Jayru Campbell makes most of second chance, fuels Ferris State's title run

By Evan Petzold
Special to The Detroit News

Big Rapids, Mich. — Jayru Campbell’s journey as a football player and as a man has been far from simple.

As a result of consequences for two 2014 arrests while enrolled at Detroit Cass Tech, Campbell landed at Garden City Community College in Kansas for a second chance.

Jayru Campbell

He was successful for the Broncbusters at the NJCAA level, helping them win a national championship in 2016.

Now, he’s doing more of the same at Division II Ferris State for coach Tony Annese.

Campbell — who led Cass Tech to back-to-back state titles as a freshman and sophomore — went from assaulting a school security guard and a 60-day jail stint, pleading guilty to a misdemeanor charge of domestic violence involving a girlfriend and serving more time in jail to leading Ferris State’s football program to the NCAA Division II national championship game — just four years after the arrests.

Ferris State (15-0) plays Valdosta (Ga.) State (13-0) in its first national championship appearance, and it’s yet another opportunity for Campbell to make his mark.

“He’s committed to being the best he can be for this team,” Annese said. “Before that happened, he had to be the best person he could be away from the field.”

Fresh start at Ferris

Campbell is one of nine candidates for the Harlon Hill Trophy, given to the best Division II player. He leads Ferris State into the Saturday showdown at McKinney Independent School District Stadium in McKinney, Texas. Kickoff is at 4 p.m.

It’s another milestone in his comeback story.

Campbell transferred to Ferris State after winning a national championship at Garden City CC, where he played receiver, in 2016.

Cass Tech head coach Thomas Wilcher said Campbell understood his opportunity at Ferris State. In turn, he said Campbell matured.

Wilcher remained in Campbell’s corner despite the high school troubles. He advised Campbell to pick safe environments going forward. Big Rapids fit the criteria.

“I thought that was a very mature move by him,” Wilcher said. “He wanted to be around people that would make him grow and be a better person.”

The former three-star prospect sat out the entire 2017 season with a redshirt. Annese wanted to give Campbell time to focus on himself, rather than push him to be an immediate star.

Ferris State quarterback Jayru Campbell has completed 60.6 percent of his passes for 2,832 yards and 26 touchdowns. He's also the team's leading rusher with 1,338 yards.

People often ask Annese, “Why would you give somebody a second-chance opportunity?”

The answer from Ferris State’s seventh-year head coach dates to his time as a high school coach and educator of students in the classroom.

“I was a high school teacher for 25 years,” Annese said. “I had to give people second chances every day. That’s what an education does. I hope all coaches out there are willing to work with young people to bring out the best that’s in them — focus on the positive traits they may have, not the negative experience they had.”

Annese said there’s a deeper story behind Campbell’s struggles in high school, and over time it will be uncovered.

Campbell has declined recently to talk to the media. In June, Campbell told The Detroit News he was sexually abused when he was 5 by someone close to his family, attributing some of his past anger issues to the incident. He said he didn’t tell his mother about the abuse until he was in high school.

Grand Valley State senior offensive lineman David Dawson’s relationship with Campbell goes back to the summer before the quarterback was a freshman at Cass Tech — three years before Campbell’s arrests.

“The situation he went through was messed up,” Dawson said. “He had to realize he couldn’t act like a little kid.”

After the arrests, Campbell was on his own. Nobody wanted him as a football player — a former Michigan State commit, he lost this scholarship offer from the Spartans — and not many had an interest in being his friend.

Dawson, Dallas Cowboys cornerback Jourdan Lewis, Seattle Seahawks cornerback Delano Hill and Ohio State running back Mike Weber, ex-teammates of Campbell's, reached out to the troubled teenager.

'Don't ever count a kid out'

The Detroit Public School League community and city of Detroit are standing behind Campbell’s push for a national title. But some still only see Campbell as the kid who body-slammed a school security guard and assaulted his girlfriend. 

“People tried to make him out to be this monster,” Wilcher said. “Through the thick of it all, there’s still a person in there. Don’t ever count a kid out.”

Admitting the mistakes were serious, Dawson said Campbell is more than just those transgressions.

Former Detroit Cass Tech star quarterback Jayru Campbell served jail time for separate incidents involving a security guard and a girlfriend.

“People that haven’t sat down with him don’t really know him,” Dawson said. “He’s a kid that loves football. He’s caring, but has made some mistakes.”

For the community, program and university in Big Rapids, the 6-foot-5, 215-pound student-athlete has been a "blessing," Annese said.

“He’s made this team tough. He’s committed. He’s as hard-working of a man as I’ve ever been around,” Annese said. “Add to that, he wants to win this national championship. He drives this whole team.”

When Annese walked into the locker room at halftime of the NCAA Division II national semifinals against Minnesota State, he didn’t have to say a word. The Bulldogs owned a 21-19 lead at the break, and Campbell was on his feet — speaking loud and clear.

“One more half and we are in this national championship,” Annese remembers Campbell telling the team.

Ferris State picked up a 42-25 victory, successfully advancing to the national title.

Campbell wasn’t negative in the locker room, but he challenged each player to make the vital final push, Annese said. He was encouraging the team before anyone else, and the head coach said that’s what makes Campbell a leader for the Bulldogs.

Senior wide receiver Keyondre Craig says Campbell not only brings out the best in him on the field, but he also helps him grow off the field on a daily basis.

"For me, as a receiver, it's awesome to have a quarterback like that who will bring out the best in you," Craig said. "He's on you. I think it's awesome that we have someone that can push us like that other than coaches."

The national title game will pit Campbell against Valdosta State quarterback Rogan Wells, also a Harlon Hill Trophy finalist.  Annese wants to have a watch party with the team for the trophy announcement Friday, but Campbell isn’t interested.

Campbell made it clear his only goal is to secure the national championship. Annese said his quarterback always puts the team before personal accolades, as evidenced by his measured reaction to receiving a Division II First-Team All-America honors.

“He’s very unselfish,” Annese said. “He’s on-edge to be the best every single day. It’s driven us to be great.”

In future endeavors, Wilcher looks forward to Campbell walking across the stage at his college graduation, opening up his own social work center to help kids and gaining a tryout from a professional football team.

“He wants to give back by telling other people what not to do,” Wilcher said. “I want people to know he’s always working on himself to be better. Everything takes time. One day at a time.”

Evan Petzold is a freelance writer.

Division II championship game

Who: Ferris State vs. Valdosta State (Ga.)

When: 4 p.m. Saturday, McKinney Independent School District Stadium, McKinney, Texas

Records: Ferris State 15-0; Valdosta State 13-0


Outlook: The game features two Harlon Hill Trophy candidates, in Ferris State QB Jayru Campbell (Detroit Cass Tech) and Valdosta State QB Rogan Wells. The winner is announced Friday.