still there now, and will be there 20 years from now."
With a population of around 1,300 and a size smaller than four square miles, most people pass through Taylorsville -- 90 minutes west of the Alabama line -- without realizing it. "If you blinked, you missed it," said Jackie Sherrill, who recruited and coached Campbell's brother, Larry Jr., at Mississippi State.
A three-bedroom house on a few acres of land goes for about $50,000 and the median income is slightly more than half that. The high school graduating class this year numbers 55 -- and the school draws on students outside Taylorsville as well -- with half of the student population receiving a government-funded lunch (about average for Mississippi). The town is split almost evenly by race. Most residents work at the school, Bryant's meat processing plant or at Georgia Pacific; if not for that company putting a large factory here in the early 1970s, Taylorsville's economy might have collapsed long ago.