Zach Martin starred on the first River Hill football team to win a state championship, in 2007, and after the end of his playing career at William & Mary and McDaniel, he rejoined the Hawks as an assistant coach. At times over his three years on staff, it was as if he’d never left.
During one preseason, Martin remembers River Hill head coach Brian Van Deusen queuingup old footage. The film was not of the previous season’s games but from years before, when the players watching it, Martin joked, were “probably in elementary school.” Up on the screen came clips of the ’06, ’07 and ’08 teams, which won a combined 41 games and lost just once.
“That kind of started it all,” Martin said. Four times in six years, the Hawks’ season ended with a state championship. After the second, a 31-6 win over Eastern Tech in the 2008 Class 2A final, Michael Campanaro and Kevin Johnson, two best friends from Clarksville, celebrated on the field at M&T Bank Stadium.
It was a preview of coming attractions for the program and two of its brightest prospects. On Monday, almost exactly 10 years since that state title, they will reunite for another game in Baltimore, longtime teammates turned opponents for one night. Campanaro is a fourth-year returner and receiver for the Ravens (5-5). Johnson a third-year cornerback for the Houston Texans (4-6).
Campanaro has prepared for the possibility that Johnson might cover him on national television. It was a concession they had to make long ago, when as teenagers they presciently planned out their careers in the sport: Set a “new standard” for River Hill football (check), star in college (done) and one day play together under the klieg lights of “Monday Night Football.”
“It's really like a dream come true for both of us,” Campanaro said Wednesday. “We've always talked about making it to the highest level and just making it to the NFL. We're so close — that's like a brother, basically, to me. ... We've kind of been through the grind together to make it to this point.”
They were neighbors growing up, partners in backyard battles and summertime companions. Some sleepovers stretched for as long as two weeks. Only their age — Campanaro is 18 months older — separated them.
Years together in youth football, spent alongside a handful of future River Hill teammates, encouraged them to dream the dreams that all aspiring athletes do. Both looked up to Reggie Bush, the star of Southern California’s mid-2000s juggernauts, Campanaro recalled. Both wanted to be the Reggie Bush of Howard County high school football.
For Campanaro, it wasn’t such a far-fetched idea. He played a year of junior varsity before moving up to a burgeoning varsity powerhouse. His sophomore year, he teamed with Martin to run for nearly 2,500 yards and more than 30 touchdowns in the Hawks’ modified Wing-T offense, and also earned All-Metro second-team honors as a defensive back. The next season, he had over 2,300 all-purpose yards and 30 touchdowns as River Hill became the first Howard County school in a decade to win a state championship.
Johnson, meanwhile, was stuck on JV. He was, by most accounts, a “string bean,” athletic — he quarterbacked JV, which also never lost — but “super thin,” Martin said. (As a freshman, Johnson was just 5 feet tall and weighed 96 pounds.) Campanaro remembers lifting weights with him in the offseason before Johnson’s junior year, his first on varsity. “He could barely bench the bar,” he said, but they kept at it. The next year, a growth spurt led to a starting role on the Hawks’ defense, and during a second straight championship run, “you could tell that he was going to grow into something special,” Campanaro said.
Wake Forest noticed. After Campanaro committed to the Atlantic Coast Conference program before his senior season, the Demon Deacons began to look into Johnson. A year later, he was committed, too, and visiting his friend often on weekend trips to Winston-Salem, N.C.
“I called him and told him, ‘If you come up here, you will start as a freshman. You're better than the corners here,’ ” said Campanaro, who later roomed with Johnson in college. “That's what really sold him.”
He wasn’t wrong. Johnson started his first game as a true freshman in late October against Maryland. When he entered the 2015 NFL draft, Johnson had grown to 6-1 and 188 pounds, started 41 consecutive games for Wake Forest and finished with the fourth-most pass breakups in school history. The Texans took him No. 16 overall, the second cornerback off the board.
“I remember watching some of his film coming out, and I was like, 'Holy cow,’ ” Martin said. He laughed. “He's not the same player I remember at River Hill.”
Sure, offseason additions have been key in turning a suspect unit into one of the NFL's best. But nothing has contributed more to the re-emergence of the Ravens 'D' than getting back their disruptive man in the middle.
Johnson credited Campanaro, Wake Forest’s all-time receptions leader and “like a big brother to me,” for passing on what he had learned to him, for pushing him to be better. Though professional obligations have mandated a rare distance between them, their kinship has endured. They have gone through enough of the same ups and downs to know what the other needs to hear.
Campanaro has battled injuries. So has Johnson, who hurt his head Sunday and, while expected to play this weekend, remains in concussion protocol. Campanaro has come back from a three-game 2016 season to generate Pro Bowl buzz this fall, leading the AFC in punt return yardage. Johnson, whom Houston coach Bill O’Brien said the organization thinks “very highly of,” has worked hard for a similar reversal, trying to recapture last season’s form amid criticism of his play this year.
“Playing in the NFL is a very unique job, and sometimes, when you're talking to someone, they don't really understand fully what you're going through sometimes,” Campanaro said. “And with him … he's just been someone I can call, lean on, talk to. Same thing with him calling me. I mean, we talk everyday, just about what we're trying to do, our goals, what we're battling through. He's just someone who understands fully.”
When Campanaro and Johnson played football with their friends growing up, Campanaro said they knew they were capable of accomplishing “special things together.” For a while, that meant only glory at River Hill. But as they moved on to Wake Forest, what came next was just as special: “We grew into men with each other,” he said.
Which is not to say that they’re complete gentlemen on the field. Should they line up across from each other Monday, Campanaro figures he’ll talk some trash and hear some back, too. It’s about bragging rights, he said.