The year Paramus Catholic High School finally got over the hump, going from four straight losing seasons to a state championship in 1997, the team was full of the kind of players that might not go onto the NFL, but could still elevate everyone around them.
It was the kind of season that sparks careers and forges connections that come back around, so maybe it was no surprise that 22 years later, two of those guys ended up on the same team again.
Chris Partridge was the senior captain, the heart and soul of the team who doubled as a hard-hitting middle linebacker and tough-as-nails right guard.
Anthony Campanile was the coach’s son, the talented freshman quarterback whose season was derailed by injury.
The two friends kept in touch throughout the years, crossing paths as they rose in the coaching profession. But they’d never been at the same place before, not until this year.
Now, Partridge and Campanile are reunited at Michigan — Partridge coaching safeties and special teams and Campanile coaching linebackers.
In some ways, they’re two guys talking football, just as they always have. The stakes are just a little higher now.
Paramus Catholic’s coach at the time was Mike Campanile, Anthony’s father and the patriarch of a quintessential New Jersey football family. Mike’s four sons are all coaches — Nunzio is the interim head coach and offensive coordinator at Rutgers, and Vito and Nicky are successful high school coaches back where they grew up.
Anthony and his brothers spent their childhoods coming to practice with their dad. They got to know the older kids, who made them feel special. As Anthony grew up, he naturally meshed with Partridge, who also came from a football family — his father, Rick, was a punter in the NFL and helped coach high school teams. Partridge was an easy person to look up to.
Campanile managed to make varsity as a freshman but tore his ACL over the summer before he had played a single snap. He was forced to watch from the sidelines as his team made a run.
Partridge was an inspiration to Campanile that entire season. He was never the most athletic or naturally talented guy, but he worked hard to mold himself into not only a top player, but a leader. The way he and the other team leaders went about their season made Campanile want to work that much harder to get back so he could play with them. In the process, Partridge and the other seniors helped guide Campanile’s recovery.
“I wish they did play together in high school,” Mike told The Daily in a phone interview. “(Anthony) used to watch those guys, the older guys, and he became close with those guys from not being able to play. He would watch them all day, watch every little thing they did. … It was a good year, it really was. Too bad he couldn’t have really participated with them on the field. That would’ve been — ah! — it would’ve been so good. But what are you gonna do?”
After Paramus Catholic scored the game-winning two-point conversion in the state title game, Partridge headed off to college while Campanile, finally recovered from injury, stepped into a larger role. But their friendship, as it turned out, was just beginning.
In college, the two hung out over breaks and during the summer, heading to the Jersey Shore and talking football. And when both entered the coaching world, their trajectories were remarkably similar.
As Anthony started his freshman year at Rutgers, Partridge was about to graduate from Lafayette College and knew his feature laid in coaching. So he gave Mike a call.
Mike no longer coached at Paramus Catholic but encouraged Partridge to apply there anyway. Mike suspected what Partridge later proved: that he had what it took to be a champion, on the field and on the sidelines.
Partridge served as the defensive coordinator and assistant head coach of Paramus Catholic from 2003-04 before brief college stints at Lafayette and The Citadel. After three years away from football, Partridge came back as the head coach of his alma mater in 2010. In 2012, his literal and figurative return to his roots was complete, as he lifted Paramus Catholic to its first state title since that fateful one back in 1997.
Campanile coached linebackers for one year at Fair Lawn High School before becoming the defensive coordinator, and later offensive coordinator at Don Bosco Prep, one of Paramus Catholic’s most bitter rivals. For two years, the friends coached against each other.
“Didn’t say a word to each other, before or after (the game),” Partridge told The Daily. “Later, about a month or so. We’re both competitors, so we know it’s all in good love.”
Through all this, the two met up at times, talking Xs and Os with whatever means they could — even if it meant scrounging for a napkin and scrawling out hypothetical plays.
Partridge was the first to make the jump to the Power Five when he took a job as a recruiting analyst with the Wolverines in 2015. When the Scarlet Knights visited Ann Arbor that year, Campanile, then at Rutgers as a wide receivers and tight ends coach, brushed paths with Partridge once again.
During his tenure at Michigan, Partridge has helped bring in several big-time New Jersey players — among them Rashan Gary, Michael Dwumfour and Cesar Ruiz. But last year, he recruited more than just players. A position opened on the Wolverines’ defensive staff, and Partridge knew just the guy.
Partridge had talked to Campanile about his job at Michigan before, and how much he loved the place. But this time, he hoped his friend could see for himself. He called Campanile and told him, “This could be something special, and I think it would be awesome for you to look into.”
Then, Partridge told Jim Harbaugh about Campanile. With Campanile’s other connections on staff — he knew defensive coordinator Don Brown from his time at Boston College and then-offensive analyst Ben McDaniels from a mutual stint at Rutgers — he seemed like a perfect fit. Campanile came out to see for himself, an official visit of sorts, and felt right at home. He was hired in January of this year.
In football, chemistry on the staff is just as important as chemistry on the team. Otherwise, it becomes every man for himself, people just striving for paychecks instead of working together towards a common goal. The way Mike describes it, good camaraderie lights a fire under a coaching staff, and that rubs off on the players. In a broader sense, communication is vital in such a high-stress position, and familiarity can breed that kind of assertiveness.
“It was awesome because we work really hard and you’ve gotta have guys you trust and lean on and stuff like that in this profession,” Partridge said. “I think now we have that. It’s so huge.
“And (Campanile) just adds to it because I’ve known him for so long. It’s cool just to see the mesh of coaches that we have here now and the fact that we get along so well for so long, I knew he would fit if that makes sense. I just knew he would be a guy that Jim would love and the whole staff would love.”
At Michigan, Partridge and Campanile are expert recruiters — bouncing New Jersey recruiting knowledge off each other — and work closely together on the defensive staff. Partridge came to his interview straight from his office, where he and Campanile were drawing up schemes. They bring not only that all-important sense of camaraderie, but also the same qualities that lifted their once-moribund school: toughness, leadership and a will to win.
Back in the old days, when Partridge and Campanile were both new to the wide world of coaching, Partridge remembers the two joking about how they were so like-minded — wouldn’t it be fun to work together?
Campanile maintains that they never exactly framed it that way. But he still sits back sometimes and thinks to himself, “What are the chances of this?” He knows that if you went back and told the freshman quarterback with a torn ACL that he’d be here, with Partridge, coaching at the same school, he wouldn’t believe you.
“How often does two kids from the same team end up coaching at a major college together?” Mike said. “That’s especially if one of them’s not the head coach. … It’s kind of strange that they ended up on the same team.”
That 1997 season did more for Partridge and Campanile than simply making sure they left with a trophy.
Ask Campanile, and he’ll say Partridge was a masterful team leader the entire season. Ask Partridge, and he’ll tell you how much Campanile’s passion for the game shined through. Ask either one, and they’ll tell you they could tell the other was going to be a coach, even back then. And guiding their team was a perfect role model in the business.
Mike was a master motivator, pushing players to places they didn’t believe they could take themselves. He believed that hard work and leadership were vital, both on the sidelines and in the locker room. Those are values both still take to heart.
“(Mike) really gave me the foundation of how football should be played,” Partridge said. “Hard-nosed, tough, just the qualities of an old-school coach that I try to employ now.”
Mike, who still coaches high school freshmen even into his 70s, follows his former players from afar. He offers up advice — “You can’t play the game for them,” he says to Anthony when he’s too hard on himself — and sees in the two the same competitive fire they had back in high school.
Now, Partridge and Campanile, two kids who grew up and won a state championship together, are striving for Big Ten championships together. They sometimes hit the road together on recruiting trips and meet up with their families and other childhood friends — many of whom are also coaching — when they’re back in New Jersey. Instead of scavenging for napkins to get in some Xs and Os, they get to talk football together, all day, every day, on the whiteboards in their offices.
“I think the similarities really lie in what we learned growing up,” Campanile told The Daily. “About, there’s nothing wrong with being tough. There’s nothing wrong with having character. … There’s really only one way to do it. Be tough, do your job, do it to the best of your ability. But love your players. Be a rational, competitive and compassionate person.
“ … That’s something I think we probably learned when we were young, from our staff in high school, which inspired us to be coaches, among other guys that we played with in high school to be coaches. That’s the cool thing.”
Maybe the odds of them both ending up here were small on paper, but after the two friends built their foundations in the same place and brushed paths for years, it’s only appropriate that things have come full circle.