By Dennis Dillon
May 24, 2012

Bumping his head while walking through the doorway. Trying to get comfortable in a coach seat on an airplane. Crouching lower, (lower, lower) to get his face in the picture frame.

Oh, the thrall of being tall. Calais Campbell, the Cardinals' nouveau riche defensive end, has experienced it ever since he was 15 and his growth spurt finally maxed out at 80 inches.

"I've learned the hard way to duck," said Campbell, who has painful memories about the times he has forgotten to drop his noggin. "I enjoyed being big (growing up). I wasn't very good at hide-and-seek, but beside that I liked being big."

The 6-foot-8 Campbell certainly can't conceal himself on a football field -- not just because he's a human skyscraper, but because of all that he does. Campbell had a career season in 2011, his fourth in the NFL, when he led the Cardinals with eight sacks, had 73 tackles, broke up 10 passes, intercepted one, and forced two fumbles.

We should also mention that Campbell blocked three field goal attempts (giving him five for his career), including his stuff of a game-winning attempt by Rams kicker Josh Brown on the final snap of regulation in Week 9. The Cardinals won moments later in overtime when rookie Patrick Peterson returned a punt 99 yards for a touchdown.

The Cardinals know that Campbell is one of their core players, and they acknowledged it on March 2 by putting a franchise tag on him. That status lasted until earlier this month, when Campbell signed a new, five-year contract that is estimated to be worth $55 million, including a $31 million guarantee. The yearly average of $11 million reportedly puts Campbell No. 3 on the Cardinals player payroll behind wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald ($16.1 million) and quarterback Kevin Kolb ($12.4 million).

Removing the franchise tag lifted a big weight from Campbell's lofty shoulders.

"That was huge," he said. "Having the uncertainty about my future and just everybody asking questions ... really does take away from the game. Now that that's behind me, I can just relax and focus on football."

Don't misinterpret that comment. If you think that Campbell believes he is now living on Easy St. and can shift into cruise control for the rest of his career, you're mistaken. He has played only four NFL seasons. In September he will turn 26. This big cat is just starting to scratch the surface in terms of his potential.

"I've got a lot more in the tank," Campbell said. "I don't feel like I've really played as well as I can play. I feel like I can be a better player in the years to come.

"I want to get better in all aspects of my game, as far as being consistent and making big plays. I really want to concentrate on creating turnovers. I think that's one of the biggest things you can do to give your team a chance to win -- cause turnovers. So that's what I really want to do. Recover fumbles, force fumbles, intercept passes myself or tip balls, giving linebackers and DBs a chance to intercept them."

Campbell plays in a 3-4 defense, where even a 6-8 end sometimes gets obscured. Often, his role is to tie up a blocker, sometimes two, so one of his teammates can get to the hole and make the tackle. The dirty work frequently goes unnoticed by the average fan, but not by Campbell's teammates and coaches.

"He does a number of different things really well," Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "A lot of guys play with effort, and he does that, but his finish and his unselfishness are outstanding. If he's asked to go inside and eat up two guys on a stunt, he does that. He does it just so the other guy can come around from the inside, looping on a stunt, to get free on the outside. The unselfish effort that he puts in is what being part of a great defense is all about."

Campbell's unselfishness likely was an acquired virtue. Growing up in Denver, he was one of eight children (two girls, six boys) raised by Charles and Nateal Campbell. Having five brothers who were close in age, Calais never lacked for companions or competitors in sports. Like each of his brothers, Calais played football -- first at South High School, where he rang up a state-record 58 sacks in his career, and then at the University of Miami, where he was a two-time, All-ACC selection before the Cardinals drafted him in the second round in 2008 after his junior season.

Some of Campbell's athletic talent may have been inherited. Charles Campbell stood 6-3 and was a pole vaulter at the University of Colorado. Nateal Campbell claims to be an accomplished basketball player in her day. "She always tells me I got my athleticism from her," Campbell said, "but I think it came from both sides."

Speaking of both sides, it was at Miami where Campbell realized that being able to rush the passer wasn't enough. To be a complete end, he also needed to stop the run.

"My coach (defensive line coach Randy Shannon, who eventually became Miami's head coach) was nervous to put me in the game when I was a redshirt freshman because he wasn't sure I could play against the run," Campbell recalled. "Ever since then, I've made a commitment to be good against the run in order to be on the field. I worked extra hard at being a run stopper. I take pride in being a run stopper now."

Said Whisenhunt: "One of the things you like -- I like -- about him is not only is he strong at the point of attack, he's (also) good at getting off blocks, which 3-4 ends have to be. He's very good on the back side as far as pursuing plays and finishing plays. One of the things that jumps out at me is the number of tackles he's involved in as an athletic 3-4 end that can hold the point."

Campbell had to be mentally strong during a childhood that wasn't always easy. "We didn't grow up with a lot of money but we always had a lot of fun," he said. At one point when Calais was in sixth grade, the family had to spend six months living in a homeless shelter until Charles could recover financially.

"It was a tough situation to be in," Campbell said, "but we always had that sense of as long as we were together, we'd be OK. My dad would figure it out. So we just had to hold tight."

Overall, Campbell called his experience growing up "awesome," one that convinced him to "want to have a lot of kids one day."

"It was a family atmosphere," he said. "My dad was big on us eating together. We always prayed together before we sat down as a family and ate every meal."

The Campbells eventually moved into a five-bedroom house, but tragedy struck two days before Thanksgiving in Calais' senior year of high school when Charles, in need of a new liver, died before he could get a transplant. Charles once started a youth center for kids to come to after school, and his spirit lives on in Calais, who in 2010 established the "CRC Foundation" in his father's name. The foundation's purpose is to help youth develop by teaching them vocational and financial skills, quality health and nutrition, and sports. The goal is to have a facility built in the Phoenix area within a couple of years.

"As we get more advanced, there will be a lot more things that we can help them with," Campbell said. "It's still a work in progress."

In a sense, Campbell's NFL career still is a work in progress. He may be financially comfortable now, but he has a lot left to accomplish with the Cardinals.

Still, in those quiet, private moments away from the chaos and contact on the football field, when he allows himself to indulge in self-reflection, Campbell marvels at how far he has come.

"When you think about all I've been through, my family, and what we've accomplished, it's amazing," he said. "My father would be very proud of me right now. All I've been through really is the reason I'm in the situation where I'm at right now. Sitting back at this moment and knowing that I've accomplished so much is a dream come true."

Calais Campbell: a big man with big dreams who has come up big. Now that's a tall tale.

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