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LORAN SMITH COLUMN: Former Falcons coach recovering from broken neck

Marion Campbell is enjoying life after a near-fatal fall

Loran Smith

Loran Smith

VILANO BEACH, Fla. — It was early morning when I stopped here recently to see an old friend. I had invited him for coffee, but Marion Campbell, one of the highest-regarded defensive coaches ever in the National Football League, politely declined. For good reason, which we’ll get into shortly.

Not only has he not enjoyed a cup of coffee lately, he has not had any solid food since May 21, almost six months ago.

I’m having conversation with a man who was a starting defensive end with the Philadelphia Eagles, a team which defeated the Green Bay Packers for the NFL title in 1959. It would be the only time Green Bay’s Vince Lombardi lost a playoff game. At his peak with the Eagles, Campbell was a big man, weighing 250 pounds. Today, his weight is 220 pounds.

Campbell, a former Georgia lineman and Falcons coach, lives in St. Augustine, where he retired after a career as an NFL coach. The good news is that he is now allowed to drive after falling and breaking his neck in the spring. A genial sort, it was his idea to meet me halfway from St. Augustine to Ponte Vedra Beach. He enjoys getting out as his life slowly returns to normal. Driving his car, after his neck was fused, is a much-appreciated milestone.

On the day of his misfortune, the 84-year-old was watching television and got up from his easy chair. His feet got twisted up in a throw rug, causing him to crash head first into the wall. The accident broke vertebrae C-3 and C-4, and the C-5 and C-6 vertebrae were fractured.

Following surgery, his doctor told him he was lucky he was not paralyzed, becoming a quadriplegic. As the doctor was explaining his good fortune, he interrupted himself by saying, “Actually, you are lucky you aren’t dead.”

Known far and wide as the “Swamp Fox,” a nickname given to him by the creative Dan Magill when Campbell was playing at Georgia, he played eight years in the NFL without serious injury. The fall in his den is a reminder that life often takes peculiar twists. Never a man for any soapbox speeches, the “Swamp Fox” is quick to note that he appreciates life now more than ever.

The medical explanation from a longtime friend, Dr. Truett Jarrard, explains Campbell’s condition: “The cervical fracture has affected the reflex that routs material swallowed down the right channel. Instead of going down the esophagus into the stomach, food could go down the trachea into the lungs. This can cause what is known as aspiration pneumonia.” And certain death. Campbell has had to live on a feeding tube as a result of the accident. He will undergo surgery on Nov. 19 in an attempt to correct the problem.

Already he has been asked what his meal of choice will be following the corrective surgery, most suggesting that he will probably want a big steak.

“No,” is his standard answer. “I will choose a glass of Dick Vermeil’s great wine.” Vermeil, with whom Campbell coached for many years, produces a very good Napa Valley wine.

In an extended conversation, the Swamp Fox reflected on his career from high school in Chester, S.C., to Georgia to the NFL, where he became head coach of the Eagles and the Atlanta Falcons, twice.

With his size (6-4, 220) as a teenager, you can imagine the recruiting rush that heated up his last year in high school. That led to an interesting sidebar. In the ’40s, there were only 11 grades in many states. When the South Carolina school system put in the 12th grade in 1947, Marion had already graduated.

His cap and gown were hanging in his closet and his diploma on his dresser when his high school coach saw an opportunity to keep him around for another season. He enrolled Campbell in class, making him one of the first 12th graders in the state.

By mid-season, opposing coaches knew something was adrift and began yelling at him, “Campbell, what damn grade you in?”

“How old are you, boy?”

“That extra season,” Campbell explains, “turned out to be very important in my career. It allowed me to mature.”

That second senior year, he really excelled. All colleges wanted him. He had committed to the University of Georgia and kept his word. He had visited Georgia in the spring following graduation. Line coach J. B. Whitworth took out a piece of paper and wrote down the starting lineup. He penciled Campbell’s name in at starting right tackle.

“You wrote me down as a starter?” Campbell questioned Whitworth.

“Why not?” Whitworth replied. “You come here, we expect you to start.” Campbell was sold.

Following his senior year, 1951, when he was hobbled by a bone spur in his foot and couldn’t walk, he spent two years in the Army and entered the NFL (49ers) as a 25-year-old rookie. He would later distinguish himself as a defensive coaching guru in pro football.

Today, none of that is as important as good news from his doctor.