Florida State head coach Mike Norvell isn’t normally very forthcoming with information about his team’s injuries.
When there’s an injury of the season-ending variety, however, Norvell usually lets the media know. That’s just what he did back in the middle of preseason camp on Aug. 16 when he said that walk-on running back CJ Campbell would be sidelined for the season with an injury.
But even though that was the original diagnosis, Campbell didn’t take that for an answer. It turned out the injury wasn’t as bad as originally feared and 74 days after his injury was announced, he made his season debut in FSU’s 41-16 win over Georgia Tech on Saturday.
He even got to put the exclamation point on the game with his first career touchdown in the closing minutes, scampering seven yards for the touchdown run.
“To score my first one coming back, it was incredible. There’s nothing like it. It was so surreal,” Campbell said. “I had always envisioned it. Even since I’ve been hurt, I was thinking about it was going to feel so good to get that first touchdown. Running off the field, seeing everybody celebrate for me, that shows just how much of a family we are here and the brotherhood we have. No matter who you are, walk-on, scholarship, they all root for you and they’re all happy to see you succeed. That’s one of the biggest things that helped get me through that injury and made that touchdown celebration so special.”
Even before his injury, Campbell wasn’t going to play a particularly large role for the Seminoles this season. While he had quite a few special plays in the spring and was potentially (and may still be) on Treshaun Ward’s path to go from walk-on running back to scholarship, he was buried down the depth chart.
However, his injury suffered in the preseason meant that FSU was losing a key scout team player as well as a key morale booster in the Seminoles’ close-knit running back room.
The reason it was assumed originally that Campbell would miss the season was that his broken fibula (exterior bone that connects the knee to the ankle) caused some displacement of his ankle, which made doctors fear a few ligaments were torn as well.
When doctors performed the surgery and saw that no ligaments were torn, they told Campbell he may be able to make it back in time for the regular-season finale vs. Florida. He took that as a challenge of sorts.
“In my head, I thought I could come back a lot earlier than that so I kept working. Now I’m here,” Campbell said.
Added Norvell, “I don’t know if I’ve seen a rehab and just a belief that’s gone better than what he did. You saw the reaction when he scored a touchdown. He is a special, special young man and I loved every second of seeing that, the celebration.”
The celebration Norvell mentioned was a swarming of Campbell in the end zone and the sideline after his third carry of the game went for a seven-yard touchdown up the middle. He finished with 23 yards and that touchdown in his collegiate debut.
“I’m so happy for CJ. He wasn’t even supposed to come back this year,” fellow running back Trey Benson said. “He worked so hard to get back. We actually talked about it all week, he said if he scored a touchdown he was going to cry. He didn’t even cry. I was waiting for him to cry the whole time. I’m so excited for CJ. I’m really proud of him.”
The big smile Campbell came to the sideline with and the ones on his teammates’ faces to greet him were fitting. After the win, multiple teammates praised him for how positive and smily he was throughout his recovery, keeping the same energy every single day.
To Campbell, that was a necessary component of making the recovery as unexpectedly fast as it was.
“It’s important to keep a good state of mind whenever you’re coming back from an injury because if you continue to harp on how you can’t do certain things, it’ll make your comeback even slower than what it was,” Campbell said. “So I came every day with a positive mindset to get better. And then the guys around me in the running back room, LT (Lawrance Toafili), Rodney (Hill), Tre Ward, Trey Benson, they all kept my head up, telling me, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll be back. You’ll be back faster than they thought. Just continue to work and be patient because at the end of the day, my time will come.’ Sure enough, today they let me show what I can do.”