MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - "There's an old saying that there can be no great victories in life without tremendous adversity, well this was a great victory."
Alabama head coach Nick Saban has, without a doubt, built a dynasty for the history books at the University of Alabama. As any head coach will tell you, the coaching path is never crystal clear. There's never years of sheer perfection, which is why Saban's sustained success is something to marvel at.
Several coaching jobs before he took the one at the capstone, he was leading the helm at Michigan State. On his roster in the late 1980s was Amp Campbell, a defensive back with the talent for the NFL.
"Amp was a fantastic player. He had great size to play corner, had really good ball skills, he was tough, he was a good tackler, he was a good cover guy," said Saban.
Amp is currently the defensive backs coach at Alabama State, just 102 miles down the road from his old mentor.
"Coach (Saban) was a demanding guy. He always made sure that you knew and you were prepared for your opponent. Was one of the best coaches I've ever been around in my life. Everything he taught me in my time as a player, I instill in mine today," Campbell said.
The two shared a bond immediately because of the position group, but a life-altering event brought the two even closer with memories that will never leave them. Saban was in his fifth year with the Spartans and hadn't posed a record like you see in Tuscaloosa today. Entering the second game of the 1998 season, he had broken even by a hair with a 19-17-1 record.
It was a home-and-home series between MSU and Oregon, that started in Eugene in 1998. Just about a minute remaining in the first quarter, the Ducks had a 10-point lead, Amp Campbell lowered his head colliding with Ducks' fullback Chris Young's thigh.
"I changed direction, turned around and run up. As soon as I run up I knew it was going to be impossible for me to stop the full back on trying to cross the goal line, so the first thing I did was duck my head to try to cut him, and when I ducked my head my helmet hit him in the thigh. I just remember laying on the ground having a burning sensation going down the right side of my body and I knew something wasn't right," Campbell recalled.
Amp had suffered a fracture to both his sixth and seventh vertebrae in his neck, an injury doctors said he was a hair-length away from being paralyzed. He underwent spinal fusion surgery almost immediately, indicating his playing days were likely over.
Saban said, "It looks like a normal situation. A normal play in the game, a normal tackle then all of a sudden the player doesn't get up. You don't know what's wrong with them but your heart always sinks for a moment until you really find out. That certainly was the case in this one, because I was really close to Amp. I always spent a lot of time with the DBs and all that."
The hit all goes back to one moment for Campbell. He recalls playing Colorado State the game before to open the season.
"I ended up, probably could have made a tackle on a running back and kind of slowed up. The next morning I remember getting called into Coach Saban's office and he had the TV set, paused on the play when I came in and asked me, 'What do you think here? Why didn't you make that play?' I remember feeling bad that I didn't sacrifice my body, or lay out or try to trip the guy up. I remember saying to myself that I would never let that happen again," said Campbell.
Campbell stayed true to the promise he made to himself, leading to a freak accident the following weekend.
This story doesn't end in the way one might imagine to. After an extensive surgery, over a year of rehab, a lot of prayer and training, something magical was about to happen. The very next football season, Amp was ready to defy all the odds. He was granted a sixth year of eligibility and made an incredible recovery. So much so he was ready to suit up again under the lights of Spartan Stadium against none other than the Ducks.
Movie directors gush over moments in history such as this. It's one you couldn't write up if you tried. In 1999 it was a Thursday night season opener against Oregon. Amp was cleared to play and one single earth shattering moment changed the course of the program and, perhaps, even giving Saban's career the spark it needed.
Campbell smiled and said, "It was unbelievable. First game back, jitters. Sitting out probably the whole year and then just getting out there, running out the tunnel and just seeing the crowd it was electric."
Tied 17 all in the 4th quarter, Campbell picked up a fumble and trotted 85 yards for what was ultimately the game-winning touchdown.
Of course I had to ask Coach Saban, "Was that one of the most memorable moments of your career that single touchdown?"
He replied with something so profound, it will give you chills.
"No question. I mean it really, really was," said Saban. "I still remember the feeling it's almost like the feeling when you win a National Championship."
"I think it was one of the most self gratifying experiences that I've had in sports, as a player or a coach, because you miss the whole year and what Amp went through, you know, wearing a halo for a significant amount of time, the rehab that he had to do to be able to come back. Then to see him sort of make the play in the game that won the game. To see him be the guy that was the hero after all he'd been through was really a great victory for him and for all of us that tried to support him through a very difficult time." Saban said.
Campbell said, "When it happened I never questioned, 'Why did it happen?' But I did say, 'If it didn't happen where would I be?'"
Amp Campbell is the definition of resilient. We are quickly approaching the 20 year anniversary of the injury that changed his life and he's doing better than ever. His love for the game is evident when you talk to him and even more apparent when you see him coaching the Hornets defensive backs. Campbell does hope to eventually return to his alma mater and the place that gave him so much to be grateful for.
As for coach Saban, to be honest I've never seen him be this emotional. The series of events that took place in both Eugene and East Lansing are several of the most memorable of his career, and the history books.