A bond as simple as family, love, and a name

Former Charlotte Catholic coach will see his grandson play tonight.

11/12/2010 12:00 AM

02/04/2011 3:15 PM

The Campagna name still resonates at Charlotte Catholic High.

It's been more than 50 years since Will Campagna coached one of Catholic's first football teams, guiding the Cougars to an unbeaten season at the school's old Park Road campus.

Tonight, Campagna will be back at Catholic, a still-familiar figure sitting quietly in the stands at Jim Oddo Stadium as he does for most every home game at the school, now located in south Charlotte on N.C. 51. He'll be watching his oldest grandchild Vince, a senior running back for another powerful Catholic team, play in the N.C. 3AA playoffs against Southwestern Randolph.

"It seems like half the parents in the stands have come up to me and said they either played for my grandpa or used to watch him coach," Vince says. "Some of our players' dads played on grandpa's teams. Teachers tell me he coached them."

That's how firm Will Campagna's imprint remains at Catholic, although he left the school in 1969 after 10 seasons.

Much has happened in Campagna's life since then.

After a few short stops elsewhere (including Kannapolis Brown High and Davidson College), he coached at North Mecklenburg High for 18 seasons, building the Vikings' program into one of the state's best. But poor health, brought on by quadruple bypass surgery in 1983, forced him to retire in 1992 after 218 career victories in 34 years.

He and his wife, Bette, raised a family while he coached at North Meck. Three of their sons - Tony, Danny and Willie - played quarterback for Campagna at North Meck.

And there was the horrible day in 1970, when a fourth Campagna son - Will and Bette's oldest - was killed at the age of 10 by a drunken driver. Bette's mother also died in the crash.

A painted portrait of the boy hangs above the fireplace in Will and Bette's den.

His name was Vince.

'Just great to watch him play'

Will Campagna is 78 now. He still struggles with his health. A diabetic, he also has a defibrillator implanted for continuing heart problems and needs an oxygen tank to help him breathe when he walks.

"I'm limited to what I can do," he says. "I can't walk any great distances. But when I'm sitting here, I feel absolutely fine."

And there is nothing Campagna loves more to do than make the long drive with Bette from their Mooresville home to south Charlotte to watch his grandson Vince play football.

"It's great," says Will Campagna, who once said football made his "blood boil."

"People don't understand, even though I used to coach, I can sit there and just watch," he says. "I don't get upset one way or another. If he does things wrong, I tell him, but I tell him nice. It's just great to watch him play."

Vince even hears about his grandfather on the field.

"When my name comes over the loudspeaker, a referee will come up and tell me to say hi to my grandpa because he used to ref his games," Vince says.

That brings a wry smile to Will Campagna, a self-admitted referee baiter who still recalls bad calls he says cost his North Mecklenburg teams championships years ago.

"He might not remember what happened yesterday," says Vince with a laugh. "But he can remember every single play of the Country Day-Catholic game from (years ago)."

His former players still loyal

When Will Campagna arrived at Catholic in 1959, nine players showed up at his first preseason meeting. Campagna, then 27, found more players and the Cougars - with 23 on their roster - went 10-0 and allowed just one touchdown.

The program grew quickly under the energetic Campagna.

"We had 160 boys in the school, and 100 came out for football," says Jim Collins, who played defensive back at Catholic from 1964 to 1967.

Collins, who lives in Dallas, Texas, often returns to Charlotte to watch his alma mater play and visit his old coach.

"He was very much into you," says Collins. "He knew everything about you. He was hard on you, but he brought us all together into an unbelievable cohesiveness. He could sit there and coach today if his health was still there. Because his head is still there.

"How was he off the field? That's why I still see him today. He's like a father."

Something special

Will is close to all of his seven grandchildren, but Vince - as the oldest - has held a special place for him.

When the families gathered at Will and Bette's home in Mooresville for holidays or to watch football on television, grandfather and grandson often went off together to play games. Sometimes it was volleyball or basketball. Sometimes it would be a board game.

"I wouldn't let him win," Will says. "My wife would ask me why I didn't let him win. Let him earn it, I'd say."

Talking about his oldest grandchild - the namesake of his oldest son - brings a smile to Campagna's face. His voice falters, however, when he speaks of his son Vince.

"He'd be 50 years old now," says Campagna. "I always wonder what he would have been like, what he would have done ... "

On Will and Bette's wedding anniversary in 1992, Vince was born to Tony and Erica Campagna - the family's first grandchild.

"We named him Vince as a reflection of our support for Mom and Dad," says Tony, who, like Danny and Willie, lives near his parents' house. "It was a bond for us as a family."

Says Vince: "I like to tell them I was their anniversary present that year."

Vince understands his place in the Campagna family and the emotions his name carries.

"It's nice to know where my name came from," Vince says. "There's something special about it. I know there are memories of him and there's a soft spot in the family about my dad's older brother.

"It's matured me. I know what being the oldest means. I'm going to be there to help take care of my (siblings and cousins)."

Vince began his high school career at Myers Park, where he played on the junior varsity as a freshman. He transferred to Catholic as a sophomore but had to sit out a season under school rules.

He was the Cougars' leading returning rusher this season but has spent much of the year battling injuries. He returned to the Cougars' lineup two weeks ago and scored his first touchdown of the season in a victory against Harding. All that's left of his high school career (he hopes to play small-college football) are the playoffs.

His grandfather will be in the stands, for the home games at least, watching quietly. And proudly.

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