James Tunstall took a left-hand position as always.
It was November 16, 2019, and 13 months before Tunstall announced he was leaving Stony Brook to play his senior season for the University of Cincinnati soccer team. It was then that he started his eleventh game on Stony Brook’s offensive line and put the finishing touches to the season that turned his football career.
This game was different because Dequan Campbell was there to watch him for the first time. This season was different because Tunstall had Campbell by his side.
Tunstall had dedicated his 2019 FCS All-American season at Stony Brook to Campbell, his friend who was dealing with a central nervous system disorder and “uncontrollable” epilepsy.
That commitment has helped transform Tunstall’s football career and put him on the Bearcats offensive line.
“My parents instilled in me that you always face adversity in life,” Tunstall told The Enquirer. “There will always be challenges, and it’s about how you approach those challenges. It’s about overcoming everything that stands in your way. “
Tunstall and Campbell have known each other for as long as they can remember. Their mothers grew up together, and although Tunstall and Campbell are three years apart, they did too.
When Campbell wanted someone to play soccer with him, he looked to Tunstall. Both fell in love with the sport and dreamed of playing in college when they tossed the ball around in the back yard.
Tunstall was the first to play organized soccer and learn the sport that eventually led him to the Cincinnati Bearcats. When Campbell was 7 years old, he also joined a team.
His career only lasted a year.
“My first grade teacher said I dreamed earlier,” said Campbell. “What we didn’t know was that it was a seizure. One day the nurse realized it, called my father and they took me to the hospital. “
After that, the hospital became a familiar environment for Campbell. The doctor told the 8-year-old he could no longer play soccer and his focus shifted to getting back into the classroom.
Because Campbell said his medicine could not consistently prevent him from having seizures, his parents took him out of school. He went to the hospital for testing every month, and when he could go to school in person for a few weeks in a row, Campbell was delighted.
“I was always in the house,” said Campbell. “When it was bad, I didn’t see my colleagues, I couldn’t go to the park or anything. It was hard. Every now and then my brother and me would go outside with a soccer ball, but that was it. “
As close as he could, Campbell kept up with Tunstall’s football career. By the time Tunstall got into high school, it was clear he was the size to play in college, even in the NFL.
During his junior season, however, Tunstall could not earn a consistent role in the offensive line of Henry E. Lackey High School in Maryland.
“He played well but I had really high expectations for him,” said head coach John Lush. “I’m very tough on my better players and really challenged him to go into his senior year in the weight room.”
At the time, Stony Brook was interested in Tunstall, but he wasn’t very interested in Division One FBS. As a junior, Tunstall’s high school film showed great highlights, but it showed its weaknesses over an entire game.
Lush couldn’t accept this inconsistency from Tunstall, who was already 6-foot-5 and over 300 pounds.
“I kicked him out of our weight room as a senior,” Lush said. “I kicked him out, met his parents and told him I don’t think he was reaching his potential and working as hard as possible.
“He was a department I had promised at the time and he could have looked at me and said, ‘Who is this guy, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.’ But he didn’t. On Wednesday he called me and asked me to let him in. I wouldn’t let him in until the following week and he came back and never looked back. “
Tunstall stood in the weight room and Lush called him a captain. In the first game of Tunstall’s senior season, Tunstall blocked several defenders into the ground, and the Chargers’ best insult came when they ran after him.
“I wasn’t as mature as I am now and there were a lot of things in high school that I learned,” said Tunstall. “I’ve learned how to handle things properly and always try 100 percent in everything I do. I’ve been thinking that all my life. I cannot let adversity distract me from what I want to achieve. “
Tunstall became a two-star recruit and attracted more attention from the FBS schools, particularly the University of Connecticut. His decision was made the week before National Signing Day. Tunstall picked UConn through Stony Brook, even after the Huskies made a coaching change.
He got the chance to play college football at the American Athletic Conference, one of the six best conferences in college football.
From the day he entered the UConn campus in 2017, Tunstall faced more adversity. Since he was far from home and his coaches weren’t recruiting him, this was an unfamiliar environment.
Tunstall appeared in five games on UConn’s offensive line as a freshman and sophomore, and after his sophomore season moved to Stony Brook, the FCS school in New York, which originally recruited him.
“As is typical for many of these kids, when they’re in high school, they see bigger school as a better option,” Lush said. “Since he went back in time because he wasn’t familiar with the coaching staff, he probably should have gone to Stony Brook, the school he really knew.”
On the way to Stony Brook for the 2019 season, it had been three years since Tunstall had been a starter. He was in a different new environment with a different coaching staff and Tunstall was looking for a better way to motivate himself for his junior year.
Then he reconnected with Dequan Campbell.
In the summer of 2019, Campbell should have looked forward to his senior year of high school. He should have played sports and thought about who to bring home with him.
Instead, Campbell recovered from his second brain surgery.
“I’ve been in a bad place,” said Campbell. “No matter what, I was always angry because I couldn’t have a normal high school life.”
Campbell had started exercising as much stamina as possible in hopes that there might be a way to save his senior year by playing on a soccer team for the first time since he was eight.
Doctors tracked his progress and told Campbell not to play.
When Tunstall heard about this, he called his mother.
“As a high school kid there are many things to experience and there were many things he missed because of the illness he was diagnosed with,” said Tunstall. “I felt like I could do something that would mean the world to him.”
Tunstall’s mother told him that since Campbell was nearly 300 miles away, there wasn’t much he could do. But Tunstall has come up with something.
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Before the season started, Tunstall called Campbell and told him he would dedicate the 2019 season to him.
“We both shed a little tear,” said Tunstall. I remember it like it was yesterday. “
There was more. Campbell got his own Stony Brook jersey, and Tunstall’s friends and family wore bracelets that read “Block For DC”. Then on November 16, Tunstall invited Campbell to Stony Brooks’ game against Delaware.
It was the first football game Campbell said he was “in a time it felt like forever,” and Campbell wore his Stony Brook jersey to the game.
In the first quarter, when Tunstall blocked an opposing defender so hard that he fell over, Tunstall looked up at the crowd and pointed at Campbell.
Tunstall said he had one of the best games of his career that night and he pointed to Campbell after every big game he made.
“I wanted to be on the field but it was still good to see him play like that,” said Campbell. “If I couldn’t do it, I’m glad he could.”
At the end of the 2019 regular season, Tunstall was named FCS All-American. It’s been the best year he’s ever had.
“I did my job for him,” said Tunstall.
This season, Tunstall was also on the radar of senior division I college soccer coach.
Initially, Tunstall planned to build on his 2019 season at Stony Brook, play another year there, and then see what opportunities he had with another year of eligibility. However, Stony Brook’s fall 2020 season has been canceled due to coronavirus concerns.
When Tunstall entered the transfer portal at the end of the 2020 college football season, he only had films from the 2019 season to share with college coaches. Tunstall got her attention because of games like the one against Delaware.
“I think he devoted his season to helping him get where he needed to be,” said Campbell. I feel like part of him needs a push. He didn’t want to abandon me or his family. “
Now that foray has led him to play for head coach Luke Fickell and the Bearcats. Tunstall said UC was one of the first schools to contact him after entering the transfer portal. The Bearcats’ two 2020 start tackles, Darius Harper and James Hudson, declared themselves eligible for the NFL Draft after the Peach Bowl.
Tunstall said the Bearcats had aggressively recruited him to bolster their offensive line for 2021. On January 6, he committed to play for UC that season.
“I want to repeat last year in Cincinnati, stay undefeated, and make it to the college football playoffs,” said Tunstall. “Personally, I definitely want to earn this starting place in the left duel, and I want to be able to get all kinds of awards. I want to be able to win and help this team keep winning because what they have here is special. “
Tunstall said he had already moved to the Cincinnati campus, started developing a relationship with quarterback Desmond Ridder, and had his first face-to-face meeting with Fickell.
Tunstall still speaks to Campbell often in hopes of keeping the connection and spark that fueled Tunstall’s career-changing 2019 season. Campbell graduated from high school and is currently on a job search program. He wants to be a carpenter because he likes to work with his hands.
And when Tunstall speaks to his childhood friend, he shares his aspirations for his future.
“When I spoke to him yesterday, he was telling me how he was going to get into the NFL,” said Campbell. “Then he wants to make his hometown a better community. He wants to build recreation centers for Maryland children. This is his nudge. He doesn’t want to let anyone down. “