Julius Campbell, a former high school football star who was portrayed in the 2000 film “Remember the Titans,” died Friday of organ failure. He was 65.
Campbell attended T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., and graduated in 1973. After Alexandria integrated its three high schools, students were all housed at T.C. Williams in 1971. The school’s football team, the Titans, went undefeated that season and won the Virginia AAA state championship, defeating now-defunct Andrew Lewis High School of Salem, 27-0.
The story of the football season amid the city’s racial tensions inspired the film. In the cinematic depiction, Campbell, played by Wood Harris, befriends white linebacker Gerry Bertier and the pair’s bond becomes part of the team’s success.
“Julius was very, very instrumental on that team at simply getting kids to just talk to one another, kids who never talked to kids from another race their entire lives,” said Herman Boone, who coached the Titans from 1971 to 1979. “By doing so, they learned many things about each other that were not passed down to them and for that, the world owes Julius a debt of gratitude.”
“He was a very kind, compassionate human being,” said his wife, Cathy Campbell, who confirmed his death. “If you met him, you loved him.”
Julius Campbell Jr., was born Dec. 5, 1953, the second of five children and the first son of Hazel and Julius Campbell Sr.. When he arrived at T.C. Williams, the school accepted freshmen, sophomores and juniors, but ahead of his junior year in 1971 — the year of the football state championship, Alexandria converted the school into the only building for upperclassmen and sent lowerclassmen to Francis Hammond and George Washington Junior High schools.
The move sparked racial tensions in the city, especially among students leaving Hammond, whose student body was 99 percent white, according to an Associated Press report at the time.
Hammond Coach Bill Yoast was expected to land the job as the new coach of T.C. Williams, but officials chose Boone instead. Yoast agreed to coach on Boone’s staff, easing tensions and paving the way for white players leaving Hammond to join a roster that included African American players.
“You have to understand, we had never been together for three years,” teammate Collin Arrington said of students from the three high schools. “This was going to be our junior year, and then all of a sudden, they decided they were going to bring three schools together and they’d all been enemies for years.”
During summer training camp, Boone took the team for two weeks to Gettysburg, Pa., where, away from the tensions back in their hometown, the group bonded. Campbell and Bertier emerged as leaders.
“Julius took it upon himself to lead the team and rebuild race relations,” Boone said. “He talked to members of the team even up at Gettysburg about how we could come together. It was Julius who came up with the saying that our team is a team of one group of people with ‘one vision.’ And in order to win, we must have ‘one heartbeat.’”
“The best thing we ever did was going to Gettysburg,” Arrington said. “We had football camp for two weeks and we trained, and we got out temper tantrums out and our animosity out and we came back as a football team.”
Campbell, a defensive lineman, was among the best players on the team. He was tall with broad shoulders and long arms. “You didn’t run the football at Julius Campbell,” Arrington said. In 13 games, the Titans posted nine shutouts. Opponents averaged just 33.5 yards rushing and 79.9 yards passing per game.
Campbell dreamed to play for legendary coach Woody Hayes at Ohio State but went first to Ferrum Junior College with plans to transfer to play at a major program. But an ankle injury that never properly healed ended his athletic career, and he returned home to Alexandria to care for his aging father.
He worked for Alexandria and Prince George’s County’s animal control departments.
The job suited him well, Boone and Arrington said. As a high schooler, Campbell would sometimes bring garden snakes into school and set them loose in Boone’s office as a prank. Arrington said he had a pet boa constrictor.
“He had a hell of a sense of humor,” Boone said. “Everybody loved being around Julius Campbell.”
In his later years, Campbell took up speaking regionally about the team’s journey to overcome racial barriers and about bullying in school, but he was forced to stop due to health problems.
He is survived by Cathy Campbell, his wife of 29 years, as well as his daughter, three stepdaughters, two stepsons, and five grandchildren. The family has requested donations to the ’71 Original Titans Scholarship Fund in lieu of flowers.