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October 10, 2011

Chasing an Opportunity

By: Jimmy Robertson

Tariq Edwards is on a path to greatness as a linebacker at Tech and a lot of credit goes to stepdad and former Hokie Bo Campbell

Cheraw, S.C., is a blip of town that sits in Chesterfield County, tucked away in the northeast corner of the Palmetto State. The town and its roughly 5,500 citizens reside along or near the banks of the Pee Dee River, a muddy body of water that creeps through the lowlands and swamps on its journey to the Atlantic. The Pee Dee serves as a life source to the many peanut and soybean farms that dot this part of the world.

This town resembles many in the old South. It features old buildings designated as historical landmarks, including St. David’s Church, which served as a hospital during the Revolutionary War. A spring festival in April provides folks with an opportunity to come together and walk the town’s modest streets and take in the blooming azaleas before summer’s suffocating humidity, an unwanted visitor, floats into town. Dizzy Gillespie was from here, and the town fittingly holds a jazz festival in October in his honor.

Then there is the other side to this part of the world, one many Myrtle Beach visitors see as they travel Route 9 to the beach. The area rates as one of the poorest in the state, with many traveling 45 minutes or so to Florence just to work a low-wage job to make ends meet. Some drive a shorter distance to Bennettsville, a small town over in Marlboro County with identical problems, perhaps worse. Illiteracy rates continue to rise, and teen pregnancies, sadly, do the same. Poverty here is crippling.

This description is important to Tech fans because it gives them a basic understanding of the background of one of the football team’s rising stars. He grasped at the one thing that unites people in these parts – football – and he continues to hold on.

“The best thing to look forward to is football season,” starting backer Tariq Edwards said, describing his hometown. “It’s [Cheraw] a football town. I went to school 15 minutes across the water in Marlboro County [at Marlboro County High]. Football is the thing there, too.”

Edwards knows that football has given him an opportunity. It’s provided him with a route to a future.

He calls Cheraw, S.C., his hometown. But he knows.

It’s a place that’s a half an hour from nowhere and a long life’s journey to somewhere.

Bo Campbell knows all about poverty. He grew up on the streets of Norfolk, Va., practically literally, too. He somehow graduated from Bayside High School before signing to play football with Tech in 1989 for current head coach Frank Beamer. Beamer probably saved Campbell’s life.

“My mom was a prostitute,” Campbell said matter-of-factly. “I don’t have a problem saying that. I came to grips with that a long time ago. My dad was a ‘Rolling Stone.’ He’s got kids all over the place.”

After a career as a receiver and a punt returner, Campbell graduated from Tech in 1993 with a degree in sociology and a minor in psychology. He spent a brief stint in the NFL, but life eventually guided him to Cheraw, where his brother nearly auctioned off some valuable property that had been in the family a couple of generations.

“My grandparents had come to Cheraw because, back then, this was a place to come to retire,” Campbell said. “He [Campbell’s brother] was about to lose the land. So I came back here and took care of it.”

He never left. Campbell met a young lady named Felicia who had several kids, including twin boys named Tariq and Tyrell. Campbell married her when the twins were young boys, and set about helping raise all her kids. The family of eight lived under one roof.

Campbell worked at a juvenile facility in neighboring Marlboro County across the Pee Dee River, teaching and guiding troubled youth, and he disciplined his own kids in the same manner as he did those at the facility. He ran a strict household because he didn’t want that facility to be the destiny of his kids’ future.

Interestingly, the twins shared many of the same traits as Campbell – except for his DNA. They were tough, stubborn, motivated and not afraid of a challenge.

Once, he bought new bikes for the twins. He decided to ride his own bike to work one day – a 15-to-20 mile trek – and Tariq decided he wanted to ride with him.

“Tariq was always challenging me,” Campbell said. “I asked him if he could keep up, and he said he could. So he went with me. It was cold that morning, so I stopped at this little store and bought him some gloves. Then we went on, and I pulled away from him a little bit.

“I could hear him crying because he thought I had left him, but I really hadn’t. So I stopped and told him, ‘Don’t say you can do something unless you can really do it.’”

That was one of many lessons. Whenever the boys disobeyed, which was rare, they found that Campbell’s punishment for infractions consisted of physical conditioning. Occasionally, Campbell made the twins do some running or calf raises. Agilities and drills often became the punishment of choice as they got older.

“I’d rather do stuff like that than spank them on the butt,” Campbell said.

And it wasn’t as if physical punishment was his only form of discipline. On many occasions, he made them write to improve their penmanship. On other occasions, he made them memorize their multiplication tables. He even made them learn Arabic from time to time.

Things didn’t change much as they grew older.

“Parties, you could forget about that,” Edwards said. “Unless it was school-related, he wouldn’t let us go. And talking to females, if you talked with females, you’d have to do it at school. Our curfew was, like, at 9. It was early. And we couldn’t tell each other to shut up. It was basically what you’d think a strict father would do.”

“Tariq didn’t have his first girlfriend until he was 17,” Campbell said, proudly.

Campbell makes no apologies for his methods. He proudly cites that the twins knew their multiplication tables by the time they were in the third or fourth grade in a part of the country where few learn such things by the time they graduate. He also randomly looks at some of their writings – he keeps all of them in a box at their house – as a reminder of their progress.

In essence, this was part of a grander plan. The twins weren’t perfect, but they never got in trouble with the law, never did drugs and never got drunk. They rarely got in trouble at school, and both of them graduated.

They gave themselves a chance. He helped them do that.

“Look, I know what it’s like to have it hard,” Campbell said. “I had it real hard, and I hate to see other kids go through what I went through. My boys don’t know what suffering is, but I do. I see a lot of families with single mothers out there, and there are some great single mothers. But there is more down side than up.

“We could have moved, but I wanted my boys to see it, so they can appreciate what they have. Tariq saw the difficulties, but he also had a goal. He sees another world out there now, and he really appreciates it.”

Tariq and Tyrell Edwards did not go to school in Cheraw. Instead, they went to school in Marlboro County, and they rode with Campbell, who dropped them off every morning before heading to work and picked them up in the afternoon. He’d take them back to work with him in the afternoon, and he made them do their homework while he finished out the workday.

“Tariq had asthma really bad, and I wanted to keep an eye on him,” Campbell said. “Plus, if they had gone to Cheraw, they’d have ridden the bus home and no one would have been there. I didn’t want them to be around the house without anyone there.”

When they got old enough, they started participating in sports, and Campbell’s punishment for wrongdoings actually helped them. The twins became good – really good – and by the time they reached Marlboro County High, they started receiving some notoriety.

During their junior seasons, college recruiters took notice despite the relative isolation of Marlboro County. By the time the season ended, Tariq had offers from Tech, Illinois, NC State, South Carolina and others. Tyrell received offers from Tech, Illinois and others as well.

The two of them had seen Tech’s campus many times, having come to Blacksburg with Campbell to take in games over the years. But they studied their options.

Illinois coach Ron Zook came to visit them in Cheraw, and they took an official visit to Illinois and unofficial visits to several other schools, including NC State and South Carolina. Campbell tried to stay in the background, and he offered advice only when they sought it.

In the end, they wanted to follow in Campbell’s footsteps. They both signed with Tech.

“When I was younger, coming up here and seeing the atmosphere and environment, I just thought I’d fit in here,” Tariq said. “It was like my high school because the fans were the same there. To see the fan base the way it was and to see the players … plus, it seemed every year that a defensive player was going to the NFL. Dad told me that Coach [Bud] Foster was one of the best defensive coaches in the country. So I knew then I wanted to come here.”

Unfortunately, life got in the way for Tyrell. He never made it to Blacksburg after becoming a father to twins not long after his senior season ended. He thus decided to sacrifice college and football for the workforce, providing for his family in a way that so many don’t. Tariq said Tyrell still holds out hope of going to college and playing football, maybe at South Carolina State next year.

Tyrell’s absence, though, left Tariq without his lifelong friend and buddy and with a hole in his heart. After all, the two shared a crib and then a bunk bed in the same bedroom for years. They shared clothes and toys. They shared the same friends, and they had always played on the same teams.

That made the transition to college a little harder for Tariq, who redshirted his first season while learning the backer position.

“It was a lot different,” Tariq said. “He was my brother, and I wanted him to come up here. Since I was up here already, I wanted to stick around even though he wasn’t here with me. But being separated didn’t feel right. We talk on the phone and text, but it still doesn’t feel right.”

“I had to drive up there a couple of times,” Campbell said. “I told him, ‘This is your dream. You’ve come too far to give up now.’”

This past spring, Tariq Edwards finally earned Bud Foster’s trust. Edwards played a little last year as a redshirt freshman, and he played very well, but Foster never really trusted him based on some things he saw in practices. This spring, Edward became the consistent player whom Foster wanted to see. He finally began living up to those Xavier Adibi comparisons.

“It’s a huge compliment to be compared to him,” Edwards said of Tech’s former All-American backer. “We’re about the same size, though he was probably bigger than me at this point in his career. He used to make plenty of plays. I hope to be able to do that as time goes on.”

He’s doing that now, having started every game. Heading into an October contest against Miami, he led the Hokies in tackles, looking very much like Adibi and looking very much like a player who might be able to play football beyond college.

That is the long-term plan, but for now, Edwards focuses on short-term goals. He stays out of trouble and he pays attention to his studies. Before the season, he met with Sarah Armstrong, an associate director in Tech’s Student-Athlete Academic Support Services office, to schedule an hour of study hall each week – all with the goal of remaining on track toward getting his degree in psychology.

He also focuses on his own offspring. Eight months ago, he and his girlfriend back in South Carolina brought a son into this world. For Edwards, that event smacked him with reality – something he’s seen before, unfortunately.

“My real pops wasn’t there for me, so I’m going to do the opposite and be there for him [Edwards’ son],” Edwards said. “That affects you growing up. I wouldn’t want anyone to replace me.”

Edwards rarely sees his biological father. He knows he lives in South Carolina, but the two hardly ever communicate.

“It’s the typical situation,” he said, sadly.

But he appreciates his stepfather stepping up. In a part of the country where poverty rules and opportunities run scarce, Bo Campbell provided his stepson with exactly what he needed.

An escape from the past, an escape to a future.