What Dan Campbell’s playing days say about his Detroit Lions future: He’s ‘tough as nails’

Detroit Free Press

Dave Birkett
 
| Detroit Free Press

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Casey FitzSimmons does not have much to do with football these days.

FitzSimmons’ playing career ended 11 years ago because of brain injuries, and the former Detroit Lions tight end spends most of his time running cattle on the approximately 4,000 deeded acres he tends to in Montana.

But when new Lions coach Dan Campbell took over as interim Miami Dolphins coach in 2015, FitzSimmons, who played the 2006-08 seasons with Campbell in Detroit, found himself not only watching Campbell’s first news conference with the Dolphins, but feeling a familiar rush of adrenaline coursing through his veins.

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“Man, I wanted to get on the football field, and I hadn’t missed football one bit,” FitzSimmons told the Free Press on Wednesday. “That guy, when he speaks, it’s not a front. The guy is speaking from the heart and you can buy into something like that. That’s a guy that you can follow.”

The Lions officially named Campbell their 28th head coach Wednesday, making him the third ex-Lions player to coach the team in the Super Bowl era.

Campbell was hired more for his leadership, vision and motivational ability than for any connection he has to the franchise. But several of his ex-Lions teammates said his ties to the organization — and the traits he showed during his playing days — make him an ideal fit for the job.

“I like the fact that he’s got a history in Detroit, personally,” ESPN analyst and former Lions quarterback Dan Orlovsky said. “I just felt like somebody that kind of knew the organization somewhat — and I know Dan was there for what, two years, three years? But at least he knows the organization, he gets the city. He’s felt some of the pain and the struggle and the disappointment and the embarrassment. He felt that as a player.”

Campbell played three seasons for the Lions as part of an 11-year career.

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He was a third-round pick by the New York Giants in 1999, and played in that team’s Super Bowl XXXV loss to the Baltimore Ravens. He spent the 2003-05 seasons with the Dallas Cowboys. And he had his greatest personal success — and worst year ever, from a team standpoint — in Detroit.

Campbell, known primarily for his toughness and blocking ability as a player, had career-highs of 308 yards receiving and four touchdowns in his first season in Detroit. He played several games with a torn triceps, but spent much of the 2007-08 seasons on injured reserve.

The Lions became the first team in NFL history to go 0-16 in 2008; Campbell had one catch for 21 yards in his only game.

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“We had some rough times, but he was a steadying force in the locker room,” former Lions quarterback Jon Kitna said. “I remember, he never let there be anything that was divisive when it could be very easy to be divisive, and he was always just bringing it back to what can we do. He wasn’t overly vocal about it, it was just he carried that presence and was the one that everybody looked up (to). He played with a frickin’ torn triceps for crying out loud. He was basically out there with one arm.”

Kitna said Campbell was routinely one of the first players out to practice and one of the last ones to leave. He spent hours upon hours in the weight room — “You didn’t ever go in the weight room without him,” Kitna said. And he had a quarterback’s knowledge of the offense and everyone’s assignment on the field.

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“I just feel like you’re kind of getting a guy like a Mike Tomlin,” Kitna said. “You’re just not going to see him flustered. He knows how to get the most out of people, how to relate to people, and that’s just important in this business.”

Former Lions center Dominic Raiola said he sees Campbell like Tennessee Titans coach Mike Vrabel, someone “who’s going to jump in the fray with you.”

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“What I remember is Dan always just, no nonsense,” Raiola said. “Dan was always like a rock. You could count on him, he was always there. Tough as nails. You knew what you were getting out of him. And just a great teammate. You used to have those guys that are just great teammates, they’d do anything for you. A salt-of-the-earth type of guy.”

Kitna remembers Campbell as the first teammate to celebrate someone else’s success, and FitzSimmons said that is part of what endeared Campbell to many in Detroit.

“Lions fans should be excited, and the best thing about Dan is he’s not the flavor or the year, he’s not the new up-and-coming guy,” FitzSimmons said. “This man has laid a groundwork to build an organization to a top-tier team. So going out, they got the right guy for this job. I can guarantee Detroit that, that they found the right guy. And I think Dan Campbell will be in Detroit for a long time.”

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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