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2020 NFL Draft

Jayru Campbell’s NFL dream is still alive, but will teams give him a shot?

The star Division II quarterback carries burden of incidents from his past

Jayru Campbell went through exhaustive training sessions to prepare for the pro day he was to participate in on March 20. NFL scouts, coaches and team executives were expected to attend the event at Central Michigan University. For Ferris State’s senior quarterback, it would not only be an opportunity to showcase his abilities on the field, but display his character and leadership.

Six years ago, Campbell was a top high school quarterback prospect. But he was far from a model citizen.

In January 2014, midway through his junior year of high school, Campbell was arrested for body-slamming a school security guard. He eventually pleaded guilty to aggravated assault and spent the entire summer in jail.

On Sept. 12, 2014, the day he was released from jail, he was rearrested on a charge of domestic violence after a confrontation with his ex-girlfriend. He was sentenced to seven months for violating his probation and spent much of what was supposed to be his senior year of high school behind bars. Campbell was released from jail in January 2015 and, after earning his high school diploma on-line, enrolled that fall at Garden City Community College, where he resumed his football career before going to Ferris State as a junior.

Campbell, 23, is different now. For one, his trademark teenage look of free-flowing hair and lengthy braids has been replaced by a close-cropped haircut and a beard. But more importantly, the mentally and physically abusive relationship with his father that shaped him has been supplanted by a loving relationship with his girlfriend. The couple is expecting a daughter in May.

It’s this newfound maturity that Campbell was eager for the NFL world to see during his pro day. But his long-awaited opportunity fell victim to the pandemic that forced most of the nation to shut down.

Ferris State quarterback Jayru Campbell

Ferris State

“Central Michigan was my only shot to have all of those teams watch me at the same time,” Campbell said. “For that to be taken away, it’s heartbreaking. …

“I’ve always been able to play, and I’ve always been a winner. I know if I had the chance to show what I could do to scouts, there would be a lot of different conversations today about quarterbacks.”

On a blustery Friday afternoon in late March, Campbell took to the field with a videographer. When the pro day at Central Michigan was canceled, the 6-foot-5 quarterback decided to hold one on his own.

Malik Taylor of the Green Bay Packers, Jevon Shaw, former Ferris State WR and Jayru Campbell at his Pro Day.

Jermaine Tripp

Campbell threw footballs to a trio of receivers (including Green Bay Packers wide receiver Malik Taylor, a Ferris State alum) and showed off his speed by running a 4.62 in the 40-meter dash. With Campbell’s senior season at Ferris State cut short due to surgery on an injured ankle (he had 16 touchdowns in five games before being shut down), the tape would show NFL teams that he’s fully recovered.

“We just want to show he’s in shape,” said Jason Bernstein, Campbell’s agent. “You see his arm strength, you look at his mobility and his size and you see he’s got the tools teams are looking for in that position.”

Campbell demonstrated those tools in 2018 when he led Ferris State to its first national championship game. In 15 games that season he accounted for 49 touchdowns: 27 through the air (2,931 passing yards), 21 on the ground (1,460 rushing yards, 97.3 per game) and one touchdown reception. He became the only player in Ferris State history to have a passing, rushing and receiving touchdown in the same game. That season, he earned the Harlon Hill Award, given to the best player in Division II.

Ferris State would go on to lose the national championship game. Campbell had his second-lowest passing yardage game of the season against Valdosta State (99 yards, completing 10 of 18 passes), but rushed for 122 yards in a game that was decided in the final seconds. Ferris State ultimately failed on a potential game-tying 2-point conversion.

“It was a tough game, and not the result we wanted,” Campbell said, adding he’s watched it dozens of times. “After the season was over, I got a chance to look back and be proud of everything I did. I knew my hard work had paid off, at least momentarily.”

Ferris State head coach Tony Annese would agree.

“Young people make mistakes, and they shouldn’t have to be judged on youthful indiscretions the rest of their life,” Annese said on the night Campbell accepted his Harlon Hill Award during a ceremony at the Little Rock Touchdown Club in Arkansas. “Jayru has made the most of his second chance.”

If it was just about football, there’s a chance Campbell would at least get a shot. Two of the three quarterbacks who won the Harlon Hill Award before him were signed by NFL teams (Jason Vander Laan, a two-time winner from Ferris State, is a tight end with the New Orleans Saints; Luis Perez, the 2017 winner, signed contracts with three NFL teams but never played in the league).

Jayru Campbell put on his own pro day to show he’s recovered from ankle surgery.

Jermaine Tripp

The route to the NFL for many Division II athletes is a long shot. But it’s even more difficult under the conditions of the current pandemic, when the cancellations of pro days across the country denied many prospects the chance to win over scouts.

“It’s not that people don’t know about a player like that, it’s just that you don’t have the workouts, which are more important for a player like that,” said Chris Landry, a former NFL scout with the Cleveland Browns and Tennessee Titans who now works as a scouting consultant. “It’s less of an issue for somebody who’s more proven and has produced against a higher level of competition. You feel for the guys where the workouts are going to mean a whole lot to them and maybe get them a camp invite.”

Campbell realizes the opportunities he’s lost — the major college offers in high school that disappeared, and the offers expected after his junior college career that failed to materialize — are of his own making.

“I think about the things that I did, and I’m embarrassed,” Campbell said. “I’m thankful that neither one of the situations I was involved in went worse than what it did, because people could have gotten more injured.

“I wish I could take it all back, but I can’t.”

Bernstein, who negotiated the $115 million contract extension that Colin Kaepernick signed in 2014, realizes the obstacles in trying to tout Campbell.

“It’s a challenge,” Bernstein said. “When I met him, he was transparent and very honest about his past. When I talked to his college coaches, all I heard was that he’s been a model citizen and hasn’t presented any problems. He’s genuine, he’s mature and that’s why I decided to work with him.”

Despite losing his chance to speak directly to NFL personnel due to the shutdown of the nation, Campbell is optimistic he’ll have a chance to play at the next level. If he isn’t drafted during the seven rounds of the three-day NFL draft, he hopes he’ll get signed as a free agent.

“I hope I get a chance,” Campbell said. “I’ve grown as a person, and I’ve spent a lot of time really looking into the mirror and working on myself. As far as life goes, I feel, on a day-to-day basis, I’m living way better and I’m on a more positive vibe than I was as a teenager in high school.”

Approaching the crossroads of his football career during the time of a pandemic has given Campbell time to reflect on his journey and the repercussions of the decisions he’s made.

Asked what advice he would give his 10-year-old self about growing up, Campbell was quick to answer:

“I would tell him, ‘Don’t let anyone steer you from the things you want to do.’ ”

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at Andscape. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright and watching the Knicks play a MEANINGFUL NBA game in June.