Leave it to Calais Campbell, a wise, old soul in the Jaguars locker room, to put the fender bender involving star rookie Leonard Fournette into perspective.
Tuesday’s incident may have raised the anxiety level in Jacksonville as Fournette was rammed from behind on I-295 — by a Steelers fan no less.
No one was injured, but Fournette’s Mercedes-Maybach 6, an exotic coupe, was totaled.
“That’s why I don’t have a Maybach,” Campbell told USA TODAY Sports on Wednesday. “Something goes wrong, and it costs you as much as a regular car to get fixed.”
Campbell was relieved to see the first-round tailback shortly after the accident when they crossed paths at a treatment facility away from Jags headquarters.
“That’s my little brother, man,” Campbell said. “I’m glad he’s OK, because you get worried sometimes. In this world, things happen just like that. I’m glad it was something small. He said, ‘I was more worried about the car.’ ”
The connection with Fournette illustrates just one layer of the influence that Campbell, 31, has had on a young team that blossomed into division champions on its way to Sunday’s AFC Championship Game.
The Jaguars lured the veteran defensive lineman from the Arizona Cardinals last spring as a free agent. He’s not only performed at a spectacular level — named NFL defensive player of the year Wednesday by the Pro Football Writers of America — but he quickly established himself as a leader.
Fournette’s stall is adjacent to Campbell’s locker, and it has made a difference — even for a running back long ticketed for stardom.
“Words of encouragement, every day,” Fournette told USA TODAY Sports. “Even on the days you don’t feel like practicing, he’ll tell us how much we need it. He shows you how to be a professional.”
Pro football is basically a young man’s game, and Campbell is one of just four players on Jacksonville’s 53-man roster who’s at least 30. But Every team needs someone like him. As the Jags built this team — it includes a phenomenal defense, infused with high draft picks in recent years — it was essential to mix in veterans who could produce while being role models.
“For him to come in — and, in a short period of time, create the types of relationships that he has — was not automatic,” fourth-year receiver Marqise Lee told USA TODAY Sports. “I can honestly tell you, building relationships with this team ain’t easy, just with the characters that certain people are.”
Lee lockers on the other side of Campbell and admits, “For me to befriend Calais was very different.”
Like Fournette, though, he vouches for the impact that comes with seeing the 10th-year stalwart on a daily basis, with consistent messages about expectations for the team and individually.
“You know like back in the day,” said Lee, 26, “when you sit down and listen to your uncle? And he tells you all the crazy stories about the things he’s been through? That’s the type of person Calais is. He’s just your old uncle.”
Campbell said one of the reasons he came to Jacksonville, after strongly considering the Denver Broncos, was a sense that he would join a team trending upward but could draw on his experience.
“God put it in my gut to come here,” he said. “And now I’m taking advantage of my opportunities to school the young guys.”
And the people who thought he was crazy for not joining an already established Broncos defense?
“I don’t say anything,” he replied. “I’m happy with the decision I made. I look like a genius now.”
That was Marcell Dareus’ impression after Jacksonville obtained the former first-round defensive tackle from the Buffalo Bills in October, shortly before the trade deadline. Dareus recalled how Campbell was the first new teammate to reach out. Then Campbell went a step further, sending Dareus his address and cutting short his bye week to fly back to Jacksonville while inviting Dareus over.
They talked extensively, with Campbell briefing Dareus about team culture, locker room personalities, coaching styles and the playbook.
“It was insightful,” said Dareus.
“(Campbell) means well and wants the best for everyone. I love that about him.”
The leadership is bolstered by the numbers.
In Campbell’s first game with Jacksonville, he set a team record with four sacks at Houston. He wound up setting the franchise’s single-season mark with 14½. He is arguably the NFL’s most versatile D-lineman, starting at right end but lining up at all four spots along the line, creating matchup havoc.
“Calais is a beast,” linebacker Myles Jack told USA TODAY Sports. “I’ve seen him collapse a whole pocket by himself. I’ve seen him close two gaps. If you put him on the edge, he can beat the guy off the corner. If you put him in the middle, he can walk the center back to the quarterback. In my opinion, Calais is really unstoppable.”
And worth listening to. Especially now.
Sure, it would take a huge upset to beat Tom Brady and the Patriots on their own turf. But Campbell has been in this spot before with the Cardinals, having won and lost conference title games.
Words of wisdom?
“Live in the moment,” he said.
“You just want to lose yourself in the moment, give it your all, focus and sell out. And may the best team win.”
Way back in the sweltering days of July, Calais Campbell talked about the Jaguars as a Super Bowl threat.
After getting a feel for Jacksonville’s roster, the free-agent addition pointed to a team with “all the pieces are in place,” and told NFL Network he planned to “lead Jacksonville to a Super Bowl.”
Those comments were largely laughed off — although not to Campbell’s face, seeing as he’s a massively ferocious pass-rushing game-wrecker — but today his analysis looms as prescient.
The Jaguars are one game away from a Lombardi showdown, with only the mighty Patriots in their way.
On Wednesday, Campbell laughed off the thought that Jacksonville should simply be happy to have come this far.
“That’s silly to me,” Campbell said, per the team’s official website. “We have earned the right to be here. We have put a lot of time and effort in so this is an opportunity we feel like we deserve and we have prepared for. I can honestly say I expected to be here.”
Here’s where we remind you that Campbell also predicted Jacksonville would knock out the Steelers by the score of 45-42, a forecast no longer giggled at in Pittsburgh.
No predictions this time around from the star defensive end, but the Jaguars aren’t cowed by the idea of facing New England.
“They say you have to beat the best to be the best,” Campbell said. “So I can’t wait to get out there and try.”