Photo: Jayru Campbell
One Ferris State offensive star overcame a troubled past, including legal transgressions that landed him in jail and cost him his football scholarship to Michigan State. Now Jayru Campbell is a Bulldogs’ phoenix.
The junior quarterback won the Harlon Hill Award -- the Heisman Trophy for NCAA Division II was announced on Friday -- while leading the Bulldogs to their first appearance in the DII national championship game.
Ferris (15-0) plays Valdosta State (13-0) in an ESPNU televised game at 4 p.m. ET in McKinney ISD Stadium in McKinney, Tx.
Another Ferris State star on the defensive side of the ball is a two-sport athlete chasing multiple national titles that caught the attention of Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, the dean of college basketball coaches.
DeShaun Thrower, a junior safety on the Bulldogs’ football team and point guard on the basketball squad, had left Stony Brook as a Division I basketball player over his own checkered past.
Now, having decided to resume his football and basketball careers at Ferris, he has a chance to become the first athlete to win NCAA Division II basketball and football titles in the same calendar year. Only one other athlete has pulled off the double, but that was in Division III. In 2013, Chris Davis of Wisconsin-Whitewater won in basketball and football the following fall.
That’s a lot of star power combined with stories of redemption.
But to the rest of the Bulldogs, Campbell and Thrower are a couple humble, hard-working teammates eschewing individual attention for team success. That's how redshirt junior cornerback Adrian Green views his teammates.
“I didn’t know about (Campbell’s) problems when he came here,” said Green, who has earned second-team honors on both the All-NCAA DII Super Three Regional team and on the All-Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference team.
“Then I read some articles about his past. When I read the stories I said, ‘I don’t see that at all. That’s not the guy I’ve known here.’ He’s one of the hardest working persons on the team. He wants to win. We trust him. I see a great person who wants to lead his team.”
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Campbell had let Detroit Cass Tech to back-to-back state high school titles before he was guilty of assaulting a school security guard and domestic violence against a girlfriend. He moved on to play quarterback and wide receiver on Garden City Community College in Kansas, helping the school win the 2016 national JC title. He volunteered to play wide receiver on a team stockpiled with quarterback talent.
Ferris State coach Tony Annese offered Campbell another chance, but the transition back to the spotlight in his home state was deliberately slow-walked. He spent 2017 as a redshirt at the school of 15,000 students in Big Rapids, Mi., a town of 10,600 located 200 miles northwest of Detroit.
“He’s committed to being the best he can be for the team, but before that he had to be best person he could be away from the field,” Annese said. “That’s one reason I redshirted him last year. I wanted him to have a chance to grow in the process. He really has.”
Don’t try suggest to Annese that he coddles an athlete just to win games.
“People ask me all the time, ‘Why give someone a second-chance opportunity?” he said. “I was a high school teacher for 25 years. I had to give people second-chance opportunities every day. That’s what an educator does. I hope all coaches are willing to try to work with young people, try to bring out the best in them; focus on the positive traits and skills they have and not the negative experiences they’ve had.
“There is always a story behind the story and there is for him, which over time people will learn. There are reasons for people’s motives and mistakes. He’s been a blessing for everyone. He’s made this team tough. He’s committed. He’s as hard a working young man as I’ve ever been around. Add to that he wants to win this national championship. He drives this team.”
Campbell has avoided interviews while rebuilding his life at Ferris, but he stood for one in preparation for the DII title game that was aired on www.ferristatebulldogs.com.
“When I came to Division II I want to be the best guy on the field,” Campbell said. “Not to be disrespectful, because I made some mistakes that caused me to go this route, but I came to Division II I with an extra chip on my shoulder. I want to be the best I can be; whether we win or lose I’ll be trying. I feel comfortable with work I have to do here.”
Campbell, praising Annese as a football coach and a mentor that cares about his players as much off the field as on it, said he’s taken a step-by-step approach at Ferris.
“I take it one day at a time,” he said. “If I knock out small things one by one and the rest will take care of itself.”
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Thrower’s two-sport career attracted Krzyzewski's attention when the Bulldogs played an exhibition game on Oct. 27 at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Coach K annually invites to Duke the reigning DII champion to an exhibition game as as reward.
On game night, he went out of his way to talk with Thrower in the handshake line and commented on him in his post-game media conference. He also was relieved to learn Ferris had won its football game without Thrower, who had the blessing of his coaches and teammates to take advantage of the experience to travel to a college basketball shrine.
“God bless Ferris State and their whole fan base for coming down here,” Krzyzewski said at the time. “A national championship is a great thing for their school. You could tell how hard their kids played and the confidence they had in one another is why they have won. I’m sure they’re going to have another successful season.”
Thrower is accustomed to doubling up on titles from his days playing at Muskegon High. He won a Class A state titles in football and basketball and was Michigan’s Hal Schram Mr. Basketball.
When he accepted a basketball scholarship to Stony Brook, his thought was to leave football behind. But his life was altered by an arrest for breaking into a car. The charge was dropped, but he left Stony Brook to return to Muskegon uncertain about his future.
Once he returned home, Annese, who once coached at Muskegon High, convinced Thrower try two sports again. Ferris didn’t have a basketball scholarship available, but the Bulldogs had one in football.
“I knew once we got him out his competitive juices would get flowing and there was no turning back,” Annese said. “There was a thought after he won a national title in basketball he would decide to just play basketball. But he got off the plane (from the national basketball final) and was at our next spring practice. He didn’t participate, but he was there with his team. He has unbelievable commitment to the team.”
Thrower has 42 tackles with one interception and one 51-yard fumble return for a touchdown. Annese says the Bulldogs have tried to draw from Thrower and the basketball's team's national title.
"It’s been a strength of our team," Annese said. "(The example) has helped our approach this year to get past mental hurdles, to fight hard and keep the season rolling along."
The working relationship between Annese and basketball coach Andy Bronkema makes it possible for Thrower to double up.
“Bronks has been unbelievable,” Annese said. “He’s a football guy, first off. I love basketball and he loves football. It’s a perfect marriage. We talk all the time about each other’s sports.”
Annese says he and Bronkema make decisions based on what is best for Thrower, which is why Annese approved of him traveling to the Duke game. But Thrower didn’t leave the decision to just his coaches. When he realized the Duke road game was on the same day as a Saturday home football game, he consulted his teammates.
“He asked us which one he should go to,” Green said. “We told him, ‘If you’ve got once-in-a-lifetime chance, you need to go to Duke. We’ll hold it down you while you’re gone. Your big part of the defense, but we want you to enjoy this experience.’ ”
Ferris struggled that afternoon at home against Wayne State, a team that finished 2-9, but the Bulldogs survived, 38-28.
“I feel everything happens for a reason,” Thrower said. “God placed me here for a reason. Coming out of high school I didn’t want to play football anymore. Coach Annese talked to me and dad. I said I might as well give it try. Once I came out (for football) I was back in a groove.”
He feels he’s found a home in a small town in the middle of the Lower Peninsula.
“Big Rapids is small but a real good community,” he said. “Since I got here I’ve met a lot of people. They’ve embraced me with love. I don’t feel like a transfer anymore. I feel like I started my college career here.”
Campbell and Thrower are two stories of redemption while collecting awards and titles.
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