Even as His Profile Rises, Campbell Stays Grounded

Jason Campbell went 2-5 as a starter last season, but Coach Joe Gibbs has lauded his preparation this offseason.
Jason Campbell went 2-5 as a starter last season, but Coach Joe Gibbs has lauded his preparation this offseason. (Preston Keres - The Washington Post)
By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 15, 2007

On a lazy Sunday afternoon two weeks ago, with no practice the following day and a world of temptation beckoning downtown, the Washington Redskins' 25-year-old starting quarterback never left his neighborhood. Instead, Jason Campbell took his girlfriend to a barbecue down the street before challenging some local kids at a nearby bowling alley.

You can take the millionaire quarterback out of Taylorsville, Miss., but taking Taylorsville, Miss., out of the millionaire quarterback is another matter entirely.

Campbell enters the Redskins' three-day minicamp, which begins today, as the team's undisputed leader on the field and an in-demand presence on Washington's black-tie circuit, yet remains an unassuming, polite Southerner. Whether playing video games with neighborhood kids in Loudoun County or accompanying his girlfriend -- Miss District of Columbia Mercedes Lindsay -- to an event at the Versace mansion in Miami Beach, Campbell remains modest. He seems incapable of declining any autograph request and is accommodating with the media and the team's community relations department.

"Jason is too nice. He really is," said tackle Chris Samuels, who often ventures out with Campbell. "He just can't help it. He doesn't know how to say no."

The whirlwind of NFL fame, after spending his first season-and-a-half inactive as the No. 3 quarterback, has left Campbell unfazed. Teammates and coaches praise him for his progress as a quarterback this offseason and his character. Campbell is acutely aware of how crucial his development is to the team as Coach Joe Gibbs enters his fourth season since coming out of retirement.

"You're always worried, at least for me, when you get that many young guys together on a team and you know that anything can happen at any time," Gibbs said. "But I can honestly say that Jason, what he's done around here in the community and the hours he's spent in preparation and what he's done on the field and in the conditioning room, you get a snapshot of people.

"And you keep adding to it and adding to it and over a period of time you get a real strong feel, and certainly I don't know of anything else he could have done in preparation, and I don't know of anything more he could have done as a person."

So no one was surprised when Campbell and Lindsay accepted an invitation to a neighborhood cookout (Campbell, a bachelor who disdains leftovers, is a frequent dinner guest around his housing development). There, the 25th overall pick of the 2005 draft boasted good-naturedly about his bowling prowess with some high school students.

"After a while we decided to go hang out for a second and put all the trash talking to rest and see who won," Campbell said. "So we went to the bowling alley and settled it. One of the kids whupped everybody -- I can't take credit for beating him -- but the kid who was talking trash, yeah, I took care of him."

Tight end Chris Cooley happened to walk into the establishment in the midst of it all.

"There's all these families and kids, like a neighborhood bowling party, and there's Jason bowling with them," Cooley said. "It was hilarious. That's Jason, him and Miss Washington, D.C., out there bowling with, like, 12 kids from the neighborhood. He's just such a down-to-earth guy."

Campbell, who cemented his starting status with a promising showing in the final seven games last season, has proven equally at ease at the other end of the social spectrum. While he'd prefer to spend every night watching movies on the couch, sometimes there are more pressing engagements. Like Redskins owner Daniel Snyder's Super Bowl party at the Versace mansion, where NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon, Tom Cruise and his wife Katie Holmes and other celebrities watched as Cruise peppered Campbell with questions for 20 minutes.

"He asked me what you look at as a quarterback from the first point when you go to the line," Campbell said, "and I tell him everything you're looking for and everything you're looking at, and he's like in awe, you know? And I'm like, 'Shoot, I don't know why you're in awe, with all those movie lines you've got to learn and all the stunts you have to do.' "

Campbell was a hit at Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's inauguration party as well. Thus far, nothing about his newly minted celebrity status has left Campbell starry-eyed or muddied his judgment.

"Nothing ever gets to him. He's always the same person," Shannon White, Campbell's high school coach, said by phone from Mississippi. "I wish I could tell you something bad about him, but I really can't. He's not a guy who is going to get a big head or get in trouble or throw out a lot of controversial quotes. He's very loyal to his coaches and teammates, and always puts the team first."

The work ethic Campbell has displayed during the offseason -- almost never leaving town, meeting with coaches and watching film at Redskins Park -- speaks to his priorities. He won over teammates by leaving the practice facility hours after everyone else and staying home to study defenses.

"His dedication should really pay off for us this year," running back Rock Cartwright said. "I'm sure you'll see at minicamp the way he just has that confidence, calls the plays, knows what's going on. If the play is miscalled by the coaches, he's correcting them. He knows this offense and what it takes to help us win. "

The responsibilities that come with the quarterback job -- and the intense pressure to perform -- are nothing new to Campbell.

In Taylorsville (population roughly 1,300, with a single traffic light), Campbell, a coach's son, loomed large; his high school accomplishments drew an ESPN film crew to town. At Auburn, the football-crazed area flipped during the Tigers' undefeated 2005 season. Campbell and roommate Ronnie Brown (a tailback who was also selected in the first round of the NFL draft), had people routinely hanging around outside their apartment, waiting for them to leave for class, and following them to restaurants.

Campbell could barely take a bite without being swarmed, and some places put up makeshift partitions for Campbell and his teammates. "He got noticed all the time and it got out of control sometimes," said cornerback Carlos Rogers, a college teammate.

Campbell accepted the hysteria at Auburn and is relishing the chance to lead a winning team again. Stopping to chat, being open and outgoing, and living his life in public are the least of his concerns. Campbell is more worried about improving on his 2-5 record as a starter and getting Washington's offense back among the league's elite.

"The Redskins have great fans, so you know the people are going to know their players," Campbell said. "Anytime I go downtown they're always there and supporting me, telling me they're rooting for me and saying they look forward to me being here a while. All of that gives you confidence and you enjoy it.

"I don't ever let being recognized bother me, and you'd better enjoy it now, because if they're not rooting for you then you've got a problem. Even if I've only got a minute while I'm on my way to do something, I always want to be as friendly as possible."

Redskins Note: Wide receiver Santana Moss (groin), tailback Clinton Portis (shoulder, knee), guard Randy Thomas (knee), wide receiver Danny Melendez (hamstring) and defensive end Justin Hickman (knee) will not participate in minicamp. Ends Phillip Daniels (wrist) and Renaldo Wynn (elbow) will be restricted to limited work.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company