Former Gophers linebackers still chasing NFL dreams

Lee Campbell, Simoni Lawrence and Nate Triplett have had their fair share of setbacks in the last year, but that won’t stop them from chasing their dream.

Josh Katzenstein

DonâÄôt tell the NCAA, but three former Minnesota football players might have been guilty of gambling. The wager? Whoever among the GophersâÄô three senior linebackers in 2009 âÄî Nate Triplett, Simoni Lawrence and Lee Campbell âÄî recorded the fewest tackles in a game had to bring double cheeseburgers to a team meeting the following week. âÄúI like double cheeseburgers,âÄù Triplett said. âÄúI also like winning and getting tackles.âÄù Now college football seems like small fries to three guys hoping to make a name for themselves in the National Football League. All three have taken different paths âÄî all with ups and downs âÄî in their first year away from Minnesota, but as a group, they collected just four tackles in the NFL this past season, all of them belonging to Triplett. Even if the former Gophers have had a chance to talk to their âÄúman crushâÄù LaDainian Tomlinson (LawrenceâÄôs admission) or high-fived Dwight Freeney during a game (Triplett), their dreams have taken a hit in this first shot at professional football. But all three kept fighting and plan to do so until âÄî hopefully âÄî they can play every Sunday. Rooted in special teams During his freshman and sophomore seasons with the Gophers, Triplett questioned whether or not football was for him. He played sparingly and earned the bulk of his time on special teams. As a junior he began to play more as a linebacker, and as a senior, he opened the season as a starter and had a breakout game against Air Force in which he notched 17 tackles as an outside linebacker. But those around Triplett knew he could be a special player even when his confidence wavered. âÄúHe was the best special teams player IâÄôve ever seen,âÄù Lawrence said of his former teammate. âÄúHe could go to the NFL just off of that.âÄù The Minnesota Vikings drafted Triplett in the fifth round of the 2010 draft, reassuring his decision to stick with football despite being overlooked early in his college career. Triplett grew up in Maple Plains, Minn., and after being drafted by his hometown team, he thought about all of his friends and family coming to watch him play. He said he planned on trying to get them tickets for games. Then Triplett experienced one of the many growing pains of being a professional athlete, and he was cut on Sept. 2. âÄúAll those things were going through my mind, and I never really stepped back and thought, âÄòThese guys could let me go,âÄôâÄù Triplett said. âÄúWhen it happened I was a little bit disappointed because all those things now werenâÄôt going to happen, and I had to try to find my way to another team.âÄù In the fourth week of the season, the San Diego Chargers picked him up. âÄúI kept telling myself âÄòI was drafted for a reason,âÄôâÄù he said about his hiatus. âÄúI was going to get picked up.âÄù Triplett stayed with San Diego for eight weeks, but never played. Then he was cut again. TriplettâÄôs next stop was in Indianapolis for the final five weeks of the season and a first-round playoff game. This time, Triplett actually saw the field against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 13 and made two tackles a week later in a win over the Tennessee Titans. âÄúMy first thought was, âÄòWow, itâÄôs been a little too long since IâÄôve done this,âÄù Triplett said of making his first tackle. âÄúI was too excited to remember who I tackled.âÄù Both times Triplett brought down Marc Mariani, the TitansâÄô kick returner. The Colts signed Triplett to a three-year deal, so he still has two years left. However, he knows his status is âÄúless than permanent.âÄù In addition to proposing to his girlfriend Stephanie âÄî she said yes âÄî Triplett plans to use the off-season to take care of off-field issues like finances so he doesnâÄôt have to worry about anything other than football come next season. He will spend a lot of time working out, too, as he hopes to avoid the shuffle once again. A maturation process Lawrence admits to not being mentally prepared for the NFL, but his journey had more stops than TriplettâÄôs, including one in the United Football League. The GophersâÄô other 2009 starting outside linebacker also had aspirations of being drafted, especially after running a 4.62 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine, but Lawrence never heard his name called and signed as a free agent with the St. Louis Rams after the draft. âÄúWhen draft day came and I didnâÄôt get drafted I was real upset,âÄù Lawrence said. âÄú[I] wasnâÄôt talking to anybody, just hanging out âĦ YouâÄôve got to get in where you fit in.âÄù A month later, the Rams cut Lawrence and he landed with his hometown team, the Philadelphia Eagles. He played out training camp with the Eagles, but they released him after the preseason. Knowing that he wanted to play football, Lawrence turned to the UFL and played for the Hartford Colonials after being drafted 22nd in the UFL draft. âÄúI think the UFL is great for young players, especially coming out of college,âÄù Lawrence said. He signed with the Chicago Bears in December after the UFL season ended and finished the NFL season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Though he didnâÄôt play in a game for either team, Lawrence was on the roster for the BearsâÄô game against the New York Jets (when he acted as if he knew Tomlinson, a future Hall of Fame running back) and the BuccaneersâÄô game against the New Orleans Saints. âÄúI was thinking if nobody was out there I probably wouldâÄôve asked for his autograph,âÄù Lawrence said of the post-game meeting with Tomlinson. Now, like Triplett, he must use the off-season to keep improving his game so he can stay with Tampa Bay, where they have pegged him as a young player with good leadership qualities. He and Campbell were both captains during the 2009 season with the Gophers. âÄúI think youâÄôve got to go there mentally and physically in great shape, just ready for the long haul,âÄù Lawrence said. âÄúI donâÄôt think I was really prepared [last year]. Now that IâÄôve matured, IâÄôm just ready for it.âÄù Not quite there yet Among the many problems with the NFLâÄôs labor dispute is that if the owners and the NFL Players Association canâÄôt agree on a new collective bargaining agreement by March 3, there will be no free agency. Teams wonâÄôt be able to sign veterans or untested young players like Campbell, a three-year starter for the Gophers who spent the 2010 season hoping to be picked back up by Detroit after the Lions made him one of their final cuts before the regular season. âÄúWhen the Lions cut me they truly had told me they had the intention of bringing me back,âÄù said Campbell, who had previously been cut by the New York Giants. Campbell worked out for teams week after week, but the middle linebacker couldnâÄôt find a team in 2010. He must now hope to sign with a team during February to prevent being a victim of the CBA dispute, which could result in a lockout and thus no football. One thing holding Campbell back is his speed. The 6-foot-3, 246-pound Naples, Fla. native ran a 4.92 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine. He said heâÄôs brought his time down to 4.7, but in his experience âÄúa lot of teams care more about running fast and jumping highâÄù than passion and football savvy, two things that are tough to display in a one-day workout. âÄúAll he needs is a chance just to show what he could do in the game,âÄù Lawrence said about Campbell. âÄúYou look at Lee and itâÄôs like, âÄòheâÄôs not this, heâÄôs not that,âÄô but when it comes game time he just makes a whole bunch of plays.âÄù Watching NFL games at home is âÄútorture,âÄù Campbell said, because he has to watch players he played with and against in college who have already made it. HeâÄôs just waiting for his chance and will continue to work out seven days a week until it comes. âÄúI know that I want to play football, and IâÄôve been told by the teams that IâÄôve played for that IâÄôm good enough to play in this league,âÄù Campbell said. âÄúIâÄôve just got to keep grinding and wait for my opportunity.âÄù