- Campbell was picked in the first round of the 1981 NFL draft by the Green Bay Packers, but he never got the support he needed to thrive at the next level and eventually flamed out. Now a newspaper columnist, Campbell realizes how lucky he is.
Most newspaper columnists would call Rich Campbell an NFL draft bust. The problem for Campbell is that he is a newspaper columnist.
You might wonder how a man goes from the No. 6 overall pick in the 1981 draft to writing columns and editorials. It’s simple, really. First you spend four years on the bench, then you join the ministry, and then you move on to journalism.
And somewhere in there, you figure out who you are.
A quarterback’s job is to throw passes and win games. A columnist’s job is to sift through the facts and reach a fair and reasonable point of view. Campbell the quarterback failed. Campbell the columnist understands why.
Campbell remembers spending draft day at his parents’ house. He was a quarterback out of Cal who had completed 67% of his passes as a junior and 71% as a senior. The draft was different, back then, of course. Information was hard to come by. But Campbell had talked to enough people in the NFL that he fully expected to be drafted in the top 10.
He would hear, years later, that the St. Louis Cardinals planned to pick him at No. 5, but they had a policy: if they couldn’t get a player on the phone before they picked, they wouldn’t draft him. They did not know he was at his parents’ house, and this was before cell phones. They couldn’t reach him.
“Then Bart Starr called,” Campbell says, “and said the Packers had taken me.”
Starr was both a Hall of Fame quarterback and the Packers’ head coach, so the young quarterback could not ask for a better endorsement. Campbell says he signed a four-year, $1 million contract, “which at the time, was a colossal deal.” It seemed like a safe investment for the Packers, because Campbell, who had thought about going into the ministry since high school, was what you might call a high-character player.
He expected to sit on the bench in his first season, and he did. He also sat on the bench for his second season. And his third season. By his fourth season, even he started to question whether he could play.
“Personality-wise, I’m the kind of person that … I need a coach that believes in me,” Campbell says. “I had that in college and I flourished. I didn’t have that when I was with the Packers and I struggled. Emotionally, I needed the Packers to say publicly, ‘This is our guy.’ When that didn’t come, it kind of chipped away at my confidence. By the end of my four years there, I was not nearly as good as when I got there.”
He recalls his offensive coordinator, Bob Schnelker, as “a really good X’s and O’s guy but not a guy that will work with you after practice and encourage and develop you. That was what I needed at that time and I didn’t get it.”
Campbell led the Packers to a win over the Bears at the end of the 1984 season; that same Bears defense would dominate the league the next year. But Campbell already knew he was a goner in Green Bay. He asked for his release and got it, and he signed with the Raiders. But the Raiders had four quarterbacks and he knew they would keep three. He asked for his release again and signed with a new team: Western Seminary in Portland.
For a few years, Campbell was so bitter at the Packers that he refused to watch their games. The team had destroyed his confidence—at least this was the story he told himself.
One word that crops up every year at this time is character. It means whatever you want it to mean. When a video of Laremy Tunsil smoking pot through a gas mask goes viral, people question his character. Josh Rosen, Johnny Manziel, Odell Beckham Jr., Baker Mayfield: fairly or not, people have questioned all of their character. The word has been spread so thin that it essentially means nothing. And there is no better proof than Rich Campbell. He may have failed because, in normal human terms, he had too much character.
He made a lot of money and appreciated it. He did not have a huge ego. He did not think it was his God-intended plan to conquer the world. When people questioned his ability, he did not arrogantly dismiss them; he figured maybe they had a point. These are all qualities we tend to admire in people and seek in friends. They are not what makes a franchise quarterback.
Campbell left the ministry to become the editorial-page editor with the Hattiesburg (Mississippi) American—the hometown paper of the next great Packers quarterback, Brett Favre. And then in 2005, the Packers used a first-round pick on a quarterback for the first time since taking Rich Campbell, drafting Aaron Rodgers from Cal, Campbell’s alma mater.
Campbell spent a week with Rodgers in Green Bay after he was drafted. He stayed at Rodgers’s house. They played bocce and got to know each other. And in Rodgers and Favre, Campbell saw the kind of relentless professional competitor that he never was.
Yes, both Rodgers and Favre are incredibly talented physically, but they also have an ingrained belief in their own greatness. They have never wavered from it—not when Favre was languishing on the bench in Atlanta, not when Rodgers was languishing on the bench in Green Bay, not ever. Rodgers just signed a huge contract extension, he has won a Super Bowl, and he would be an obvious first-ballot Hall of Famer if he retired tomorrow. Yet nobody questions his desire to win another Super Bowl.
Campbell stopped blaming the Packers long ago. The writer looks back and sees what the quarterback could not.
“There is something from going from having no money to having money, it changes your focus,” he said. “I kind of had the sense I had already arrived when I got my contract. I didn’t realize this was just the start, the rest of it had to be earned. I wasn’t as single-[minded] as I needed to be. I worked a lot harder in college than I did in the NFL. I just felt like when I made the transition, I lost my edge.”
This does not mean he could have been a star. But he thinks he could have had a longer NFL career if he had “the ability to process failures in a healthy manner. Not blaming yourself but learning what you can and using what you learned to move a step or two over time.”
Now Campbell is a columnist and editorial writer for Treasure Coast Newspapers in Florida. In the last few years, he has been hit with another revelation: He is lucky he failed. He is not suffering from concussion-induced memory loss, and he does not limp along on artificial knees. He has read and heard the same stories about former players that many of us have read and heard. He says, “I have actually come to the place now where I am literally grateful I didn’t have a 10–12 year NFL career.” If he had played a lot of pro football, it could have wrecked him in later life. That would not have been worth it to him. He is glad he never became great. And that may explain why he never did.
Question or comment? Email us at email@example.com.