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Leistikow: Meet Iowa football's Jack Campbell, a unique linebacker and budding national star

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INDIANAPOLIS — If you’ve ever bumped into Jack Campbell, chances are, you haven’t forgotten it. He's the kind of person who leaves an impression.

He speaks quietly, yet with intensity and purpose.

He offers genuine kindness, even if he just met you.

And if you’re an opponent on the football field, he’ll try to rip your head off.

The preseason defensive player of the year in the Big Ten Conference would prefer not to receive the attention he gets. Yet at an imposing 6-foot-5 and 248 pounds who brings a physical wallop with every tackle, you can’t help but notice everything the introverted Iowa linebacker does.

Campbell is a guy you want on your team in any aspect of life.

On the field, he’ll give you everything he has. Off it, he’ll do the same.

“It’s something that’s been within me since I was a little kid. I can’t put a finger on it,” Campbell said at this week’s Big Ten Conference Media Days at Lucas Oil Stadium. “Outside of the lines, I’ll do anything for you. That’s just how I was raised. That goes back to my dad and my mom. But when I step (inside) the white lines, I kind of want to take what’s ours. I want to do things the right way and get the Iowa Hawkeyes to the top, any way I can.”

Hawkeyes linebacker Jack Campbell is wired differently

In a good way.

To understand his drive, there’s probably no more telling story than the time Campbell was invited to — and participated in — two Iowa football camps in the same afternoon.

“A legendary day,” Campbell said.

Campbell had just finished his sophomore year at Cedar Falls High School and was planning to participate in Iowa’s linebackers camp that June day. But just before the camp, Iowa asked Campbell if he could come to their linemen camp earlier in the day. (Back in 2017, Iowa would run back-to-back camps on the same day.) A 206-pound athlete with a love for football who wanted to make an impression happily agreed. Jack called his father, Dave, to make sure he could get a ride in time for the early-afternoon start on a scorching-hot day.

Iowa put Campbell on the defensive line. Campbell recalled throwing his body against offensive linemen that weighed as much as 315 pounds. He may have given an inch physically, but not mentally.

“He got outmuscled,” said Dave Campbell, who was a second-team all-American offensive lineman for Northern Iowa in the 1980s. “But he’s one of those kids with a motor.”

After that sweltering camp session, Jack got called to Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz’s office. To the young sophomore’s surprise, Ferentz extended a scholarship offer for Campbell to join the Hawkeyes in the Class of 2019.

“After he got offered, Jack said, ‘Can I go back to camp now?’” his father said. “And he ran the whole camp with the linebackers.”

As Jack said … a legendary day.

Seth Wallace, his position coach now at Iowa, recalled that Iowa coaches knew then that Campbell had the makings of a potential star. They saw a gifted player with enormous growth potential who would battle against anyone and do anything that was asked of him.

“He came off the camp practice field the way he comes off an 80-play game against Nebraska or Wisconsin,” Wallace said. “His ear’s bleeding. (Stuff) is coming out of his nose. … I mean, he gave it everything.”

About nine months later, Campbell would commit to play for Iowa.

The rest is history. Campbell was a first-team all-Big Ten pick by the media last season. He scored two defensive touchdowns, one to beat rival Iowa State and another to seal a win over Illinois. He led the nation with 143 tackles. He turned down a chance to go the NFL to return for his senior year in Iowa City.

This week, Campbell smiled at the memory of that Iowa football camp five-plus years ago.

“I never grew up a Hawkeye fan … but being able to get an offer from them meant a lot to me,” Campbell said. “(It was) kind of showing them who I am as a player. I’m just passionate about football. Any chance you give me to go out and play, I’m going to go out and play. I’m not going to opt out."

'Almost humble to a fault'

That’s the warrior side of Campbell. The stories about his relentless nature have only gotten more pronounced at Iowa, considering he’s added nearly 40 pounds since his campus arrival.

Now for the softer, human side.

“There’s so much more to Jack,” his mother, Amy Eastman, said, “than just playing football.”

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Campbell’s parents divorced before he went into kindergarten and eventually found new spouses. Combined, there are six kids in the blended families, all in the Cedar Falls area. Amid his busy football schedule, Campbell tries to make time for those closest to him. He also is in a serious relationship with former Iowa basketball player Megan Meyer, who has since transferred to Drake.

Hunting with his brothers — be it for deer, wild turkey, pheasant or duck — serves as not only an escape from the spotlight of 70,000 cheering fans and fierce competition, it gives Campbell a chance to connect with family.

“I definitely like a smaller group of people. I don’t have too many super-close friends,” Campbell said. “I don’t like a lot of people knowing super-personal stuff about me. But it’s a way for me to get away from the buzz and everything and enjoy (life) with the people I care about the most.”

Wallace sees how Campbell operates in solitude and with others and comes away impressed.

Stars like this don't come along too often.

"His football is really, really good, just because of the way he does things outside of football," Wallace said. "You see him in the meeting room, by himself. You see him in the weight room, by himself. We’re talking like odd hours. Not 2 (a.m.), but in non-peak hours, Jack Campbell’s in here watching tape. Or he’s down in the weight room with the Theragun to massage his body.

“Then he’s giving a (facility) tour to somebody that he met in a wheel chair. Or I’ll call up Jack and say, ‘Hey Jack, what are you doing?’ He’ll say, ‘Well, I’m at this guy’s farm pond and I’m going to have dinner with him and his wife afterward.’ And it's an older couple. The next day it’s, ‘Well, I’m at a church retreat.'"

That’s Campbell, seemingly everywhere at once. (Not unlike his presence on the football field.) 

He probably would get uncomfortable at folks reading this.

“He won’t tell us, ‘Oh, I’m making this video message for a young boy that has cancer.’ Or, ‘I’m volunteering at the food bank,’” Eastman said. “Sometimes I’ll find out about that in the media and be like, ‘Hey, it’d be great if you shared that stuff with us.’ He’s almost humble to a fault in some ways.”

More: Iowa's Jack Campbell is finally healthy. He's set a bar high for himself, linebackers

One of Eastman’s favorite photos is one of Jack emerging from the water after getting baptized in their church toward the end of his senior year of high school. Campbell made that decision and took it upon himself to arrange the baptism with church leaders.

Campell's Christian faith is an important component to how he's wired.

“That’s something that has meant a lot to me,” Campbell said. “Obviously, I’m not perfect by any means; I fall short every single day. (But) I just strive to just show what it’s like to live a good Christian life in this world.”

At Iowa, he walks the walk with regular Bible studies with a diverse group of teammates that include quarterback Spencer Petras; fullback Monte Pottebaum; linebackers Seth Benson; Kyler Fisher and Justice Sullivan; defensive lineman Logan Lee and others. Those studies bring players closer on a personal level as they share stories of struggle and success.

That faith helps contribute to Campbell's humility … and gratefulness.

As Campbell looked around Lucas Oil Stadium as one of the football stars of the Big Ten, he said simply, “I’m blessed to be here.”

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Stage is set for Jack Campbell to have a big year

Campbell is one of the most unique middle linebackers in Iowa history. He’s the polar opposite of program greats at that position like Larry Station or Josey Jewell. Those were undersized-yet-tenacious tacklers. Campbell, meanwhile, is a like a thoroughbred racehorse who packs a thumping wallop. His size and speed at Iowa would compare well to what that Chicago Bears once had in Hall of Famer Brian Urlacher.

Urlacher’s pro measurements were 6-4, 258. Campbell’s pushing 250 on his 6-5 frame. Asked if he has lost any speed while bulking up, Campbell chuckled.

“Gosh, no," he said.

Early in Campbell's Iowa career, it was debated whether he should be a linebacker or defensive end.

Ferentz initially leaned toward defensive end; Wallace and defensive coordinator Phil Parker advocated for linebacker because of how he runs.

Put Campbell on the edge, other teams can run away from him. Put Campbell in the middle of Iowa's defense, opponents can't avoid him.

“He could get to 270 pounds. But he’s like a defensive lineman playing on the second level,” Wallace said. “He has a unique ability to move in space for a guy that size. He’s not the guy that Northwestern had a couple years ago (Paddy Fisher). They’re comparable size-wise, but Jack’s athleticism is through the roof when it comes to guys his size.”

Campbell is taking his senior year as seriously as he takes everything in life, including sleep habits and nutrition. He is always seeking any edge that might help him get to the football a fraction of a second quicker.

“I don’t know if he’s eaten at a fast-food restaurant since eighth grade,” Dave Campbell said. “He researches everything. I can’t tell you the last time I’ve seen him drink a pop.”

(Jack can. “Ninth grade,” he said)

“He is a pro in college,” Wallace said.

Campbell’s profile at Iowa has been a work in progress. He got on the field as a true freshman, but mostly played special teams. An ill-timed bout of mononucleosis kept him out of Iowa's first three games in the eight-game, COVID-shortened season of 2020.

Finally a full-time starter as a junior, Campbell's star began to shine. In addition to the two defensive TDs and huge tackle numbers, it was Campbell’s hit on Penn State's Sean Clifford that knocked the effective starting quarterback from the game … and turned the tide in Iowa’s memorable 23-20 win in a top-five battle.

Campbell is now a first-team preseason all-American. And more than half of the Big Ten media voters (20 of 35) see Campbell as the 14-team league’s best defensive player.

While Iowa fans should rejoice about having a linebacker of this magnitude on their roster, Campbell is not impressed or affected by the accolades.

“It’s not going to change the way I play. I’m not going to feel any extra pressure,” Campbell said. “I’m not going to have any ego or any pride. I’m just going to stay the same Jack Campbell, day in and day out.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 27 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.