Small-Town Products Yield Big-Time Results

By Mike Wise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 14, 2007

The image of Jason Campbell standing outside Brett Favre's mansion in Hattiesburg, Miss., this past summer, trying to see if the call-box works, is too precious not to repeat.

"I don't like imposing on people's privacy, but I hadn't had an opportunity to talk to him in a while," Campbell said, adding that there was no answer and he eventually left. "I didn't want the helicopter to come by. No stalking at all."

"I didn't know he came by," Favre said this week. "What did he say he was coming by for?"

Maybe he wanted to know how to resuscitate a once-proud NFL franchise, throw for more than 59,000 yards, 423 touchdowns and make Wrangler commercials while pushing 40. Something like that.

It's Legend vs. Prodigy weekend at Lambeau Field, where two men born in hamlets of the Deep South -- 100 miles from each other -- grew up to face each other in a National Football League showdown.

Okay, Favre, who turned 38 this past Wednesday, grew up to be a likely first-ballot Hall of Famer. Campbell merely is learning the ropes as a starter. Still, there it is: Mississippi's finest, directing the Washington Redskins and the Green Bay Packers. Campbell, the pride of Taylorsville (Pop. 1,341), vs. the king of Kiln (Pop. 1,917), for everything in the one-loss NFC pot.

"It's a dream," Campbell said. "Throw [Steve] McNair in there. All three of us are from the same area, all three of us starting in the NFL. You know it's hard to even think of, to come from a small town in Mississippi and to be where we're at today is a blessing."

Western Pennsylvania produced Joe Montana, Dan Marino, Jim Kelly, Johnny Unitas and Joe Namath, easily the most talent to come from one area of the globe since Liverpool, England, circa early '60s. But the Magnolia state now boasts three NFL starting quarterbacks born within a 100-mile radius.

One no-brainer Hall of Famer, a 26-year-old trying to revive the Redskins and the still potent McNair (Mount Olive, Pop. 893), who came within a foot of tying the 2000 Super Bowl. They slung spirals as kids past whirring cicadas at dusk. Now they throw on Sundays, before tens of thousands, through generations as much as through the incandescence of the stadium lights. Three neighborly southerners, raised from the same red clay, products of the same environment.

Mississippi churning.

"I think coming from a small town in a small state, you only have so many opportunities to take advantage of your success," McNair said this past Wednesday after his Baltimore Ravens practiced. "But the thing about it is, we grew up with that tough mind-set: growing up hard, growing up on the ranch, in the country, and having to overcome a lot of obstacles because we didn't have as much as the next person.

"And that's all about football. You're going to go through different obstacles; how can you rebound from that? Growing up that way gives you that edge."

The rural legend of the bumpkin making it in the big city is a powerful aphrodisiac for the small-town athlete. The late Mickey Mantle of Spavinaw, Okla., sent the Bronx into a state of euphoria with each moon shot. West Virginian Jerry West's likeness -- Zeke from Cabin Creek, Mr. Clutch -- became the NBA logo.

A stumbling, rumbling back from a town of 2,122 had the most famous touchdown run in Redskins history. John Riggins (Seneca, Kan.) was a beer truck with a broken parking brake but he still helped win the Super Bowl. Doug Williams (Zachary, La.) was raised in a town of fewer than 12,000 before coming to the nation's capital and outdueling John Elway in the 1988 Super Bowl. Billy Kilmer and Sonny Jurgensen often were portrayed as homespun rascals from the sticks. But next to Kilmer's hometown of Topeka, Kan., and Jurgensen's native Wilmington, N.C., Taylorsville and Kiln is coming from the twigs.

"You have nothing else to do but sit outside and throw a football at trees," Campbell said. He chuckled and added, "That's how you work on your accuracy; who can knock the most bark off a tree."

McNair suits up against St. Louis today. In explaining the phenomenon, he said city folks should not be surprised when small-town southerners grow up to start for your NFL team.

"We all live by the same sword," McNair said. "We're very competitive. We go out there and try to do every little thing we can to put our team in a position to win. You're dealing with three quarterbacks from Mississippi who know each other, who have been around each other."

Campbell first met Favre before he went off to Auburn. They trained under the same fitness coach then. Campbell remembered the man's hands were callused and once bloodied from Favre's bullet passes. "That's how hard he was throwing," he said.

They spoke infrequently afterward, and much of what Campbell took from Favre had more to do with Favre's actions -- his ability to move past failure and return to the riverboat gambler mentality that forged his career.

"He doesn't look back," said Campbell, who makes just his 12th NFL start today. "He makes a mistake and moves on to the next one. That's where I'm at right now in my career. Anytime you make a mistake you try to move on to the next play and continue to keep playing. Another play down in the third and fourth quarter may win the game."

They're a generation apart, which explains how Campbell's father, Larry, wound up teaching Favre's 18-year-old daughter, Brittney, as a substitute high school teacher. "She's so sweet," Campbell said. "She came up to my father and introduced herself."

Campbell had no problem referring to Lambeau Field as "The House That Brett Built" earlier this week. He knows of Vince Lombardi and those hallowed Packers of old, but he was 10 years old when Favre came into the league in 1991.

"These guys say all the time, 'Hey, I had your poster on my wall,' " Favre said. "I don't pay a great deal to the age difference because it really doesn't matter in this game or any game. I'm just thankful that I'm still here doing it and people like to watch me play."

The best Campbell can hope for is that, a decade from now, there will be another impressionable kid from Mississippi, one with a strong right arm, standing outside his front gate, ringing his call box.

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