Jeff Campbell remembers it as one of the most inspiring moments of his volleyball career.
The 1984 City Section Player of the Year from Chatsworth High had been a rare freshman starter for the UCLA volleyball team before chronically painful knees and poor grades forced him to drop out. After spending a year at Pierce College, Campbell transferred to Cal State Northridge, where he redshirted last season.
At a tournament at UC Santa Barbara, he sat behind UCLA Coach Al Scates.
"He turned around and said, 'Gee, I'm glad to see you're back in the game,' " Campbell said. "Then he said, 'And I'm glad to see you're somewhere where you're not going to hurt us.' "
The backhanded compliment irked Campbell, who plans to put the hurt on UCLA tonight when he and his suddenly upsurging Northridge teammates play host to the fifth-ranked Bruins in a Western Intercollegiate Volleyball Assn. match.
Northridge (6-9, 2-4) has never beaten the 12-time national champions, who are 16-2 and 3-2 this season. But if Northridge is searching for a catalyst to end the 0-13 drought, it should look no further than the 6-foot 7-inch, 220-pound Campbell, whom WIVA coaches regard as one of the top middle blockers in the conference.
"He has a great eye for the game," said Stanford Coach Fred Sturm, who selected Campbell from an open tryout for the U. S. team that competed in the World University Games in Yugoslavia last summer. "He's very aware of what's happening on the floor. His blocking instincts are very good and he's very, very competitive."
Campbell might not back down at the net, but when it comes to answering questions about playing against UCLA, he is timid--at least until pressed.
How does he feel about playing against his former teammates?
"I just want to go out and win."
Right. How does he feel about playing against Scates?
"I want to beat UCLA."
Fine. But how does he really feel?
"I want to crush UCLA."
Lately, Campbell has been doing a lot of damage to opponents. On Saturday he led the Matadors to their biggest win in history with a 28-kill performance against then fourth-ranked UC Santa Barbara.
"Right now, he's making everyone better," Northridge Coach John Price said. "He's really starting to believe in his teammates and he's showing it on the court."
Campbell never envisioned himself playing for the Matadors after leading Chatsworth to the 1984 City 4-A championship. A two-sport standout, Campbell turned down several Division I basketball scholarships in favor of a chance to play volleyball for UCLA, which had won four consecutive NCAA titles.
After a summer spent playing for a U. S. junior national team in China, Campbell thrived in the highly competitive practice sessions at UCLA and earned a starting position. But knee soreness--a minor problem in high school--became chronic under stress from the workouts in college.
"I was enjoying school and having a good time until my knees started going," Campbell said. "That's when I started having problems."
Campbell said teammates resented the fact that he was a regular in games but was excused from some of the jumping in practice.
"I always said to other people that I wished I'd broken a leg or something so they could see I was hurting," Campbell said. "But it was only something I could feel in my knees. It was bad news."
By the end of the season, Campbell was tired of the constant pain. He had trouble climbing stairs and--as somewhat of a side effect--had even greater difficulty walking into classrooms. "I basically stopped going to classes," he said.
A year spent attending classes at Pierce allowed Campbell to rest his knees and also made him eager to play again. He missed the competition and the adrenaline rush he got from big matches so he contacted Price and told him he was interested in reviving his career at Northridge. Then, when he saw an advertisement for an open tryout in San Diego for the World University Games, Campbell did something he thought he would never do again--he jumped.
"I didn't even realize that he was playing volleyball," Sturm said. "He was the only player who made the final roster through the open tryout. The odds were against him, but he showed that he could really play."
During two weeks of six-hour-a-day practice sessions in Colorado Springs, Colo., before the team left for Yugoslavia, a team doctor discovered that Campbell's right leg was a half-inch shorter than his left. An orthotic lift was inserted into Campbell's right shoe and his knee problems have subsided.
Campbell hopes to lead Northridge into the playoffs this season and said that next year's team will be even better. Playing for the national team and in the Olympics are his goals.
"Bold statements," Campbell said. "But I definitely think I can be there."
So does Scates.
"He's a tremendous help to Northridge and he could play for any team in the league," Scates said. "I think he could play on the national team after he graduates.
"I'm glad to see him back, as long as he doesn't beat us."