ALLEN PARK, Mich. — Up on a podium, live on Zoom and broadcast to the world, Dan Campbell was in the midst of a stream of consciousness.
Hired as the Detroit Lions head coach days earlier, he spoke with emotion as he thanked many people and at one point joked about being compared to “The Dude” from ‘The Big Lebowski’ — and Campbell does sound a little bit like Jeff Bridges. For 90 minutes this went on, an eternity in the world of often carefully curated news conferences.
Campbell bounced between almost being brought to tears and well-thought-out answers. Yet that presser will be remembered for one thing: kneecaps.
“When you knock us down, we’re going to get up. On the way up, we’re going to bite a kneecap off, all right, and we’re going to stand up, and then it’s going to take two more shots to knock us down,” Campbell said. “And on the way up, we’re going to take your other kneecap, and we’re going to get up and it’s going to take three shots to take us down.
“When we do, we’re going to take another hunk out of you. Before long, we’re going to be the last one standing. That’s going to be the mentality.”
Back in Texas, group texts lit up. The same thought was conveyed — message after message, thread after thread of his old friends from Texas A&M: The world just met Dan Campbell. And the man they saw, kneecaps be damned, was as real as Dan Campbell gets.
“That’s authentic,” said Seth McKinney, a former Texas A&M teammate and friend. “One hundred percent authentic. Dan at his Dan-nest, I would say.”
Campbell, 44, doesn’t have his wavy, blond locks from his decade as an NFL tight end — his hair is more of a close crop now — and he isn’t going to be lining up in a game anytime soon. But what Campbell did that January day was inject immediate life into a moribund franchise, one filled with apathy and heartache over the past three years and, really, the past six decades. Campbell understood it when he took the job and in one news conference ignited something that had gone silent in Detroit.
He gave the city a reason to believe again.
Campbell grew up in the middle of nowhere. Literally. He’s listed from Glen Rose, Texas, yet he didn’t live in the small city, but rather the vast Texas expanse outside of it.
“You’re going to go this county road and turn right on this other county road,” said R.C. Slocum, his coach at Texas A&M. “And then turn on this other gravel road.
“It wasn’t [a house] that you drive up to. You have to have a little map, like this is how you get here.”
Campbell’s childhood was filled with herding cattle and having to make sure the barn was swept clean — truly clean — before he’d be allowed to go out with friends. Where he lived, Campbell said, they received four television channels. Even though this was the 1980s, “Bonanza,” “Gomer Pyle” and “The Rifleman” were TV staples.
So was a 1960s show called “Daniel Boone.” His older brother was watching the show and started saying his brother was the title character because, well, his first name is Daniel and kids are kids. But the name has stuck for decades.
“Pretty soon, that’s all my family calls me is ‘Boone,'” Campbell said. “Anybody in my family. The beauty is here’s how I always knew I was in trouble with my mom and dad. When they called me Daniel, I knew I was in deep crap, because they always called me Boone.”
To this day, Campbell said, within his family and those in his hometown he’s not Dan or Daniel or Campbell. He’s Boone.
Many of the values Campbell is taking with him to Detroit were learned on the ranch. His mother, Betty, taught him patience and passion. His father, Larry, was a Marine and instilled work ethic, humility and how hard work can pay off.
Before school, Campbell would get up to feed horses and cattle. On weekends, he’d help his dad load bales of hay, take them to the barn, unload them and stack them. Campbell checked on the vaccinations and applied medicine to the cattle to make sure they didn’t get infested by fleas and ticks.
“You learn the value,” Campbell said. “It better be quality work. It’s not about going in there and doing a half-ass job. If I’m asking you to do something, you take pride in it and do it.”
By the time he returned home for a spring break in college, he’d mastered a lot. His A&M teammate, Steve McKinney, saw it up close putting calves through a chute one more morning.
One got out. Campbell sprung to action like he was on the field and tackled the “small calf, probably 250 pounds” that had jumped the fence into the neighbor’s property and got it back to their land.
“I was pullin’ the lever on a chute and I didn’t pull it quite in time and it got loose,” Steve McKinney said. “Dan literally jumped on it and steer wrestled it to the ground. It was, I was like, ‘Man, this guy is pretty good at this.’
“He was a real cowboy, for real.”
Don’t put Campbell in a 10-gallon hat with a flannel shirt, though. He was the working cowboy in a T-shirt, doing whatever necessary to finish the job.
As Campbell grew up on the ranch, he learned more and more about football. After their work day ended, Campbell’s father made sure to have a football in the back of his truck.
“The sun’s going down and we’re in the middle of a pasture and he’s throwing me a football,” Campbell said, choking up. “Those are the things you remember. And it means something to you.”
When Campbell moved from his dot-on-the-map cattle-ranch to college, he went from Boone to Dan. Everything else stayed the same. He quickly found friends at Texas A&M — Steve McKinney and Hunter Goodwin. By his sophomore year, he found a group of people to live with and a way to start to lead.
Four football players shared a two-bedroom apartment to make college costs work. They were rarely home and when they were, they’d play dominoes or Campbell would entertain with what Goodwin called an “uncanny” Jim Carrey impression. Rent and utilities, Goodwin said, cost maybe $600 a month combined.
“One summer we got a house together, four of us, me and him shared a room, a very small room,” Steve McKinney said. “We each had twin beds. Like, we could literally reach over and high-five each other. We were that close.”
As Campbell lived frugally off the field, he flourished on it. Campbell was never to be a big pass-catcher, but that’s OK. He was — still is — the player who liked the intricacies of blocking, of making the little-seen move to create the hole springing the big play.
His teammates in college and the NFL appreciated that. They saw how hard he worked, at least when they weren’t giving him a hard time about the giant, gallon-sized jars of cherry peppers and mayonnaise and massive bags of spaghetti he’d bring back to school from home.
He was a loud guy who could also inspire through his actions. He’d also be the player pulling workouts in the middle of the day in the summer Texas heat to make himself as conditioned as possible even if it did mean the occasional full-body cramp during training camp. After his senior year, he won the Aggie Heart Award, voted on by players to the teammate who gave everything they had every day.
“He was a vocal leader,” Slocum said. “He wasn’t biting any kneecaps, I don’t know where that came from. He was one of those guys who was knocking people down and staying after that. He was a rugged player.”
The work culminated in Campbell’s senior year as a captain on one of A&M’s best teams. Campbell caught a fake field goal — a play that stands out to Slocum decades later. Slocum added the fake that week and told Campbell if they ran it correctly against Texas Tech, he would be wide open.
They practiced it once. Maybe twice. Then came the game. Campbell’s roommate — punter Shane Lechler — threw the pass. Campbell was wide open for a touchdown helped the Aggies beat their rival. It’s a play Campbell remembers: A bone for a blocking “grunt” like him.
Campbell was part of the reason Texas A&M won the Big 12 in 1998 and went to the Sugar Bowl, where it lost to Ohio State 24-14, Campbell’s last college game. Even in that emotional moment, he led.
He sat next to quarterback Randy McCown on the bus leaving the Superdome — a place where he’d coach two decades later with New Orleans. “Mac and DC” were road roommates all year. Injured, McCown didn’t play in the game. But McCown was A&M’s future. They discussed leadership and continuity. How it was McCown’s team to help run now.
“It was ‘All righty Mac, don’t let this s— end, don’t let it end,'” McCown said. “I’m talking like Dan now. Don’t let that end, but let’s keep building on it.
“It was kinda a big brother, little brother moment but also kind of like, ‘All right man, my ride is up but you got to keep it going.'”
Campbell played 10 NFL seasons for three teams and had a final season, with the New Orleans Saints in 2009 ended by injury before it began. Whether Campbell wanted to be a coach was a question.
He had a long conversation with Goodwin, his former teammate and still one of his closest friends, about his career path. Goodwin advised Campbell to stress to coaches he didn’t need money — Campbell made more than $13 million in his career, according to Spotrac — but wanted the opportunity to learn.
He reached out to Mike Sherman, then A&M’s head coach, and volunteered that spring. He then landed with the Dolphins as an intern before becoming Miami’s tight ends coach in 2011 and, for 12 games in 2015, the interim head coach.
Campbell learned on the job, importing lessons from Bill Parcells and Slocum to create his own style. Slocum always talked to his players about discipline and structure, values he believed would translate to their post-football lives.
“It’s about playing smart. It’s about don’t ever hurt yourself. Don’t make mistakes. Make the team you’re playing beat themselves. That was the most important thing,” Campbell said. “We are not going to be the ones to turn the ball over. We’re not going to be the ones who have a personal foul at the worst possible time. We’re not going to be the ones who are going to be undisciplined.
“What’s the situation in the game? Oh my, we don’t have no idea what we’re doing and guys are running around everywhere and the clock runs out and we lose the game. We were prepared for everything.”
Campbell’s X’s-and-O’s philosophy might evolve. Those tenets, and his passion, remain constant.
After his 12 games in Miami, when he wasn’t hired for the full-time gig, Campbell went to New Orleans. He became Sean Payton’s assistant head coach and continued to work with tight ends. It was here, in drills, his personality and creativity would show.
Coby Fleener will never forget how he coached, specifically what he did when coaching. It was a routine blocking drill, one every team attempts to do.
Instead of using a blocking dummy or having a low-level assistant or equipment staffer hold a pad, Campbell did what only a former player could do. He put shoulder pads on himself and became the defensive player his tight ends were trying to block.
“He was willing to take the brunt of the blow and he’s big enough and strong enough to handle it,” Fleener said. “But it’s also something that’s kind of impressive that he didn’t just sluff off that duty to someone else.” Campbell got excited when he was asked about this — first about his former player, raising his voice and yelling Fleener’s name as if he had just walked into the room. He wasn’t mad. He was pumped.
If it sounds like someone who missed the game taking one more chance to put on pads, it wasn’t. Campbell got serious and explained it had nothing to do with him playing. It was about understanding strategy. Getting the best look possible for the players he was trying to teach and mentor.
“I’m sure it’s viewed as, ‘Oh, you think you’re a badass.’ Here’s the only reason I wore shoulder pads, because when you’re an offensive player, particularly on the offensive line and tight ends and, really, receivers, it’s an art that needs to be taught with receivers,” Campbell said. “It literally is all about your hands and where you place your hands. And I call it the steering wheel, right? So when you put those pads on, those pads go right here, the side of them there at your armpit.
“When you hit and grab, you get under, into the steering wheel of the shoulder pad and so, like I felt like you needed to teach it but I also wanted to feel their power and their strength and so it was a double whammy. Basically I was a blocking dummy is all I was.”
Campbell consistently sought innovative ways to teach and was open to suggestions. When a player had an idea, Fleener said, they’d try it. If it worked? Great. If it didn’t? At least it was listened to. Campbell had no arrogance. Everything was about positivity, learning to coach each individual player. Expectations were the same. Approaches were different.
“He has the understanding from having seen multiple coaches from a player’s perspective, having seen multiple coaches from a coach’s perspective,” Fleener said. “Seeing other coaches work, I think he has a very broad understanding of the gamut that is the way that coaches talk to players.”
The entirety of his experiences led to January. He wowed the Lions in the interview process for a job he desperately wanted. He got it — and before it was announced, he texted Slocum to thank him for everything.
“Playing for R.C. Slocum in football circles will always mean something,” Slocum said Campbell texted him. “People immediately think we’re smart, tough, competitive and dependable. All the things that you are that you passed on to us. More than proud to have played for you, Coach.”
Take away the bluster and listen to the entirety of Campbell’s initial news conference — those are the messages he’s trying to instill. The ones learned from his father and his coaches, from his own attitude as a player.
Yes, he had a viral moment, one that will be remembered as long as he’s Detroit’s coach. Some fans and media called him a meathead based on 90 seconds of 90 minutes instead of listening to the whole thing. His friends saw that, too.
Goodwin sent him a text, reminding him what he’d done to reach that point and that — no matter what others might say — to remain true to the person he is.
“Dan, don’t let the outside world change you because that’s who you are,” the text read. “People are either going to love you for it or hate you for it, but don’t change. Don’t try to become something you’re not.”
Campbell understood. It was why the Lions hired him. Detroit knew it wasn’t getting the corporate coach. They were getting a guy who was maybe a little rougher, a little tougher. Someone who wore his competitiveness openly and had no problem showing it to the world. Someone a little different, which might be exactly what the Detroit Lions need.