Former NFL player from Chester remembered at funeral
The man called “Coach” was buried Monday, in the hometown where he came off the mill hill to become both an NFL star and coach.
Despite heat flirting with 100 degrees, former players and friends came to say goodbye to Francis Marion “Swamp Fox” Campbell – named and nicknamed for the famous South Carolina general in the Revolutionary War.
“The Swamp Fox would have had two-a-day practices in this weather,” chuckled Loran Smith, who has spent most of his career working in and around the football program at the University of Georgia, where Campbell played defensive tackle and served as defensive coordinator for a season.
“Tough? None were tougher.”
Campbell was not just some player or coach. He was a real man in an era when real men played football. His shoulders were so wide – thanks to good genes, not weightlifting – that he had to turn sideways to get through a doorway.
Dewey McClain, who played for Campbell when he coached the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons – wiped away sweat but did not flinch throughout the funeral.
“He was tough, and I loved him for it,” said McClain, now a member of the Georgia House of Representatives. “We all loved him. He was a super guy.”
Campbell, 87, died July 13 in Plano, Texas. But his life – coming off the Gayle mill hill on Chester’s Elliott Street, from a tiny little clapboard house, to play and coach in the NFL for decades – is what brought people together on such a hot day.
“Marion Campbell made me believe I could play in the NFL,” said Alfred Jenkins, another former Falcons star who sat through the heat for a man who shaped his life. “He was like a father. I was this little guy, and he believed in me. He had empathy and love, and he was tough.
“Marion Campbell made me into a better man.”
Ken Clarke, a former NFL defensive lineman who played for Campbell when he coached the Philadelphia Eagles, stood firm under the broiling sun with the sweat running off his head. He credited Campbell with helping him maintain a career of more than a dozen years in the NFL after not even being drafted out of college.
“Marion Campbell believed in me,” Clarke said.
Campbell was a star at Chester High School in the late 1940s after World War II – the Cyclones’ biggest, best, toughest and nicest player. He went on to star at the University of Georgia.
After two years in the Army, he played for the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers and Philadelphia Eagles from the mid 1950s through the early 1960s. He helped the Eagles win the NFL championship game in 1960, playing the entire season with torn ligaments in his ankle.
During that season – one of two in which he was named to the Pro Bowl – Campbell took pain shots, taped up the ankle and still threw opposing players around like rag dolls. He was among the last of the two-way players, along with Eagles teammate and legendary touch guy Chuck Bednarik.
Campbell in some games never came off the field until the horn blew. He played in one game until one knee looked like spaghetti, it was so torn and ruined.
Campbell then coached for decades, including two head coaching stints with the Falcons and one with the Eagles.
He is in the sports halls of fame in both South Carolina and Georgia.
“We always called him Coach,” said Tom Hamilton, a former Chester city and county councilman and lifelong resident who knew Campbell for decades and stood right there in the heat for the funeral. “Marion Campbell was a a man. He was this big, tough, larger-than-life person.
“In those days he was the biggest man anybody knew, toughest to ever come out of Chester.”
And that’s what was remembered most on Monday in Chester – that a nice guy, tough and big and strong and driven, had made a life from football that reached the highest levels of the sport.
But he did it with understated class and grace, and always a hand up to other guys who came from the hardscrabble red clay towns and burgs and backwaters. He was married to his Chester High School sweetheart, Ilda June, for 57 years. They had a son and a daughter and grandchildren.
Jenkins – who is from Hogansville, Ga., a town even smaller than Chester – said Campbell’s small-town strength was with him always.
“Marion Campbell, his word was his bond,” Jenkins said.
Jenkins played wide receiver for the Birmingham Americans of the short-lived World Football League in 1974. Despite being considered the best player in that league, he was told over and over that he was too small, too weak, to play in the NFL.
Campbell told him that was nonsense.
“He told me that anybody who can catch all those passes can play for him,” said Jenkins, who went on to win Pro Bowl honors, just like his coach.
The sweat poured off Jenkins Monday at the funeral. He did not flinch. He did not reach for water or complain that it was too hot. His coach would expect him to be tough.
“Marion Campbell told me I could do it – play in the NFL,” Jenkins said. “He believed in me. I am honored to be here today for that great man.”