EAST LAKE — No one is having more fun these days than East Lake High’s George Campbell.
He is rated by 247Sports as the nation’s No. 1 athlete in the Class of 2015, has committed to Michigan and is putting up solid numbers (334 yards receiving, six sacks) in helping the Eagles start 7-0 for the first time.
But Campbell’s avenue to lofty status among high school recruits has been marked by potholes.
When Campbell was 5, his father, George Campbell III, was sent to prison for 40 years for sexual battery with a weapon or force. Campbell’s mother, Joye Nix, was left to raise him alone. She went to college and worked double shifts as a certified nurse to support them.
“It was a real struggle at times, but after George’s father was sent away I made sure I did everything I could to provide for him,” Nix said.
The only thing lacking was a male role model. Nix’s brother, Ahmad Jackson, stepped up to fill that void. Jackson, who is just 12 years older than Campbell, is unwavering in his support.
“I was already with George a lot,” Jackson said. “I watched him when my sister had to work, and we just developed a real solid bond.”
It was Jackson who encouraged his sister to let Campbell try sports.
He played flag football with the Clearwater Jr. Tornadoes when he was 6. The following year he put pads on for the first time.
“I was terrible, one of the worst players out there,” Campbell said. “I was tall and lanky, and it took a while to get used to the pads. I just had to find my way.”
It didn’t take long for Campbell to start tearing it up in youth leagues as a quarterback and running back. His athleticism was similar to that of his father, a former standout in football and basketball at Clearwater.
“I guess it’s in the genes,” Campbell said. “People say I remind them of my dad whenever I play.”
His football career almost came to end in eighth grade when he broke his femur, an injury that required two plates to be inserted into his leg and was severe enough doctors recommended he give up the sport.
“I’ll be honest, I cried when the doctors said that,” Campbell said. “I knew I was going to play. I took it upon myself to heal and come back. But it’s something that hit me and made me appreciate football that much more because it was almost taken from me.”
Campbell buckled down in the classroom, maintaining a 3.0 grade point average. Before his freshman year, he enrolled at Clearwater Central Catholic but decided at the last minute to go to East Lake, his zoned school.
Campbell has developed into a deep threat in the Eagles’ passing game, using his 6-foot-4 frame to outleap defenders. Last year was his breakout season, totaling 764 yards receiving and five touchdowns. His freakish athletic ability made him a star at combines.
By the summer, Campbell had 27 offers from the biggest college programs. In July he committed to Michigan, an announcement that garnered front-page headlines on ESPN.com and prompted a response via social media from Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, a booster of the school.
During the recruiting process Campbell leaned on Jackson, who was a priceless asset for advice. The two would talk a few times about his college choices.
“I did whatever I could to help him feel comfortable and make the best decision possible for him to succeed,” Jackson said.
With Campbell, the Wolverines are gaining a player who can have an immediate impact with his big-play potential and scoring savvy.
But that is nearly two years away. As one of the nation’s most heralded high school stars, Campbell has become a wishbone, being pulled in different directions.
Recruiting services tug hard, with texts and calls for updates. Invitations have come from all-star games — Campbell has decided to play in the 2015 Under Armour game in St. Petersburg. Colleges still send letters and text messages in case he changes his mind. On Aug. 31, Campbell received a text from Georgia coach Mark Richt, moments after the Bulldogs lost to Clemson in the season opener.
“It was exciting and fun at first, but it’s starting to become more of a burden now,” Campbell said. “I’m glad I have my uncle to help.”
And Campbell is more focused on his high school team.
“We’re just trying to get farther in the playoffs, and hopefully win a state championship,” Campbell said.
Campbell also has worked on keeping a relationship with his father. He talks to him often and visits whenever he can.
“I was so young when everything happened to him that it’s kind of blocked out of mind,” Campbell said. “We try to keep in touch and stay connected. I know he’s proud of what I’ve been able to do. I’m just glad I have a great family that’s always been there for me.”
In two years Campbell will be in Ann Arbor, miles from his biggest support system. Nix said she plans to keep working double shifts so she can afford to go to every Michigan home game. Jackson plans to join her.
“It’s going to be stressful not having him around,” Nix said. “But I’m going to do everything in my power to be with him as much as possible. …
“I think I’ve done a pretty damn good job of raising my son.”