The buddy movie in the making out at Flowery Branch, the one starring linebackers Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell, couldn’t have had a more antiseptic opening. Cut to an Indianapolis hospital waiting area in 2016, and not the emergency room or anything dramatic.
Just a couple guys hanging out, waiting on test results and to see what wrongs football may have done them. So quiet they could almost hear their pulse rates down-shifting.
But wait, it gets better. Really.
Thrown together at the NFL pre-draft combine, one rookie from LSU and another from Minnesota found themselves on the same medical exam schedule. “We were sitting at the hospital together for hours, just talking, not even knowing that a couple months later we’re going to be on the same team,” Campbell said.
“We clicked from the moment we met at the combine. It was crazy how everything works out,” Jones said.
Taken in the second round of that draft, Jones hopped the first thing flying to Atlanta, and was there the next day in time to be introduced at a draft-weekend fan event. While you’re here, they asked Jones, why don’t you announce to the people who the Falcons just took in the fourth round?
“I read the name and I’m like no, way, that’s my boy. From Day One, he’s been my boy,” Jones said. Do we really need to tell you who the Falcons took with that pick?
The pace of this tale quickens appreciably from that point. They were a couple rookies valued for their speed but also discounted at various levels because of their lack of size, two players who fit Dan Quinn’s notion of swift defensive justice. And were thrown into the machinery of a unit that was stupid young, but not too stupid young to go all the way to the Super Bowl.
The heat of that experience welded certain strong, unbreakable bonds.
“It’s a unique situation that two rookies come in together and then start together from the jump, go through their lumps together, develop this really strong relationship,” Falcons linebacker coach Jeff Ulbrich said.
Quinn’s message of “Brotherhood” is as constant as the mayor’s taped greeting at the airport. It sometimes gets diminished by repetition, drowned out by its own volume.
Putting the coach’s bromides into practice, Jones and Campbell give them a fresh coat of credibility.
You see one around Falcons camp, the other is likely close by (although their lockers are at different ends of the room). Apparently, spending a long, hard work day together doesn’t fray the friendship.
“We might spend more time together off the field than we do on,” Campbell said. “We’ll be sitting around talking about life stuff all the time. When we ain’t around football we try to keep football separate. It’s our job but we also want to try to have fun.”
“It’s a good balance,” Jones said. “We both have our families, but we also enjoy our time together.”
Campbell is the more gregarious of the two. Jones, the man in the middle with so much side-to-side quickness, is the one more marked for stardom. He’s the team-leading tackler, the Pro Bowl performer, the guy whose end zone interception of Drew Brees last year was such an artful combination of anticipation and athleticism.
They both have daughters – Campbell’s is a bit older – so they have that on-going adventure to share. “They’re definitely going to be pretty good friends,” Campbell said.
Where Campbell has the lush braids flowing from beneath his helmet, Jones keeps his hair cut tight, better to downplay a diminishing hairline.
Here Jones’ friend brings up a scene from their first training camp, when as part of the rookie roast, they compared him to the great LeBron James. But just from the forehead up. “If (Jones) had his head down, I couldn’t tell which was which,” Campbell laughed.
“I’m not complaining,” Jones said.
So, then, you have no jealous desire to have the same thick tentacles of hair as your buddy?
“Nah,” Jones said. “Now, if it starts growing back, then yeah.”
“We’re both from the south – he’s from New Orleans, I’m from Florida. I’ve been in his hometown a couple times, been around his family. I see a lot of him in myself,” Campbell said. “We kind of grew up in a similar background. Took a similar path to where we are. We have similar stories so it’s easier for us to connect on and off the field.”
Who else but the best kind of friend could convince a son of Louisiana to spend some of his precious off time working out together in winter-time Minnesota? When there are so many warm beaches to choose from?
They froze their fast-twitch fibers off this offseason. “There was a guy he really trusted. I saw the work he did, and I could only benefit from the chance to work with each other,” Jones said.
While both are hardly old wise men – Jones is 23, Campbell 25 – they already in just their third season offer a sort of informal outreach program for players as they come into the fold.
They remember the guidance they got in 2016 from the likes of Paul Worrilow, LaRoy Reynolds and Sean Weatherspoon. And have made a conscious effort to pay forward such help.
“Man, they’ve been affecting me since the first day I came in,” said second-year linebacker Duke Riley. “They welcomed me. When I got drafted the first thing they did was hit me up and told me they were there if I ever needed anything.”
Specifically, one of their chief lessons was this: “You don’t just pick and choose when you want to be good,” Riley said. “One of the main reasons they’re so successful, they hold each other accountable.”
Now, while all this “Brotherhood” stuff could make for some nice Hallmark programming, what matters most to those following the Falcons is how it will play on ESPN. The effect of the bonding on the field has to translate into heightened play, or else it’s just another happy bumper sticker.
Leave it to Quinn to invoke a Bruce Lee quote – “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times” – when talking about how the linebackers have employed their familiarity on the field.
“They got a lot of kicks in together and they’re able to solve some problems: I know you. I know what your best looks like. I’m not afraid to push you to find that.
“You have to play some together to find that.”
Why, when it’s all working on the field, it’s almost spooky. “We have this telepathy,” Campbell said.
And with the start of a third season together, the band width on that connection is only supposed to get greater.
“Year One is always trying to learn the speed of the game, learning the defense,” Ulbrich said.
“Year Two it slows down a little bit. You own your own job a little bit better.
“Year Three is when you really start to assimilate the information the offense is giving you, and the anticipation starts to occur. That’s what I’m really looking forward to this year from them.”