Jason Campbell for Chicago

We’ve all heard the tale — the  underprivileged  kid who works his way into sport superstardom. It’s a familiar narrative — the “American Dream” — constantly repackaged and sold to us through sports networks and movies and novels. But what about the stories that are usually neglected, not celebrated, and left unknown? What about the athletes who  didn’t  come from nothing? Studies show that’s most of them — that this “rags-to-riches” narrative is actually underrepresented and over-exaggerated in professional athletes, but continues to inspire (and in some cases, mislead) American youth into thinking there is only one road to success — sports.

For Bears’ backup quarterback Jason Campbell, school always came first. In most senses of the word, Campbell’s upbringing was average — he had two loving, supportive parents who guided him from the backyard to the big leagues. There’s no “Blind Side” blockbusters about athletes like Jason because nothing seems special about them. But everybody has a story worth telling, and Jason’s sends a message worth repeating — especially in his new residence of Chicago, home to some of the country’s most unsafe neighborhoods and destitute school districts.

The support system Jason had growing up is inspiring in itself — one that all parents should strive to achieve. At games, they cheered. With choices, they advised. In hardships, they coached — literally, in his father’s case. No, “Dad”  wasn’t  the only title Larry Campbell earned in his son’s life — there was also coach, Deacon, vice principle, and science teacher. Wearing that many hats was possible in the family’s small Mississippi hometown, where Jason could practice everything from passing plays to prayer with his neighbors and family.

“My parents wouldn’t allow [my siblings and me] to play sports unless we had good grades,” Jason said. “My dad always stressed that making good grades would create the opportunity for me to sign a big scholarship and have a successful life. I saw education, not sports, as a chance to achieve whatever I wanted.”

Campbell’s ambition led to a number of Division-I football and basketball coaches knocking on his door. After reflection and prayer, Jason made a five-year commitment to Auburn University to continue his lifelong commitment to school and football.

Aside from competitive sports and classes, he chose Auburn because it offered him two things he values most–a family atmosphere and a high graduation rate among athletes.

“I was able to graduate before finishing my senior football season,” Jason said. “That meant a lot because I knew that whatever happened with football, I had something else to stand on.”

It’s this message that Campbell hopes to pass on to young Americans through his recent involvement in United Way TEAM NFL, a volunteer engagement campaign between United Way and the NFL dedicated to lowering the dropout rate by recruiting a million volunteer readers, tutors and mentors to help kids succeed.

The moral of Jason’s story is simple — athleticism is fleeting, but academics are forever. He’ll always have a degree in Public Administration, and he said he hopes to use it to serve the public school system once he can no longer throw a football.

In the meantime, he uses his sport to make a positive impact through charitable initiatives such as United Way TEAM NFL, which he said he got involved in “because it is doing positive things in communities by helping our youth and growing outstanding programs to reach them, giving them a chance to succeed.”

And with Campbell’s recent move to Chicago, the significance of his impact is amplified by the city’s troubled school system. So whether or not he makes much impact at Soldier Field this season, Jason said he’s excited about making an impact where it matters — in the lives of students.

“Kids need someone to encourage and teach them how to grow and what to look for,” he said. “They are our future.”

To help Jason achieve his goal of recruiting 3,000 volunteer readers, tutors and mentors, pledge with Jason and help change the life of a young person today!

Blog post submitted on behalf of Michele Danno, Team NFL/United Way Intern.

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