It was 17 years ago today that Dan Campbell first signed with the Detroit Lions as a veteran free agent tight end on March 14, 2006. That day, this date, set in motion a string of events that would eventually lead Campbell back to Detroit charged with building a consistent winner as the 30th head coach in team history.
Campbell was a seven-year veteran when he signed with the Lions in the spring of 2006. He was one of the best blocking tight ends in the league and a player known for his physicality and toughness. But he signed in Detroit to show he was more than just a blocker. He was out to prove he was a versatile and complete player.
He immediately endeared himself to coaches and teammates with the same kind of hard-nosed, gritty style of play that's become a staple of what he wants this current Lions team to be about as he enters his third season as Detroit's head coach.
"He's why you coach," Mike Martz, former Lions offensive coordinator, told the Detroit Free Press in November of 2006 in an article about Campbell.
"He's salt of the earth. He's the athlete and the person you build a football team around."
Longtime Lions center and former Campbell teammate, Dominic Raiola, had a similar opinion of Campbell.
"When Mike Martz brought Dan in, he was smart, he was physical, loved the weight room, but he was a competitor. He was one of those dudes where you didn't want to mess with him," Raiola told detroitlions.com of Campbell.
"He was whistle to whistle, he wasn't cheap, but he was who he was and he's tough and he's a competitor. He got drafted by Bill Parcells and coached for Sean Payton for a while. He was drafted and groomed by these guys. A little bit of Dan, a little bit of Parcells, a little bit of Sean Payton, a lot of Detroit. You can see why they are winning and have success and the players believe in it with the way they are playing."
A lot of Detroit. That's a good line from Raiola, and definitely fits, because though Campbell was born and raised a Texas boy, it didn't take long for Detroit to start to feel like home and eventually shape his future.
"I was apprehensive because I didn't know anything about this area," Campbell told detroitlions.com about signing with Detroit in free agency. "I'd lived in New York, but really my whole time had been down in the south and in Texas. Just the people (in Detroit), man. It was unbelievable. It was a great experience and they welcomed you."
Campbell would play all 16 games for the Lions in 2006 and finish with career highs in receptions (32), yards (308), yards per reception (14.7) and touchdowns (4). He'd be limited to just three games the following two seasons because of injury and called it a career after 2008 with 10 years of NFL service as a player under his belt with the Giants, Cowboys and Lions.
Campbell got into coaching just one year later as a coaching intern in Miami in 2010. He advanced up the ranks to a position coach (2011-15), interim head coach (2015), then assistant head coach in New Orleans under Payton (2016-2020) before accepting the head coaching job in Detroit ahead of the 2021 season.
Cameras caught Campbell getting emotional in his return to Detroit while taking a tour of the Lions' Allen Park practice facility after accepting the job, the same facility that was just four years old when Campbell was first introduced to Detroit and the Lions in 2006.
"Thank y'all," Campbell said to Lions owner Sheila Hamp and team president Rod Wood as tears welled up in him. "Appreciate it, man. I do. I'm going to make y'all so proud."
Bringing a winner to Detroit is personal for Campbell. It's his pledge to a fan base that's embraced him and his brand of football.
"I've said this before and I'll say it again, when you grow up in Texas people are a certain way, especially when you grow up in the country like I did," Campbell said. "They'll give the shirt off their back for you if you needed it.
"To me, the only difference between where I grew up and the people up here is the way they talk. So, we felt at home, my wife, Holly, and I both felt very much at home. Our neighbors were unbelievable and the kids, the parents, and then you go to the games.
"The first game out of the gate in 2006, we played Seattle here and this place is like, whoa. I was blown away. It was a packed out, it was loud, we couldn't hear on the sidelines as the home team. You could feel that this place is just this dormant volcano, just waiting to erupt. It's been simmering for years and years and years and you wanted to be a part of that. I wanted to be a part of that. I wanted to be a part of something that you felt like you were one of the reasons you had success, got over the hump and turned it into a winner."
It's the same feeling that still fuels Campbell to this day. Getting over the hump. Building a consistent winner. The culture he's building in Detroit is authentic to the type of player and teammate he was. Tough. Gritty. Hard-nosed. Physical. But talented, too. Campbell said current Lions Pro-Bowl players Penei Sewell and Amon-Ra St. Brown epitomize all those traits and are the kind of players he's trying to build this team on the backs of.
It's a process building a consistent winner, and Campbell believes in staying the course he and GM Brad Holmes orchestrated when they both got here in 2021. Campbell says he does let himself wonder from time to time what reaching that goal of being a team that consistently competes for championships would look like in a city like Detroit.
"I thought about that when I signed here. I thought about it when I came back as a head coach," Campbell said. "To me, that's part of the allure. It's because this is not a city that's got all those other things going on. We don't have the beach and the ocean, and the sun is always out and it's 75 degrees.
"This city loves their freakin' sports, man. This is a sports city. If you're an athlete in professional sports, this is as good as it gets because they live and breathe it, man. They feel the heartbreak like you do, but when the ups are up, it's as good as it gets.
"It's better than these other cities, in my opinion. That's why I think it's special and that's why I remind our guys of that. What you do have, man?You've got a city who is dying for it, and they will be there. You give them something to cheer for and it's as good as it gets. It's worth being here, even if that means you have to compromise or sacrifice in other areas. It's worth being here."