Oct. 5, 2013
By Matt Winkeljohn
Kelly Campbell has quite a few fantastic memories from his time as one of Georgia Tech’s greatest wide receivers, and one of the very best still hurts.
On one special day in Tallahassee back in 1999, when the 10th-ranked Yellow Jackets were giving No. 1 Florida State everything the Seminoles could handle, the Atlanta native arrived on center stage in dual blazes of glory and agony.
He pulled in seven passes from Joe Hamilton for a whopping 141 yards and touchdowns of 56 and 22 yards, the second being a rather amazing one-handed grab that drew Tech within six points with 1:35 left in the game.
Campbell had quite emphatically announced himself to the world while jump-starting a career that will in a few weeks land him the Tech Athletic Hall of Fame.
Problem was, he couldn’t speak. For an ever-loquacious lad, that was torture.
“The FSU game sophomore year, which was my coming out party, I remember everything about it,” he recalled. “The thing I remember the most was I got my jaw broken, and still did well.
“Right before halftime, Joe Hamilton threw me a kind of a high ball and I went up and before I made it to the ground Brian Allen hit me through the facemask. I remember laying there, gathering myself. I remember thinking, ‘You got to get up; you can’t let them know they got you.’ “
Campbell rose, trotted to the sideline, and collapsed. It wasn’t immediately clear that his jaw was broken, and he returned to finish out a fabulous game marred by the fact the ‘Noles held on to win 41-35.
Only with X-rays the next day was the broken jaw confirmed, although Tech players and coaches and even the Seminoles knew before that something was up. Campbell finished the game silently, which was not typical.
“I was always the fun guy, the talking guy, the Mouth of the South. I think being that I wasn’t able to speak and I didn’t have as much energy, I think the focus level was more than usual,” he said.
“And they would feed us Snickers bars on the plane and I would go around and get everybody’s who didn’t want theirs. I’d get about 20,” Campbell said. “Everybody is passing me the bars and I’m giving ’em back. They said, ‘Man, he must really be hurt.’ “
With his jaw wired shut for six weeks as he ate whipped food through a straw, he put together one of the greatest seasons by a receiver in Tech history. All the quiet man did was set school records of 69 receptions, 1,105 yards and 10 receiving touchdowns.
Campbell and fellow receiver Dez White were terrors that season as the Jackets went 8-4, including a famous 51-48 overtime win over Georgia. They helped Hamilton put his name in the record books in many categories.
After earning first-team All-ACC honors in that season and after his senior season and second-team All-ACC as a junior, Campbell remains the Tech record holder in career receptions (195) from ’98-’01. He still shares the single-game reception mark of 14 still with John Sias, Steve Harkey and Robert Lavette.
He spent time in the NFL with the Vikings, Dolphins and Buccaneers, and also in the CFL with Edmonton.
Sometimes, you can still find Campbell, 33, working out at Tech even though he almost never became a Yellow Jacket out of Mays High School.
“I had a lot of schools to choose from. My choice at first was to go to Florida State. My SAT scores didn’t come out in time for signing day so Florida State went their way, and Georgia Tech was still sticking with me,” he explained. “They kept calling along with some other schools.
“Georgia Tech was among my top three schools anyway and when they stuck with me along with other schools I wasn’t interested in . . . I thought it was a great opportunity to be at home, close to family and friends.”
There was a certain style to just about everything Campbell did, and while that broken jaw may have quieted him and helped him focus better than ever as a sophomore, to this day he still laments a certain side effect beyond the way it limited his speech.
He had to wear, “one of those long offensive lineman facemasks. You know receivers like to look pretty. I couldn’t go out there looking like that, being talked about by other teams. I was looking pretty ugly, but I had to get it done.”
Every now and then, somebody will bring up that season, that injury. Campbell stays in touch with several former teammates, including Hamilton, Joe Burns, Will Glover, Sean Gregory and Charlie Rodgers. Dez White is his brother-in-law, married to Campbell’s sister.
There’s another blaze of glory coming.
Campbell and six other former Tech standout student-athletes will be inducted on Oct. 18 at the annual Hall of Fame induction dinner at the Georgia Tech Hotel and Conference Center. Tickets are $50, and can be purchased through the Alexander-Tharpe Fund at 404 894-6124.
The inductees will also be honored at Tech’s football game against Syracuse on Oct. 19.
“I’m very excited about this,” Campbell said. “When they called me and told me about this, I kind of thought it was a joke. I never did think this was going to happen.”
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