Oct 2, 2015
CINCINNATI -- Whitey Campbell doesn’t look too tough standing side-by-side with Moeller’s varsity football team -- many soon-to-be Division I college players.
Whitey is just 5-foot-6, and he’s all of 78 years old. The strapping 17- and 18-year-olds tower over him, and most outweigh him by a few hundred pounds.
But if there’s one person these boys won’t cross, it’s Whitey.
“If Whitey tells you to do something once, you do it,” said Colin Thurman, a sophomore at Moeller. “He’ll put you in your place real quick.”
Thurman has been “put in his place” in the form of notes in his gym locker -- something Whitey likes to leave when team members are practicing or in class.
“He’ll leave notes in and on people’s lockers -- he’ll break into them to get in there, too -- and say ‘Take your jersey home, clean your pads,’” the varsity running back said.
But freshman Miles McBride got his Whitey wake-up call a little sooner than that.
McBride, a freshman QB who was moved up to varsity earlier this season, said he met Whitey for the first time during his freshman orientation.
“My mom and I parked in the back of the school in an empty spot, and he popped out of nowhere and said ‘Hey! That’s for my equipment vans, you can’t park there!’” McBride said.
He joked that he was one of very few people to park in Whitey’s unmarked and highly guarded spot and live to tell the tale.
“Whitey stories” are a Moeller staple, and most Crusaders football players graduate with a few of their own.
“One time we were standing on the sidelines with our hands in our pants to keep warm, and Whitey came up and yelled ‘Boy! Get your hands out of your pants. You ain’t gonna make it grow any,” said Jeremy Meiser, a junior defensive lineman.
“He told me once, ‘Boy, if you hit me, that’s the last thing you’ll hit.’ And he tells me to stop sucking,” said Joe Hensley, a senior offensive lineman. “But I love Whitey. He’s my man.”
Whitey serves a much bigger purpose to the team than just cracking jokes, and arguably whipping the boys into shape.
He’s on the sidelines of every Moeller football game and has been for more than 30 years.
When anyone on the team has a problem, he’s good for all the fixes.
A loose helmet. A tight helmet. Socks that won’t stay up. Shoulder pads with a broken clip. A missing mouthguard. A trampled mouthguard that fell out during the last play.
In essence, he’s there to help -- but while he’s at it, he never fails to offer a pat on the back or a swift kick in the butt.
“It’s like that old saying, his bark is worse than his bite,” said head coach John Rodenberg. “But as far as his job, it’s a huge advantage for us to have someone like Whitey. He does so many things for the team that I couldn’t ever do.”
Whitey is Moeller athletics’ first and only ever full-time equipment manager. He’s paid a salary by the school and works 8-plus-hour work days. He travels with the teams to Cleveland, Canton, Lexington and Indianapolis -- anywhere they need to go to find tough competition -- with a small band of student equipment managers in tow.
He’s a sort of structural entity on Moeller’s practice field, where he cruises the AstroTurf in his personal utility cart -- an item coveted by many players and coaches, but is just for Whitey. And he’s only missed three Moeller varsity football games over the last 31-and-a-half years.
“He’s going to die on this field,” said senior linebacker The-Moor Kelly. “He’ll probably be buried in that cart.”
Even Moeller student athletes who spent nearly every day for four years with Whitey admit they don’t know much about his background. Many assume he's a Moeller alumnus. Others say he's a war hero or he played college and professional ball.
In actuality, Whitey didn’t move to Cincinnati until he was a teenager, and his relationship with Moeller didn’t begin until he was an adult.
At 15, Whitey moved with his family to the Tri-State from Hazard, Kentucky, “because the coal mines ran out of work,” he said.
He attended Woodward High School, where he played football, until Taft High, his alma mater, opened in 1960.
Whitey then joined the Air Force and jokes that he “lucked out” and “just went to Puerto Rico” for three years after he graduated from high school.
When he returned to the Queen City, he worked at King Records in Evanston before taking a job at Fisher Body’s control valve manufacturing facility on Kemper Road.
At about the same time Whitey was planting roots in Cincinnati (he married his wife, Carol, and thy had four children together), Moeller High School was rising to a state and national level of recognition. Gerry Faust was at the helm of Crusader football and began bringing home state championships while the Catholic school was still in its infancy.
Whitey’s kids attended St. Gertrude School in their hometown of Madeira, but when it came time for his second oldest son to attend high school, Moeller was the top choice for both father and son.
“We scouted a few games,” Whitey said. “(Moeller) was still a young school, but I knew they were onto something.”
Robert Campbell graduated in 1984 from Moeller, where he played sports. During his time there, his parents, Whitey and Carol, made a habit of volunteering for the sports teams and the school.
Carol Campbell began working as Moeller’s athletic secretary soon after. Whitey lent a hand to the coaches and teams when he could. And he wasn’t alone -- in the 1980s, Gerry Faust had more assistants than Vince Dooley at the University of Georgia or Leeman Bennett, former head coach of the Atlanta Falcons.
At that time, Moeller’s reputation loomed large, especially for a private school that was only as old as some of the seniors that went there. Legendary former Ohio State University football coach Woody Hayes said he thought Moeller had one of the best school structures in the nation.
“I think Moeller may have the greatest sports dynasty in the whole country right now,” Hayes said in a Toledo Blade article in 1980.
In 1984, Moeller’s athletic director at the time approached Whitey, a well-known parent volunteer, and asked him to take over the team’s equipment.
“Right away I just put things how I wanted,” Whitey said. “I rearranged it all. Organized everything. And then it just kept snowballing from there.”
In 1993, at age 56, Whitey retired from his job at the Fisher factory. Even though he had spent about a decade volunteering for the teams, he officially became Moeller’s first equipment manager shortly after his retirement. He worked full-time with the football, basketball and baseball teams.
Over the 31-year span that Whitey has been with the football team, he has worked for three coaches, gone to six state championship games -- they won three of them -- and watched eight future NFL players and dozens of future college athletes grow and develop.
When adding in basketball and baseball, that total goes up to 13 state championship wins, a total of 96 varsity teams and 16 future professional athletes.
One of his favorite players to work with, he said, was former Reds and Mariners great Ken Griffey Jr. He also worked with Barry and Stephen Larkin, future MLB players David and Mike Bell, future Bengal Rico Murray and Michael Muñoz, the son of Bengals Hall of Famer Anthony Muñoz.
But Whitey said there are a lot of boys who stand out in his mind, and not just the players.
Part of his job is also to lead the student equipment managers.
He’s had a group of equipment managers every year, he said, ranging from two students to six students. This year, he’s got three.
Whitey said he thinks -- or hopes -- that working with the student equipment managers teaches them valuable lessons.
“They learn responsibility, absolutely,” he said. “They have to keep track of things, be places on time. And a lot of them are sports fans, and they’re on the front lines at every game.”
And while they’re not players, Whitey said he makes sure that equipment managers are treated with respect.
“They’re not waterboys,” he said. “We’re real particular about that.”
The players, like Thurman and McBride, said they consider the managers their friends. They called the student managers nice, helpful and “cool guys.”
“It’s a great fit for a kid who wants to be involved in athletics but doesn’t have a lot of experience playing or who didn’t make the team at the more competitive levels,” Rodenburg said. “And it fosters a lot of growth in the program.”
Every high school football team accounts for anywhere between 10,000 and 20,000 pieces of equipment. That number includes anything cloth, anything plastic, any straps, buckles or clips, the kicking net, the water jugs and bottles and the footballs. And Moeller’s football program is big: Varsity has 98 players this year, JV and freshman each have 99 on their rosters.
Whitey and the student equipment managers transport all equipment to the games -- both home and away -- and divvy it out to the players. They take regular inventory and hunt down anything that’s MIA. They also do what they can to fix anything that’s broken and try to preserve every piece of equipment.
That preservation and inventory pays off, the coach said.
“He saves the football program thousands of dollars, easily,” Rodenberg said. “If it was me or someone else doing that job and things were lost or needed to be replaced more often, the cost would add up quickly.”
Whitey’s duties sometimes include hounding players (who are, again, teenage boys) when they lose, misplace or mistreat equipment. Pair that with the legendary Whitey sass, and it’s a winning combination.
On equipment turn-in day at the end of the season, emails go out to the players and their parents. One daunting line -- “Whitey will be there” -- ensures that everyone shows up on time with every item accounted for.
"You work on Whitey's time around here," said McBride, referencing a sign on Whitey's office that reads: "Failure to be prepared on your part is not an emergency on my part."
For a short time, Whitey experimented with a system to teach the boys "respect for their things," he said.
Anytime a sock was left on the floor of the Moeller locker room, Whitey would take it. And he would hold it for ransom in his office, for a dollar.
“We made a nice little bit of money for the department, but I’m not allowed to do it anymore,” Whitey said. “And it didn’t work, anyway. They still left their damn socks on the floor.”
But Rodenberg said he thinks he personally benefits the most from Whitey’s work for the program.
“This is not something that you see at the high school level. It’s very similar to a college setup,” Rodenberg said. “Most of our competitors don’t have a Whitey...and that responsibility falls on the head coach.
“Having him here allows me to focus on football,” he said.
When asked if Whitey could be a reason that Moeller performs above their competition, Rodenberg said “absolutely.”
So after more than 30 years at Moeller, is retirement on the horizon for Whitey?
The sight of a 78-year-old man hauling water jugs down the sideline day after day may seem strange to a spectator, but anyone who knows Whitey knows he’s more than capable of the physical demands of his job.
“He’s in extremely good shape for someone his age,” Rodenberg said. “In the eight years that I’ve been here, I’ve never seen him slow down.”
Whitey said he imagines retirement to be pretty boring, anyway.
“I don’t hunt or fish,” he said. “I don’t play golf. What would I even do? Why stop doing something you love?”
Carol Campbell retired from Moeller last year. Before that, she and Whitey worked alongside one another and traveled together to watch the teams play as far as Hawaii.
But Whitey said his wife keeps herself plenty busy without Moeller, playing the dulcimer and doting on their grandchildren.
If the fact that Whitey has only missed three Moeller varsity football games in the last three decades proves anything, it’s that only a few things take priority over his job as equipment manager.
Back surgery and recovery kept Whitey off the sidelines of two Moeller games.
But the third game he missed was to attend a father-daughter dance with his only daughter, Joel Beth.
Whitey’s soft spot for the women in his life is still there -- and it’s never more obvious than when he’s with his granddaughter, Veronica.
The 16-year-old student at Madeira High, daughter of Joel (Campbell) Donnelly, spends her free afternoons helping her grandpa at Moeller practices during the week. She’s friends with some of the players -- much to her grandfather’s dismay.
“I always have to tell them, ‘Don’t talk to me here! He’ll be so mad at you!’” she said.
Veronica is one of the only people who isn’t shooed off the seat of Whitey’s precious utility cart.
“He’ll tell everyone else, ‘Hey, get off, this isn’t a toy,’” she said. “But yeah, that’s definitely my seat.”
So how long does Veronica expect to take rides with her grandpa around Moeller’s field? Pretty much forever.
“He’s never going to retire. I mean it,” she said. “I don’t think he could stay away from the team and the field if he tried. He just loves it.”
If she’s right, Coach Rodenberg said that’s fine with him.
“We will be happy to have him here as long as he wants to work here, and I think he will still want to work for a long time,” he said. “If it’s what he wants, he’ll have a job at Moeller for the rest of his life.”
Photos by Emily Maxwell | WCPO