By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
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."Family Support
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.
"With the types of jobs here," said Campbell's father, Larry, who boarded his first flight a few weeks ago to attend his son's introductory news conference at Redskins Park, "it's pretty limited what you can accomplish."
The main strip is about two blocks long and includes a few dilapidated storefronts, an auto supply store and two barbershops. With a little help you can find a spot to grab a fried shrimp platter, with hush puppies and fries, and after Friday night football games the kids hang out near the Piggly Wiggly and Pizza Pro at the four-way stop. There are no movie theaters or arcades. The big cities, such as Meridian and Jackson, are about an hour away and the nearest hotels are in Laurel, about 20 miles to the east.
"We kind of pride ourselves on small-town values, conservative values," said Jeff Duvall, the principal at Taylorsville who was Campbell's former assistant coach. "We still kind of take care of each other's kids here. If we see them on the block doing something wrong, we call mom and dad to help out. It's just a great place to be, a great place to raise a family."
Larry and Carolyn Campbell have dedicated their lives to their children -- Jason, 23, Larry, 29, a personnel manager for Carrier Corp. in Texas, and Melody, 32, who works in management at Mississippi State Hospital. All three graduated from college and were active in athletics.
Larry supported the family on a teacher's salary, having worked as a coach, educator and administrator in Smith County schools for 33 years. He has been at Taylorsville since 1988 and is the assistant principal, assistant football coach and head basketball coach; Carolyn is a teacher's aide in the elementary school. High school sweethearts, they've been together 33 years.
They have spent their entire lives in Mississippi and have lived in the same ranch-style house for 32 years, with an ample yard for the kids and a living room filled with pictures, trophies and mementos of their children's accomplishments.
As Larry flips through one of the many scrapbooks in Jason's room, the picture of the toddler clinging to a basketball takes him back to a family reunion from more than 20 years ago, when all the adults wanted was to shoot some baskets and his son -- all legs and knees -- prevented them from doing so.
"We finally gave up and let him have the ball," Larry Campbell said, "and he never gave it back. He hasn't put it down yet."Early Indications
Getting their son to stop playing and come inside was an ongoing struggle. Having a star athlete for a brother did not make the chore easier. Jason always wanted to join whatever game Larry Jr. was involved in, and usually the older kids would comply.
"It made me competitive," Jason Campbell said. "I always played against older guys, whether in football or basketball, and when guys are bigger they push you and try to beat up on you to make you tougher. My brother, I always played against him and we always participated in sports and went to camps every summer. So I never had a vacation where I took a summer off. I was always in some type of camp or doing something positive trying to get better."
Jason was embedded "right in Larry's hip pocket," as their father says, which included trips to elite summer football camps. Larry Campbell, a coach for 28 years, including 17 years working with the area's seventh-graders, saw potential in Jason's first football practice as a 12-year-old. As his son zipped passes around the field -- he could pump 40-yard spirals down the sideline and lob touch passes over the middle -- stunned silence gave way to sheer joy. Larry Campbell raced home. He could not wait to tell his wife the news.
"He knew then," Carolyn Campbell said. "He said, 'Jason is awesome throwing that ball. God has given him a gift to do that.' "
Sherrill, who coached Pittsburgh, Texas A&M and Mississippi State and has been around premier quarterbacks -- including Dan Marino at Pitt -- for more than three decades, had a similar impression that summer, when Jason was throwing along the sideline at the Mississippi State football camp.
"I told Jason the same thing I told Dan Marino," Sherrill said of the leading passer in NFL history. "I asked them both, 'Who taught you to throw the ball like that?' And they said, 'My daddy.' And I said, 'Don't ever let anybody change your throwing motion or even attempt to.' Jason already had a good arm, a good touch and good mechanics. His dad taught him early in life how to throw the football. I knew right then he was going to have a chance to be a real good one [quarterback]. My only concern was he would mess around with basketball and not really develop football-wise, because that was his first love."
By the ninth grade, Campbell was dunking the basketball and starting for the varsity team. His father used him everywhere. He could manage the game as a point guard, slash to the basket from a forward spot and post up smaller players inside. Like his mother, Campbell had great range from the perimeter; Auburn, Louisiana State and other Southeastern Conference schools would later want him for their basketball teams as well.
But there were 6-foot-5 basketball phenoms all over the United States. "When you are a quarterback at that size, you're a special breed," Larry Campbell said. "So Jason and I made a decision that was the way he was going to go."
The way included long trips around the South -- to the Mississippi State football camp, the Southern University camp in Louisiana, LSU's camp, Auburn's camp [twice] and NFL star Steve McNair's camp. McNair, from Mount Olive, Miss., has long been an inspiration.
"I always saw myself in that same position," Campbell said, "having the opportunity to follow in his footsteps. Seeing that he made it from a small town showed that there are a lot of opportunities out there for myself."
Campbell became the starting quarterback at Taylorsville his sophomore season, and White inherited a strong crop of talent when he came to the school as head football coach that spring. White favored an old-school, ground-oriented offense, but a few games into his tenure, the team was trailing 27-0. With nothing to lose, White chose to start throwing the ball with abandon. Campbell led the team to a 45-27 victory and finished 1998 with a state title.
"We ran the table after that game, and I threw the heck out of it," White said. "We became a very prolific offense."
Campbell guided the team in the state final in Jackson after creating a little magic in the semifinal game. A video of that game shows him scrambling for his life, finding a receiver downfield and making a difficult throw across his body to the end zone for the winning touchdown with time expiring. "The biggest games, those were the times when he always performed the best," White said. "He never gets rattled; his demeanor is always the same."
After Campbell won the semifinal game with his desperation pass, fans and coaches erupted in celebration, but the young quarterback did not. His expression never changed, and when Duvall, the high school principal, asked how he could be so calm, Campbell responded, "That's just what I'm supposed to do."
Campbell threw for more than 2,700 yards with 33 touchdowns that season (he was named district MVP in basketball as a junior as well) and the recruiting race was on. The following fall, ESPN came to town to do a feature for "Scholastic Sports America," but their subject was about the only person not caught up in the hysteria. Campbell was named a 1999 Parade All-American and Gatorade Player of the Year in Mississippi. Several publications rated him the second-best high school quarterback prospect in the nation.
He never spoke much about any of it, his coaches said, focusing on his weaknesses and devoting every free minute to training. White's summers (he worked with Campbell most days) were spent in the sticky Southern heat, rising early at Campbell's request to help the quarterback improve his footwork and times in the 40-yard dash. He threw as many passes as he could each day.
"Jason is a very confident kid, but being talented isn't part of his thinking process," White said. "He thinks he has to work for everything. He was crazy about working. He is never satisfied with where he's at, and he works so hard at it. He has such a work ethic."The Right Way
Campbell has long felt a need to put others at ease. When his grandmother moved to California when Campbell was 6, she would call on the telephone asking how her "little preacher" was doing, as he had taken to asking God for forgiveness when he made a misstep and was quick to urge others to do the same when they slipped up.
"He just wanted everything to be right and for everybody to love each other and get along and everything," said Carolyn Campbell, whose husband, Larry, is a deacon and Sunday school teacher. "That's just his way."
He never missed a curfew or got in trouble in school, at least none that his parents and teachers can remember. He was on the honor roll from the first grade on and also received academic accolades from Auburn, where he earned a degree in communication/public administration. Hanging out, for him, consists of watching sports or movies at home or playing video games. "He's not going to be driving around in some $100,000 car and carrying a lot of money on him or having $100,000 worth of jewelry on," Sherrill said. "That's not going to be him."
Nearly five years after leaving town, Campbell remains firmly rooted in Taylorsville. Soon, he will be settled near Ashburn, learning the NFL game, making one of the biggest adjustments of his life. Friends and family, who will be following close back home, have no doubt he'll do just fine.
"I think ya'll have something special up there now in Washington," Duvall said. "Whether Jason ever becomes a superstar or not, who knows? But in my opinion, who cares? Because he's already succeeded in life, and if he doesn't succeed in the NFL he will most definitely succeed somewhere doing something, I can guarantee you that. He's a hero around here, and more than that, he's a role model. I would love for my child to grow up and be a Jason Campbell."
Tomorrow: Campbell's career at Auburn