The New Jersey athletic community was in mourning over the weekend when news broke that Milt Campbell, widely regarded as the state’s most important athlete ever, died Friday at the age of 78. Campbell was from Plainfield, N.J., and he died in his home in Gainesville, Ga.,. after a life that saw him rise to the highest peaks of sports.
Campbell was the first African-American to win the decathlon when he took gold in the 1956 Olympics. The Star-Ledger reported that Campbell won an Olympic silver medal in the decathlon as a high school student, set the world record in the 120-yard hurdles, played in the NFL, and was an All-American swimmer and football player.
Track coach at Seton Hall University John Moon, a legend in his own right, told the newspaper how much he admired Campbell.
“Watching Milt Campbell inspired me to run track. He was my idol,” Moon said. “I remember being in ninth grade when I heard that Milt Campbell was going to run against Aubrey Lewis at Warinanco Park in Elizabeth. I rode my bike from Linden to see them run, and I remember leaning on a fence with my mouth wide open as they ran the 220 straightaway. I couldn't believe someone as big as Milt could run that fast.
“It was the most incredible thing I have ever seen.”
Campbell was 6-feet, 3-inches tall and weighed 217 pounds when he attended Indiana University. He was then drafted by the Cleveland Browns, where he played on the same team as Jim Brown. He was inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame in June 2012 and into the National Track and Field Hall of fame in 1999. The New Jersey Sportswriters Association named Campbell its New Jersey Athlete of the Century, according to the Associated Press.
Linda Rusch, who was Campbell’s lover for the past 13 years, said he was fighting prostate cancer for ten years leading up to his death, although the sickness didn’t stop him from touring as a motivational speaker. Rusch told the AP that Campbell was motivated to succeed because he didn’t want to live in the shadow of his older brother.
“He actually would look at the ceiling and say 'I am going to be the world's greatest athlete' every day,” she said. “He needed to beat his brother.”
She also said the same enthusiasm for sports permeated Campbell’s everyday life.
“Someone would say, 'How are you feeling?' He'd say, 'Great,'” Rusch said. “He was such a fighter. And with this cancer, he tried to fight it until the end. For his wife. For his family. And for his friends.”
The sentiment was hardly exclusive to a few friends. Fellow track Olympian John Marshall told the Daily Record of how Campbell inspired everyone who watched him to work harder.
“What Milt did was raise the bar of excellence,” said Marshall. “He’s the greatest athlete the state of New Jersey has ever produced in my opinion.”