After violent past, football star wonders if he’ll get another chance
Jayru Campbell was a top recruit until video of attacks went viral — and he went to jail
As Atlanta Hawks center Dwight Howard walked off the court toward the visiting locker room in Phoenix on Wednesday, Jayru Campbell made sure he was positioned perfectly.
Standing with other players from the Garden City Community College football team, Campbell reacted exactly the way you’d expect from an awestruck teenager: He recorded the moment with a cellphone in his right hand, and offered — and received — some dap with his left.
But Phoenix was just a stop on a two-day, 1,056-mile bus trip from Garden City, Kansas, to Yuma, Arizona. Earlier this week, Campbell, 19, practiced in front of scouts representing some of the nation’s top football programs. On Saturday, the Garden City Broncbusters, the nation’s top-ranked junior college football team, will play for the national championship against second-ranked Arizona Western College.
Three years ago, a two-day bus ride would have seemed beneath Campbell. A quarterback at Cass Tech High School in Detroit, he was considered one of the best in the country and had attracted interest from several major colleges. Most everyone assumed that by now he would at least be on par with high school teammate Mike Weber, the Ohio State running back who this week was named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year.
But two arrests plus two stints in prison led to Campbell’s stop at the Kansas version of Last Chance U.
His coach believes Campbell has played well enough at his new position of wide receiver to earn a scholarship at a Power 5 school. Watch Campbell’s on-the-field tape from this season, and it seems like he deserves a shot.
“I know everything will work out,” Campbell said. “I’m hoping to get a good scholarship and get back to where I was supposed to be.”
But will the off-the-field tape that made Campbell internet-famous in high school cost him a big-time football opportunity?
To figure out where Campbell once appeared destined to be, look back to where he was five years ago.
On Nov. 26, 2011, Campbell, a 14-year-old freshman quarterback, led Detroit’s Cass Tech to a shockingly easy 49-13 victory over Detroit Catholic Central High School to win the Division I state championship.
Playing in front of thousands of people at Ford Field that day, Campbell performed like he’d one day be a star at stadiums on Sundays. He completed 13 of 20 passes for 240 yards and tied a state finals record with five touchdowns, while leading Cass Tech to its first state title. The 49 points was the most that Catholic Central, a perennial state powerhouse, had given up in 40 years.
“He was the first quarterback we had at Cass Tech that could manage a team as a freshman,” said Thomas Wilcher, the coach since 1997. “What made him so special was that he could throw with great accuracy. He was so smart that he was able to call his own plays, check down and make adjustments. It was great.”
Cass Tech went back-to-back the next season, defeating Catholic Central again for the 2012 state title.
But when the two teams faced each other in the state semifinals the following year, there were signs that Campbell’s life was beginning to unravel. Cass Tech, unbeaten and ranked No. 1 in the state, was crushed, 28-0. As the two teams lined up at midfield to shake hands, Campbell took a swing at a Catholic Central player and had to be physically restrained.
“I was near him taking pictures right after that game, and he told me, ‘Get that camera out of my face,’ ” said Chuck Johnson, the athletics media relations director at the time for Detroit Public Schools. “He had always been respectful, so I really couldn’t believe he was talking to me.”
Johnson, surprised that Campbell was acting out of character, kept an eye on him during the postgame handshake line.
“Sure enough, he fired a punch at the Catholic Central kid that tackled him earlier,” Johnson recalled. “A coach wrestled him to the ground, and I kneeled down and told him, ‘You’re messing up in front of all of these people. Don’t you know you stand for something?’
“Honestly, I think it was a reaction from a kid who failed for the first time,” Johnson added. “He won two-straight state titles, and everyone’s patting him on the back telling him how great he is. I just don’t think he knew how to lose.”
Told of Johnson’s view of the incident, Campbell said the punch had nothing to do with losing.
“In the third quarter of that game, the [Catholic Central player] forced a fumble when I rolled out, and then he grabbed me by the facemask,” Campbell said. “I remembered his number and me, being young and stupid, I threw a punch. I made a young mistake.”
At the time, Campbell — who had verbally committed to Michigan State, while also attracting interest from Notre Dame and Alabama — was locally famous.
Following an incident two months later, he became known internationally.
Campbell said he was walking out the main door of Cass Tech on the afternoon of Jan. 22, 2014, when a security guard asked him to lower his hoodie. Campbell refused. He said the guard grabbed him, and what followed was recorded on a cellphone video that went viral on World Star Hip Hop, where it’s been viewed over a million times.
As students looked on, Campbell lifted the guard and violently slammed him to the ground. The sound of the guard’s body hitting the floor is sickening.
“Apparently when the guy grabbed Jayru, the other kids said, ‘You can’t let him do that,’ ” Wilcher said. “His peers put him in a situation he couldn’t get himself out of.”
Campbell’s memory: “When the guard reached for me, I just blacked out. Looking back, I’m really lucky. That guy could have broken his neck. He could have died.”
The guard staggered to his feet and was badly bruised by the body slam. He didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Campbell was arrested at the school and jailed for two days. Four months later, he accepted a plea deal on an aggravated assault charge and was sentenced to 60 days in jail, where he spent the summer between his junior and senior years of high school.
“The hardest day for me in jail? Probably the last three days before I got out,” Campbell said. “I was thinking to myself, ‘You better not get out of here and do anything stupid.’ ”
On the day Campbell was released, Sept. 12, 2014, he did something stupid. He went straight to Cass Tech, where he confronted his ex-girlfriend. School surveillance video shows the two arguing, and Campbell taking the girl’s cellphone. Campbell is then seen putting his hand around the girl’s throat, and pushing her to the ground.
Freed for just three hours, Campbell was back in jail that evening.
He was sentenced to seven months for violating his probation, and pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge of domestic violence, which earned him an extra year of probation. He was released from jail on Jan. 21, 2015.
“There’s no excuse for what I did,” Campbell said of the incident involving his ex-girlfriend. “Stupid, just stupid.”
The day after Campbell was bonded out of jail after his first arrest, he visited his grandmother. He vividly remembers the words she uttered that, even to this day, leave him shaken.
“She told me, ‘You’re turning into your father,’ ” Campbell said. “I was sitting there with my mother, and I was stunned.
“Looking back, that’s exactly what I was doing. I was turning into my father.”
For much of the first decade of his life, Campbell had little to do with his father, Shawn, who was imprisoned when his son was 3.
“When he got out, I was 10, and I really didn’t know him,” Campbell said.
His father, a former high school basketball player who stands at an imposing 6-foot-9, was both verbally and physically abusive, Campbell said.
One day, Campbell was at Cass Tech when his dad came to pick him up. Campbell told his dad — with whom he had argued the previous day — that he was going home with his aunt.
“He snapped,” Campbell said. “We got into a fight. Well, it wasn’t really a fight, it was him putting hands on me in front of the whole football team.”
Wilcher, Campbell’s coach at Cass Tech, remembers walking in on the tail end of the disagreement. “When I got there, the incident was over,” Wilcher said. “I was surprised that it happened at school because the dad had always been a respectful person, and seemed to always be happy and proud of his son.”
For Campbell, the worst moment came after he was disciplined by his father in another incident. On the drive to his dad’s house, Campbell was asked how much money he had. When he pulled out his money, his dad took it and drove to a gas station to fill up a gas can.
When they got to the house, Campbell’s father asked his son to bring all his clothes outside. Campbell gathered his belongings — his sweats, his Ralph Lauren shirts and True Religion jeans — and stacked them in the backyard.
“He put it in a pile, poured the gasoline on it, and burned it all,” Campbell recalled.
Erika Jones, one of Campbell’s teachers at Cass Tech, said she consoled her distraught student after his clothes were burned. Campell even rapped about it on a song titled Closer To My Dreams that he recorded under the name Young Ru:
Everything I got, I swear to God I had to earn it / I finally got some good clothes and my daddy had to burn it
After the incident, Campbell called his mother, who came over to pick him up. She asked her son to pack his bags.
“I said, ‘You want me to pack my toothbrush?’ I didn’t have anything,” he said. “My mom didn’t have a home at the time, so she took me to stay with my grandmother.”
Campbell did not respond to several requests for contact information for his parents. Attempts to reach them through a family friend were also unsuccessful.
Campbell and his father have continued a love-hate relationship, he said. After months of not speaking, Campbell finally reached out after a girl said she was pregnant by him. He drove over to his father’s house to speak with him. “It was the first time we’d spoken face to face since the incident, and there was a lot of tension, but he wound up giving me some good advice,” Campbell said. “And we’ve been OK ever since.
“Me and my dad’s story is ridiculous. We’ve gone from being best friends to homeys to enemies to best friends again. I’m glad we’re in a good place now. I’m sure a lot of what’s happened in my life is because of my dad.”
In the summer of 2015, Campbell — six months removed from jail — boarded a plane from Detroit to Garden City. A couple of his Detroit friends had committed to play at Garden City Community College, a place where athletes go to resurrect their careers.
Campbell’s first impression of the city, which is surrounded by farms, wasn’t pleasant.
“Coach picked six of us up at the airport, and the smell is the first thing that caught my attention,” Campbell said. “I found out later it was all the farms and manure.”
A city of just over 26,000 people, Garden City wasn’t Detroit. And for Campbell, that was a good thing.
“I lived on the west side of Detroit in rough neighborhoods,” Campbell said. “Three days after I got out of jail, I was going to the store and walked right into the middle of a shootout. It was good to get away.”
“Here in Garden City, I go to school, I eat, I sleep and I play football. That’s my entire life.”
Since he missed his senior year of high school, Campbell earned his high school diploma that summer in Kansas. In addition to going to class at Garden City that first year, Campbell had to attend weekly anger management classes, as well as report to a probation officer.
He found his reputation preceded him.
“Jayru Campbell might be the worst person in the world based on the internet,” said Garden City coach Jeff Sims. “If you come here to speak to him, you’ll find Jayru is a nice young man trying to work his way out of a bad situation.”
He’s not alone. One teammate was dismissed from a major program after committing a sexual assault. Another was facing a suspension from another top program for reportedly failing a drug test.
“Here, we deal with a lot of people like Jayru — guys who at a young age and lacking maturity could never stop a tidal wave that kept coming and kept getting bigger and bigger,” Sims said. “If not us at the junior college to help these kids along, who? We’re willing to fight that good fight alongside these guys and to give them an opportunity.”
After a year away from football, Campbell sputtered in his first year at Garden City. Under a first-year coaching staff, the Broncbusters finished the season 3-8 and Campbell was inconsistent, completing just 37 percent of his passes while throwing 10 touchdowns and 14 interceptions.
Campbell started at quarterback the first two games of this season — both wins — when Sims suggested a change to wide receiver. The request startled Campbell.
“I’d been preparing to start at quarterback and lead this team since last year, so it was difficult,” Campbell said. “So I learned to just lock in and focus on the solution and not the problem. I moved to wideout, and I worked hard.”
Campbell has accepted his role on the undefeated team, emerging as one of Garden City’s top receivers with 20 receptions for 314 yards and four touchdowns.
Will Campbell get a second chance? Major schools have heavily scouted Garden City players this year, with 30 schools attending two practices earlier this week. But while several teammates have received offers from programs such as Arizona, Kansas and Oklahoma State, no one has extended a scholarship to Campbell.
Call it the Ray Rice effect: Like the former NFL running back, Campbell’s horrific moments were captured on video. And that has probably made him untouchable in the minds of many coaches.
That unknown is scary for Campbell, who expressed his concern last year after a meeting with Sims. As Campbell got up to leave, he paused at the door.
“Jayru said, ‘Coach, do you think a Division I school will really want me?’ ” Sims said. “Jayru is scared because, regardless of what he does, he doesn’t know what the future holds. He’s a Division I talent, and he deserves a chance.”
Campbell will get one last chance to show his stuff on Saturday when the top-ranked Broncbusters (10-0) play what’s essentially a road game against No. 2 Arizona Western (11-0), which is based in Yuma where the El Toro Bowl is being played.
“Being No. 1 and playing on the road doesn’t faze us,” Campbell said. “We’ve been through too much adversity and we’ve fought through it all.
“For me, I just want someone to give me a chance. I own up to what I’ve done. I know it’s always going to be there. I just hope it doesn’t have a negative impact on me for the rest of my life.”