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From Steel Valley to Silicon Valley: A Football Story

At the United States Air Force Academy, my fellow cadets and I had to memorize General Douglas MacArthur’s famous words from his days as superintendent of West Point: “Upon the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that, upon other fields, on other days, will bear the fruits of victory.”

Those words had particular resonance for me as a running back on the Falcons football team. Teamwork, attention to detail, intestinal fortitude – all these things you learn playing football, and they have benefited me in every phase of my life, including service in Afghanistan, and now as the president of Robert Morris University.

In 1990, I became the first winner of the Campbell Trophy, given each year to an outstanding senior college football player who excels in the classroom, the so-called “academic Heisman.” It is named for the late William V. Campbell, who as much as anyone I’ve known demonstrated the heights to which football can carry a man.

Bill Campbell was a native of Homestead, just outside Pittsburgh, which takes its football very seriously – being from Texas, I know what I’m talking about – and football is where Bill Campbell first found glory. He excelled as a linebacker at the old Homestead High School and then at Columbia University, where he eventually served as head coach, one of the reasons he was called “Coach Campbell.”

At age 39, Coach Campbell launched a career in business and heeded Horace Greeley’s historic exhortation to “Go west, young man, go west.” He went to Silicon Valley and left a huge imprint on its start-up culture, becoming a revered advisor to tech legends such as Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, and Larry Page – another reason he was called “Coach.” His impactful career included time as the CEO and chairman of the software company Intuit.

Homestead was the beating heart of the Pittsburgh region’s steel industry, but by the time Bill Campbell was shaping Apple, Amazon, and Google, the mills were closing, and the distance between Silicon Valley and the Steel Valley could be measured in more than miles. Coach Campbell, however, never forgot his hometown. He donated millions of dollars for educational and recreational programs, community revitalization, and college scholarships in Homestead and its surrounding communities.

Homestead is now part of the Steel Valley School District, and its high school campus is named for Coach Campbell. When the National Football Foundation, which administers the Campbell Trophy, decided to make rings for each of the winners, I chose to have mine presented March 1 during an assembly in front of the Steel Valley Senior High School football team, the Ironmen.

Now, I know a thing or two about great high school football teams. I played on a pretty good one myself. (Did I mention I’m from Texas?) Let me tell you, the Steel Valley Ironmen are a great high school football team. They were undefeated last season, winning every game by the mercy rule on their way to a state championship. What’s more, MaxPreps ranked them No. 1 in the nation in their class, and if that’s not enough, 30 of the young men on that team made their school’s Honor Roll.

Joining me that day at his alma mater was Homestead native Charlie Batch, the retired Steelers quarterback who won two Super Bowl rings as Ben Roethlisberger’s back-up. Charlie is now an entrepreneur who has returned to his hometown, which he supports through the Best of the Batch Foundation. Bill Campbell, a mentor and friend to Charlie, was the chairman of that foundation’s board.

Charlie and I wanted to be sure the Ironmen know they are living the legacy of Coach Campbell, a man who found greatness in the Steel Valley, the Silicon Valley, and on the fields of friendly strife. We wanted to remind them they need a life beyond football but that football can make that life richer.

Football has taken its share of criticism, and it has many problems to solve, but football made me who I am, made Charlie who he is, and made Coach Campbell who he was. Bill Campbell stood for what is right about football, what can happen when those of us who love this game get it right, and what it can do for scholar athletes like the Steel Valley Ironmen.

A version of this essay originally appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where you can see a video of my presentation to the Steel Valley Ironmen.

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