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Sports, family helped Carolina Panthers rookie D.J. Campbell deal with mother's killing

By Joseph Person
jperson@charlotteobserver.com

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Carolina Panthers rookie safety D.J. Campbell remembers little from the morning in 1996 when a gunshot killed his mother.

Campbell, only 6 then, recalls the sight of his father’s car speeding away from the house early that morning, the screams of his sister a short time later and his own tears.

Campbell pieced together the rest of the night over the years through Internet news stories and relatives’ accounts of a tragedy that began as a domestic dispute and ended with his mother, 27-year-old Deborah Campbell, dead and his father and uncle in jail.

Darion Campbell Sr., who was then 28, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the death of his wife and spent nearly 13 years in prison. His brother Uricos Campbell, then 25, was convicted of second-degree murder and remains incarcerated in Nevada.

It would have been understandable had Campbell grown a tough exterior to hide the pain or sought acceptance in one of the gangs that were active at his high school in North Las Vegas.

Instead, he was taken in by his aunt Valencia and her husband Delaney Meyer.

And there, D.J. Campbell thrived.

Remembering mom

Deborah Campbell and her sister Valencia were the youngest of four children, and both showed an early aptitude for sports.

But Deborah’s athletic career was interrupted when she became pregnant at 14 with her daughter, Jahaun. In 1988 she married Darion Campbell, and they had two sons – Darion Jr. and Khyriece.

“I don’t really remember much about my mom, except for what some people tell me,” D.J. Campbell said. “And I have little memories here and there. Like she used to watch Lifetime all the time. I used to come in from playing outside and she was watching Lifetime. And the Atlanta Braves.”

Campbell still roots for the Braves and wears a silver dog tag on a chain adorned with a photo of his mother. The other side of the tag bears the inscription: “A Mother’s Love is Forever.”

The relationship between Deborah and Darion became strained, and the two separated early in 1996. Valencia, two years younger than her sister, said the arguments between Deborah and Darion became so heated that she took each of their guns away.

“I had a fear something would happen,” Valencia said.

But three days before the shooting, Deborah called her sister to say things had calmed down.

Valencia gave Darion his gun back.

Waking to tragedy

Darion had been living at his mother’s house for about a month, while Deborah and the three children remained at home, Valencia said. Both were seeing other people, according to Valencia.

On the morning of Feb. 29, 1996 – a leap day – an enraged Darion called Valencia at 7 a.m. and told her he had found Deborah at home with another man.

“Dude, you better not hurt my sister,” Valencia said she told him.

Valencia dressed quickly and drove the three miles to her sister’s house. When she arrived, everyone was gone but the three children.

D.J. Campbell remembers waking up to a commotion, looking out of his bedroom window and seeing his father’s car racing away from the house.

According to newspaper reports of the brothers’ trial and sentencing, this is what happened next:

Darion and his brother Uricos took off in pursuit of the car Deborah and Robert Qwabner were traveling in.

According to prosecutors, Uricos shot at the other car before the brothers ran it off the road and it crashed into a wall. The brothers then fought with Qwabner, reports said. A defense attorney said Qwabner initially got out of the vehicle holding a car jack.

During the struggle, Deborah grabbed Uricos’ arm and was killed when the gun discharged accidentally, his attorney said. A half-dozen children watched the fight and the shooting from across the street while waiting for a school bus.

Valencia had to tell Campbell, his brother and sister that their mother was dead. Jahaun, who was 12, was inconsolable.

“I remember her yelling, ‘No, Valencia! No!’” Campbell said. “I remember that like it was yesterday.”

A new family

Valencia and Delaney Meyer took in Deborah’s three children and raised them along with their sons, who are now 16 and 15.

“They weren’t my children,” said Delaney, a heavy equipment operator at a Las Vegas landfill. “But they became my children and my wife’s.”

Valencia Meyer, a middle school special education teacher and basketball coach, had her athletic career cut short by an accidental shooting after her last day of high school. Sitting in the passenger’s seat of a friend’s car, Valencia was shot in the back by a boy who was playing with a gun in the backseat.

It was a year before Valencia could walk again. By then, she said, she had lost her athletic scholarship to Illinois and went to college in California, where she met Delaney.

As a coach and former athlete, Valencia understood the value of organized athletics.

“From the time me, my older sister and younger brother moved in with them, she instantly put us right in sports,” Campbell said. “That’s something she was passionate about.”

Sports helped Campbell stay out of trouble in the shadow of the Las Vegas strip. The Meyers also arranged for Deborah’s three children to undergo counseling.

But Campbell struggled at times.

Dean Fountain, Campbell’s youth football coach for six years, remembers a game when Campbell, then 10 or 11, was lackadaisical and running the wrong plays – uncharacteristic for the star quarterback. When Campbell explained he was thinking about his mother, Fountain told him he was a winner and gave him a homework assignment – asking him to write a paper about what it means to be a champion.

Campbell returned the following day with a hand-written paper that Fountain still keeps filed along with his birth certificate and other important documents.

Among other qualities, Campbell wrote then: “A champion is someone who tries to work through their problems or injuries.”

Understanding, forgiving

The summer before his freshman year at Cheyenne High, Campbell regularly walked two miles to lift weights at the school.

He made two lists of prospective colleges and hung them on his bedroom wall – one for football and one for academics.

The University of California was on both lists.

Campbell was an honor roll student in high school, involved in several clubs and worked jobs bagging groceries and washing cars.

“He’s a different child. There’s a presence about D.J.,” Valencia said. “When he was 6 or 7 years old, he was meant to do something special. There’s an aura about him. He’s meant to make a difference.”

The respect is mutual. Campbell calls Valencia a “soldier” and his “hero.”

Campbell drew 39 scholarship offers for football and two for basketball. He picked Cal, where he majored in social welfare, mentored several elementary school students and helped start the Black Student-Athlete Coalition, a group dedicated to bridging the gap between Cal’s black athletes and its black students.

Campbell was primarily a special teams player and reserve until starting all 13 games as a senior. He had 71 tackles last season, including a career-high 11 against UCLA.

During his second year at Cal, Campbell began asking Valencia and other relatives about his parents and specifics of the shooting and events that led to it. Campbell knew his father and uncle had a role in his mother’s death, but had heard none of the details.

“It was tough. I went through a lot of emotions,” he said. “There was a period of time where it was on my mind all the time. I couldn’t really sleep. I was always constantly trying to figure out why would this happen or how could have things been worked out differently?”

After Darion Campbell was released on parole in 2010, he came to his son’s game against UCLA. The two have gotten together a couple of times since, including a breakfast meeting before Campbell returned to Charlotte two weeks ago. The Observer was unable to reach Darion Campbell.

D. J. Campbell said he has forgiven his father, who is remarried with a young child and working for an ice company in Reno.

“I felt that I had to forgive him just so I could move on. I didn’t want to hold any grudges against him or just have any bad blood,” Campbell said. “I’m trying to get my family to do the same, even though it probably won’t happen. It’s really hard.

“I’m just trying to get them to understand that although it was your sister or daughter who passed, this is my mom who was taken away from me. That’s a big thing to not have your mom there. And I forgave the man who took my mom away, so I think you guys should as well.”

A special day

The Panthers drafted Campbell in the seventh round. They believe he can contribute on special teams this year, while he works to move up the depth chart at safety.

Most draft analysts projected Campbell to be a late-round pick. Pro Football Weekly’s analysis called the 6-foot, 200-pound Campbell lean, athletic, with good closing speed, noting he could offer depth as a backup defender.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera said the fact that Campbell did not become a starter until his fifth season at Cal shows he has a lot of potential and room for growth.

Because of what Campbell has been through, Rivera said it is easy to root for him.

“You get excited for guys like that,” Rivera said. “You really do hope that they make it.”

It was a special occasion for Campbell in April when about 50 friends and family members gathered at the Las Vegas house he grew up in for a party on the final day of the draft.

As the rounds passed without his name being called, Campbell took a moment to think of his mother.

“You brought me this far,” Campbell remembers saying to himself. “Help me get the strength to see this thing all the way through.”

A short time later the Panthers called and told Campbell he was their final pick.

He spoke briefly by phone with his father. Then, in an emotional speech delivered in the crowded Meyers’ home, he thanked Valencia and Delaney for raising him.

“Everyone was crying,” Valencia said. “It was a day to remember.”

News researcher Maria David contributed.

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