Changing the narrative. Bringing you the real voices of Detroit.
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There is no guarantee that a call to the cellphone belonging to Luther “Big Lu” Campbell will be answered.
But for every unanswered call, the caller most certainly will receive some very specific instructions, such as: “please leave an extensive positive message.” The voice message also explains that Campbell does not text, or Skype, or engage in social media in any form. And if there is to be future communication, “we must talk.” As the voice message gets close to wrapping up, a wish goes out to the caller and the caller’s loved ones to “continue to have a blessed day.” And the message closes with five endearing words: “peace and love to you.”
Even before coming face-to-face with a person, the message is Campbell’s way of setting the tone for the brand of positive, personal and always direct mode of communication that is his trademark.
“With everything I do, I set an example,” says the 77-year-old Detroiter, who grew up in the Eight Mile-Wyoming neighborhood — first on Ohio Street and then Manor — and was educated at Higginbotham and McDowell schools before heading off to Mumford High School (Class of 1963). “And that example comes from a positive reservoir in my heart and mind.”
For more than 40 years, Campbell’s positive directions have been received by a host of athletes and others that have sought him out to be their personal trainer. The same man who described his home on Ohio growing up as a “Quonset hut,” where two families were separated by just a “cardboard wall” in a 1980 Free Press series called “Blacks In Detroit,” has ascended to a level of royalty as a trainer. And that has brought him close to some of the most well-known people in athletics and Detroit’s community, including Chris Webber, Thomas Hearns, Derrick Coleman, Jalen Rose, Kenneth Cockrell Jr., John Conyers and BeBe Winans, just to name a few. However, the 2022 version of Campbell is not content with just being a part of history. During a week when many homes in and around Detroit — including his own — lost power due to a wicked storm early Monday evening, Big Lu was doing what Big Lu does on Tuesday morning at the original Powerhouse Gym in Highland Park, where he has trained people since shortly after becoming a member of the gym in 1977.
And among those waiting to train with Big Lu at 10 a.m. Tuesday was a smiling, 84-year-old Sydney Duncan, who has called Detroit home for the past 60 years. When explaining her Detroit history, Duncan spoke with pride about her past tenure as the chief executive officer for the nonprofit Homes For Black Children. Afterward, Duncan made it clear that she also was proud of the work that Campbell has done throughout the years in her adopted city.
“For the young athletes, and everyone he has trained, he has built up their bodies, which is very important, but he also builds their spirits and confidence,” said Duncan, who described training off and on with Campbell for 30 years. “When the young people see him lift those heavy weights today at almost 80 years old, it gives them the belief that they can do it, too. But he has always given everything that’s in him to everyone he trains. And through my association with Lu, I met all of the ‘Fab 5’ and I even trained right alongside Jalen Rose for a summer.”
On Tuesday, Duncan was with a “Fab Five” of a different kind, as she came together with attorney Erin Keith; two Detroit Country Day student-athletes, Blake Murphy and Darryl Carter, and Iva Fordham, who taught language arts for 30 years at Hally Middle School, which is also the same number of years she has been married to Campbell. While the assembled group may not have been able to collectively match the athleticism of the star University of Michigan basketball players Campbell trained roughly 30 years ago, there was no lack of effort, enthusiasm and camaraderie on display as each person performed individually tailored workouts designed by Campbell. And in between the instructing, and the encouraging, and the counting of reps, Campbell lifted — in a big way — to the tune of 40 reps on the “Pec Deck” with the weight set at 280 pounds. Campbell proclaims that there isn’t a man alive his age who can match his feat. But he also made it known that his demonstration had nothing to do with claiming bragging rights.
“What I did was for the two young men I was training today,” said Campbell, who was a three-sport (football, basketball and track) athlete at Mumford. “We must always inspire and teach them, so that they can go out and educate others. I always tell them not to ever let me out-lift you, or out-run you, or out-think you.”
It was not clear Tuesday whether Murphy and Carter were ready to best Campbell on all of the Powerhouse weight machines, but there was no denying that Campbell has made a strong impression on both, and not just through weightlifting.
“We learn new lessons each day, including the new words he teaches us,” said Murphy, a 10th grader at Country Day, where he plays football and basketball. “Like yesterday’s word was ‘etymology,’ which is the study of the origin of words. I really didn’t talk to people the way that I do now, but he’s built more confidence into me and my body, and now I want to do more with my life. On the outside, Big Lu may look like a mean, rough guy. But he’s actually a great guy with a great personality and he’s really kind.”
Murphy has been training with Campbell for four years, while Carter has only been with Big Lu for a couple of months. But Carter has already benefited from the relationship.
“Training (with Big Lu) is really more mental than physical,” said Carter, a sophomore receiver and safety on the Country Day football team, said. “If a workout is hard, I tell myself I’m not giving up and I push through it.”
About four hours after his triumph on the “Pec Deck,” Campbell and Fordham were on the front porch at their home in Detroit’s University District. There it was revealed that Campbell’s performance was even more remarkable given that a decade ago a speeding car slammed into his vehicle at the corner of Eight Mile and Livernois, less than a mile from where Campbell lived as a boy on Ohio Street. The injuries he sustained kept him out of the gym for two years. And when he returned with Fordham, the “Pec Deck” was a source of tears, not cheers, as the big man who once carried a firm, toned 300 pounds on his 6-foot-6 frame, was unable to maneuver 10 pounds on the machine. Fordham described how the couple cried together, but ultimately the words she spoke that day: “Lu, you’ll get it back” came true.
Campbell, who says he has never approached an athlete about training with him, also candidly spoke about some of the heartaches he has felt through people he has worked with over four decades. He told a story about a Hall of Fame boxer who fought valiantly but came up short in a couple of his biggest fights because, from Campbell’s perspective, the fighter’s legs were not quite strong enough due to missed leg workouts prescribed by Campbell. Later, Campbell spoke of a former high school standout who received all that Campbell had to offer — mentally, emotionally and spiritually. As Campbell tells it, the young man accomplished much early in his athletic career before suffering a setback, and then after overcoming the setback he achieved more athletically. However, Campbell explained that the young man ultimately missed out on an opportunity to fulfill all of his athletic promise because the best life advice Campbell offered to his protege was not followed. In telling the second story, Campbell was visibly pained. But regardless of the pain he was revealing at that moment, Campbell says his work as a trainer has always been about more than results on a scoreboard, a readout on a scale, or even lucrative sports contracts.
“I like to say I inculcate the people I train, meaning that I try to educate and inspire,” said Campbell, who earlier brought out a framed, signed poster of David Merritt, who, with the help of Big Lu’s training and encouraging words, rose to be a fifth-year senior captain on the U-M basketball team for the 2008-09 season, after failing to walk onto the team in his initial attempts. “My mother (Eloise Campbell) said I could always find a way to pull the goodness out of people to support what I was doing. I’ve had high school athletes, college all-stars, college dropouts and Hall of Fame athletes training together, and I don’t differentiate. I’ve also trained school superintendents, surgeons, lawyers, pharmacists, actors — you name the profession — and I appreciate them all. And in the gym, we all learn from each other, together. I’m always there to learn — every single day.”
Scott Talley is a native Detroiter, a proud product of Detroit Public Schools and lifelong lover of Detroit culture in all of its diverse forms. In his second tour with the Free Press, which he grew up reading as a child, he is excited and humbled to cover the city’s neighborhoods and the many interesting people who define its various communities. Contact him at: email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @STalleyfreep. Read more of Scott’s stories at www.freep.com/mosaic/detroit-is/.
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