Shortly before the start of Jaguars’ OTA sessions last spring, free-agent acquisition Calais Campbell, who had signed a four-year $60 million contract, invited the entire team on three different occasions to come bowling, eat or just hang out at the Main Event on the Southside.
When defensive tackle Abry Jones first saw the invitation, he jokingly thought to himself: “Finally, a rich guy that wants to spend his money [on teammates].”
Jones soon learned what everybody else in the Jaguars locker room, as well as those spending parts of nine seasons with Campbell on the Arizona Cardinals, discovered about the 6-foot-8 lineman: he shows his desire to win by his production, but also by his willingness to treat every teammate on the roster like family.
“It wasn’t a mandatory thing, Calais did it out of the kindness of his heart,” Jones said of the Main Event invitations. “You have to respect a guy who is all about the team.”
In 23 seasons of covering the Jaguars, I’ve never seen a player come from outside the organization and positively impact a locker room so quickly and forcefully as Campbell. This wasn’t a hostile takeover. It’s been a 300-pound mountain man simply winning over teammates with one goodwill gesture after another.
It wasn’t so much Campbell picking up a bowling tab as his friendly, outgoing nature. In just seven months, Campbell has been a godsend for a franchise starving for leadership.
“He has a presence in here that everybody notices,” said guard A.J. Cann. “It doesn’t matter what position you play, he’s like spreading all kinds of knowledge from his experiences in the league. It’s good to have that kind of guy in the locker room.”
Linebacker Paul Posluszny, one of only two Jaguars to have a longer NFL tenure than Campbell, admires him for taking the initiative to be a team bonder.
“It’s very, very unique for a guy to be able to do that and he did it in absolutely the right way,” said Posluszny. “Calais has completely immersed himself in the culture that’s developed here.”
Of course, it helps Campbell’s credibility that he’s not a bit player in the Jaguars’ breakout season on defense. Going into Sunday’s game against the Bengals at EverBank Field, he has accumulated 10 sacks, second only to the Cowboys’ DeMarcus Lawrence (10.5). Off the field, Campbell is the Jaguars’ big teddy bear, mentoring teammates with whatever they might need, just as the third youngest of eight children saw many of his siblings do for him while growing up in Denver.
“It’s simple, I want to bring the chemistry, get players to know each other and play harder for one another,” Campbell said. “I’m outgoing and I like to connect with people. Being a young team trying to figure out how to win, I wanted to develop that. These relationships in a football family matter.
“I don’t mind splurging [for meals, activities] if it’s going to bring the team together and help us win some games.”
When the Jaguars began the free-agent vetting process on Campbell (they never talked to him one-on-one before he signed), they kept hearing all these glowing reports about his leadership. Coach Doug Marrone liked what he saw on tape, but was careful not to get too caught up in the Campbell hype, fearing somebody might be overselling him a bit.
“There was so much positive coming out for [signing Campbell], you sit back going, ‘This is too good to be true,’ ” said Marrone. “As coaches, sometimes we make that mistake of saying, ‘Hey, we can bring this guy in and he’ll clean the locker room up.’ That’s difficult to do.
“But you have to give Calais credit. He put himself out there. He’s reached out to people and tried to create that [team chemistry]. He’s done an outstanding job, more than I envisioned.”
Malik Jackson, who came to the Jaguars as a free agent from the Broncos in 2016 after signing a $90 million contract, had never met Campbell before this season. He says he’s seen one previous example in his career of a new arrival impacting a locker room like Campbell.
“The only person I can compare him to is Peyton Manning,” said Jackson. “When Peyton came to that Denver locker room, he had a commanding presence. He had the charisma and the accolades. I’m telling you, they’re the same, except one is a quarterback and the other a defensive end.
“What Calais has done here, it shows he cares. He wanted to bring a culture of closeness, of a team laughing, bleeding and crying together.”
Nothing about Campbell seizing an immediate leadership role with the Jaguars is surprising to Arizona Cardinals defensive end Josh Mauro, who now starts at Campbell’s old position. He arrived there off the Pittsburgh Steelers practice squad in 2014, shared a locker next to Campbell for three seasons and keenly watched him go about his business.
“Calais is a great role model, you’d never know he’s made $120 million or whatever in his career by the way he acts,” Mauro said. “He doesn’t try to make people follow his lead or actions, it just speaks for itself. He backs it all up with his work in the weight room and film room. He’s an easy guy to gravitate to.”
Jaguars’ defensive tackle Michael Bennett noticed Campbell’s powers of persuasion immediately. His production on the field makes his locker room influence all the more impactful.
“Football is a meritocracy,” said Bennett. “He wants that leadership role, to be the go-to guy, the spokesman. Calais does everything that pertains to that role [of a leader]. He cares about people. That’s who he is.”
It’s probably no coincidence the Jaguars’ swift ascension as a terrorizing defense has mirrored how quickly Campbell has emerged as a Jaguars’ force on and off the field. Marcell Dareus, acquired last week in a trade with the Buffalo Bills, had little knowledge about what the locker room would be like when he arrived, but knew of Campbell’s reputation from their time together at the Pro Bowl.
“Calais is a real classy dude, a real man’s man,” said Dareus. “He’s that type of person you look up to, not as a daddy figure, but like a big brother. He’s not just talking. He practices what he preaches.”
When Dareus went to the Chart House restaurant Monday night to join the defensive linemen for their weekly dinner together, he followed in big brother’s footsteps. Dareus picked up the tab.
It’s too early to know if Calais Campbell will go down as the best free agent acquisition in Jaguars’ history. So far, he’s been everything they could ask for. And a whole lot more.
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