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Aliquippa grad finds home with Titans

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The Titans' Tommie Campbell returns a kickoff for a touchdown against the Lions on Sept. 23, 2012, in Nashville, Tennessee. (Getty Images)

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Unlikely return

Since 2011, only four NFL players returned a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown:

Player, team KO Punt

Devin Hester, Bears 2 1

Randall Cobb, Packers 1 2

Ted Ginn Jr., 49ers 1 1

Tommie Campbell, Titans 1 1

'American Coyotes' Series

Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

By John Grupp
Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2012, 11:12 p.m.

Tommie Campbell never wants to forget the long shifts working as an airport janitor, cleaning toilets and mopping floors for $8 an hour.

“I think about that every day,” he said. “That's what keeps me going.”

The former Aliquippa High School star, who less than three years ago was ready to abandon his NFL dreams, will be on the field for the opening kickoff on Thursday night when the Titans host his hometown Steelers at LP Field.

Campbell has established himself as a special teams ace, scoring return touchdowns in each of his first two seasons since being selected out of California University (Pa.) with the fourth-to-last pick, No. 251 overall, in the 2011 NFL Draft.

The 6-foot-3, 205-pound Campbell is also a reserve cornerback for the Titans (1-4), who are allowing an NFL-worst 36.2 points per game.

“I've been playing really well on special teams,” Campbell said. “On defense, I don't get in as much as I would like. But I take everything I know and work as hard as I can.”

Campbell is finally reaching his potential. He played at Pitt from 2005-06, before being suspended indefinitely for violating team rules. He transferred to Division II Edinboro University, where academic problems led to his dismissal after one season.

He didn't play football or go to school for the next 2 ½ years. But with a family to support, the father of two young sons took a job as a full-time janitor at Pittsburgh International Airport for six months. Campbell, who was Darrelle Revis' high school teammate, also worked as a manual laborer and in a local food market during 2008-09, his NFL dream rapidly fading away.

“I was real close to giving up,” he said. “My kids told me to go back to school and give it a shot. That's all I wanted, to give it a shot.”

Campbell, 25, got a break, when he moved in with a friend, Larry Dorsch, 55, a Cranberry real estate developer, and his family. Campbell started lifting weights and running. He trained with former Indiana (Pa.) star Jai Hill, who in turn spoke with Cal (Pa.) defensive coordinator Mike Conway.

“He had a lot of baggage, and we really weren't interested,” Conway said of Campbell. “(Cal head) coach (John) Luckhardt insisted that I at least talk to him.”

So Conway drove to Beaver County in the winter of 2009 and met with Campbell for three hours. An emotional Campbell, tears in his eyes, poured it all out.

“His story tugged at me a little bit,” Conway said. “I really felt he wanted to change.”

Campbell enrolled at Cal, took his grades seriously and played well enough to be invited to the Cactus Bowl, where he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.31 seconds.

By comparison, only one player at the 2011 NFL Combine recorded a faster time (Steelers cornerback DeMarcus Van Dyke).

“The fastest person (on the field Thursday night) is going to be in blue,” Campbell said.

Campbell was one of eight NCAA D-II players to participate in the 2011 Eastham Energy All-Star game. The Titans picked him in the seventh round and he made the 53-man roster.

Campbell, who plays on all four special teams, returned a kickoff 84 yards for a TD on a reverse against Tampa Bay as a rookie. This year, he took a cross-field pass and returned a punt 65 yards for a score in a 44-41 overtime victory against the Lions.

Conway gave credit to everyone who had a hand in Campbell's eventual path.

“The people from Aliquippa and the people at Pitt,” Conway said. “All of the people who had something to do with his life should take pride in this.”

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