Jack Campbell, pride of Cedar Falls, Iowa, hopes to be the pride of the Lions

Detroit News

Jack Campbell grew up rooting for the Arizona Cardinals, because that’s just what you do in Cedar Falls, Iowa. You cheer for your own.

And with the Cardinals rostering Northern Iowa alum and Cedar Falls native Kurt Warner during Campbell’s formative years, it was an easy sell.

The list of other notable people born in Cedar Falls is more accomplished than one might originally suspect for a town of 40,000: There’s fellow Detroit Lion Ross Pierschbacher, 1993 Butkus Award winner Trev Alberts, Milwaukee Bucks guard A.J. Green, two UFC fighters (Nick Ring and Travis Fulton) and the guy who co-founded Netscape, to name a few.

Every so often, people have put Cedar Falls on the map by making it to a national stage in their respective profession. Whenever that happens, it’s with the weight of an entire population behind them. It’s a special dynamic, one that’s not always consistent in smaller towns: Someone in Campbell’s position could never imagine making it there without their support; those showing the support would never accept that it had anything to do with his success.

In fact, after going through the media rigamarole in Detroit Friday, the family wanted to celebrate with a small party back home on Saturday — but they had to make it a surprise so Campbell didn’t object to a celebration that goes against the fabric of his being.

“I can tell he doesn’t like being the big center of attention. That’s just not him,” Brad Remmert, varsity football coach at Cedar Falls High, said. “But he still went around and talked to everybody … and it was just like the old days before he had all the accolades in college.

“You see a guy that … earns all those honors, and all of a sudden things could switch, and see him maybe being a little bit different, a chip on their shoulder and all that.

“But he’s just Jack.”

Breaking the mold

Imagine how silly the media must have felt when Campbell walked to the podium for his introductory press conference last Friday. Much has been made, in this new era of Lions football, about what constitutes a “Dan Campbell Guy.”

Many recent draft picks have already been anointed as such; maybe there was even a thought that wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown or offensive tackle Penei Sewell represented the extreme on that spectrum.

And in walks this 6-foot-5, 250-pound linebacker from the midwest who studied enterprise leadership in college, has the nickname “Captain Jack” and said during his media availability at the Combine he loves to be the one getting chewing tobacco in his eyes when the defense makes a mistake. It’s over. Jack Campbell is the Dan Campbell Guy. He always has been.

“With Jack, he had those glimpses right away,” his position coach and defensive coordinator at Cedar Falls, Matt Humpallt, said. “Even as a sophomore … I always remember the first game that he played in, at outside linebacker, in the middle of the game … he goes, ‘Coach, they’re running away from me every time. I’m not involved with the play.’

“I said, ‘Well, Jack, that’s a good thing, right? Love that you wanna be involved, but the team’s kinda figured out, maybe we need to go the other way. Maybe that kind of says something about you.’ … He was just disappointed he didn’t feel like he was contributing.”

The contributions would come: He led Cedar Falls to the 4A state title game as a senior after setting the single-season school record with 168 tackles — he also holds the school record for career tackles (338) — and was voted captain of the 4A All-State team as a senior. As a junior and senior on the basketball team, he won back-to-back state titles alongside Green.

“He’s pretty smooth on the basketball court. He brought the toughness, too,” Remmert said of Campbell, who was thought to be a solid college basketball recruit.

Jack’s father, Dave, played offensive guard at Northern Iowa after converting from tight end. If you’re wondering where Jack got his frame, Dave’s listed in the team’s 1989 media guide at 6-foot-5, 250 pounds. Having seen what football is like at that level, he knew by Jack’s freshman year he’d be able to do something in the sport.

“In today’s world, everybody’s got Hudl on their phone. So he’d come home and we’d sit there and watch film on Hudl,” Dave said. “When he was younger, we’d go over just down and distance and, ‘OK, this is what they’re showing, this is tendency.’ He has taken it and ran with it.”

Between the physical traits, leadership qualities and hullabaloo surrounding where he was drafted, there has been much to talk about regarding Campbell’s arrival in Detroit. But when it comes to the type of person they’re getting, his defining characteristic might just be a desire to succeed in whatever is in front of him.

He never fancied himself a math fanatic in high school, but his sophomore accounting teacher, Julie Cuvelier, recalled his eyes lighting up when a subject he didn’t previously like was taught to him in a way he could easily digest. Campbell later signed up to take two more classes with Cuvelier, sports marketing and entreprenuership — the latter of which would guide him into an enterprise leadership degree at Iowa, which he received last December after graduating with a 3.49 GPA.

“I just remember him alluding to the fact that it wasn’t easy for him to learn math, but he enjoyed that part of the math, is seeing the connection with business analysis to the accounting,” Cuvelier said. “I remember him thanking me for how I taught it … so that’s one of my first memories of him … is like, his gratitude runs so deep.”

Cuvelier’s description of Campbell as a student and person does not align with what one might expect for a Butkus Award-winning linebacker. As a self-proclaimed “defense fan,” Cuvelier was shocked when she saw a kid whose “kindness just came naturally” on the football field for the first time.

“He was just a monster on defense,” Cuvelier said. “I went to (a) game, and I was just like, ‘Oh, my gosh.’ He just would hunt down that ball and he was such a force to be reckoned with on the football field.

“And then you’d see him in class and be like, ‘Oh, wow. That’s such a contradiction.’”

Campbell is a man who realizes opportunities beget themselves. He is eager to apply everything in his tool kit to everything he does.

One day, these are traits impressing a 10th-grade educator. The next, they’re earning him the Academic Heisman (aptly named the Campbell Award), honors as the nation’s top linebacker and Big 10 defensive player of the year in his final year at Iowa.

“That Campbell Award was pretty cool,” Dave said. “He’s striving to be the best football player he can be, but man, to get an award that also recognizes what you do away from the field is pretty special. And then of course, the Butkus Award, holy cow. Being in the presence of Dick Butkus was pretty special. And being Defensive Player of the Year in the Big 10 — I mean … there’s so many other great defensive players in the Big 10.

“And Jack Campbell, from Cedar Falls, Iowa, gets it. It’s pretty cool.”

Simple, by design

There is an intrinsic simplicity to an existence in Cedar Falls, Iowa. That doesn’t mean it’s easier. Life is still life: When Campbell was young, his parents divorced and remarried. He’s lost two grandparents in the last four months.

To be from Cedar Falls is to care and to be cared for. There are fewer places to go, fewer things to do and fewer people to see. They hurt together; they meet at church; they send notes of congratulations and condolences with sincerity; you don’t have to live on the same street to be considered a neighbor. Hobbies are enjoyed with regularity. Time doesn’t seem to be in short supply like it does everywhere else.

“It’s not what we have in the state of Iowa that makes it special,” Dave said. “It’s what we don’t have compared to the rest of the world. The state of Iowa’s more our pace. We like getting away and hunting and getting outdoors. … We love it here. I don’t ever see us leaving.

“We’re just the typical Midwestern people, I guess.”

Of all the places for a person like that to land, Detroit might have been among the best options. Nevermind that he seems to align perfectly with the ethos of general manager and coach — his Iowan spirit has a Detroit soul.

Don’t be surprised if, in a year or two, Campbell’s jersey is among the most prevalent at Ford Field each Sunday. It certainly will be the most prevalent in his little corner of Iowa.

“I might have to get a Detroit jersey,” Cuvelier said. “I’m not a huge NFL fan … but I’m a fan of wherever those kids are.”

Every so often, somebody from Cedar Falls goes on to make something of themself in the big world. It’s cool, obviously, for the people who watched it happen, but in this specific case, appreciation overrides pride.

“I don’t think we could have picked a better representative, if I was gonna try to hand-pick one,” Humpallt said. “He’s gonna do everything the right way, he’s gonna handle himself the right way. … He’s gonna represent Cedar Falls High School. He’s gonna represent the Cedar Falls community. He’s gonna represent the state of Iowa.”

That’s what they do in Cedar Falls.


Twitter: @nolanbianchi

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