But no one suggests that Campbell is a hypocrite. He is a passionate advocate of self-help through education, and he has put his reputation on the line to help fellow African-Americans. During the Newark riots of 1967 he returned home from Canada, where he had played pro football, and started a community center and an alternative school, the Chad School in Newark, which emphasizes black history and culture. "I came back to help kids progress the way that I think they should progress, and that's through education and through developing their strengths and abilities," Campbell says.
Since the end of his football career Campbell has made his living as a motivational speaker, a vocation for which he seems to have been training since childhood. His father, Thomas, was a New York City cabdriver; his mother, Edith, a domestic houseworker. The couple split up when Milt was young, and he and his older brother, Tom, moved in with their grandmother in the racially mixed town of Plainfield. "It was a good house, a strong house," Milt says. "My grandmother was very religious, so we were taught a lot of religious sayings: The Lord helps those that help themselves."
Young Milt kept the Lord busy. Imitating his big brother, who was the star hurdler on the Plainfield High track team, he built hurdles out of wood slats and set them up in the driveway. Tom wandered by one day and started to laugh at the frustrated boy who was not so much hurdling the barriers as tumbling over them. It turned out Milt had put them too close together. "Tom put them the right distance," Milt says, "and I was just running."
In 1952 Milt was called the world's greatest high school athlete, and while it's hard to imagine on what basis such a title could be awarded, it's even harder to imagine that any high schooler on the planet had a superior claim to it. Not only had Campbell won the silver medal in the Olympic decathlon that year, but he had also finished fifth in the open high hurdles at the U.S. trials. He was an All-America swimmer and the freestyle anchor on Plainfield's Eastern Champion medley relay team. Subbing once for a sick heavyweight wrestler, he took only a minute and a half to pin the boy who would go on to be state champion.
Campbell returned home from Helsinki and jumped right into his last season of high school football, scoring 80 points in Plainfield's first four games by stomping over hapless defenses. As Arthur Daley of The New York Times put it in 1953, "The massive Milt was a fullbacking terror. He was a combination Blanchard-Davis, a Mr. Inside and a Mr. Outside combined into one. His terrific speed enabled him to flee wide and his crushing power enabled him to smash through the middle. Like Bronko Nagurski, he could be stopped only by gang tackling."
Bigger than the fast players and faster than the big ones, Campbell was an extraordinary physical specimen. He stood 6'3" and weighed about 210 pounds, most of it muscle. By today's standards the 6-foot, 195-pound Roger Kingdom, coholder of the American record in the high hurdles, is a power hurdler, so it's easy to understand why experienced hurdlers of Campbell's era prayed that they wouldn't draw the lane next to him. Said Jack Davis of USC, the '52 silver medalist in the high hurdles, "That guy is so huge that he could kill me merely by brushing against me."
Coaches told Campbell in high school that if he got any bigger, he would be too large to hurdle. Bad idea, since Campbell made it his business to do things he was told he could not do. "That was always my strongest motivation," he says. "It's a concept I now lecture on: It's not important what you say to me, it's important what I say to me. So I used to tell myself every day that the bigger I got, the stronger I would get, and the stronger I got, the faster I would get." In 1957 he set world records in both the indoor and outdoor hurdles. At the Millrose Games he twice ran 7.0 for the 60-yard hurdles to beat Olympic champion Lee Calhoun, and then, in the final race of his career, he clocked 13.4 for the 120-yard hurdles in the muddy, chewed-up inside lane of a track in Compton, Calif. He is still the only Olympic decathlon champion to have held a world record in an individual event.
Along the way, Campbell says, he learned one key lesson: To make it in a white world, a black man has to work twice as hard. Consider how he made himself an All-America high school swimmer. He says, "A white boy came up to me and said, 'We've never had a colored boy swim for us. I don't think you can swim.' I asked him why he thought that. He said, 'Because all the waters in Africa are infested with crocodiles.' And I looked at him and said, 'What the hell does that have to do with me? I was born in Plainfield.' That boy was the top sprinter on the Plainfield High swimming team. So I decided that's what I wanted to do. That first year I was second to him all year long. But the next year I broke all his records and made All-America."
Campbell went to Indiana University on a football scholarship and ran track, also. As a sophomore, in 1955, he won the high hurdles at both the AAU and NCAA meets and played halfback and defensive back on the football team. The Hoosiers weren't very good, but Campbell was. He made three interceptions against Ohio University, and against Michigan he defied coach Bernie Crimmins by simply outrunning a defender and catching a touchdown pass in the end zone to win the game.
The Cleveland Browns selected Campbell in the fifth round of the 1957 NFL draft, after using their first pick to get Jim Brown of Syracuse. The two rookies roomed together, and though Campbell believes he was the better all-round athlete, he speaks admiringly of Brown's talents in the backfield. "Jim was the finest running back I've ever seen," he says. "If you were to measure great backs, Jim would be the yardstick."