De'Vondre Campbell's amazing journey from Cypress Lake High to the Super Bowl

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Minutes after the Atlanta Falcons drafted De’Vondre Campbell in the fourth round, his mother Cathryn had a question for him.

“When you put a number on your jersey, do you want to go with the number you’ve been playing with (26)?” she asked.

Campbell had a smirk on his face. “I have a number in mind,” he said.

“What number is that?,” she said.

“Number 59,” he said. The smirk remained.

Campbell left the draft party. Cathryn Campbell kept thinking about the jersey choice.

“I’m thinking that’s a good year,” she said. “Then I realized I was born in 1959.”

Campbell’s daughter Sheretta quickly called De’Vondre to confirm what they were thinking. Cathryn was in tears.

“He said, ‘You’ve been riding my back all these years,’ he said. “That’s why I’m putting that number on my back, to remind me of you.”

More tears.

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Sunday, Cathryn and husband Luther will be in Houston’s NRG Stadium to watch their son play for the Falcons in Super Bowl LI.

To reach pro football’s biggest stage, it’s been a journey chocked full of adversity for mother and son.

But De’Vondre Campell also had guardian angels. Like the best friend who told him football would open more doors than basketball; like the coach who drove into the Harlem Heights neighborhood and took him to track meets; like the only school – in a Kansas outpost – to offer him a football scholarship; and the Minnesota coach who came to his home for a visit after Tennessee and Texas passed on him.

Green Bay Packers tight end Jared Cook (89) runs the ball against Atlanta Falcons outside linebacker De'Vondre Campbell (59) during the third quarter in the 2017 NFC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

They were needed because Cathryn couldn’t always be there. She has dealt with health issues. After a bout with breast cancer, she had a heart attack while going to one of her son’s games in Minneapolisin 2015.

The Super Bowl visit will be just the second time she has attended one of her son's games in the past two years. The family went to Tampa Bay for the Falcons-Bucs game Nov. 3.

“It’s just amazing,” said Jurrell Simmons, who coached Campbell in track and football at Cypress Lake. “He literally came from nothing.”

“It’s such a surreal moment,” added long-time friend Justin Major.

Early years

Campbell never played on an organized team as a youth because his mom wanted him to focus on school.

In fifth grade, Campbell told his mother he’d go to college and be an NFL player. “I looked at him and said, ‘If that’s your dream, go to school, graduate and get a degree first,’" Cathryn Campbell said.

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Known by many in his neighborhood as ‘Diesel’, Campbell drifted through his freshman year at Cypress Lake before Major helped turn him to football.

Justin Major, right, helped talk De'Vondre Campbell into going out for football.

“I don’t want to take credit, but I did give a little push,” Major said. “He started in basketball. After a practice, I came into the gym and a coach was out of line so he didn’t want to play anymore. I told him, ‘You’re way better at football, try that. You’re fast for your size.’ “

Campbell also had a growth spurt, which saw him go from 5-foot-9 to 6-2, 170 pounds.

Football coach Mike Thornton saw a raw, coachable player who needed instruction. Thornton started Campbell at defensive end before moving him to linebacker.

“His pass rush with very little experience was very good, he got up the field,” Thornton said. “He was long and he corralled quarterbacks.”

De'Vondre Campbell, left, and Sammy Watkins ran neck-and-neck in the 200-meter dash in the LCAC Track Meet when Campbell was a junior.

While Campbell showed great ability as a football player, the athletic feat that caught most people’s attention was at the Lee County Athletic Conference track meet.

And to think it almost didn’t happen.

Simmons, now an assistant at South Fort Myers, talked of constantly hunting Campbell down. On this day, he found him coming out of a friend’s house.

“I could tell he just woke up,” Simmons said. “But you just have to look out for your kids.

“So he goes to run and he was right with Sammy Watkins in the 200 meters.”

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Many attending the meet thought Campbell defeated Watkins, who would go on to play with the Buffalo Bills. One of those was friend Anthony Roberts.

“Some people say he beat him, some say he didn’t, but in my eyes he did,” Roberts said. “Other coaches said the same thing.

“That’s when we really figured he was really fast. I think that gave him a lot of confidence and made him a better football player.”

You’re not in Florida anymore

Despite that athleticism, Campbell hardly got a sniff from colleges. He understood his short football life may be ending. Only by starring in the John Carrigan Classic all-star game did he get a life preserver.

“Then I got the offer and I just jumped on it,” Campbell said. “Because it was my only opportunity.”

Jurrell Simmons, right, coached De'Vondre Campbell in track and football at Cypress Lake High.

The offer came from Hutchinson Community College in Kansas. Campbell described it as a place with “one Walmart and one gas station.”

Thornton said he has sent players to Hutchinson only to see them return home quickly.

“It’s dog-eat-dog, there’s culture shock, it’s cold as hell and not as diverse,” Thornton said. “The one thing I appreciated was that even though he believed he was a special athlete, De’Vondre was open to taking the alternate route. He believed in the process”

Cathryn Campbell had just the right thing to say.

“I told him, ‘You’ve got to start from somewhere,’ " she said. “If it’s meant for you to get farther you will. So do what you gotta do. Somebody will discover you one day.

“He said, ‘Mom, you think so?’ I said, ‘I know so.’ ”

After sitting out his first year due to a concussion, Campbell flourished in his final year at Hutchinson, totaling 83 tackles, eight tackles for a loss and 3.5 sacks. He moved to linebacker, where he gained weight and became more of a pass rushing threat.

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When Tennessee’s interest dissolved because of a coaching change, Campbell drew the attention of Minnesota. Assistant coach Bill Miller said he was so impressed with Campbell’s mother, he wanted her to meet coach Jerry Kill. Not only did Kill bring his wife, but he came down in a jet.

Kill, now an assistant at Kansas State, said: “He's a kid you could tell was hungry. I got a chance to meet his family. And meeting his family tells you a lot. You can tell he was a good kid.”

At Minnesota, Campbell had 208 tackles, 16 for loss as well as three recovered fumbles, two interceptions and two forced fumbles in three years as he helped the Gophers reach three bowl games.

And the academics? Campbell already has earned his degree in business and marketing education while working on his certificate program in human resource development. When asked why he chose Minnesota, he said, “They have the most Fortune 500 companies per city.”

Destination Atlanta

As the 2016 NFL Draft neared, it seemed Campbell was destined to go to Atlanta.

After his 2015 season, he signed with an Atlanta-based agent, Joseph Clayborne. Chuck Smith, a former NFL pro bowl lineman for the Falcons, handpicked Campbell to train in Orlando for two months before the draft .

“He doesn't make the same mistakes twice,” Smith said. “Which is a huge factor when you draft. You teach him, he learns. He soaks up information. He really challenges other guys he's working with. He brings so much value.”

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Even though the Falcons drafted a linebacker in Round 2, they still chose him.

Atlanta Falcons outside linebacker De'Vondre Campbell (59) arrives at George Bush International Airport.

Campbell had 48 tackles, an interception, a forced fumble and six passes defended this past season for the Falcons.

One of the benefits of not playing so much football in his life is that the 6-foot-4, 232-pounder still is continuing to learn – and is open to learning.

In the NFC Championship game against the Green Bay Packers, Campbell's responsibility was to keep quarterback Aaron Rodgers in the pocket.

Despite Campbell’s success, friends and family talk about how humble he has remained.

“We talked a few days ago about how far he came,” Roberts said. “He wants to give his family a better life.”

Cathryn Campbell said every day she walks out of her home, someone tells her, “You raised a good child.

“That was my goal. At the draft, De’Vondre said, 'Thank God for you being on my back. Telling me to come home, go to school.’ I said, ‘You were a momma’s boy.’ He said, ‘I’d rather be a momma’s boy than nobody’s boy.’"

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