Gino Campiotti’s long road to becoming UMass football’s starting quarterback

  • UMass quarterback Gino Campiotti (5) throws downfield for a completion against Stony Brook in the third quarter Saturday at McGuirk Alumni Stadium in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • UMass quarterback Gino Campiotti (5) throws downfield for a completion against Stony Brook in the first quarter Saturday at McGuirk Alumni Stadium in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Staff Writer
Published: 9/23/2022 6:18:02 PM
Modified: 9/23/2022 6:17:23 PM

AMHERST – The American flag protrudes from Gino Campiotti’s left shoulder pad, the most striking part of his tattoo sleeve. It’s been there from the moment he could get it at 18 years old. He barely remembers why now, despite wanting it since he was 16.

“It looks cool, and I think I get recognized by it,” said Campiotti, who has started the UMass football team’s past two games at quarterback and led the Minutemen to a home win over Stony Brook last weekend.

Some fans called him Captain America. The red, white and blue flag trails into a black, photorealistic lion on his inner forearm and a cross adorned with his grandfather’s initials on the outer. He engraved his favorite Bible verse – Samuel 12:24 – on his left bicep. “But be sure to fear the Lord and serve him faithfully with all your heart; consider what great things he has done for you,” it reads.

Artists etched them in California and Arizona, landmarks in his journey from California’s Central Valley to Northern Arizona, back home and eventually to Amherst. The sleeve ends with three small letters tucked on the inside of his wrist: SFT.

“See it, feel it, trust it,” he said.

Campiotti writes it on his cleats and marked the letters on a wristband from his sophomore year of high school until a tattoo artist used more permanent ink. He became a varsity starter that year and has followed the mantra ever since.

“Just a little reminder when I let things get a little overwhelming to see it, feel it, trust it and move on,” Campiotti said. “We all got to trust ourselves. That's when everyone does what they're doing the best, is when you're consistent and you're confident yourself, and I think just seeing and feeling and trusting goes a long way.”

Campiotti never lacked confidence or conviction. The quarterback position called the first moment he touched a football in Manteca, Calif. – a central California farming community of 80,000. Late in elementary school, a friend brought him to a practice to catch passes for him. A few weeks later, Campiotti and his dad, Gino Sr., reached out to Neil MacDannald, a youth coach and high school offensive coordinator in Manteca asking if he would work with Gino to forge a quarterback.

“From then, he put his head down and was determined to be the best quarterback he could be,” said MacDannald, now Manteca’s athletic director.

His older sister Stephanie Campiotti, one of four siblings, deemed him “Bro Montana” watching him play Pop Warner. He scrambled like Joe Cool, and their proximity to San Francisco (two hours west) stuck the name even further.

“He’s like a human version of a golden retriever puppy. He is adorable, playful, smart, kind of goofy and crazy athletic. He exudes the type of person that you want to root for,” she said. “He truly is a good person. This is just who he is. He’s so passionate, and it plays out in his demeanor and on the field.”

Gino Campiotti started for Manteca’s junior varsity squad as a freshman and split time as a sophomore. He asked MacDannald, the Buffaloes’ offensive coordinator at the time, what he could do to earn more reps.

“It’s part of the growing up process for kids. He would constantly do that and I would have to reflect myself and evaluate what’s going on,” MacDannald said. “He always had the ultimate confidence in himself that he was the man.”

Campiotti threw four touchdowns in his first start.

“It made everyone like, ‘Woah, here we go,’” MacDannald said.

He led Manteca to the second round of the playoffs as a sophomore and won sectional titles his junior and senior years. Campiotti received league MVP honors as a senior, accounting for five touchdowns in each of their playoff games en route to the championship.

A three-sport star, Campiotti also earned all-league honors as a basketball and baseball player. He primarily pitched but also played shortstop and first base. His senior year, the Buffaloes lacked outfielders. They put him in center field – the first time he’d ever played the position – and he was named an all-league outfielder. Campiotti went where the team needed him.

Despite his statistical accomplishments, physical makeup, success and academic accolades, the offers trickled rather than poured.

“It was really shocking to us. He’s a good student. He fit the description of a big time quarterback,” MacDannald said. “It seemed like he has all the boxes checked. Maybe because we’re in the Central Valley of California, it’s not like the quarterback hotbed like Southern California or something like that. We always kind of wondered.”

Position coaches that visited Manteca raved to Mark Varnum, now the Buffaloes head coach and then Campiotti’s offensive coordinator his senior year after MacDannald stepped away from the program. They loved him but needed to talk to their head coach or run it further up the ladder.

“I told everybody, you pull the trigger on this kid, you’ll never regret it,” Varnum said. “To this day I’ve never gotten an answer to why he didn’t get more offers at quarterback.”

Campiotti signed with FCS program Northern Arizona and played two games at quarterback as a freshman in 2018. The Lumberjacks changed coaching staffs after that season, and new coach Chris Ball and his assistants evaluated the program. They each listed the top 20 football players on the team, MacDannald said. Every person had Campiotti on the list, but NAU had an incumbent starter that commanded reps.

Defensive coaches lobbied to move Campiotti to free safety, which he played at Manteca, or outside linebacker. Offensive coaches envisioned a tight end or H-back. Wherever they could put him, they wanted Campiotti on the field. Ultimately, the team needed a tight end, so he became a tight end.

“Gino was flattered by how well he was wanted, and he just wanted to get on the field. He made the move,” MacDannald said. “There’s half a dozen positions he might be able to play and be successful at that level.”

He caught 14 passes for 137 yards and a touchdown in nine games, but Campiotti isn’t a tight end. He’s a quarterback, so he put his head down and charted a path that took him back home at Modesto Junior College, just 20 minutes down the road from Manteca.

It brought him closer to his family – his parents, his siblings, his nieces. 

“We are a big Italian family and everybody’s in each other’s business,” Stephanie Campiotti said. “He’s so close to his nieces and so active in our family. We do everything together.”

They watched him torch the California Community College Athletics Association and the Big 8 Conference to the tune of 1,931 yards and 18 touchdowns through the air, and another 834 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground. The Pirates went 8-3 and won a Grizzly Bowl as he was named the All-Valley League Offensive MVP.

That earned him offers from Division II schools closer to home, FCS Alabama A&M and ultimately, UMass.

“The opportunity to play football at the highest level, FBS football, has always been a dream of mine,” Campiotti said. “They did an amazing job making me feel comfortable and wanted and like we're gonna make things happen. So it wasn't a very hard choice for me.”

He emerged from UMass’ gulag of five quarterbacks to start the past two games. Campiotti has led the UMass offense to all three touchdowns it’s scored this season and is the team’s leading rusher. He’s ingratiated himself to his teammates with his personality and his effort.

“That's my man. We ride until the wheels fall off,” UMass receiver George Johnson III said of Campiotti. “Just being around him all the time, it’s just like... that's love through all measures.”

The Campiotti clan sends it still from the West Coast. They watch games from their TVs and laptops and voyaged east to Toledo to see him in person. They’re longer than the 10-hour trips to Flagstaff and certainly more than the 20-minute ride to Modesto but worth every hour.

“We do everything together so it’s a little difficult not having him around the corner to hang out and go do things. As difficult as it is to be away from him, we’re so happy and so proud. He’s worked so, so hard,” Stephanie Campiotti said. “The fact that he was able to get another opportunity to play at the position of his choice for an FBS school for at least two more years, I’ll take the distance. I’d just like to see him happy and succeeding.”

Manteca hasn’t forgotten about him. Stephanie teaches at the school they both attended – 14 years apart – and students still knock on her door Monday mornings to talk about Gino’s accomplishments.

“He’s made so much of an impression because he has such good character,” Stephanie said.

There’s a photo of Gino with MacDannald’s son Kaden from Campiotti’s first sectional championship game. Kaden was a ball boy on the team, around 11 years old. Kaden recently posted that photo side by side with one of him as a sophomore last year winning his own sectional championship.

“I always tell my kid I want him to be like Gino, somebody who doesn’t need anybody to ask him to get extra work in,” Neil MacDannald said. “He’s obviously talented but just the passion and the drive that he has to be the best player he can be is unparalleled. Not only do you have to be talented, you have to have all of these other things that aren’t so sexy. What kind of a worker are you when no one’s looking? I’m lucky if my son works half the way that Gino works.”

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at kgrabowski@gazettenet.com. Follow him on Twitter @kylegrbwsk.
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