Insider: Parris Campbell's comeback season is a Dwayne Haskins story, too

INDIANAPOLIS — This Parris Campbell comeback story starts in a dark room, the sun yet to peek over the desert outside his window. It's barely 5 a.m. local time in April in Arizona.

The phone starts buzzing. Ohio State coach Ryan Day is on the other end.

What he heard made his spine stiffen:

Dwayne Haskins was dead.

The quarterback he broke records with at Ohio State had lost his life just an hour before the call, on the shoulder of a Florida highway, hit first by a dump truck and then by an SUV in the dark.

He was 24, just like Campbell.

And he was gone.

Dwayne Haskins and Parris Campbell shared a hug after they led Ohio State to a comeback victory over Maryland, 52-51 in overtime in 2018.
Dwayne Haskins and Parris Campbell shared a hug after they led Ohio State to a comeback victory over Maryland, 52-51 in overtime in 2018.

'I still think about that every day'

For Campbell, this spring was about learning to move again -- physically, from the broken foot that ripped a third straight season up with injury; and emotionally, from that chair in Arizona where he found out that Haskins lost his life.

"I still think about that every day, and it still doesn’t seem real to me," Campbell said in September. "I honestly don’t know when it will seem real to me."

This week, the Colts will host the Steelers, the team Haskins was playing for when he died. Out of the tunnel on Monday Night Football, Pittsburgh players will emerge with a No. 3 sticker on their helmets to honor their lost teammate.

Campbell will have something planned, too. He's spent the past week figuring that out and the past two months trying to stay healthy enough to get to that moment.

This is the comeback season he always wanted, but it wasn't supposed to happen like this. Not after losing one of the reminders of the player he was at his peak, the fun he used to have and the way that 2018 season changed the course of his life.

He began to dip back into that story this spring, back before tragedy struck. Campbell was a 24-year-old husband and father of two entering a contract year. He feared the world was starting to forget who he was at Ohio State, back before the rash injuries he felt were flukes, so he called up the former team videographer with a request.

Campbell and Zach Schwartz got to work on "Kickin' It With the Campbells," a documentary series detailing Campbell's rise from LeBron James' alma mater of St. Vincent-St. Mary's High School in Akron, Ohio; to Ohio State and then to the Colts, where he's built a family with his wife, Taylor; 4-year-old son, Kai; and newborn daughter, Skylar.

In three straight places, unexpected setups have set the stage for a make-or-break fourth season.

“There were layers to his story," said Swartz, who now films content for William Morris Endeavor clients. "I think a lot of times athletes talk about adversity and a lot of athletes go through that, but I really thought that Parris had a legitimate story to tell.”

Back then, the adversity was about family and football. Haskins was a character in the story, throwing the touchdown passes to him and hugging him after a 52-51 win over Maryland in the most improbable of comebacks.

But laying out their path in a chapter-and-verse format began to illustrate the uniqueness of this story. It took a Butterfly Effect for their paths to cross.

Back in 2017, Campbell was playing for the first time in Ohio State's deep receiving corps and Haskins was a redshirt freshman backup who only saw playing time in mop-up duty. Haskins was slated to be the third-stringer entering that season, but a redshirt sophomore named Joe Burrow had broken his hand in fall camp.

Ohio State was preparing for a regular-season rivalry road game at Michigan when a TV camera smacked J.T. Barrett in the knee. Haskins stepped in for a third-quarter drive with his team down a score and ripped off a 27-yard pass and a 22-yard run to set up a go-ahead score and a rivalry win.

That offseason, Campbell was torn on whether to enter the NFL, where he was projected as a third-round draft pick. His Ohio State career didn't feel complete, with just three career touchdowns, so he came back and banked on what he saw in that Michigan game from Haskins.

That drive helped give Haskins the edge in the ensuing quarterback battle with Burrow, leading to one of the greatest transfers in college football. Burrow went to LSU, won the national title and Heisman, and became the No. 1 pick of the Bengals. And that transfer cleared the way for two players few in the country knew to do something legendary.

Playing for Ryan Day, the interim coach installing his pass-first approach in relief of a suspended Urban Meyer, Haskins ripped off nearly 5,000 yards and 50 touchdowns to become a Heisman finalist. He connected most with Campbell, who became just the fifth receiver in Ohio State history to top 1,000 yards and who scored 12 touchdowns.

They engineered shootouts to save a team with a leaky defense. They smoked Michigan's No. 1 ranked defense for 62 points, through six Haskins touchdown passes and 192 yards and two touchdowns from Campbell. They finished 12-1, winning the Big Ten championship and then the Rose Bowl in Meyer's final game, a performance sparked by a Campbell pre-game speech.

Dwayne Haskins was a backup quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers when he was training in Florida this April and died in a tragic accident.
Dwayne Haskins was a backup quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers when he was training in Florida this April and died in a tragic accident.

“We are in our last hours of a clock, as a unit, as a group," Campbell screamed into teammates' faces. "Everybody’s gotta realize this opportunity that we have. We talk about the brotherhood. We talk about it being bulletproof. Let’s talk about what made that mother (expletive) bulletproof.”

As he's screaming, the player nodding and smiling in his face was Haskins.

“There was just something about Dwayne that as a captain that they really connected with," Swartz said. "He really brought the players along with him, too, and it’s a big reason why the offense did what it did.”

An Ohio State program built on running the ball suddenly became the rare Midwestern team to throw at a Heisman clip. Campbell and Haskins helped engineer that together, in the one year they shared, after so many random events had to fall into place.

“Piece by piece," Campbell said with a smile to hold back the tears. "Nobody can draw that story up. It just happened that way. It’s just the way everything aligned.”

Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Parris Campbell is enjoying a breakout season in which he's playing a team-high 84% of the snaps and has scored three touchdowns.
Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Parris Campbell is enjoying a breakout season in which he's playing a team-high 84% of the snaps and has scored three touchdowns.

'Like a brother to me'

The Haskins that Campbell remembers is not the one the NFL world knows. That gap in understanding has only widened the hole in his heart.

The news broke with a tweet that ESPN's Adam Schefter later deleted, labeling Haskins as a draft bust with Washington. Later that same day, former longtime NFL executive Gil Brandt went on Sirius XM radio and claimed Haskins was "living to be dead, so to speak," because of concerns some draft evaluators had about his readiness for the NFL.

"Excuse my language … but are you (expletive) kidding me," Campbell tweeted in response to Brandt. "There's no way you say something like this in this moment. All the people grieving right now … and this is what you say?"

They were of the NFL-centric crowd remembering the worst of Haskins. It's true that he did not have success with a struggling Washington franchise that drafted him No. 15 overall, and as the face of the franchise he had some viral immature moments, such as when he took a selfie during an NFL game.

His death was ruled an accident, as he was jogging away from a rental car in search of gas. A toxicology report showed that he had a Blood Alcohol Content of 0.20 and had ingested painkillers.

But Haskins was more than just an NFL quarterback and a tragic ending. He was a son, a brother and a husband who had a radiant smile. He also happened to do some things no other Ohio State quarterback had ever done, and he beat out a No. 1 pick in Burrow to do it.

That Haskins brought the best out of Campbell. And when it came time this spring to revisit that time in his life, watching the clip of his draft call from the Colts for the documentary, Campbell couldn't stop the tears from flowing.

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“Dwayne has had a huge role in my life," Campbell said. "... It was the bond we had, the brotherhood we had, how we grew together that entire season, how I’d seen him grow from some freshman on campus to one of the greatest to play quarterback at Ohio State. It just grew much deeper than football.

"He was more than a friend. He was truly like a brother to me.”

Campbell started wearing a grey t-shirt with Haskins on it, and it's not the one from Washington or the Steelers but the 50-touchdown, Heisman finalist from Ohio State. Campbell wore it in the Arizona heat as he sprinted on the track, blurred through cone drills and took steps he hadn't in years.

Those training clips in the shirt made it into the documentary, and suddenly this story was about more than one man and one family's journey back to equilibrium.

Before long, flashes of the old Campbell were coming back. The knee and the foot felt right. He started hitting 4.3 speeds again. One healthy practice became another and then another, and suddenly he was sitting down with new receivers coach Reggie Wayne trying to figure out ways to recreate the explosive plays after the catch he had at Ohio State.

Parris Campbell played just 15 games in his first three seasons with the Indianapolis Colts, but he has already suited up for all 11 in his contract year.
Parris Campbell played just 15 games in his first three seasons with the Indianapolis Colts, but he has already suited up for all 11 in his contract year.

He's played in all 11 games, just four off his career total entering the season. And he has yet to miss a single practice.

"The big thing is confidence," Campbell said. "You can’t think, ‘Oh, this is going to happen again. It’s going to happen again.’ You cannot think that. You cannot fall into that trap."

It took time to fit the new Campbell in, testing his newfound patience and perspective in a zero-catch game and Week 2 shutout to the Jaguars.

But in a season where his offensive coordinator and head coach were fired, his quarterback was temporarily benched and his star running back got hurt, Campbell has become the stable piece. In his past four games with Ryan, he's amassed 29 catches for 270 yards and three touchdowns, including a game-winning touchdown against the Raiders.

His goal is to play all 17 games. He's found a way to play 84% of all offensive snaps, carving out a motion-heavy, communicative role former coach Frank Reich likened to a second quarterback.

"His body language and his confidence is there, and he’s playing that way," Ryan said. "That takes time. It’s hard. He had a really tough start to his career, but his mental strength and belief in himself is strong."

When that first chance at a touchdown came in Week 6 against the Jaguars, he caught a ball over one shoulder from Ryan, flipped his hips at the sideline and mid-tackle extended all 72 inches of his body horizontally over the pylon.

“Yeah, things have been hard for me and I’ve been through a lot of stuff, but at the end of the day, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel," Campbell said. "If you can see it or not, you have to believe that. You have to have that faith.”

Campbell views injuries through a different lens now. When a teammate goes down on the field, be it Drew Ogletree or Tony Brown or Keke Coutee or Tyquan Lewis, Campbell is always the closest player to him, on one knee, whispering a prayer for protection.

"It made me feel like I'm part of his family," said Ogletree, a rookie tight end rehabbing from a torn ACL. "Seeing him gives me hope that I can still come back and be the player that I was."

Campbell starts each day with a devotional. His faith tells him that Haskins is still watching, like on those touchdown throws at Ohio State. He gets to view the documentary Campbell is making with his life.

This week, Campbell will take it to Monday Night Football, hoping to show the world something it might have missed.

You'll see him warming up in that grey Haskins t-shirt. He'll have custom cleats with a message for the friend he lost.

He'll catch a pass and dart up the field, like he did time and again in Arizona.

He won't be running alone.

Contact Colts insider Nate Atkins at natkins@indystar.com. Follow him on Twitter @NateAtkins_.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Colts: Parris Campbell plays with the memory of Dwayne Haskins