It has been a tough year for Gary Campbell.
It has been a tough year for Gary Campbell.
"A tough last few years, actually," said Campbell, Oregon's longtime running backs coach, this week. "I lost the youngest of my sisters three years ago, I lost my oldest sister this year, I lost my son back in August. That has been really rough."
Campbell, the longest-tenured coach in school history, has been a fixture in Eugene since joining the program in 1983.
Through the decades, he has recruited, coached and mentored celebrated tailbacks for Rich Brooks, Mike Bellotti, Chip Kelly and now Mark Helfrich.
Oregon's fall camp simply did not feel right without Campbell, who had to step away from the team to grieve for his son, Bryan, who died on Aug. 15 at 29.
Bryan was an inspiration to his family, and the extended Ducks family, for bravely defying the odds and living with a cruel spinal muscular atrophy condition know as Werdnig-Hoffman Disease. He was paralyzed from the neck down, breathed through a respirator and ate through a tube.
When Campbell was away on recruiting trips or breaking down film in the wee hours, his wife Alola was providing the full-time assistance Bryan required while also raising their daughters, Phillis, Traci and Janee.
"My son went through some tough months before passing away," Campbell said. "That all had a real toll on our family. My concern was not only my son but my wife and how it was affecting her. All through the years she has been so instrumental in caring for him because of my travel all the time. I was really concerned about her as much as I was about him. It was stressful."
Bryan never spoke a word during his life, yet former and current Oregon coaches and players, as well as many members of the community, reached out to make sure Campbell knew how deeply Bryan affected them as the family mourned.
"Coach Campbell is a great guy," sophomore running back Byron Marshall said. "Not even as a coach, he's a great man. I've got so much respect for him. All the stuff he went through early in the year, during fall camp with his son, now you don't see him a day without a smile on his face.
"He really just doesn't take life for granted."
A lone (black) prep star
Campbell's ability to remain strong and positive during life's most challenging times was instilled in him while growing up in Ennis, Texas, as the South slowly evolved from segregation.
When the Alamo Bowl announced it was pairing No. 10 Oregon up with Texas, Campbell's mind raced back to a much different time in America.
"It's meaningful to me," Campbell said of playing the Longhorns in San Antonio.
The Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education declared the unconstitutionality of separate public schools for black and white students. That was in 1954.
Twelve years later, rural Texas was finally getting around to making desegregation a reality. Campbell helped integrate Ennis High, located about 30 miles south of Dallas, during the transition. He was the only black football player at the school in 1966.
"There were a lot of racial slurs with opposing teams," Campbell said. "It was great in my hometown. I can't say I never had any problems, but I never had any problems from teammates or anything. There were obviously some community things. It was a lot different than it is today. The city was segregated. There were segregated water fountains, segregated bathrooms in the service stations and restaurants or whatever. There were restrooms for men, restrooms for women and restrooms for what they called coloreds at the time.
"It was a difficult time, but I think it was a character-building thing for me."
Campbell said his high school coach, Gerald Myers, treated him well. Ennis High enjoyed a lot of success under the Friday night lights during the volatile era of change.
"Ennis at that time was only like 10,000 people. When we played out of town, it was like a ghost town there," Campbell said.
Campbell graduated from high school in 1969. That year, the Longhorns were the last all-white team to win a national championship.
In 1970, legendary coach Darrell Royal finally added one black player, Julius Whittier, to the varsity roster.
Originally, Campbell signed a Southwest Conference letter-of-intent to play at Texas Tech because the Red Raiders had several black players on the team who helped recruit him. On national signing day, he committed to UCLA.
"(Myers) told me, 'I don't want you to go away to California because you'll never come back.' And he was right," Campbell said. "Fortunately, I left and went to Los Angeles where things were totally different. It was quite a different experience for me. ...
"Everybody in my hometown went to either Prairie View, Wiley or Grambling, all the predominantly black schools. I was the first black player to come out of Ennis and go to a Division I college."
Campbell played at UCLA for Tommy Prothro, who had coached Heisman Trophy winner Terry Baker at Oregon State. On Oct. 3, 1970, the 13th-ranked Bruins lost 20-17 to No. 2 Texas in Austin. The Longhorns went on to share the national championship with Nebraska.
"I remember as a player at UCLA when we went down to play them, I had like a 102 fever," Campbell said. "They weren't going to let me go, and I told them, 'There's no way I'm going to go back there and not play.'
"Finally, they let me."
After finishing his playing career at UCLA and having a cup of coffee in the NFL, Campbell worked as a graduate assistant at his alma mater before coaching at several small schools and finding a home at Oregon 30 years ago.
The Eugene experience, at least initially, was more like Ennis than Los Angeles.
"When I got here I actually had a couple little racial encounters here as well," Campbell said. "It was nothing new to me. I hadn't experienced it in a while. It didn't really bother me a whole lot. I just kind of shed it down my back and accounted it as stupidity.
"My life here has been great. I raised my whole family here. My wife loves it here, I love it here, so it has been great for me."
A 'smooth' bridge to the past
On the field, Campbell is best known at Oregon for developing talents like Reuben Droughns, Jonathan Stewart, Kenjon Barner, LaMichael James and De'Anthony Thomas. The Ducks have led the Pac-12 in rushing for eight consecutive years, and the future looks bright with Marshall, true freshman Thomas Tyner and a couple of promising recruits verbally committed for the 2014 class.
Off the field, Campbell is known for his dapper wardrobe. For 31 years at Oregon, all eyes have been on the running backs coach during pregame walks into stadiums and postgame interview sessions outside locker rooms, which Campbell commands wearing bright, custom-made three-piece Italian suits, stylish fedoras, matching pocket squares and perfectly shined shoes.
"Smooth," is how Marshall describes his 62-year-old position coach. "That's the best way to explain it. Coach Campbell is just smooth at everything, handles everything, always calm for the most part."
Campbell said his sense of style comes from his late mother, Pearl, who used to make her own hats and transform old shoes into fashionable footwear.
"She was really a flashy dresser," Campbell said. "We had a big window, they called them picture windows back in those days, and she'd have them on a hat tree in the window, kind of like a Christmas tree. People would come in and want to buy them. "¦
"She would always tell me, 'Wherever you go, look your best.'"
Campbell is proud that current Ducks from the Lone Star State, like Josh Huff and Bralon Addison, were simply overlooked by Texas instead of being ignored because of their skin color.
Recently, the old-school coach decided to talk to today's players — who spend most of their time in the plush Hatfield-Dowlin Complex — about what it was like to grow up in the segregated South.
"My dad used to talk about that a lot. It wasn't a surprise to me, but I'm surprised a lot of people in the room didn't know about it," said senior safety Brian Jackson, who is from Hoover, Ala. "Being where I'm from, it's a part of history, and we learn about that kind of stuff in school, our parents teach it. It's kind of strange to know there are people who have no earthly idea that kind of thing went around. When I was thinking about some of the stories (Campbell) was telling when he was speaking to us about it, it seemed like him and my dad are probably around the same age. I thought, 'This sounds familiar.' "¦
"People always need to know their history and where they come from. I think it's kind of a shame, because how bad things were, that people just want to forget it. It's the complete opposite direction of where we need to be facing this."
Campbell just wanted to give back to a team that supported him during the worst of times for Bryan and the family.
"I think they were shocked to know that I really lived through that kind of thing. I told them some things I haven't really told a lot of people. About how I had lived and some of the things that I went through," Campbell said. "They were a little amazed by it. A lot of them said, 'Coach, we've heard stories like that but we've never really known anybody who really went through it.'
"So it was kind of tough at first even remembering it or talking about it. Once I did, I think it was good for me as well as them to share it with them."