JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — The way Calais Campbell sees it, he should have scored.
The veteran defensive lineman should have been dancing in the end zone in October 2014, celebrating with teammates in his hometown of Denver and then taking the football to the sideline as a souvenir.
Instead, he ended up facemask-down in the Mile High grass at the 5-yard line — arm-tackled by Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning — and pounding the ground in frustration, maybe even a bit of embarrassment.
It was a trip he’ll never forget. Campbell endured days, weeks, months, even years of teasing by friends, family members and his Arizona Cardinals teammates.
He has since come up with a couple of excuses for the most memorable highlight-turned-lowlight of his 12-year NFL career.
“Peyton Manning could have been an All-Pro linebacker!” Campbell said. “That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.”
The 6-foot-8, 300-pound Campbell also blames Denver’s thin air for his failure to reach the goal line.
“I was sucking wind,” he said of the 23-yard return. “Anywhere else, I would have juked Peyton or ran him over.”
The gaffe still bothers Campbell, and it’s especially painful this week as he and the Jacksonville Jaguars (1-2) prepare to play at the Broncos (0-3) on Sunday. It will be Campbell’s first game in Denver since that not-so-ideal interception return nearly five years ago.
It also will serve as the final stop in Campbell’s homecoming trilogy.
After spending nine seasons (2008-16) in Arizona, Campbell joined Jacksonville in March 2017 and returned to Glendale eight months later. He scooped up a fumble and returned it 10 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter, but the Jaguars lost 27-24.
Last year, Campbell played in Miami for the second time as a pro. The former Miami Hurricanes standout finished with a sack and a forced fumble in Jacksonville’s 17-7 victory .
Now he returns to his real home. The 33-year-old Campbell was born and raised in Denver and attended South High, where he played football, basketball and track and field.
The trip won’t be nearly as emotional as going back to Arizona two years ago, Campbell said, but he already has exceeded his initial allotment of 20 tickets for the game.
“It’s special,” said Campbell, who was named AFC defensive player of the week Wednesday after a three-sack performance against Tennessee. “I remember growing up and wanting to be in the NFL, make it to the NFL. I used to always dream about playing for the Broncos back then.
“Then you get drafted and make it to the NFL and it’s a dream come true. And you get to go home and play in the stadium you used to drive by and envision yourself playing there. Now I get to play in front of all my friends and family and teachers, people who helped me along the way. It’s a true blessing.”
His last visit included a 41-20 loss to the Broncos.
Manning threw for 479 yards and four touchdowns that day. He also had the only tackle that mattered to Campbell.
It was second-and-20 at the Denver 28 late in the first half, with the Broncos leading 14-6. Manning faked a handoff, pumped right and then tried to throw a screen pass to Montee Ball in the other flat. Campbell read the play, shed a blocker and got in perfect position for the pick. He quickly turned and headed the other direction. He had a fellow defender on his right and Manning in his sights at the 10-yard line. He tried to cut left but got tripped up by Manning’s right arm.
“Don’t give me a full tackle for that,” Manning said after the game. “Give me like a half. I barely grazed his leg.”
The Cardinals scored on the next play, cutting the lead to one.
Campbell was later knocked out of the game by an illegal chop block and was sidelined two weeks (he hasn’t missed a game since). Still, he heard so much about Manning’s tackle on the bench, in the locker room and on the streets that he ended up Googling how many takedowns Manning had in his career.
Campbell was the eighth player Manning tackled in 267 career games, including the playoffs. Manning added another one later that season and ended his career with nine tackles in 303 games.
So it’s a fairly exclusive club for Campbell, one he has reluctantly and jokingly embraced over the years.
“Peyton Manning’s athleticism was always underrated,” Campbell said. “That’s the only possible explanation.”
More AP NFL: https://apnews.com/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL