Everything seemed routine for the Cowboys tight ends clustered together on a five-hour flight from Dallas to training camp in Oxnard, California, in 2005. A young Sean Ryan and Jason Witten were headed to what would be another brutal Bill Parcells summer with their long-haired, camouflage-coated sensei, Dan Campbell.
But after they checked in and put their bags down, Campbell wasn't at their first tight ends meeting. They looked around and wondered what might keep one of the NFL's most hardcore veterans -- and now the Miami Dolphins' interim head coach -- away from the thing he loved most.
"Guys," position coach Paul Pasqualoni said, "Dan's in the emergency room right now."
On that quiet flight out of Texas, Campbell's appendix exploded, an extremely painful and potentially life-threatening kick to the gut that would cause most men to double over onto the beverage cart. Campbell didn't make a sound. No one had a clue. He returned to practice in about a week and won the Ed Block Courage award that season.
That was the Dan Campbell everyone knew.
"It was to the point where they were trying to hold him off the field so the stitches would heal," Ryan told Around The NFL this week. "He was just itching to get back on the practice field. He's just a testament to the old-time tough guys."
During his first news conference as an interim head coach last week, Campbell promised a tougher Miami Dolphins team after the bye week. In just a five-day span, he reshuffled the offensive staff, fired the defensive coordinator and took his first full-padded practice as an opportunity to run the Oklahoma Drill and ram his players together for the heck of it -- a far cry from the cozier confines of most collective bargaining agreement-era practices."
The best teams I've been a part of -- during the week they go after each other," Campbell said. "It's heated, it's intense. You can't just turn it on on Sunday.
Maybe it turns out to be just as much of a disappointment as the Joe Philbin era. Maybe it's worse. Former players turned coaches -- Mike Singletary, Jim Harbaugh, Ron Rivera, Jason Garrett, Gary Kubiak, Todd Bowles, Jack Del Rio and Ken Whisenhunt among others -- have yielded some tremendous successes but also some epic failures. But in one maneuver last week, Dolphins owner Stephen Ross grabbed onto the closest thing readily available to the dream scenario he's always wanted -- a return to the ruthlessness that Parcells wowed him with years ago.
"Dan worked really hard and he kind of got it," Howard Cross, the most durable player in Giants history and a former teammate of Campbell's, told Around The NFL. "I never missed a game or a practice, and that's the ideal of the commitment of the game. I got that from the Lawrence Taylors of the world, and we carried it on and on. And Dan was a part of that."
When Ryan saw Campbell's opening news conference and read reports about the Oklahoma drill, he got chills. He faded back to a moment in 2004 when a livid Parcells stormed into a December meeting and told all the players that they'd be going full pads, full speed, full contact. He wanted to see who still cared enough to play there.
Campbell was in that meeting room too, absorbing not only the playbook and technique -- his former teammates said he was the consummate coach on the field -- but that same anger. Parcells was the perfect second coach for Campbell, a third-round pick of the Giants in 2000, because he only reinforced the demand of perfection instilled by legendary tight ends coach Mike Pope, who worked with the Giants from 1983-91 and 2000-13. Pope would hurl ice water at his players during drills and lived for the sound a perfect block made when it rattled the defender's shoulder pads.
The only surprise to those who knew Campbell and saw him last Monday, when Campbell first took the podium and promised a new Miami Dolphins, was that he didn't look anything like their old photos or foggy memories. The facial hair was trimmed up and his brown hair was tightly cropped and gelled in a small square above his head.
Back in the day, Campbell had a long scraggly mane of brown hair and a bushy beard. He stomped around in Cowboy boots and endured constant jabs about his redneck roots in Clifton, Texas. Pro Bowler Marcellus Wiley, a Columbia-educated defensive end born and bred in Compton, California, was always quick with a joke about Campbell's look, or the size of his massive pickup. But, as Ryan remembers it, Wiley was also one of his best friends.
"You couldn't take the Texas out of Dan," Ryan said. "He didn't care, and yet, we had all kinds of personalities in the locker room, we had Marcellus Wiley, great guy, smart guy but just the complete opposite of Dan. Yet, they used to get along so well by just ragging on each other."
Unity might be Campbell's biggest challenge now.
On his first day, he addressed a situation involving franchise quarterback Ryan Tannehill arguing with practice squad defensive players. Suh refused to wear cleats to practice out of protest against former defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle the week before. A unit featuring Suh, Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon has one sack in four games -- good enough for dead last in the NFL. Some coaches would view this as the preamble to a full-scale eruption.
His pedigree, Cross said, will cause him to level with these players in a cut and dry fashion -- whoever doesn't do their job will find someone else there the next day. He knows no other way than dealing directly with the heart of a matter.
His toughness will have to carry him through no matter what.