Campbell finally shows up to play option year of his Eskimos contract

Dan Barnes

EDMONTON -- Yet to turn a wheel or catch a pass, Kelly Campbell couldn't possibly answer the pointed questions that surround his reappearance in Edmonton.

Because only two things will silence the inquisition -- performance and attitude.

If both are good, he might turn back the clock to 2008, when he romped for a Canadian Football League-leading average of 22.6 yards per catch and scored seven touchdowns. But he showed up late, whether six days or eight months isn't actually clear, and he won't play Sunday's exhibition game at home against the Calgary Stampeders.

So the first time he can put actions to the words he spoke Friday at Commonwealth Stadium -- some encouraging, some evasive -- will be next week in Vancouver.

In the interim, the questions about health, willingness to be an Esk and any lingering desire to play in the National Football League will dominate conversations about him.

After all, the once-great, twice-reluctant Eskimos receiver left a vapour trail out of town after the 2008 season -- signing with Tampa Bay in January 2009 -- but couldn't seem to catch a plane back here after the Buccaneers cut him loose in October. Despite the fact the Esks had a contract and a ticket for him, Campbell failed to show.

"The business side of it wasn't where it was supposed to be, you know," he said Friday. "I can't really tell you the true ins and outs of it. We just had a lot of misunderstanding, miscommunication between Edmonton and my agent, and things didn't get worked out the way they were supposed to."

So the 29-year-old "released" his agent and represented himself in talks with general manager Danny Maciocia -- Campbell is essentially playing out the option year of his former deal -- but still couldn't make it here for the start of training camp, citing the all-inclusive personal reasons.

That kind of baggage produces a mixture of reaction upon arrival, even from Eskimos personnel.

"If he's happy to be here, then we're happy to have him here," said head coach Richie Hall, whose first impressions of No. 71 have been positive.

Hall, it must be pointed out, was not an Eskimo when Campbell last played for Edmonton.

But former receiver and current head scout Ed Hervey was, and he is taking a wait-and-see approach.

"He's got to come in and show what type of character and what type of person he is," said Hervey. "I think that's his thing, showing how well he fits in with the chemistry of the group. There's no question he's a talent. He's got to prove himself to his teammates."

Hervey has always maintained a firm grasp on what it takes to be a good teammate so his words ought to carry a stern warning.

Fact is, Campbell can be awfully high maintenance. He can be prickly, and that's offering him the benefit of a couple of letters. He can also be, as Maciocia put it, engaging and a little bit of a jokester.

Campbell need not be an angel, there aren't many in football, and if a consistent balance between his extremes is struck, great. Besides, Maciocia isn't really investing too heavily in Campbell, anyway. His receiving corps is already solid, anchored by Fred Stamps, and his dressing room is stocked with strong personalities and leaders like Kamau Peterson and Jason Maas.

If Campbell, or anyone else, doesn't care to fit in, the vets should be able to police the atmosphere. So Maciocia gets one year from a proven CFL talent at a reasonable price. He also heard personal assurances of long-term commitment from Campbell, though they aren't usually worth the breath they require to expel.

"They all have aspirations of going south of the border," said Maciocia. "Everybody wants to cash in on the big payday. Everybody wants to make six, seven, eight hundred thousand.

"The reality is that's not the case for everyone. The reality also is when you get to a particular age, the NFL just stops looking and they start looking for younger and cheaper.

"But he's here now, and he's excited about being here. He told me on the phone his loyalty is to me and to the organization, and this is where he wants to be, and he wants to play here for a few more years."

Campbell told the media something else about his NFL past and CFL future. He said he was happy to be back but wasn't committing to anything beyond the here and now. He didn't know if there was another NFL job waiting for him, given that a quad injury hampered the last one.

"I can't answer that question. All I can do is set myself up to get that opportunity. I think moreso being that was the third year (an injury) happened to me and I wasn't able to showcase my talent in games, it was probably real hard to get on another team in 12 weeks."

So coming here is still about going back there? "I don't focus on the future, man. Right now, I'm taking one day at a time. I'm here with the Eskimos right now and that's where my focus is at."

For months after Campbell spurned the Esks, Maciocia didn't know where the guy was at, literally and figuratively. So the Esks groomed Jason Barnes and Efrem Hill, acquired Andre Talbot, shipped out Maurice Mann. They will count on Stamps, Peterson and perhaps Calvin McCarty in a tight end role. In theory then, Barnes or Hill could lose a regular spot to Campbell.

"He's definitely an amazing receiver and I wouldn't take anything away from him," said Barnes. "At the same time, nobody is going to lay down and give up a job."

At five-foot-11, 170 pounds, Campbell is not big but he's fast and he can out-jump defensive backs for the high ball. His skill set gives him a leg up on the competition, even if he is a week behind and will only get one exhibition game.

"Our scouting department did a great job bringing in tremendous speed and size," said Peterson. "We've got a lot of returning vets and some young up-and-comers that are ready to get going. Throwing Kelly in that mix just stirs the pot."

Interesting choice of words.

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