The worst thing for Michigan State cornerback Amp Campbell after he broke his neck trying to make a tackle last year wasn't the tearful call he made to his parents in Florida from a hospital in Eugene, Ore., or the disheartening news that he might never play football again. It wasn't the shooting pain he felt after doctors drilled a pair of holes in his skull and fitted him with a halo that would lock his head in place, or the intense discomfort he experienced, after emergency spinal-fusion surgery, whenever he sat for more than 20 minutes. No, the worst thing was that for six months he couldn't play with his two-year-old daughter, Kiera.
"When I told her I couldn't pick her up or do the things I normally did with her, she started to cry," says Amp, who returned to East Lansing, Mich., four days after the mishap wearing a brace that extended from his neck to his lower back. "That broke my heart. We'd sit at home watching football on TV, and she'd say, 'Daddy's there playing football.' I'd tell her no, and she'd keep asking, 'Why?' "
When he began rehabilitation, Amp says, "I didn't know if I'd play football again, but every night I'd look at Kiera sleeping and find strength to push harder. She was my inspiration."
Campbell's long road back ended last week when he started in the Spartans' season opener, a 27-20 victory over Oregon. Though he was tentative making tackles in the early going, he seemed to gain confidence in the second half, and in the fourth quarter he returned a fumble 85 yards for the game-winning touchdown. "This is a dream come true," he said afterward.
Entering last season, the 6-foot, 200-pound Campbell was one of the top cornerbacks in the Big Ten. But his plan to use his senior season as a springboard to the NFL ended 10 minutes into the Spartans' second game, in Eugene, when he slipped and ducked his head while trying to make a touchdown-saving tackle. "My arm felt like it was on fire," says Campbell. "I was in a lot of pain, but I walked off the field. I figured I had separated my shoulder."
The first neck X-ray was negative, but a second showed fractures of the sixth and seventh vertebrae, which doctors fused with bone taken from Campbell's hip. Six days later Campbell walked into the Spartans' locker room as Michigan State prepared to take the field against Notre Dame. During a team prayer he broke down and cried. "If you have any pride, you'll win this one for Amp," tailback Sedrick Irvin said, fighting back tears. The Spartans drilled the Irish 45-23.
Campbell began rehabilitating soon thereafter, and as he got stronger, he thought of playing again. "I've been proving people wrong my whole life, and once I started, I wasn't going to give up," says Campbell, who petitioned the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility, which he was granted in April, on the condition that he graduate by the end of the second summer session. Campbell earned his degree in telecommunications in August. "Last year was a freak thing, and I just wanted to get back to the point I'd been at before the injury."
Spartans coach Nick Saban is delighted to have him back and says, "I've never pulled for a player the way I've pulled for Amp. What he has done makes me feel better than beating the 49ers [in 1993, when Saban was defensive coordinator of the Cleveland Browns] or beating Ohio State last year when it was Number 1. No matter what happens from here, we've won."
Just ask Kiera.