HEISMAN TROPHY -- 30 YEARS AGO
Earl Campbell, an old, hurting man at 52, remembers his runs
Former UT running back says he became a different man with the pigskin tucked into his arm.
By Brad Buchholz
Sunday, December 09, 2007
Earl Campbell's back is killing him — so badly, in fact, that the man hasn't slept in a bed for almost seven years. He spends a fair amount of time in a wheelchair, and he can't get around on his feet without using a walker. Man, what he'd give to be able to hop into his van and drive, to sail alone on the open road, no music on the radio, no sound in his ears but the hum of tires on highway.
But he can't. Not right now. Earl Campbell's 52-year-old body hurts him so much that he relies on a driver — his longtime friend James "Sugar Bear" Yates — to take him to work, or to fetch a can of Sprite at the 7-Eleven, or run him up to visit his brothers and sisters in Tyler. The most indomitable running back in the history of Texas football — as a collegian and a professional — has come to know what it is to be vulnerable.
"I feel pain," says Campbell, speaking in a slow, husky drawl. Then he reconsiders, just to make things clear. "I never had no pain like this in my life."
Campbell utters these words with little inflection, almost no emotion. He sees them, instead, as simple statements of fact. He would not want them to seem poignant or wistful. Yet for all his public good humor, Campbell is clearly frustrated with his body — and his slow, up-and-down recovery from a series of back surgeries that forces him to sleep in a recliner. After all, this is the man whose athletic legacy is all about power and physicality, about absorbing punishment with dignity, about running toward conflict with a sense of blue-collar dignity.
This is Earl Campbell, University of Texas icon. Winner of the 1977 Heisman Trophy. The soul of the "Love Ya Blue" Houston Oilers. The Tyler Rose. The most elegant power runner to play the game. And this is Earl Campbell, a man who has yet to see his son Tyler play a college football game at San Diego State because it's too difficult for him to negotiate the stairs at stadiums.
"I've been so independent all these years that it's hard getting used to having people around me, having people do things for me," says Campbell, addressing the question of his health and his life before it's even asked. "But my friend Sugar Bear understands that. Me and him have been friends for 30 years. He played football with me at UT. He was my roommate, everything. Now he has to take care of an old man.
"That's what I call myself, you know: an old man. Sugar Bear asks me why do that, why call myself that." And here, Campbell's voice rises slightly. "But hell, what can I do? Sugar Bear says, 'You ain't old. You're the same age I am.' Yeah, sure. But you can walk down that hill if you want to, or get in that car over there. I can't."
Thirty years after winning the Heisman Trophy, Earl Campbell's life is defined by this fascinating duality: the legacy of invincibility set against the vulnerability of the here and now. He displays the bronze Heisman statuette (awarded annually to the nation's best college football player) in the reception area of the office where he runs his sausage business, Earl Campbell Meats. It's a simple stone house, a few blocks west of downtown Austin.
As pleasant autumn light slants through curtained windows, Campbell sits at the head of a wooden conference table and begins a conversation about life and football that will last for 31/2 hours. Campbell wears a gray T-shirt with no sleeves. He says hello without standing. A laptop sits open on the table before him; his metal walker sits near the doorway. On the walls behind him are trophies of a different kind — the mounted heads of deer and exotic game that he shot years ago, on hunting trips with his football buddies.
Campbell has an expressive face, accented by wonderful, bold lines that dash horizontally from the corner of his brown eyes. You learn, quickly, to study those lines and those eyes in conversation — to catch nuance, or irony, or wit. These don't show so much in his upper body — which is too stiff — or his voice. It's work for him to shrug both shoulders at once. Sometimes, Campbell tracks with his eyes so he doesn't have to move his neck.
The conversation bounces back and forth, between matters of health and matters of football. What was the sensation of it, Earl? What was it like, at UT, to run?
"It was such a high. When that ball got in my hands, that leather, it's like I turned into a different human being. You know?" says Campbell, his voice slow and soft and a little slurry. He lifts his massive hands just a bit, cradles an imaginary football, changing the grip as he talks, as if savoring the dappled texture of pigskin.
"Hearing 75,000 people holler: I mean, I would just turn into a different human being. The key to me was being able to build my mother a house in Tyler, and not having to go back to work in those rose fields again. Believe it or not, when I was running that football, all that kind of stuff was going on in my mind."
Earl Campbell ran hard, so hard that he once staggered Bevo, knocking him off one knee, then the other, after he slammed into the UT mascot in the end zone at Rice Stadium. Depending on the circumstance, Campbell's runs could be concussive, majestic, even frightening for their raw power. He loved to stiff-arm defenders. Former UT wide receiver Alfred Jackson, an old friend, swears that defensive backs would sometimes cling to Jackson's jersey whenever he blocked for Campbell downfield, pretending to be locked up in a good block rather than confront the Tyler Rose in the open field.
Campbell's best runs were arresting. Some unfolded in episodes, like his epic 83-yard carry against North Texas State in 1976, when he broke into the open field, swooped toward the home-team sideline, tore his hamstring muscle and then dragged several defenders downfield with him. He was finally pulled down just short of the goal line. "I almost forgot about the hamstring, when those guys jumped on me," he says.
Campbell's running style reflected a larger sense of honor. On the field, he looked conflict in the eye and then ran straight at it with the intent of bowling it over. As a matter of pride — classic working man's pride — he didn't like the larger idea of evasion, running out of bounds, losing a yard or two for the sake of protecting himself.
"I always thought if I let one or two guys tackle me, I wasn't doing something right. I wanted a bunch of them to get me," says Campbell, his voice very quiet, very slow, but warming some as he remembers the sensation of working on the football field. "I mean, I didn't think I was a part of a game unless I had the ball in my hands 20 or 30 times. I had to get lathered up, you know? And right when the game was over was when I felt like really gettin' it on. Not that I didn't get it on in the middle. But I always thought if there was a fifth quarter, I could really show 'em something, you know?"
For Campbell, it was a matter of style — running hard and delivering punishment while carrying a football. "And all the glory and stuff that came along with that? Damn right I paid a price for it," he says, almost as if he's talking to himself. "But, I wanted that."
Earl Campbell's admirers must shudder at the notion — that the qualities that defined him as a runner, that brought the Tyler Rose such honor, may have contributed greatly to the pain he suffers today. I paid the price for it. In most interviews, Campbell has denied such a notion (noting, for example, that doctors recently told him he has a congenital defect, spinal stenosis). In this interview, he pulls toward it and away from it.
"I never had any problems playing football with my back when I played football," says Campbell, who carried the ball 1,043 times in his first three pro seasons, the most in the history of the NFL at that time, and ran into defenses that were focused foremost on gang-tackling him into submission.
Campbell gave it all to football as a young man. He played his final NFL season at age 30, in 1985, then won induction into the NFL Hall of Fame. In 1990, Campbell moved his family (wife Reuna, sons Christian and Tyler) from Houston to Austin, where he took a job as special assistant to the UT athletic director. Campbell looked quite healthy then, his gait strong, his speech clear, his smile bright.
Yet in recent years, Campbell's physical condition has deteriorated substantially. Honored at halftime of the Texas-Texas Tech game at Royal-Memorial Stadium in November 2003, Campbell was so brittle that he had to be driven onto the field in a golf cart.
"Ninety percent of the people thought I was drunk that night," he says, his eyes a little hurt, a little defiant. "The guy who helps me make my sausage called me, told me people at the game said I was drunk, told me that's no way to run a business, being drunk in front of 90,000 people."
"Man, that was my back," says Campbell. "So what I basically do now is try not to go out in public too much because people don't understand — and I don't have the time to explain it."
Campbell's biggest problem, as he describes it, stems from the discovery of three large bone spurs on his spinal column several years ago. Doctors wanted to remove them, explaining they were covering nerves in his back, causing atrophy in his muscles. No way, not yet, said Campbell, a man who feared no defender but cringes at the mention of an MRI machine. He decided to tough his way through it.
"Well, Earl, you'll be back in about a year," the doctor told him.
When Campbell finally did have the surgery to remove the spurs, he says, doctors told him afterward that he'd never walk the same, that he'd never be the same. His reaction: "I'm going to prove you wrong."
So at the end of his rehabilitation program this summer, Campbell started lifting weights at UT — something he'd never done as a player — hoping to power his body up, to heal his back through strength and will.
The doctors implored Campbell to stop, told him he was hurting himself in the weight room. "So now Earl just rests his back," says Campbell, his voice a little weary, clearly resigned.
He says he's been told, with rest, that his back will improve — but it might take a year, or a year and a half.
"I live a funky life now," says Campbell, glancing down at a bag of pistachio nuts that rests by his left hand. He dreams aloud about working side-by-side with the hands at the family ranch in Tyler, as he used to.
"Sometimes, I wish I would have never let that guy operate on me. Sometimes, I wish I had just continued to take pain medicine. I didn't know that a back was so important."
Earl Campbell adheres to an elemental world view that holds that determination and will and humility produce positive results. It was the foundation of his boyhood, growing up in the Tyler rose fields. And it was the fundamental motivation of his Heisman season of 1977.
"I just always wanted to be the best," says Campbell, a moment after Sugar Bear — gracious smile, welcoming postures — pops into the conference room to say hello. "But I never let anybody know — I wanted to be the best. I kept it inside, kept it hid.
"If I was watching a game film, and I put a stiff-arm on a guy, and the guys in the film room would say, 'Oooww,' I would downplay that, you know. Like no big deal. But deep inside, boy, was I proud."
Three decades later, Campbell's teammates from the 1970s still speak of him with awe. How many remember, for all his offensive skills, that he once blocked a punt against Arkansas? Or that he once blocked a field goal against Baylor?
Defensive tackle Doug English remembers Campbell's body: "It was as if it was chiseled from stone." Quarterback Randy McEachern remembers his power: "No one ever hit me harder than the day Earl Campbell ran into me on a handoff during a practice." Defensive tackle Brad Shearer remembers his perfectionism, how he ran all the way to the end zone on every play, even in practice.
"We all knew we were playing with Superman," observes Rick Ingraham, a star offensive lineman on the '77 team who remains one of Campbell's closest friends. "In the moment, we understood he would be the best player we'd ever step on the field with. He was a man among boys — and he earned that Heisman through self-sacrifice. Guys like Brad and I had a little more fun than Earl did at Texas, going out, doing things at night. But Earl literally sat in his room. He did not seek money. He did not seek women. He did not seek alcohol. He stayed true to his gal, and he stayed true to his body."
Ingraham flew to New York to attend the Heisman Trophy ceremony in 1977. He watched from the audience, snapping a picture, as O.J. Simpson, the 1968 winner, presented the Tyler Rose with the statuette. He knew Campbell's heart, knew what the honor meant to him.
"I have no doubt that winning the Heisman Trophy galvanized the whole Campbell family," says Ingraham. "It validated their whole life ethic, their whole life's work, knowing what it was like to grow up in a fatherless household with 11 kids. (Campbell's father died when Earl was 10.) It has to be the highest accomplishment you can have as an individual to win that award. Yet in his acceptance speech, he gave all the credit to the team."
Earl Campbell's heart is killing him — as he's been grieving for his sister Ruby Fields, who died of cancer in mid-November. Ruby was an older sister, a leader among the seven brothers and four sisters in the clan. "She taught me how to run our family's ranch in Tyler," says Campbell. "She was my backbone."
Although Ruby and Earl were not the closest in age, they may have been closest in spirit. It was not unusual for them to talk to each other on the phone two or three times a day — particularly when it involved matters of their mother's health. "Before I did anything on the ranch, I'd say, 'Ruby, what do you think about this?' "
"Ruby did everything," Campbell says softly, staring ahead at his computer screen, remembering his childhood for a moment. "Dad let her go to the store, cashed the checks. When we were out there (working) in those rose fields, I always wanted a banana — and Ruby always made sure after we cashed a check that Earl had his banana."
As he looks hard at infirmity for the first time in his life, Campbell admits he experiences good days and bad days. Teammates who haven't seen him in a while confess it pains them to see him struggle. Those who see him regularly suggest he's a lot healthier, more optimistic, since ceasing his weight-training regimen several months ago.
"Let me put it to you this way," says Campbell, struggling a bit as he cracks open the pistachios in his giant hands. "If the good Lord wakes me up in the morning, and I feel like I don't want to be bothered, or I don't want to be messing around with (certain) people, I just say, 'I'm not lifting up that garage door and going out there.'
"Because people want to see the good Earl Campbell. What they think they should see, you know?"
Earl Campbell is 52, feeling a little like 62, and facing elemental truths. Our loved ones die. Our bodies fail us. Dust returns to dust. What does that do to a man — and his larger faith — to lose his invincibility, to see his body grow weak before its time?
"I believe that one day, he's going to heal my back," says the greatest running back in the history of Texas football. "No matter what I do, it's in his hands now."