As coaches will tell you, some athletes are better than others at overcoming injuries and setbacks. Jacob Campbell might be one of the best ever.
Most people thought the talented Central Arkansas player might never walk normally again, if at all. Playing collegiate soccer seemed like an impossible dream… for everyone except Jacob Campbell.
On June 24, 2013, the summer after his redshirt freshman season, Campbell was working at a local car dealership so he could remain in Conway, Arkansas, and train with his teammates throughout the summer. He and the other summer workers detailed vehicles, among other odd jobs, at the dealership. At 4:57 that afternoon, just three minutes before quitting time, his newest coworker, first day on the job, was pulling a car into the wash bay while Campbell directed him in front of the vehicle.
The truck suddenly lurched forward, violently shoving Campbell backward through a shelving unit and workbenches and crushing his legs against a cinder block wall.
“I was waving him in, holding my hand to tell him where to stop,” said Campbell, calmly retelling the horrific story he has told so many times. “The truck just jumped forward and the next thing I knew I was pushed through the work benches up to the wall.”
“I was scared to let go because I thought it may have cut my legs off,” Campbell said. “If I let go, I thought I would just fall down. One of the other guys came in and saw it, an older guy, and he freaked out. I said, ‘Talk to me. What’s wrong?’ He said, ‘I don’t think you want me to do that.’ Of course, that freaked me out even more.”
Campbell said they lifted him off the truck and laid him down in the wash bay, which, as it turns out, actually made matters worse.
“When it pushed me through the work bench, we had all kinds of chemicals on the shelves like acid and stuff. Those blew up and spilled onto the floor. When they sat me down on the floor, it burned the backs of my legs. It actually bleached my skin for a long time,” Campbell recalled.
The ambulance arrived and took Campbell to the emergency room. The damage? Torn anterior cruciate ligaments and lateral collateral ligaments in both knees, a broken tibia in the left leg, blown out calves in both legs and assorted burns, cuts and bruises.
“It wasn’t a case of ‘Can he play soccer again?’ ” UCA head coach Ross Duncan said. “It was ‘Will he even be able to walk again?’ That’s pretty sobering for anyone, especially a young person.”
Campbell had two surgeries during his five-day hospital stay in Conway. He went from there to his hometown of Jackson, Mississippi, under the care of Dr. Jason Craft at Mississippi Sports Medicine. There were four more surgeries during the next eight months, including the insertion of a titanium rod in the left tibia, and months and months of rehabilitation.
Much of the time immediately following the accident is still a little fuzzy to Campbell. “They told me the day of the accident that I was worried about being able to take one of my best friends to the airport the next day,” Campbell said. “He was being deployed to Afghanistan for the Air Force and I was supposed to drive him to the airport. They said I kept asking if I was going to be able to drive him.”
Campbell went from a supremely fit collegiate soccer player, one who was named to the Missouri Valley Conference All-Freshman team in 2012, to a young man who could do very little for himself. He dropped from 160 pounds to 130 in a few short months.
“I was on so much pain medication,” he said. “I had to take pills just to keep pills down. I had no kind of appetite. I didn’t eat during the day, and I slept maybe two or three hours at night at the most. I couldn’t move out of the recliner. I spent all my time there, except for when I was at the doctor or at therapy. It was that way for the rest of the summer.”
And then, for reasons only Campbell knows, he decided to come back to school in the fall, just two months after his accident, unable to walk, drive, cook meals for himself or shower without sitting on the floor.
“Looking back, I think I was kind of naïve. I didn’t really understand how bad it was,” he said. “It probably wasn’t the best decision to come back when I did. But I never even knew at the time that you were allowed to medically withdraw from school. I just thought, ‘Well, I have classes coming up and I’ve already registered so I have to go.’ ”
While he might not have been ready to return physically, he was ready mentally. Campbell earned a 4.0 grade-point average in the fall of 2013.
“Honestly, I didn’t have a whole lot else that I could do,” Campbell said. “There was no chance of having any kind of social life because I couldn’t drive or walk around. I really didn’t like having people over to come see me. I just felt like it was embarrassing almost. I didn’t want people to come over and look at me like I was pitiful or for them to feel sorry for me. Yeah, I was recovering from an injury, but I could still do things on my own. There are people who are laid up in a bed, who literally can’t take care of themselves, who are a lot worse off than me. At that point, I didn’t want people to feel that way about me.”
With help from his roommate, fellow soccer player Riley Cauley, Campbell persevered through the physical therapy and rehabilitation with little or no actual soccer playing to sustain him.
“I’d go out to practice when I could, even just to watch or pick up cones or whatever,” Campbell said. “That was good enough.”
Through all the pain and rehab, Campbell never considered not playing soccer again.
Exactly one year and one week after the accident, Campbell was cleared to resume soccer activities. He was not back to his previous self by any means, but he was on a soccer field again, playing the game he loved with the guys he loved.
Campbell played in five games during the 2014 season, a far cry from his previous season in 2012 when he played in 15 games and was in the starting lineup for 11. His first game on the field was a 2-0 victory against Eastern Illinois.
“I was very, very nervous,” Campbell said. “It had been 18 months since I’d played in our spring game, which is obviously not as big of a deal. It’s not like I thought I was going to go in there and lose the game for us in three minutes, but I was still very nervous. It’s hard to describe. It was nice, but it was just very nerve-wracking. I definitely needed a chance to get all the nerves out before I even thought about trying to play any real minutes.”
Duncan said it was definitely not the best game of his career, but a hugely important one, nonetheless.
“His re-entry was just really a cool moment,” Duncan said. “The guys were excited. I was excited. It probably wasn’t a great moment for him, because he actually played terribly. He can probably laugh at it now, but he wasn’t very happy at the time. But we won the game and it was really cool to get him back in there.”
After the 2014 season ended, Campbell attacked the soccer part of his rehab just as he had the physical rehab the previous year, in preparation for his senior season this fall.
“It was hard for him to make much of an impact last season,” Duncan said. “But after the season when we started working out together as a team again, he really devoted time to it, gaining his strength back and getting back his quickness and athleticism. Now it’s to the point, I’m not worried about how we can get him on the field without having to cover [for him]. I’m just figuring out where Jacob plays and how to use him as a player. He’s not a player returning from injury in my mind. He’s just another guy on the team, which is pretty neat.”
Campbell said it all seems a little surreal to him. “It just feels different playing now,” he said. “It’s hard to make a comparison from then to now. They don’t seem the same to me. I have to play differently now than I did before. I feel like I’m not going to ever be as fast or as athletic, or can jump as high or any of that as I could before. I have to pay attention to the other things that maybe I can use to makeup for the fact that I lack speed or quickness now. It’s more of a mental approach to the game now. I have to think about it more now.”
Duncan can relate. “He’s basically describing what it means to get old,” he said with a laugh. “He’s basically describing me playing soccer now.”
It would seem that Campbell has met all of his goals as far as soccer goals, and there are no specific goals for his senior season except to enjoy the ride.
“I’m definitely excited, but it’s weird too,” Campbell said. “I’m one of the oldest people on the team now, and there are a lot of guys who have never played with me, or at least with the real me. I just want our team to do well. It was never about wanting to come back and play for me. If this were just about me, I wouldn’t be playing soccer now. It’s still dealing with pain and different things like that, having to take medicine to keep the swelling down in my knees, and stuff like that. I just want to be in a position whether I get to start and play every single minute, or just play for 10 minutes in each game, I just want our team to do well.”
Campbell wants the best for his team and for himself as well. “I just remember how fun it was for everybody because we had been so used to losing. I think our team went from 8-9-1, and really one of those ties should have been a win, so it was a .500 season, which a lot of people wouldn’t think is such a great season. But for us, it was. It was fun and everybody enjoyed it. So, that’s all I want: just to get back to that feeling for all the guys. We don’t have to go out and win 16 games. It would be great if we did, but that’s not being realistic. I just want us to get back to a season like that where next year the guys have something to build on and do even better.”
If anyone deserves to have fun on a soccer field again, Jacob Campbell does.