AMP CAMPBELL went to make a tackle. His head dipped, there was smacking contact, and Amp broke his neck.
They took him to a hospital. They fused two vertebrae. They drilled holes in his skull and fitted him with a brace, a halo device that made him look like an angel.
But Amp Campbell, a star cornerback for Michigan State, wasn’t ready for heaven, not just yet. Besides, he had angels in his life. Two of them were standing by his hospital bed.
“I let you down,” Amp told them, crying. “I’m sorry.”
“No, son,” his father whispered, with Amp’s mother by his side, “don’t even think like that.”
Johnnie and Pearl Campbell had been watching the MSU-Oregon game at home in Florida when the accident happened. It was only the second game of the 1998 season, only 10 minutes past kickoff.
Now, here they were, clear across the country, hearing strange doctors tell them how lucky their son was to be alive. He was not paralyzed, he could recover, they said, but he might never play football again. For now, locked in the brace, he could barely move. Eating, driving, even putting on clothes would be nearly impossible.
As he looked at his son, Johnnie felt a shiver of deja vu. He remembered when, thanks to years of lifting concrete, he, too, was suddenly incapacitated. He needed a new hip at the age of 30. After the operation, he could no longer do construction sites, or even drive a truck. Arthritis developed. He was permanently disabled.
So his mother, who lived just a block away, came over every day, drove him places, helped him get around. It didn’t bother him that a grown man was being taken care of in this way.
That’s what mothers are for.
And this, Johnnie thought as he looked at his broken son, is what fathers are for.
The daily routine
So instead of going home to Florida, Johnnie went back to school with Amp. He moved into the second bedroom in Amp’s off-campus apartment, which Amp shared with his girlfriend, Denise, and their baby daughter, Kiera.
And the routine began.
Every morning, Johnnie would help feed his son breakfast, sometimes even spooning the food into Amp’s mouth, the way he did when Amp was a toddler. Because Amp’s brace now extended from his chin to his lower back, Johnnie would help him dress, or tie his shoes. He would drive Amp to class, then wait for class to end to drive him back home again.
Sometimes, Johnnie wandered into the lectures and listened to the professors. It was as close as he’d ever come to college.
“I learned a few things,” he says now, chuckling.
Other times, Dad would wander to the football facility, talk to trainers about other athletes who had suffered similar injuries to his son’s. What had they done? Did they ever come back?
At night Johnnie would cook dinners, do shopping, help Amp get in and out of the shower. Sometimes, Amp’s friends would come over to play video games, and the old man joined in. He got so good with the joystick, he would occasionally whip the younger players.
“Oooh!” they’d yell, teasing, “Mr. Campbell beat you bad!”
Johnnie stayed with his son not for a few days or a few weeks, but for four months. The temptation is to say the father was injected back into Amp’s life.
The truth is, he’d never left.
The thrill of watching
One Saturday during his stay, Johnnie watched Amp as the Spartans played on TV.
“He was crazy not being there with them,” Johnnie says. “I could see it in his eyes.”
Then, one morning in December, instead of waking Johnnie up, Amp took the car and drove his girlfriend to work.
“Why did you do that?” Johnnie scolded him. “You’re still in a brace. You know you’re not supposed to drive.”
But even as the son apologized, the father knew: The kid had coming back on his mind. Not coming back to life. To football.
Rehab followed. Months of sweaty sacrifice. And finally, a few weeks ago, in an ending that only happens in Hollywood screenplays, Amp Campbell took the field for Michigan State’s opener. He played tentatively at first, but grew more confident. And in the fourth quarter, Amp picked up a fumble and raced 85 yards for the game-winning touchdown.
And back in Florida, his father, watching, once again, on TV, nearly lifted to the ceiling as water filled his eyes. “Go, SON! GO! GO! . . .”
Johnnie and Pearl Campbell are back in East Lansing this week, staying in Amp’s apartment, or what Johnnie laughingly calls “my old room.”
When asked why he made such a sacrifice — four months, every day — he doesn’t hesitate.
“That’s what a father does,” he says.
There’s a huge buildup for Saturday’s Michigan-Michigan State showdown, two undefeated teams, a bitter in-state rivalry. Many fans don’t even see players, they see colors, green or blue.
When you see Amp Campbell, try to see this instead: a disabled father, stiff from arthritis, holding a spoon for his injured son, who is locked inside a chin-to-stomach brace.
And suddenly, the only shade that matters is the line from that old song.
“Color him father, color him love.”
MITCH ALBOM can be reached at 313-223-4581 or email@example.com. Catch
“Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).