Mike Minter talks by telephone Tuesday about his Campbell Fighting Camels football team and the longer the conversation goes the more animated he becomes.
A second-round pick out of Nebraska, Minter played safety for the Carolina Panthers from 1997 until 2006. At the news conference at which he reluctantly announced his retirement, he must have shaken 100 hands. People lined up to shake his hand. I did.
To be around Minter was to believe in him.
It still is. If he tells his players to drop and give him 20, passersby who have not attempted a pushup since the 1970s will fall to the ground, put their palms on the artificial turf and begin to push.
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Minter, 40, is in his second season as coach of the Fighting Camels.
You still have the gold camel statue on campus?
“It’s still here,” Minter says, laughing.
There’s not a better statue of a gold camel in the Carolinas.
On Thursday, Campbell will open the season against the Charlotte 49ers. Barker-Lane Stadium accommodates 6,000 fans, and athletics director Bob Roller anticipates 6,500.
“It will be the biggest crowd in school history,” Roller says.
Although Campbell is only three hours east of Charlotte, the schools belong to different species. The 49ers come from the biggest city in North Carolina. Campbell comes from Buies Creek. Campbell is Buies Creek. The town is the school, and the school is the town. There’s nothing else.
The Fighting Camels have played football six seasons, the 49ers one. The teams played the first game in Charlotte history last season. The afternoon was perfect – for Charlotte.
The 49ers intercepted a pass on the second play from scrimmage, returned it 32 yards for a touchdown and won 52-7.
How often do you think about the loss?
“You know what,” says Minter. “I never thought about it after the game. The worst thing that could happen in the first game did.”
He adds: “We learned what a good football team looks like. How do you compete against it? Do you come out excited and hooting and hollering? You stay in the moment. You play in the moment.
“If we didn’t get beat in that game in Charlotte, we wouldn’t have come back to Charlotte (in Campbell’s final game of 2013) and beat Davidson.”
The Fighting Camels won 47-13, their third victory of the season. Only once have they won more.
“Mike came in and we asked him to turn around the Queen Mary,” says Roller. “And we’re turning it.”
Campbell offers no athletic scholarships. The 49ers, of course, offer 85. After the 49ers, Campbell will play two more schools with scholarship players – Appalachian State and Charleston Southern, and both games will be on the road.
Since hiring Minter, the Fighting Camels have added a weight room and new uniforms. They charter planes to road games. They have, says Roller, one of the best stadiums in the Football Championship Subdivision and have added one of the best press boxes.
A good press box has good food.
“Barbecue, vinegar-based,” says Roller. “It’s outstanding.”
Minter speaks to community groups and churches, and if a group doesn’t find him, he probably finds it. Roller says the school has to say no for him.
Minter spoke to incoming freshmen, and 500 to 600 will stand on the field Thursday as the Fighting Camels run from the tunnel.
“It’s going to be packed,” says Minter. “We broke all the attendance records last year. But they know we’re overmatched.”
Charlotte-Campbell ought to be a mismatch. Yet for both teams it’s a fine way to start a season – every seat occupied, almost every fan wearing Campbell orange, the biggest game in town and the only game in town.
I can almost hear Minter smile over the phone.
“It’s where I’m supposed to be,” he says. “I’m supposed to be a coach. I tried to run from it. But I’m supposed to be working with students, and I’m supposed to be helping develop them as young men.”
Minter was a high school star in Oklahoma and a college star at Nebraska, and he helped the Panthers reach the Super Bowl.
Now he’s in little Buies Creek. Campbell won’t be his last stop, but, for now, it’s the right one.
“I’m enjoying it,” Minter says. “And I will really enjoy it when we start to win.”