Hometown Report: Green Bay O-line coach has roots at Ponderosa

Published: Saturday, Jan. 12, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 4C
Last Modified: Monday, Jan. 14, 2013 - 9:44 am

Travis Hatcher embraces the story and memory, but that comes with a warning.

"It's hard not to break down – he's that special to me," the retired football coach for Ponderosa High School said Friday morning.

Hatcher is talking about his greatest overachiever in James Campen, a fixture from the Bruins' heyday in the fall of 1980 and '81 in Shingle Springs. Now the Green Bay Packers offensive-line coach, Campen was 215 pounds of drive-blocking fury as a center. He had a goal of reaching the NFL. If someone scoffed at the suggestion, and plenty did, Campen competed with extra vigor. Campen dominated all comers but attracted no college recruiting interest.

"James, his motor really ran fast," Hatcher recalled. "He came to me once after practice, when we lightened up on hitting before the playoffs, and says, 'Coach, are you giving up on us? I want to keep going hard.' He was an all-out guy – high energy, high desire. He had personality, leadership, really smart.

"And nothing was going to slow him down. He set a goal to be a player. He was a baby-face kid, and the kid becomes a real man. Talk about a great story."

Campen's first step to fulfilling his dream was taken at Sacramento City College, which in 1982 finished 12-0 and ranked No. 1 in the country with Campen an all-conference center. He landed a scholarship to Tulane, started the 1984 and '85 seasons and received campus honors for bettering his school and community. He went undrafted.

Still, Campen never wavered.

He camped in the parking lot of the Superdome in New Orleans, like a fan trying to fetch the last ticket to a Rolling Stones concert. He waited for a coach to show up, and then made his plea. Campen had a tryout but was cut. He kept pushing. He played center for the Saints in 1987 and '88, and then signed with Green Bay in 1989 and became fast friends with Brett Favre.

A torn hamstring in Week 4 of the 1993 season ended Campen's career.

Hatcher brought Campen home to coach Ponderosa's defense, a role he held for four seasons. He was the Bruins' head coach for five years, putting his own money into the weight room, stressing the value of high school athletics and the meaning of rivalries. He expected to be a Ponderosa lifer, insisting the blood he shed was always green – Packers and Bruins. But he couldn't turn down the Packers when they called with an offer.

Campen is in his ninth season as a Packers assistant. A photo from Ponderosa's post-9/11 game against Rio Americano is in his office, Campen's hand clasped with Rio coach Mike Smith's during the national anthem. When I visited Campen during the Packers' training camp in 2005, he downplayed his role, just an everyday man. Packers fans, though, belted out his name – "Hey, Camp! Loved you as a player, man!"

"The only other place I'd coach besides here is Ponderosa," Campen said then.

Campen has been loyal to his mentors. He has flown Hatcher and former Sac City coach Jerry Sullivan to Green Bay for Lambeau Field tours and an inside peek at the storied NFL franchise. Campen's job is to come up with a scheme for his linemen to keep Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers upright and in one piece, including in today's NFC divisional playoff game against the 49ers.

Now the emotional part for Hatcher. He recounted a call from Campen on the morning of Super Bowl XLV, following the 2010 season.

"He said he was going in for breakfast and said, 'Can you believe this? I'm having breakfast before the Super Bowl,' " Hatcher said.

"This is beyond a dream. He said, 'Coach, you're going to love this. I got them to put in a Ponderosa play. You'll know it when you see it.' Then he said … 'I thought you'd love that. I just want you to know that if it wasn't for you and the staff and Ponderosa, I wouldn't be here.'

"Gets me every time. James … he left his mark."

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