Originally created 08/30/98

Panther's Campbell finds his niche



SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- Matt Campbell figured it was his last chance. Undrafted free agents don't get that many opportunities.

So Campbell found himself in this northwest South Carolina city three years ago, clutching desperately to the remaining fibers of his NFL dreams.

Oh sure, Campbell was one of the "Original 10" Panthers signed the previous December. A nifty piece of minutiae that invariably gets tagged to his name. "That's great," he says. "But I go into camp and I'm the fifth tight end."

So on one of those scorching afternoons, when coach Dom Capers allowed players a break from two-a-days, the North Augusta product hopped in his pickup and tore down I-77 until he reached the friendly confines of Columbia.

Classes were just around the corner at his alma mater, and the former Gamecock tight end figured he had some free time coming.

"I kept wondering to myself, what are the realistic chances that I'm going to make it," Campbell said. "At that point, all I could do was prepare for the quote, unquote afterlife."

So Campbell included his name on the registry for a pair of 500-level engineering classes that would have completed his degree. All prepared for what he figured was the inevitable.

Then something funny happened: He survived the Panthers' final cut.

He caught three passes in '95. Although it was obvious that he was too slow and consistently struggled in sticking to his assigned weight of 265 pounds, he fostered an image in Capers' mind.

He could block. Man, could he block. Charging off the line, he could hammer a linebacker into submission. Capers took notice. And one afternoon, he hatched a little plan. Why not move Campbell to the line?

Three years and $8 million later, it's hard not to confirm the experiment a grand success. When the Panthers open the season in Charlotte next Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons, Campbell will be Carolina's richest offensive lineman.

His move to the line became such a success that Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson vainly tried to lure Campbell to Miami in February with a lucrative three-year, $8 million contract.

"It was a shocker," said Campbell, who was visiting a friend in Tuscaloosa, Ala., when the figures dazed him. "I just stood there silent for I don't know how long. It was so overwhelming, I couldn't even comprehend those numbers."

When the Panthers matched the contract a week later, Campbell's comprehension received another demanding test. It arrived in the form of a hand-delivered, after-tax signing bonus check of $2 million.

Though, you'd never know it was more than a couple greenbacks. To coaches and teammates, he's still the affable, laughable 6-foot-4, 300-pound giant.

He didn't trade in the $180,000 home he and wife Jeanene own just north of Charlotte -- although they did purchase a couple of new pieces of furniture.

Campbell still shops at Target, and lives for the free time he spends bass fishing and deer hunting.

While he used a portion of the check to purchase a new Chevy pickup, he's quick to point out, "My old one had 95,000 miles on it."

No outlandish jewelry, no flashy sports cars, no extravagant golf carts to deliver him to and from the practice field.

If they say that all athletes have become pampered, self-absorbed stars in their own universe, the 26-year-old Campbell provides at least one exception.

"I know that I've been blessed with ability to play," said Campbell, who will start at left guard next Sunday. "But I also know that as fast as I got here, it could be gone tomorrow, whether it be injury, getting cut or getting traded."

Campbell was never some football prodigy, someone who moved through his adolescence as if the NFL were his eventual destination.

He was never one of those kids whom scouts drooled over, the ones anointed with the magical combination of size, speed and talent that creates a limitless future.

A free agent tight end out of South Carolina, Campbell was cut from the Saints' practice squad in September 1994.

"I was a big tight end," Campbell said. "And it was obvious I wasn't a receiving tight end, more of a blocking tight end.

"There's so many guys coming out of college to choose from that can catch or block, why would someone want that?"

So he returned home to North Augusta and started working at a pharmacy -- counting pills, making deliveries, performing all the busy work no one else wanted.

"I made $5 or $6 an hour," Campbell said. "Just enough to pay the bills."

But he possessed one intangible that coaches find irreplaceable.

"He's one of the smartest players on our team," offensive line coach Jim McNally said.

That earned him an invite as one of the Panthers' "Original 10" that December. The group comprised a slew of has-beens, never-weres and never-will-bes.

He's the only one left now.

"We talk all the time about having opportunities," Capers said. "When they present themselves, the harder you work, normally the wider than window of opportunity opens. He's worked very hard."

Campbell believes there's still work to do.

"I don't think I've even scratched the surface of my potential," Campbell said. "There are so many things that I'm learning every day that are opening my eyes."

By now, he's virtually assured that those lessons will continue to come on the field, not back in the classroom.