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September 20, 2011

One year later























Terrence Campbell will wake up today and eat breakfast, head to class, go to study hall and then report to football practice, like he's done almost every day that he's been at South Carolina. It helps to have a routine to follow, tests and projects to study for and prepare, rather than to sit and think.

Thinking about what's gone. Thinking about future plans and long-ago memories that can never be obtained or re-lived. Thinking about the pain.

Most of all, thinking about the question that will forever be unanswered - why?

"The last time I talked to him, I was going to make my first start of the year, with that Furman game," Campbell said a week ago, as today approached. "He said to go out and play the game, stay positive, and really encouraged me. He sounded fine, no trouble at all.

"He was same ol' Kenny."

One year ago today, USC football was rocked by one of the most tragic events in its history. Kenny McKinley, the most productive receiver the program had ever seen, was found dead in his Denver home. While McKinley's football skills were magnificent, his talent was always overshadowed by the enthusiasm McKinley brought to every activity he undertook, with a constant smile and a boundless love for anyone he contacted.

Losing McKinley at age 23 was harsh enough, but discovering that there were numerous demons behind that winning smile was gut-wrenching. McKinley, despite having the support and affection from everybody he ever met in Columbia, was so depressed in Denver that he placed a gun to his head and pulled the trigger.

Campbell, who had grown up with McKinley around the suburbs of Atlanta and had played with him through middle school and high school, felt the loss the worst. While McKinley was in the NFL and Campbell was still in college, the two had bonded long ago over football and other sports, and found in each other a desire to succeed.

There had been so many conversations about future plans, about making it in the big leagues, about doing it together as they had done for so long. In their 20s, kids know that they're going to live forever - but now one of a pair was dead.

Campbell is an offensive lineman, one of those man-mountains people see and think that nothing could ever possibly hurt such a big, strong young man. But when the wound comes from a friend, not an opponent or from the field, even the big boys break.

"I try to play, I want him to be with me each and every game," Campbell said. "I owe my career, especially at this point now, to Kenny. I'm definitely at a more comfortable stage in my life with it now."

The night

It was a regular Monday night. Evening practice, younger players getting to scrimmage in Steve Spurrier's version of "Monday Night Football," Gamecocks 3-0 and preparing for their first road trip of the season to Auburn on Saturday. As the players began to perform their end-of-practice running sessions, Campbell noticed that something was wrong.

"We were about to run and I just saw the look in Jamie (Speronis)'s face and Robbie (Liles)'s face," Campbell said. "I was like, 'What's wrong with y'all?' They told me, 'They found Kenny McKinley dead.'

"I ain't want to believe it. I just had to leave."

USC staffers swarmed the practice field, offering a consoling hug and an offer of support to the players who had known McKinley. The gathered media began to find out just before the round of player interviews, and then Spurrier spoke.

The coach had dealt with player deaths before, but none of this magnitude. He seemed to be desperately hoping one of the reporters would tell him it wasn't true, but saw from the saddened and disturbed expressions of the group that it most certainly was.

"It's hard, I don't understand it," the visibly shaken Spurrier said then. "If it happened the way they say, it's hard to comprehend. Hard to figure how or why this happened."

The players streamed to the locker room and some held an impromptu healing session, simply holding each other and offering encouragement. School counselors were on hand as the Gamecocks were forced into a horrible situation - one of their own had killed himself, and now they would have to grieve and try to carry on without him.

Campbell felt it the worst. Where was Kenny Mac, smiling and cracking jokes? The athlete who had made it look so effortless on the field and on the basketball court? He had just been at Williams-Brice Stadium two weeks previous, watching the Gamecocks beat Georgia. On crutches with a knee injury, McKinley seemed frustrated about the injury but was otherwise his usual jovial self.

Dead? Suicide? Not Kenny. Couldn't be.

"I went to my phone and I had a bunch of missed calls, had a bunch of text messages," Campbell said. "I ain't want to believe it. I tried to call Kenny a couple of times. I finally just called my mama, and my mama, she told me, 'Kenny passed away.' I was devastated by that."

The team gathered around Campbell, comforting him as best they could, but words and pats on the back could only do so much. Campbell left the locker room that night feeling like he had left half of himself behind.

"They allowed me to wander away and deal with it the best way I could," he said. "I never took a loss like that. Never had anybody pass away that I was that close to, out of the blue."

Saturday

Campbell traveled and played the following Saturday at Auburn, the Gamecocks' first loss of the season. He had been told by Spurrier that if he wanted to sit out, take some time to be by himself, it was perfectly fine, but Campbell wanted to get back on the field.

"I can't say that I was all the way there," Campbell said. "I had a lot of stuff going through my mind at the time. Really throughout the rest of the year, it was hard for me."

It may have seemed easy for those in the stands, looking at the behemoth in the No. 60 jersey and thinking he had a relatively simple job. Just hit the guy across from him, right? No big deal.

But every snap and every play, Campbell couldn't shed the thought - Kenny wasn't there.

They couldn't share a post-game phone call anymore. Kenny couldn't watch and point out some ways for Campbell to get better. They couldn't celebrate a win or regret a loss.

It was only Campbell, all alone. And it wasn't going to change.

"My teammates, being the great guys they are, they all comforted me," Campbell said. "Anything I needed. My coaches, they all checked up on me, just were always there for me."

Aftermath

The details of the suicide emerged a few days later, after the team journeyed to Georgia for the funeral. McKinley was facing massive gambling debts and was fighting depression over being injured again. While playing dominoes with friends, McKinley had joked that he didn't know what he'd do without football, and said that maybe it would be better if he just killed himself.

Everyone laughed it off. It was McKinley. He was so infectious with that smile and easygoing demeanor, so full of life, that nobody could ever think that he would take it from himself.

Campbell, mourning and trying to cope, was overwhelmed.

"He stayed at my house (for the Georgia game). I went and picked him up from the airport," Campbell said. "When I got done with the game, we went out, had a good time like we normally do. He was on crutches but we still had fun together. His family came to the house and we all chilled and enjoyed each other on Sunday.

"Then they got on the road and went to Georgia. That was the last time I saw him."

There were no hints to Campbell, no cries for help. McKinley was happy-go-lucky Kenny at the Georgia game, and sounded fine on the phone before the Furman game.

But he wasn't. Suicide can spring from nowhere. No one ever knows what a person is truly thinking, and that someone as joyful as McKinley could mask his sadness so well was proof that came with a punch.

Campbell cried, tried to comprehend, couldn't. As his tortured mind attempted, over and over, to make sense of why his best friend, his brother, would do this, another thought came to him.

McKinley was dead. But Campbell was alive, and he could make sure that McKinley's spirit lived on.

Although it was going to be very difficult to get through the immediate aftermath.

Monday

A week after that horrible Monday night, the Gamecocks went to Georgia to attend the funeral. Campbell was there, and had his first test of dealing with the situation.

Campbell had been asked to say a few words at the service. He accepted. He was also asked to do something else.

The young man was asked to perform one final and painful act, which was to help carry the coffin containing his best friend to an open hole, and then place it in the ground. As much as he dreaded doing it, Campbell realized that if he could get through it, he could begin healing.

He did, trembling through the service and managing to say a few words as well. Then he cast one last look at the small box, not believing what was inside, and walked away.

"It was real tough to take," Campbell said. "He was my dawg. Like my big brother. I said a few words at the funeral, I was a pallbearer, and they allowed me to get up there and talk. I tried to do my best with it and I was happy to be back home with my friends and family, to really feel that love and support."

Healing

Campbell played the season with a heavy heart, but began to feel a closure of the wound. While McKinley would always be with him and the thought of him would always produce the same question - "Why?" - Campbell overcame them.

"Any time I'm at home, I always go by his grave," he said. "I put some flowers out there. He's part of my family. I'd do anything for him, all the time, any time."

In January, Campbell had another thought. A permanent tribute to McKinley would be better expressed on himself than at a cemetery.

"I decided to get it on his birthday, January 31," he said. "So I decided to do it then. It was that weekend, I said I'd go this whole weekend for him."

The tattoo, featuring McKinley's name, portrait, and dates of birth and death stretches from Campbell's left shoulder nearly to his elbow. Campbell will always have the memories in his heart and mind, but now can show others what McKinley meant to him.

He invited Ken McKinley, Kenny's father, to USC's game at Georgia, and McKinley accepted. Campbell also planned a party after the Gamecocks' game against Navy last week, a time for any family and friends of McKinley to come by and simply celebrate McKinley's life.

Campbell keeps in touch with McKinley's family, as well as McKinley's young son and the child's mother.

Through it all, Campbell expresses the same kind of enthusiastic approach to life that McKinley did. Always ready with a smile and hug, Campbell is the big brother to this year's team and channels McKinley in everything he does.

"It definitely got easier, a whole lot easier," he said. "I think about it every day. Not a day that go by I don't think about Kenny, and the good times we had, and the person that he was to me. With prayer and God, it got a lot better for me."

It has gotten smoother, since Campbell can simply look at his left arm for a pick-me-up, thinking about the happiness he discovered with McKinley and not the tragic end. There are a few tears sometimes, but Campbell has learned to deal with the sadness by remembering the good times.

"I definitely don't want anybody to ever forget about Kenny," Campbell said. "He was a great young man."

And one that, through his memory, made another.

ALSO SEE: From Sept. 20, 2010, and the following days

- Who Else?: DC says You'll be missed, Kenny Mac
- Spurrier, players try to cope with tragic news
- Photos of Kenny McKinley


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