ANN ARBOR - After his fourth year at the University of Michigan during this past offseason, Anton Campbell sat down to do some soul-searching.
Did he really want to exercise his option for a fifth season with the Wolverines? Could his body withstand the physical toll from another grueling campaign? And if so, why bother? He hadn't seen even a whiff of playing time other than on special teams at that point in his college career.
All it took to dismiss the questions and convince him otherwise was a phone call to his mother, Angela, back in his hometown of O'Fallon, Mo., to get her opinion on what he should do.
"She was like, 'There's no question,'•" Campbell said, smiling. "I was like, 'You're right, Ma. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
Angela Campbell said the decision was ultimately left in her son's hands.
"I always knew his heart was in football," Mrs. Campbell said. "The main point I was really trying to help him understand was that it was a critical time in his life and in his career. I didn't want him to have any regrets."
Campbell has made the most of that opportunity and then some. Twice this season he's been named special teams captain for the week - an honor based on a player's effort and hard work in practice and in games.
Listed on the roster as a defensive back, Campbell also saw some time in practice at running back last week when the Wolverines were down a couple bodies at the position with Mike Hart and Brandon Minor nursing injuries.
"He's one of those guys that is willing to do anything to give his team a chance [to win]," Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said. "He never complains. He's always had a great attitude."
It hasn't always been easy for Campbell. He was recruited out of Fort Zumwalt West High School, about 35 miles northwest of St. Louis, as a running back and was rated as high as the No. 6 all-purpose back in the nation by some scouting Web sites.
During his time in O'Fallon, Campbell set school records for career rushing, season rushing, career solo tackles, and career interceptions. He also ran the 40-yard dash in 4.45 seconds, could bench press 330 pounds, and measured a 36-inch vertical leap.
"He was a good kid and always humble," Mrs. Campbell said. "He never took credit for himself and was a great motivator for his teammates."
At Michigan, however, Campbell quickly found out those statistics are about as common as the grains of sand on a beach.
He first learned that on his recruiting trip to Ann Arbor. Campbell stayed with former special teams standout Darnell Hood, who set forth Campbell's future for him as well as any crystal ball reader could.
Hood told Campbell he would see a little bit of time at running back in training camp his freshman year, then be converted into a defensive back and finally make his impact on special teams.
Campbell told him he didn't know what he was talking about.
Shortly after switching to safety midway through spring drills in 2004, Campbell picked up the phone one evening. It was Hood.
"Told you so," he said.
Proof that even a special teamer can earn some recognition, Campbell currently sits tied for first among active players with 43 career games played, along with quarterback Chad Henne and safety Brandent Englemon.
"That's something I take a lot of pride in," Campbell said.
Englemon and Campbell lived together at the Signature Club Apartments near Briarwood Mall the last two years, so Englemon knows firsthand the toils of Campbell's journey.
"He might be one of the hardest workers that I've ever been around," Englemon said.
"Really with Anton, he just wanted to get on the field at any position, whatever it took. It didn't matter to him. He just wanted to help the team win."
Moving from the role of star player to special teams contributor is a difficult prospect for any player to overcome.
In the dark moments of those early months when Campbell was still adjusting his mindset to take on those new responsibilities, he turned to his rock.
"My mom has been a huge fan of mine," Campbell said. "She's helped me through the times I've been down.
"I'd go to her and say, 'I don't know if this is going to work.' And she'd always say, 'You can do it. You can do it.'
"She's really helped me out."
So far this season, Campbell has assisted on five tackles after setting a career-high with 10 tackles last season, mostly on kickoff coverage.
Now that his senior season is winding down, it's hard for Campbell to look back and think of the what ifs had it not been for a little well-timed motherly advice.
"It was the best time of my life," he said. "Now I'm trying to enjoy every day because it's going by so fast. I can't believe it's almost over.
"Mom always knows best."
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