Sunday, Nov. 19, 2023 | 2 a.m.
Years ago, the Dolphins youth football team had a game on Sept. 18. The date happened to be the birthday of young DJ Campbell’s mother, Deborah Campbell, who was killed three years earlier by DJ’s uncle and father.
Coaches told DJ, then a fourth-grader, he didn’t have to play. But DJ was determined to honor his mom’s memory through his performance.
The outcome, however, was the complete opposite. DJ was an emotional wreck, and his team lost. He took the blame.
“I had a bad game,” says Campbell, who went on to star at Cheyenne High School, play collegiately at the University of California, Berkeley, and then the NFL.
He has since returned to Las Vegas as a high school coach. His Centennial Bulldogs play Sunrise Mountain at 3:40 p.m. Tuesday at Allegiant Stadium for the Class 4A state championship.
Looking back on that fateful game in grade school, he said, “My head wasn’t right because I was so emotional. There was a lot going through my head that day.”
Dean Fountain, then the Dolphins coach, consoled his star quarterback by telling him to put his thoughts into words. Fountain gave young DJ an assignment to write an essay about leadership.
What he received back was so beautifully written and thoughtful that Fountain has kept it through the years.
DJ wrote, “A champion is someone who acts as a leader, takes pride with his teammates and sets an example for others.”
Fountain choked up as he read the boy’s words.
Centennial had won just one game over the past two seasons before Campbell became head coach. This year, the team has a 10-1 record, outscoring opponents 411-177.
“The dude just has it,” Fountain said. “I don’t know how to describe what it is, but he’s got it. He’s a wonderful person, great husband, great father. Those kids at Centennial are blessed to have him.”
Like mother, like son
Centennial was in a back-and-forth game Nov. 10 with Somerset Losee for the regional title and scored the winning touchdown in the final minute. Campbell is credited with instilling in his players a certain toughness that was evident in the close game. That drive is the product of his competitive nature, he says.
He remembers little about his mother, only that she loved the Atlanta Braves and watching the game show “Supermarket Sweep.” But relatives have told him they have a noticeable similarity: aggressiveness.
“I know she was a tough cookie,” he said. “My competitive, fiery nature I get from her. I take pride in that. It’s something my mom and I have a connection through.”
Campbell’s father, Darion Sr., served 13 years in prison after being convicted of involuntary manslaughter in Deborah Campbell’s shooting death in March 1996. Uricos Campbell was convicted of second-degree murder and has since been paroled, according to prison records.
The men were arguing with Deborah at their North Las Vegas residence, according to Sun reporting. Deborah attempted to drive away, but the men pursued her in a car chase and rear-ended her vehicle into a wall. Deborah was shot when she was getting out of the car. A group of schoolchildren waiting for the bus witnessed the crime.
Campbell and his two siblings went to live with Deborah’s sister, Valencia Meyer. Many refer to Meyer as “Aunt V,” but Campbell and his siblings simply call her mom.
“She was a great lady who loved her kids until the end,” Meyer said of her sister. “I remember telling them stories of who she was, showing them how their mother liked certain things. I always wanted them to acknowledge they had a mother.”
Campbell has talked to his father a few times over the years, and noticed the attempts for communication picked up during his NFL career from 2012 to 2014. His siblings during those years had never heard from their father.
“I didn’t owe him anything,” Campbell said. “To this day, he’s never said he was sorry and never explained what happened. The man I turned out to be was not because of him, it was in spite of him.”
Sharing life lessons
Campbell was sitting in the San Francisco 49ers training room after practice with teammate Patrick Willis. They started talking about their childhoods, with Willis detailing how he was raised by his father after his mother abandoned the family when he was just 4 years old.
Willis’ father was abusive and battled substance abuse, which led the state of Tennessee to take custody of the children.
Campbell shared his story too.
Campbell also doesn’t hesitate to detail his childhood — even to his Centennial players.
“I am very transparent with my life and how I grew up. Experience is the best teacher,” Campbell said. “As bad as we think we have it, somebody may have it worse. Those are the life lessons I try to teach my boys.”
Some people store their emotions on the inside and don’t talk. Meyer made sure her nephew expressed himself, which she quickly learned was something that came naturally.
“He was taught how to articulate,” she said. “Dealing with a traumatic experience, you must talk to them and move past them. He never kept his feelings to himself.”
Meyer, a three-sport star at Clark High School, almost immediately got her nephew enrolled in youth sports once she became his guardian.
At first Campbell was limited to playing on the offensive line in football. A few years later, he was assigned to Fountain’s team, where he settled in at quarterback and won plenty of youth titles.
Campbell was a natural leader on the field, Fountain said.
He repeatedly asked questions about the game and his position, and “was just sponge-soaking everything in,” Fountain said. The coach in him was born at a young age.
Fountain remembers Campbell telling him, “I try to coach how you coached us, how you taught us and held us accountable. You made us work. Nothing was given.”
That’s something the players at Centennial quickly learned about their coach, who “has pushed us hard in everything we do,” wide receiver Mason Garza said.
The seniors preparing for their last game have had an eventful four years — their freshman season in 2020 was canceled because of the pandemic, and they had just one varsity victory the next two years.
Tuesday, they’ll play their last game together in the best possible scenario — for a state ring at Allegiant Stadium.
Garza said Campbell talking about his past was the start of the team bonding, because “it made the team environment more family-like. We cherish every minute together because we know every day isn’t promised.”
What is promised is Campbell’s devotion to his mom. Before every game, he channels her competitive spirit. It’ll be there Tuesday.
“It’s business as usual,” he said of the state game. “We are not making this bigger or smaller than it needs to be. It’s all in our preparation. We aren’t going to under-prepare or over-prepare, but our consistent preparation is what got us here and that’s comforting.”