Published: August 6, 2013
Backfield coach Jake Campbell is standing in the sunshine surrounded by Air Force's football team. He's taking a journey on this warm, breezy day. He's traveled, in his mind, to a bleak September morning in 1994.
"One of the low points of my life," he says with a grimace.
On Saturday Sept.?17, 1994, Campbell, an Air Force halfback, fumbled twice against Northwestern at Falcon Stadium.
The second drop haunted him. He had powered inches from a go-ahead fourth-quarter touchdown when Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald ripped the ball away.
The ball bounced into the hands of Northwestern cornerback Chris Martin, who sprinted 96 yards to the other end zone. Campbell's fumbles led to a 14-10 loss.
Two days later, Campbell stepped into the office of Air Force coach Fisher DeBerry, a kind, fiery, intensely religious man who despises fumbling and sinning, in that order.
DeBerry delivered two promises to Campbell. As Air Force prepares for the upcoming season, coaches should take note of those promises. Fumbles helped drop the Falcons to a 6-7 finish last season, the first losing record of the six-season Troy Calhoun era.
Campbell fumbled twice in one game before hearing DeBerry's promises. After that, he fumbled once in two seasons.
"Jake, you're a great asset to our team," DeBerry said. "You're a great young man. You're a great player."
The compliments ended, and the coach took on a menacing tone.
"If you fumble the football, you are not going to play. It's that simple. If you fumble the football, you won't ever have to worry about fumbling again. That's a promise."
The Falcons were preparing to play Texas-El Paso at San Antonio's Alamodome. Campbell wondered, especially after DeBerry's no-fumble lecture, about his status for the game.
"When you're asked to carry the football, that's a statement of confidence," DeBerry said. "We are going to get inside the 10-yard line. And we're going to give you the football. That's a promise."
Campbell departed DeBerry's office with an overwhelming sense of belief. He considered DeBerry a father figure. The promised consequences of fumbling failed to trouble Campbell.
He heard a statement of confidence from his coach. Campbell embraced the promise of a precious second chance.
"It was encouragement with some backbone behind it, you know," Campbell said. "To me it was a big-time lesson in life. Nobody gives anything to you. You step up, look for another chance, or you can back down. I was not backing down."
On the Sunday after the worst game of his life, Campbell retreated to the home of teammate Jeremy Johnson in Golden. Johnson's mother prepared two huge meals as Campbell sought to extinguish his football blues.
The phone at the Johnson home rang several times, and nearly all the calls were from Air Force teammates. Steve Russ called. So did Richie Marsh and Brian Watkins. Everyone offered the same message to Campbell:
We believe in you.
In the first quarter against UTEP, the Falcons drove inside the 10-yard line, just as DeBerry prophesied. The play call came from the bench to the Air Force huddle, where Campbell waited.
"Same play as the one I fumbled on," Campbell said, smile widening with each word. "Same play."
He caught the pitch, angled inside and followed blockers toward the end zone. He gripped the football tightly to his chest.
"Had learned my lesson," Campbell said, his mind locked on this long-ago run. "Take care of the ball first and make your move second."
He arrived in the end zone, where he was engulfed by teammates. DeBerry raised his right fist to celebrate. Campbell scored two more touchdowns that day, one a 74-yard romp, and became one of the top halfbacks of the DeBerry era, which stretched from 1984 to 2006.
Campbell often travels back to his short journey to the end zone at the Alamodome. He sees himself surrounded by friends who refused to doubt him. He sees a jubilant coach who promised peril and wonder.
"It meant a lot," Campbell said.
The moment still means a lot. When he's down, Campbell thinks back to his rapid journey from low to high, and he's reminded of the prime lesson from his trial and triumph.
Always - always - look ahead.