Columnist: Saying goodbye to the Swamp Fox

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 28, 2016

CHESTER, S.C. – Friends and family and a handful of former Falcon players showed up here earlier this week in searing heat reminiscent of two-a-day pre-season practices to say goodbye to the Swamp Fox.

It was a modest service in a modest setting for the most modest of men, one who grew up on a mill hill but enjoyed the ultimate experience of winning a professional championship in one of America’s oldest cities and then stuck around the National Football League to become one of the league’s most respected football coaches.

Marion Campbell was tough, tough-minded and resolute when it came to playing football, but he was the most sentimental character there ever was when it came to family. He came along in the era when it was an eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth. He could dish it out, and he could take it, but was personable, fun-loving and charitable away from football.

First he played the game, a defensive end with All-Pro recognition. Then he taught football with a reputation that made him one of the leading defensive coaches in the league. He was a guru with a resume and portfolio which ranked him with the best. However, he was not as celebrated as others. His modest bent kept him from posturing for a headline. It was not about him. It was not about his accomplishments. Most of all it was about his players.

With the Eagles in 1959-60, the National Football League champions featured Campbell and linebacker Chuck Bednarik on defense and quarterback Norm Van Brocklin on offense. However, Marion’s wife, June, to whom he was loyally devoted, only knew about any honors by reading the papers.

When his family arm twisted him over the years to write a book, the idea never gained traction. He had no interest in “telling it like it is.” After all, players with shortcomings had families, too, and it would not be right, from his perspective, to take editorial liberties with their lives and resumes.

I first got to know the Swamp Fox — who like his father was named for Francis Marion, the Revolutionary War general who demoralized the British and remains a hero to many South Carolinians today — when he came to Athens for a celebration following the Eagles defeat of the Green Bay Packers, 17-13, for the NFL title in 1960.

He grinned his whole way through the dinner. He gave credit to his coach, Wallace Butts, for “making a football player out of me.” And, of course, thanked Dan Magill for giving him one of the greatest nicknames in history of the NFL.

When the Swamp Fox became the defensive coordinator for the Minnesota Vikings in 1962, I made a long journey in a Volkswagen to Bemidji, Minnesota, to spend time with him and Fran Tarkenton, the green-but-growing Viking quarterback.

From that point on, I followed the Swamp Fox’s career closely — calling on him at every stop. He always had time for his old friends, and was adept at good naturedly needling them.

He helped develop the Purple People Eaters at Minnesota — Alan Page, Carl Eller, Jim Marshall and Gary Larsen — and later the Fearsome Foursome with the Los Angeles Rams — Lamar Lundy, Rosey Grier, Deacon Jones and Merlin Olsen.

His hallmark was respect. NFL coaches had admiration for his ability to design cogent defenses.

“He was simply the best,” said Dick Vermeil, one of his closest friends and Eagles head coach.

Players respected him for his fairness and selflessness.

“It was not difficult for me to make the effort to come here for his service,” said former Falcon Dewey McLain. “If he was your friend, you couldn’t have a better friend.”

When Marion finished high school in the late ’40s, there were only 11 grades. His high school coach talked him into playing one more year.

“That made me mature,” the Swamp Fox said.

By that time, colleges everywhere had him in their recruiting sights. At Georgia when he first met assistant coach J. B. Whitworth, the Bulldog line coach put the starting lineup for the next season on a chalk board and listed Campbell at right tackle. That was a clinching maneuver.

“Every other coach at every other school told me how pretty their campus and the coeds were, but Whitworth told me I would be starting,” Campbell said.

That would give the Bulldogs the advantage needed to being to campus an exceptional lineman whose after campus success would bring great acclaim to the University of Georgia.

If a good name is better to be chosen than great riches, few leave this earth with a better reputation than the Swamp Fox who moved from a mill hill in Chester to NFL excellence and was laid to rest where he grew up. His football credentials were extraordinaire.

As a person, he was altruistic, caring and giving. That’s why so many men loved and respected the Swamp Fox. The cagey general for whom he was named, would be proud.

Loran Smith

Syndicated columnist

Loran Smith is an athletic administrator at the University of Georgia.