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Walking tall

Williamsport's Campbell is ready to get back on the field after paralysis scare in 2020

Avery Campbell. DAVE KENNEDY/Sun-Gazette

Four days after suffering a spinal cord injury which left him temporarily paralyzed, defensive end Avery Campbell wheeled himself into the Williamsport Hospital lobby. Once there, Williamsport assistant coach Kevin Brown presented Campbell the game ball after the Millionaires blanked Dallas, 48-0.

The last time Brown saw Campbell move came the previous Tuesday when the junior leader was playing a strong game against perennial state power Harrisburg. Late in the third quarter, everything stopped … the game, the crowd noise, the players. Millionaire Stadium grew eerily quiet.

Campbell made what he thought was a routine a tackle, was hit in the back during the play and tried popping up. But he couldn’t. Campbell could not feel his legs. He could not move them. Soon all most could here was Campbell frantically asking, “why can’t I move my legs?”

Williamsport’s trainer, Brown, and Campbell’s father Albert quickly surrounded him. Campbell really does not remember what they said because he primarily heard just his own voice as he tried comprehending this situation.

Flash forward to four days to that Saturday afternoon. As Campbell cradled the game ball, the three-year starter told Brown he was providing him a gift, too.

Seconds later, Brown experienced one of the most emotional moments of his life. It was one he and many others feared they might never witness again.

Campbell stood up and walked toward Brown.

“Surprised isn’t the word. I was just like stuck when he stood up. Like ‘shocked’ stuck. I couldn’t believe he stood up,” Brown said. “After I stared at him for a few seconds I gave him the biggest hug. The fact he wanted me to see him stand up out of the wheelchair and walk was something I’ll never forget.”

Campbell basically was learning to walk again and so many more steps needed taken. The road ahead became bumpy at times, and Campbell sometimes grew depressed, but he never veered off course.

The long journey is complete.Through all the adversity, Campbell enters the 2021 season feeling stronger than ever.

“I’m 100%. I’m ready,” Campbell said. “I’m confident in my abilities and I’m absolutely 100% prepared to face anything.”

Last October 20 Campbell started learning how strong he could become as he suddenly faced the fight of his life.

The Injury

Campbell often allayed his girlfriend’s fears of him playing football by telling her he was Superman. Despite various bumps and bruises suffered before, Campbell never was kept down long and he was making opposing linemen feel like Clark Kent throughout Williamsport’s first five games. Explosive off the edge, Campbell played a prominent role on a nasty defense, collecting 5 1/2 sacks and seven tackles for loss as Williamsport started 5-0 while allowing just 52 points.

Williamsport was scheduled to play its sixth game Friday, October 16, against Pittston but the Patriots had to cancel early that Friday because of COVID-19 issues. Williamsport found a replacement in Harrisburg. The only time both could play was the following Tuesday but Williamsport embraced the opportunity to compete against one of the state’s premier teams. That included Campbell who opened the game with a thunderous tackle on the kickoff.

But even before that game started, Campbell’s mother Andrea was experiencing thoughts as ominous as the gloomy clouds which blanketed the sky.

“Usually I’m pretty confident and even if I’m not confident of the outcome of the game I’m confident Avery will play well,” she said. “This time I just didn’t have a good feeling about it. I told Avery, ‘Make sure you have your extra pads and take it easy.’ It was just a bad feeling.”

That premonition became reality late in the third quarter. Campbell made three tackles on the game’s opening series and again was quick to the football this time, combining with best friend Dade Splain to stop Kiev Gregg for a 2-yard gain. Other defenders came into to help finish the tackle and Campbell was hit in the back. It looked like an ordinary play and, even now, it’s hard discerning where and when the injury occurred.

“As many times as I’ve watched that replay I couldn’t even tell when he got hit,” Albert said. “I couldn’t even tell that he got hit in the back. It just looked like he went down and when he went down his legs just kind of slowly went sideways.”

Campbell, too, thought nothing serious had happened. He said he felt a hard hit but just assumed it was another typical football play as he prepared to get up. Only then did he realize something seriously was wrong. As hard as he tried, Campbell could not rise. He could not move or feel his legs. Suddenly, he knew something was terribly wrong.

The longer Campbell, one of the toughest players his teammates and friends know, stayed down that reality swept the sideline as well before overtaking the entire stadium.

“It all happened so fast. I just remember I got off the ball and it was the opposite side that I was on and I just remember running to the play and going up behind and wrapping him down and then I feel a big hit to my back. It felt like any other hit until I tried getting up and I couldn’t get up,” Campbell said. “Then I tried moving my legs and I couldn’t move my legs and I’m like “What the hell is going on?’ I didn’t know what to do. I was freaking out. I tried so hard to get out of that position and to move and I just couldn’t. It was a really terrifying experience.

“My first thought was ‘how am I going to walk again?’ I thought I was done for.”

What Now?

Barely any words were uttered throughout Millionaire Stadium as Campbell lay on the turf, waiting for the ambulance. After Campbell was placed on a stretcher and wheeled toward the ambulance both Williamsport and Harrisburg fans rose and cheered. Through all the fear and uncertainty, Campbell managed to raise his right hand and thank those fans by giving the No. 1 salute.

Nobody knew his fate, but Campbell already was thinking about others and that gesture was his way of lifting everyone’s’ spirits. It was his way of telling them everything would be OK.

“It was scary because of the uncertainty, but I trusted in God and his plan,” Splain said. “I knew deep down that everything would work out.”

Campbell put on a brave front, but he was not so sure. CT and MRI scans showed no structural damage had been suffered. Nothing was torn, nothing was broken. That was the good news hours into Campbell’s hospital stay in the Intensive Care Unit. The bad news was he could still feel nothing or move anything below his waist. And that first night was especially long since results from other tests would not be known until the next day.

His life potentially changing forever, Campbell turned his thoughts outward as that first chaotic night progressed. The shock he felt on the field had dissipated and Campbell began thinking about his four sibings, all who were there, his girlfriend, his teammates … at that moment their well-being meant more.

“I’m like, ‘they’re great kid, but how are you?’ Andrea said. “The whole experience and how Avery handled it was very humbling because you have the shock and then I got angry because it wasn’t a regularly scheduled game and then I felt bad for getting angry and then I had grief and wondered what if? I had this horrible fear and the whole time Avery had the next step planned regardless of what’s going to happen.”

That included coming to grips with the worst-case scenario. Maybe Campbell would never walk again. He knew that was a possibility. If that was his fate, Campbell would not let it destroy him.

Like Gerry Bertier, whose story was told in the 2000 movie, “Remember the Titans,” Campbell would become a Paralympian and excel there. An excellent singer, cello and guitar player and high-ranking student, Campbell would have plenty of non-athletic venues to pursue as well.

“I eventually started conversations with my dad which were more about acceptance. As it went on, it started becoming less optimistic and more realistic,” Campbell said. “If I am like this for the rest of my life, I’m going to start planning on what I’m going to do and what I’m going to sign up for. We talked about it and then it got to the point where it’s accepting it and accepting being in the hospital for the next six months.”

AveryStrong

Because of COVID restrictions, Albert was the only one who could stay with Campbell while in the hospital. Still, Campbell felt like he had an entire army supporting him there. Teammates, coaches, friends, teachers and the entire Williamsport and Harrisburg communities embraced Campbell. As word spread of the injury, countless others from all over central Pennsylvania sent gifts and well-wishes.

They could not physically make Campbell walk again, but those supporters were going to do everything possible to provide the motivation necessary to stage this fight. That included his teammates and coaches creating “AveryStrong” t-shirts and wearing them underneath their jerseys four days later when Williamsport hosted Dallas.

Campbell’s fight was their fight. They were in this together. Until now those supporters may not have known how big their impact was. At the darkest time in his life, Campbell was provided a bright light and provided ideal therapy.

“It was a very overwhelming process for sure knowing that all of Williamsport and outside Williamsport knew about the injury,” Campbell said. “I love the sympathy that I got because all the sympathy made me want to work harder because sometimes you need that. Sometimes you need that person giving you ‘the everything will be OK,’ message to calm you down. It was 100% what I needed to hear.”

“There was never a moment when he was down with them. I was with him a couple times when the Harrisburg players were reaching out and coaches were reaching out and the community was reaching out in waves and every time Avery was like ‘I’m great,'” Andrea said. “It was never a negative mindset in his approach at all during the whole thing and that’s really humbling. He’s taught me a little bit of grace because he had it through the entire thing.”

Campbell’s spirit touched his teammates who played inspired football against Dallas, winning 48-0 and dedicating the victory to him. Williamsport dominated all facets, concluded its best regular season since 2016 and gave Campbell the ultimate tribute.

“It felt good to get a win for the team,” Splain said. “It felt weird to be out there without him but I had to put the team first and focus on all of us getting a ‘W’, and to get a shutout really showed how much everyone was motivated and how much it meant to all of us.”

Brown, who coached both the Harrisburg and Dallas games with coach Chuck Crews in COVID quarantine, would soon be the one gaining inspiration. So would the players and so many others. They did not know it yet but the highlight of a stellar season had been provided the previous day.

Two days into his hospital stay, Campbell was told he had suffered spinal shock. Considering the alternatives, it was amazing news. Spinal shock results in temporary loss or depression of all or most spinal reflex activity below the level of the injury. The tremendous upside was that it is a temporary injury so Campbell knew he would walk again. It was just a matter of when. Basically, spinal shock is like a computer restart and all the nerves had to kick into gear again.

Doctors told the Campbell’s it could take as long as six months until Avery moved his legs again. His parents even signed papers for a six-month stay.

Then the moment happened.

When he woke up that morning, Campbell felt what he described as ‘pins and needles’ in his toes. As minutes went by that feeling increased. A doctor came in shortly after for Campbell’s morning checkup. She started moving Campbell’s leg and he moved it by himself. Campbell has played football most of his life but this was the greatest thrill he had ever felt.

“I was like, ‘Wow!’ I bent my right knee and it was like pure joy,” Campbell said. “My dad was next to me and was tearing up. It’s really a gratifying experience. I was very, very grateful to have moved my legs because I had started losing hope. I’m a very ‘get to it’ guy and after the third day I was like, “OK, I’m ready to get back to normal,’ and it wasn’t happening.”

The next day Campbell stunned Brown. Soon his teammates, many who would not leave the ER lobby that Tuesday night, shared that joy.

“When I left the hospital I called Chuck immediately from my car and said ‘Yo! I just saw Avery stand up and walk!'” Brown said.

Campbell had taken the first steps. But his climb was just beginning.

The Comeback

After Campbell moved his knee his first thought was about playing in the District 2-6 Class 6A championship against Altoona. That game was just a week away. Campbell didn’t care.

Everyone else did.

“When he was released he kept saying, ‘I’m playing against Altoona,'” Albert said. “I said, No you’re not.’ I told him you have your whole senior year and your whole college career in front of you.”

Campbell’s doctors, coaches and friends relayed the same message. He was not cleared to play, but did practice without pads one day. That was the first time Campbell realized his comeback would be a lot more difficult than expected. Campbell was wiped out with the light work and his back was aching bad. He received another reminder when he resumed working at Starbucks.

Often on his feet for six hours straight, Campbell could no longer make it past four hours without experiencing intense pain. He had amazed those at the hospital before he concluded his 10-day stay by walking so well before he left. Now everything felt like a struggle. And for a teenager who rarely could sit still before the injury, that hurt as much as his back.

“About 2 to 3 weeks after it was said and done he just got really blue. He was still having residual pain. He would call from work or rehab and we’d have to get him either the ice packs or heat packs or Advil. That’s when he just kind of went into himself a little bit. Teenagers are impulsive and thinking about the next minute and the next day and he had to start thinking about months down the line and years down the line.”

His family and friends continued providing support, but Campbell needed something else to generate a charge and spark his comeback. It came in the form of a book. Campbell read Michael Phelps’s “No Limits,” written about the will to succeed and things started turning around. Maybe the physical aspect of the climb would still take a while, but Campbell’s mental state was repaired.

Campbell was done feeling down. Nothing would come easy and the journey ahead still was arduous, but Campbell was poised and eager to battle.

“After reading that book I learned a lot of things, and one of the things I learned was no matter how hard you try, you will never break down the door unless you build a million other things right in your head,” Campbell said. “You need to be mentally prepared, you need to know when you’re ready, you need to connect with your body. I connected with my body, I connected with my back, I connected with everything in me to finally be able to have patience and to understand what is going on within my body. That’s the silver lining in what happened that night and with that injury because I definitely grew a connection with my body, with my mindset and I believe I became a lot stronger mentally and physically.”

Campbell kept working and kept believing. The comeback took off and by February, he again was allowed to lift weights with no restrictions. Refreshed, focused and unleashed, Campbell started attacking his comeback at warp speed. By the spring he was able to compete in track and field. Campbell enjoyed a quality season, helped Williamsport capture a District 4 Class AAA championship and took sixth in the district in the discus.

One key hurdle remained and the final turning point came during the team’s last practice. Campbell was a runner as a freshman and completed the 400-meter dash in 54 seconds. Following the injury, Campbell was adamant about not running. It was another mental barrier to shatter. When coach Jeremy Steppe held a relay race, meant for fun among the throwers, however, Campbell took the track. Forgetting about the injury, Campbell started moving like he was chasing the quarterback. Everything felt right again.

“I’m very grateful that my friends were taking me to the gym and saying things will get better, you just have to be patient. I learned a lot about patience throughout this recovery process,” Campbell said. “I also learned that not everything happens the way you want it to and God made a way. He created a path that I’m going to take and I can’t beat around the bush about it. I have to stick to the recovery process, stick to what’s right, stick to what’s true.”

Campbell has continued doing that all summer. And things feel normal again. He has been at every Williamsport workout, attended various camps and is receiving significant college interest. A renaissance man in cleats, Campbell has an offered from academic powerhouse Carnegie Mellon and also has been recruited by Division I Towson.

Watch Campbell compete now and one would hardly know he suffered such a traumatic injury. That is how he likes it, too. Campbell is not looking back, just forward.

Williamsport returns nearly every starter on both sides of the ball from last year’s district finalist. Campbell could not play in that district final, but he has come roaring back and now has a shot at helping his team reach that goal come November. Considering where Campbell was last October, he already has experienced quite a triumph before even playing a game this season.

“I’m just extremely proud of him,” Albert said. “I’m excited to see all the boys back on the field together. They’ve all played together since youth football and they’ve got a pretty good tight bond. I’m just going to sit back and enjoy the show.”

Campbell is part of a stout line which includes Splain and fellow friends Charles Crews and Connor Adkins. The line must replace all-state defensive end Nassir Jones and Campbell now has the opportunity to show that he is the one opponents must game plan around.

“He was playing opposite Naz those last two years and did a great job because when they tried to double team Naz and run strong he would stay home and catch them backside,” Chuck Crews said. “Then they go after the kid on the backside and realize this kid is strong and relentless. This year will go a long way in seeing how dominant he can be when he is the focal point.”

Things have come full circle. Campbell was the focal point last October 20 for all the wrong reasons. Now the focus is on his performance. The finish line finally is in sight.

The Hope

Campbell is not thinking yet about the emotions he will experience when he puts his hand in the turf at Crestwood and plays his first regular-season game in more than 10 months. He has embraced patience and knows nothing can be taken for granted. He is ecstatic about playing again but before he can play he will enjoy every other football experience that comes his way.

Still, football is only part of this story. More than anything Campbell hopes his comeback motivates others who find themselves in similar adverse situations. The injury dealt Campbell a severe blow. He could have remained down, but he rose, fought and has come back feeling better than ever.

“I want my recovery process to be seen as a story for people to follow. Anything can happen but what truly happens after something brings you down is all on you. I could have said ‘I’m not going to be OK.’ I could have been lazy, I could have quit football, I could have done anything but I had my main focus on getting better and being a better football player, a better person, a better friend in general,” Campbell said. “Adversity challenges you as a person and it separates the pessimists from the optimists. I’m very glad to have taken the patience and the optimist part and realized that I will be OK as long as I work for it. I’m very grateful to have this opportunity and to explain what happened and to explain what I had to do to get to where I was because it wasn’t magic. It wasn’t anything supernatural. It was just pure grit and pure optimism getting to where I am now.”

Physically, mentally, spiritually, Campbell is in a much better place. He wants to flourish personally, but is equally focused on bringing out the best in his teammates and friends. Campbell wants a championship come November but every day he wants to be the best version of himself.

Ultimately, his story is not one of beating an injury. It is about the triumph of the spirit.

“He’s just better all-around. He’s a better teammate, a better friend. Because people didn’t hesitate to be there for him he’s always there for other people. He is just consistently giving what he got,” Andrea said. “I think it kind of helped him grow up a little bit. His resilience humbles me. There’s times I feel like quitting and am like, ‘I’m just writing a dissertation, what am I complaining about?’ This is nothing compared to what that kid had to go through.

“You get knocked down and you keep fighting every time.”

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