Most of the Tennessee Titans likely wanted to forget every second of their visit to Pittsburgh. The team got beat up by the Steelers on Sunday, 38-17, and surely hurried through the airport without a look back. But for one rookie, a defensive back named Tommie Campbell, there was a good reason to sneak a glance around. Campbell spent a good deal of time at that airport during his college days, and not just because he played for a while at the University of Pittsburgh.
Campbell used to work at the Pittsburgh airport. As a janitor.
And this wasn't some community outreach stint. It was a full-time job, for six months. It came at a time not only when the NFL was a bridge way too far for Campbell, but big-time football itself was a dying dream.
Campbell scrubbed the bathrooms and swept the floors for people on their way to bigger and better things. And maybe he'd still be there today, cleaning up for the Titans instead of playing for them, if he wasn't laid off.
The return to the airport last week, not only as a passenger but as a pro football player, was both humbling and inspiring for Campbell.
"It let me know and realize where I came from," he told ThePostGame.com Sunday, "and where I am now."
Campbell played two seasons for Pitt. That time was surreal in itself, as he grew up in nearby Aliquippa, Pa. But it wasn't enough to keep him on the right track, as poor grades ended his time as a Panther.
After losing his scholarship at Pitt, Campbell squandered a second chance by lasting just one season at Edinboro, a Division II school. Once again, poor grades did him in.
He had few options left. He started hanging out at the bars, smoking cigarettes. His girlfriend's mom was working at the Pittsburgh airport, and she helped land a job as janitor there for $8 an hour. That was actually a big step up for Campbell.
After six months, he was let go. But the comeback had already begun. Something inside him had clicked into place. After getting jobs in manual labor and at a supermarket, Campbell got a shot at California, another Division II school in Pennsylvania, when a neighborhood mentor set up a workout with Mike Conway, the school's defensive coordinator.
Conway was skeptical to say the least.
"I went into the meeting not sure if we wanted to go that route," Conway told The Tennessean. "People that knew him at the low point, they would ask me, 'Why would you give this kid a chance? He's not a great kid, and he's already wrecked a couple of opportunities.'
"But Tommie pretty much convinced me and all of us he really had changed and was a guy deserving of another opportunity. I guess you could say we took a chance on him."
The skill was there -- he was first-team all-state in high school as a wide receiver and safety. But the work ethic? Maybe Campbell’s time at the airport scared him straight. Maybe it gave him a feeling that there was nothing to lose.
Maybe it was both.
"I just worked with every opportunity God had given me and just pushed forward," Campbell says. "If I made a mistake, just keep pushing forward, forget it, move on and don't look back at anything."
Conway and head coach John Luckhardt gave Campbell a chance to play and in 12 games last season he proved his potential – and his work ethic -- with 29 tackles and two interceptions. The Titans took Campbell in the seventh round (251st overall) of the 2011 NFL Draft and gave him a chance to play his way onto an NFL roster.
He has done just that, earning a spot as a backup cornerback and special teams ace. Five games into his NFL career, Tommie Campbell found himself back where he spent some of the best, and worst, days of his life.
He may not have bumped into any former co-workers as he and his teammates made their way through Pittsburgh International Airport, but the trip brought back memories for the 24-year-old rookie -- memories of a time when childhood dreams seemed to have slipped away for good.
"At one point I didn't think this day would come," Campbell told the Tennessean. "Now that I am here, I'm going to live every day to its fullest and try to make the most of myself. I'm in the NFL now, and I feel blessed."
Campbell sat at his locker after Sunday’s loss, head in his hands, dejectedly fumbling with his phone. There was no time for enjoying the irony of going back to the airport again.
"I had some emotions when I first got here,” he said. “Happy emotions that my family and everybody would get to see me play But my emotions right now [are] a little upset because we lost the game."
Those emotions are real, and raw, but nothing compared to the reality he once knew.