Tommie Campbell zooms into leadership role for CFL’s Montreal Alouettes
Years of searching have yielded nothing. Tommie Campbell still can’t find anyone who can run with him — not even now as the Montreal Alouettes defensive back approaches his 32nd birthday (Sept. 19).
Asked if he still “has it,” Campbell’s answer was simple.
“Everywhere I go, I haven’t had anybody catch me yet,” he said, his grin apparent even over the phone.
Campbell’s blinding speed made him a WPIAL track and field star. He set three WPIAL meet records (100-meter dash, 200, 400 relay) at the 2005 district finals then helped Aliquippa’s five-man team win the PIAA title while becoming the school’s first state champion in a track event (100).
He parlayed that speed — and no shortage of football prowess — into a four-year NFL career. As a member of the Tennessee Titans, he returned a punt and a kickoff for touchdowns.
Campbell is in his fourth season in the Canadian Football League and second with the Alouettes. Though in football years he is long in the tooth, the 6-foot-2, 203-pounder is on pace to have his best season as a pro.
Through five games, Campbell has 22 tackles, two interceptions — his career best in the CFL is three — and a forced fumble. He has helped the surprising Alouettes (3-2) to three straight wins, creating buzz that they could be a team to be reckoned with in the wide-open East Division.
Campbell had a team-leading seven tackles Saturday as the Alouettes stifled high-scoring Edmonton — led by quarterback Trevor Harris, Campbell’s teammate at Edinboro — 20-10.
For first-year coach Khari Jones, having a player of Campbell’s ilk is a godsend. His steady play and leadership, Jones said, helped the Alouettes through a tumultuous time: The team fired coach Mike Sherman just before the start of the regular season and recently fired general manager Kavis Reed.
Montreal also has a first-year defensive coordinator, Bob Slowik.
“With all the changes we had and everything … it’s nice for guys to have him to look to and see that everything is all right,” Jones said. “After I got hired, he came up to me and said, ‘I’m here for you.’ It’s nice when one of your leaders and best players does that.
“He’s always talking to guys one-on-one. He’s in the meeting room and leads those meetings when the players are in there. He’s making sure they’re all accountable.”
That type of maturity was missing from Campbell’s personality during his younger days. His lackadaisical approach to academics got him dismissed from Pitt and Edinboro. He finally made good when Cal (Pa.) gave him a chance to play his final year of eligibility.
Discipline, Campbell said, is what has kept him competing at a high level while some of his contemporaries begin to slow down — literally and figuratively.
“Just being a pro, doing the little things and always being willing to learn,” Campbell said. “Those are the two things you have to do. I would say I’m a leader, but I’m also a learner. I’m trying to lead people but also trying to correct mistakes in myself.”
Campbell’s mistakes have been few and far between this season, and, Jones said, he has become a complete player. He always was known as a one-on-one cover guy — again a by-product of his speed — but his grasp of zone schemes has made him more well-rounded.
Jones said that makes quarterbacks even more reluctant to throw to his half of the field.
“I played quarterback in this league, and there were certain guys I wanted to go at and certain guys I wanted to avoid,” Jones said. “He is one of those guys (to avoid). Now he sees things really well out on the field, and you can tell it’s fun for him.”
Campbell said he is immensely enjoying his time in Canada, and he plans to play another three to five seasons as his health allows. He still lives in Aliquippa during the offseason and sometimes has to deal with locals asking him about being in the CFL rather than the NFL — perhaps not surprising in a town that produced Mike Ditka, Ty Law and Darrelle Revis.
But Campbell said he pays them no mind. As far as he is concerned, he has the best of both worlds.
“I got four years in the NFL, so my career (there) lasted longer than a lot of people,” he said. “So I had a successful NFL career, and now I have a successful Canadian career. When you’re still playing football and you’re 31, you’ve done something right.”
Chuck Curti is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chuck by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .