There was a time, believe it or not, when Calais Campbell was just regular sized. “Normal tall,” is how the Ravens' Pro Bowl defensive end puts it. Before an 8-inch growth spurt in high school, Campbell was a mere 6-foot middle school student in Aurora, Colorado. There were kids his age bigger than him.
Campbell remembers one. His name was Akili. They were about the same height, but Akili had a stocky build. He looked more like a wrestler than the lanky Campbell, and that was a problem, because Campbell didn’t know who this Akili kid was until they were supposed to wrestle.
"I remember my coaches hyping me up, like, ‘This guy is the real deal,’ " Campbell recalled in an interview last week. Akili had wrestled at the club level and, like Campbell, was tearing through middle school meets, popping adolescent dreams like zits. Campbell, a newcomer to the sport, was nervous. Maybe he’d finally met his match, someone bigger and stronger and more talented.
Nope. “I ended up beating him in the first round, still,” Campbell said. “It took me longer than 30 seconds, like I was doing to everybody else. But I still beat him in the first round.”
How did Campbell build one of the most dominant and long-lasting careers for an NFL defensive lineman this century? How did the biggest guy on the league’s top scoring defense turn his size into a weapon that coach John Harbaugh calls “so, so surprisingly rare”?
It might’ve started with one of the Denver metropolitan area’s most dominant (and shortest-lived) wrestling careers. So much of what Campbell understands about technique and leverage, he learned in his two years under the South Middle School head wrestling coach whose name, two decades later, he just can’t recall.
“Wrestling definitely helped with being able to understand how I can get underneath people,” said Campbell, who enters Sunday’s game against the Pittsburgh Steelers leading the Ravens in sacks (four) and tackles for loss (six). "I remember the coach telling me that with my height, it really is a blessing more so than it is a curse, because if I can get lower than a guy that’s shorter, then I have natural power from being that size. ...
“And that was my wrestling coach that told me that, which was kind of cool. And then it carried over to football. I kind of remembered that when I was on the field, and it’s been working for me ever since.”
Campbell’s parents kept him busy as a kid. He played “every sport” growing up in the Denver area, and he went on to star for South High School’s football, basketball, and track and field teams. But until he got to middle school, he’d never tried wrestling.
When a coach for the team started recruiting him in the seventh grade, Campbell was intrigued. “I was like, ‘Sure, I’ll give it a try.’ ” He didn’t know a half-nelson from a half-pipe, but he found he picked up the sport pretty quickly.
Before long, Campbell was picking up other wrestlers, too, even kids who’d been competing since they were first sized for a singlet. In some of Campbell’s early matches, competing in the 138-pound weight class, he recalled falling behind on points early. He was still figuring out how to win.
“But then I just started finishing people really quick,” Campbell said. It was perhaps the first preview of a high school football career that would end with a state-record 57 sacks. No one could stop him, not for long. Most matches were over in 20 or 30 seconds. After one especially quick pin, someone told Campbell he’d just set a state record.
“I don’t know if I do,” he said, “but it was eight seconds or something like that.”
Campbell doesn’t remember losing. He won a middle school city championship at 138 pounds, competed at the club level the summer before eighth grade, then returned for another year at 163 pounds. “You kind of grow fast,” said Campbell, who now weighs double that. He went on to win another city title at that class, too.
Only Colorado’s high school sports schedule kept a 6-8 Campbell off the state’s mats. In middle school, basketball and wrestling never overlapped. Starting in ninth grade, they did. Campbell, forced to choose, stuck with basketball. He enjoyed it just a little bit more. “But it was definitely fun,” Campbell said of his brief but brilliant wrestling career.
Then, in his sophomore year of high school, Campbell started to sprout. Now he was bigger and stronger than everyone else on the football field, but his technique depended on his leverage. He had to remind himself what he’d learned in middle school.
“I’ve always been really good at football — a nose for the ball, good instincts, that kind of stuff,” Campbell said. “But I wasn’t [at a level] where I had to play with super-good leverage yet. So when I got to high school as a sophomore, a new body, went from being 6-foot to 6-8 ... you had to learn how to adjust.”
When NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger met with Campbell for an “NFL Game Pass” segment released this offseason, he was surprised to learn that Campbell had wrestled. There just aren’t a lot of wrestlers Campbell’s size. Few have ever had to worry, as Campbell joked he does, about growing so tall that they start hitting their head on doorways.
But it made sense to Baldinger, a former NFL offensive lineman. Every defender he faced who’d ever wrestled was a pain in the rear to block. In 1990, defensive tackle Tony Siragusa joined the Indianapolis Colts, where Baldinger was a starting guard. Baldinger learned pretty quickly why Siragusa had gone 97-1 in high school as a New Jersey state wrestling champion.
“ ‘Goose’ was already 340 pounds, but then he was a wrestler, so he naturally just played low and he had natural strength,” Baldinger said. “He was almost impossible to move off the ball when we went against each other all day. So you take his center of gravity, his size, his natural strength and then his ability to get his hands on you, and you couldn’t get his hands off you. So I went up against him every day in practice and, you know, I felt it.”
But if the 6-1 Siragusa was built like a refrigerator, Campbell more closely resembles a high-rise. Outside linebacker Pernell McPhee calls him a “twin tower” next to 6-5 defensive end Derek Wolfe. And in football, as Baldinger said, “Low man wins.” Campbell lines up before every play with one hand on the ground and his helmet near waist level; his challenge is not leaving his towering frame exposed.
When Campbell is dominant, as he was in his three-sack performance against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 6, it’s as if he’s alchemized the lessons of his multisport background. There’s the technique he’s honed in football, the footwork he developed in basketball, the strength he harnessed for the shot put, and the balance he learned in wrestling.
“When I’m lower, when I play with really good leverage, I’ve never lost. I’ve always won that battle,” Campbell said. “So that’s something that I have to constantly remind myself and battle myself on.”
“You can start from a low position, but can you stay in a low position?” Baldinger said. “That’s the problem that most people have.”
As Campbell’s football career took him from Miami to the Arizona Cardinals to the Jacksonville Jaguars to Baltimore, earning five Pro Bowl honors along the way, his affinity for combat sports only blossomed. He’s a big fan of mixed martial arts and the Ultimate Fighting Championship. He’s been featured in a promo for All Elite Wrestling and once taped a World Wrestling Entertainment-style interview with Jaguars teammate Malik Jackson.
Campbell’s even considered a future in professional wrestling. He’s still workshopping names — “I always joke around and tell people I’m ‘Big Handsome’ ” — and he doesn’t know what kind of opportunities might await after the NFL. But he’s open to it.
Wrestling helped take him this far, after all.
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“I feel like I will be a little too old, and that’s a lot of time and effort, so we’ll see,” said Campbell, 33. “But you never know. I mean, I’ve seen Gronk [Rob Gronkowski] do it for a little bit, and it did look a lot of fun. And I feel like it would be great to create that personality and go out there and just dominate, just throw people.”