Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Real Kampman

By Bill Huber

October 27, 2009

Life has put Aaron Kampman to the test, and he has tackled the challenges with a deep inner strength. Get to know the Pro Bowl player who has become a fabric of the community and is using his celebrity to make the world a better place.

You know Aaron Kampman as one of the greatest pass rushers in Packers history.

You know Aaron Kampman as the fifth-round draft pick who worked his way into becoming a two-time Pro Bowler.

You know Aaron Kampman as the player who was the focal point of the Packers’ defensive switch during the offseason.

This story is not about that Aaron Kampman. In fact, this story has absolutely nothing to do with football.

This story is about the Aaron Kampman who has gone through a few life-changing events over the last year-and-a-half. There was the tornado that stormed through Parkersburg, Iowa. There was a trip to Africa with teammate Donald Driver. There was the murder of his high school football coach.

“There’s definitely been a lot of things back home, and they haven’t necessarily been positive,” Kampman said.

It all started on May 25, 2008 — the Sunday of Memorial Day Weekend — when a massive tornado tore through the Iowa communities of Parkersburg and New Hartford.

“I was in Kansas City visiting family,” Kampman recalled. “We were going to leave that night, my brother-in-law and I. But then we heard there was a gas leak so they were evacuating the town. We figured, ‘Well, it does us no good to drive there and sleep in the car if we can’t do anything and the town’s evacuated.’ So, we waited until 4:30 or whatever in the morning to get some sleep, and we proceeded to drive to Des Moines. We stopped at Menard’s and bought a bunch of chain saws and some other debris-cleanup items and made our way into Parkersburg, through the barricades due to my being family. Then we got to work.”

But not before seeing the shocking vision of a town a shambles.

What's left of Aplington-Parkersburg High School is seen at the bottom of this aerial photo.

While Kampman’s parents in Kelsey were unharmed, his grandfather, Claas, needed surgery after being thrown from his home by the storm. The home of the parents of Kampman’s wife, Linde, located just a block away from Class, needed its roof repaired. Aplington-Parkersburg High School, where Kampman and fellow NFL players Jared DeVries, Brad Meester and Casey Wiegmann starred, sustained massive damage. Gone were Parkersburg’s gas station, grocery store and city hall. More than 40 percent of the city’s homes — 350 — were destroyed, and another 100 or so received major damage. In all, eight people died, including six in Parkersburg.

“It was a shock,” Kampman said. “The images that you’re accustomed to — the horizons, the landscape — it’s been there for years, and it’s completely gone. I guess it would be similar to putting the whole town in a blender and dumping it back out again. I’m sure you’ve seen pictures. It was just complete devastation.”

While the cleanup continued, life went on. It had to go on. With the high school reduced to rubble, the students crammed into the middle school to take classes. Through it all, making sure the football season would be played was a top priority — even though the field coined the “Sacred Acre” was strewn with rubble and broken glass, the light poles were snapped and the scoreboard was missing.

So, on Sept. 5, 2008, Kampman and Linde, along with cornerback Will Blackmon and his wife, Shauna, and trainer Pepper Burruss hopped on the plane of Packers board member Jim Christensen and flew to Iowa to watch the Falcons provide an uplifting diversion for the community.

That the Falcons won 53-20 didn’t really matter.

“Just like Coach Thomas mentioned to the young men and I did the same,” Kampman recalled, “they had already won, so to speak, by just being there that night, by being part of something that was pretty important to the community by giving them something that they were accustomed to and to bring some normalcy back to their lives — that being the football field and the football season. There was a sense of redeeming, I guess, that something that was so ugly — there was a redeeming value, a spirit present that night and a sense of overcoming and celebrating. It was pretty powerful.”

A year-and-a-half later, the rebuilding continues, and it’s not far from Kampman’s mind. There’s a gas station and a grocery store. A glittering high school was built. The academic wings were finished in time for the 2009 school year; the gyms, auditorium, weight room and wrestling room are set to be complete in November.

“The mark the tornado left will be there for years and years to come,” Kampman said. “It takes years for trees to grow back. My grandfather, who’s since moved back into his home this past month, told me he was just out planting an 18-inch tree in his backyard. He told me that will be for the next generations. That’s kind of the reality of it is that it’s going to take awhile before the trees grow again. But that’s how time is. Time seems to heal wounds, and that’s kind of what the community is in the midst of right now.”

Another blow

Ed Thomas was the NFL High School Coach of the Year in 2005.

The community suffered another punch in the gut 13 months after the tornado. Ed Thomas, the beloved coach who was voted the NFL High School Coach of the Year in 2005, was murdered on June 24 in the high school’s temporary weight room. The Sports Illustrated magazine cover featuring Thomas and the headline “A Good Man Down” sits inside Kampman’s locker at Lambeau Field.

“Coach Thomas was a tremendous man,” Kampman said. “He was a man that stood for values and principles that seem to be under attack these days. It was obviously an honor to play for him, to know him. Even after I was done playing, obviously, we continued to keep our relationship alive over the years. Always when we’d go back to visit our families, my wife’s parents are from Parkersburg and mine are from Kelsey, so it’s all real relative. When we go back there, we’d always make sure to stop in and say hello to Ed and (his wife) Jan, and if I’d go up to the schoolhouse, I’d go up there and get the keys from him for the weight room. I could talk for a long time about him.”

Kampman, along with Thomas’ other NFL players, were among the pallbearers at the funeral a few days later.

“He was a tremendous influence on my life and the lives of many, many other young men,” Kampman said. “One of the well-known quotes that’s been said but he really lived it and believed it, he would tell us that, ‘If all we do is teach you how to block and tackle, we failed you as coaches.’

A woman pays tribute to slain coach Ed Thomas.

“That embodies a lot of the ethos of Coach Thomas’ coaching philosophy. He was about developing the character of young men.”

The one-two punch of a tornado and a murder of an iconic coach might be too much for some people to withstand. But Kampman — just like most people in Parkersburg — has abundant inner strength to draw upon.

“I’ll never forget Coach Thomas,” Kampman said. “The night that I was there for that game, at his pregame talk to the team, he challenged the boys that he hoped that they understood the grace that they had been shown in that whole rebuilding — the resurrecting, so to speak — of the community to get to that point. To me, that kind of embodies why we’re able to go on, because we understand that our hope doesn’t lie just in this life.

“So, yeah, I think that the community, myself included, we look forward to the realities of what’s to come. I know that sometimes people say, ‘Well, hey, that’s someone leaning on faith or religion when bad things happen,’ but, yeah, it’s true. We’re supposed to.”

Broadening his horizons

Outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene arrived in Green Bay in February. It didn’t take him long to gain an appreciation of Kampman.

“I think he’s a God-fearing person that has his priorities in order,”
Greene said. “He’s got a great heart and he’s a true pro. I totally respect him and what he brings to the table for the Packers.”

That heart took Kampman to Africa in late February. Joining him were Linde and Donald Driver and his wife, Betina. It was the Kampmans’ second trip to Africa. Among the highlights of this 10-day trek to the slums of Nairobi, Kenya, and some of the surrounding areas was delivering soccer balls to a school. During the Kampmans’ first visit to Africa, Kampman was hit hard by holding AIDS-infected twins.

Aaron Kampman and Donald Driver pose with a Kenyan girl wearing a Packers T-shirt.

“When you grow up in the slums, sometimes there’s not a whole lot of hope,” Kampman said of the sobering counterpoint to life outside of football.

Driver and Betina came at the Kampmans’ invitation, and Driver agreed at the urging of Betina. The surroundings weren’t exactly what an NFL star is accustomed to, though the mosquito nets in their room were appreciated. At the end of the trip, Driver — who spent part of his youth living out of the back of a U-Haul — had grown a deep admiration for the people he met and a deeper appreciation for Kampman.

“It was a great experience,” Driver said. “You really don’t understand until you get there. I lived a life of being homeless but nothing, nothing compared to what they go through. To be standing over there with those families and seeing every morning how they wake up and go through the things that they go through, I couldn’t imagine going through that. I sit back now and I think about it and how maybe I was just complaining as a kid and as a young man, just complaining of all the hard things I went through. Those families, they wake up every morning not complaining. They’re just happy to be able to breathe and see a brighter day. That’s amazing. There’s no way that I could be able to go through the things that those mothers and fathers and children go through every day.”

Aaron Kampman and his wife, Linde, pose with students.

The trips are just another way in which Kampman is broadening his horizons. And while a trip to Africa is out of reach for most of us, a difference can be made in your own area, whether it’s volunteering with children or donating to a food pantry.

“They’ve shaped and impacted us a lot,” Kampman said of the trips, “because as we look forward to when my playing days are done — and even now, we continue to think about what that will look like — but just practically, it helps us to feel a sense of responsibility, an opportunity if you will, to share some of the global realities that are a part of our world today.”

Whether it’s a devastating tornado, the murder of a mentor or the smiles of hundreds of dirt-poor children, it all makes the hubbub of moving from defensive end to linebacker seem sort of irrelevant. It also provides a place to find the strength when times are difficult on the football field.

“Well, I think a lot of times in our life, we want things where we can escape from the realities,” Kampman said. “I’m part of the entertainment world, so I can’t point a finger at it. But in the end, I think what matters are relationships with people who are closest to you, and from a missional standpoint, those people that don’t know about that hope that I talked about, really, you boil it all down, and I think it becomes a pretty more clear picture.”

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