EDMONTON — Bullet-fast wide receiver Kelly Campbell practised for the first time Tuesday with the Edmonton Eskimos, looking to prove that The Beast is back.
The 29-year-old from Atlanta was supposed to run three-quarter speed at practice at Commonwealth Stadium, but admitted that didn’t always happen.
“That’s me. Once I’m on the field it’s all go. It’s hard to just run three-quarters. All I know is hard work and full speed,” said the five-foot-10 veteran, who is slated to see action in the Eskimos final pre-season game Sunday versus the B.C. Lions in Vancouver.
He wore a white mesh jersey (with the number 71 in green) and long yellow shorts. Around his waist was a belt of white tape bearing the words “Da Beast” handwritten in black marker.
That was his nickname from his college days at Georgia Tech, he said. It was resurrected the last time he was in Edmonton in 2008.
“It just kept going on and on. I’m The Beast up here,” he said with a laugh.
But if the Beast is back, he didn’t necessarily return to a team with open arms.
After starring with the Eskimos in 2008 (54 catches for 1,223 yards, seven TDs and a league-leading 22.6 yards per catch) Campbell bolted to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers of the NFL.
Last fall, he was cut at the Bucs’ training camp and, although he had a signed contract and an airline ticket to return to Edmonton, didn’t show up. He was suspended and was a no-show again at training camp this year until he finally arrived a week late, citing “personal reasons.”
Campbell is on a one-year deal. He turns 30 in July, an age that is normally the end of the line for second-tier gazelle receivers in the NFL.
Will he try one more time in the NFL?
“If I get the opportunity, we’ll see when it comes,” he said. “Right now, I want to focus on what I need to get done here.”
Campbell’s game is all speed. He was a star tailback and state triple jump champ in high school in Georgia. He broke numerous receiving records at Georgia Tech before accomplishing the improbable: making the roster of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings at 21.
As a wide receiver and kick returner, he played played parts of three seasons with the Vikings before he was let go after the 2004 campaign.
He came back with the Miami Dolphins in 2006, but his quadriceps — the band of four major muscles that link up the hips with the knees — became his Achilles heel.
A quad injury cut short his stint with the Dolphins, cost him his chance in Tampa Bay, and also kept him on the sidelines after he returned to the Eskimos last week.
“A lot of it came from not doing the minor things, not stretching enough,” he said.
Eskimos receivers coach Jason Tucker said Campbell had a few errors running routes Tuesday.
“He looked OK. He made a few mistakes but that’s to be expected. He’s just trying to get back into the flow of things,” said Tucker.
Tucker said the tools are still there: “He’s got the blinding speed that puts the fear into any DB that covers him. If you miss him, he’s gone. You can’t teach speed.”
Quarterback Ricky Ray said a healthy Campbell can be a game-changer.
“With his speed he doesn’t get jammed very easily,” said Ray. “He’s going to get more separation than most guys. That makes my throws a little bit easier.
“The only thing I have to worry about is him outrunning my arm,” he added with a laugh. “I can’t be late to him or he’s going to be running and my ball’s going to come up short.”
Head coach Richie Hall said Campbell’s speed can stretch a defence until it breaks, but says he’s not a gimme to start on a receiving corps that already has proven veterans like Fred Stamps and Kamau Peterson.
“Everyone has to earn a spot. Some have to earn it a little bit harder than others. He’s brand new with me,” said Hall, who coached Saskatchewan the last time Campbell was in the league.
“This is 2010. It’s ’What are you doing for us now?”’