In 1981 the legislature enshrined Earl Campbell as an Official State Hero Of Texas. Only three other favorite sons—Davy Crockett, Stephen F. Austin, and Sam Houston—had been previous recipients of that honor, so the proclamation was a fair measure of Campbell’s popularity and fame at the time. The Tyler Rose was one of the most dominating high school football players the state had ever seen; he won the University of Texas’ first Heisman trophy; and he was named the NFL’s player of the year three times as a member of the Houston Oilers. Now I sit across a table from him and ponder the bygone years. Campbell carries a few more pounds and inches of girth, but he still has the bull neck and the shoulders that resemble pipeline joints. His face looks almost unchanged—a prominent scar between his eyebrows, a broad flattened nose, a slightly drooping left eyelid—except now it is graced by an oval frame of hair and beard gone silver.
With an air of wanting to get it over with, he hands me a press release detailing the bankruptcy this spring of his Austin food company, which he founded in 1990, and a restaurant he opened in 1999. A sausage manufacturer in Flatonia has taken on his debts and put him back on the road selling for the new partnership, Earl Campbell Meat Products. He’s a businessman gone bust, starting over at 46. And that’s just part of his run of bad luck. Showing me that he can’t make a fist with either hand, he explains why he wears none of the bulky rings attesting to his Heisman trophy and other football honors or even a wedding band: “When a guy’s shaking your hand, he doesn’t know you have arthritis, and he’ll squeeze it hard. ‘Hey, ow, wait a minute!’”
Earl Campbell fears the grip of an ordinary guy’s hand.
“He don’t take no prisoners,” former UT coach Darrell Royal once said of his star runner’s style of all-out attack. Campbell had breakaway speed and a dancer’s balance and agility. He was never a vicious player, yet the game aroused and challenged him most when he lowered his head and went straight at would-be tacklers. He was the essence of football: one on one, its irresistible force. But now he finds himself a casualty of his own style of play. Doctors have told him that all they can do for his right knee is replace it with an artificial joint—surgery he won’t agree to. His arches hurt. He can’t walk long distances. He has trouble climbing stairs. But Campbell doesn’t want anyone feeling sorry for him. “It’s like Merle Haggard said,” he drawls, paraphrasing the songwriter. “I don’t pull off the road long enough to bog down in the mud; anybody say I give a damn, they damn sure told you wrong.”
In search of a lighter vein, I ask him about the time he ran over Bevo, UT’s Longhorn steer mascot. That collision occurred in 1977 in a game against the University of Houston. Campbell grabbed a pitchout and broke free, angling for the corner of the end zone and then lunging headlong after he scored. “I hit him in the left flank,” he says. “Bevo went down, a cameraman went down, and I did too.” The impact didn’t knock the massive steer all the way over, but the Longhorn staggered and may have gone down on his haunches. Badly startled, he swung far around, yanking his handler along.
“Before I knew it, I was all up on Bevo,” Campbell recalls. “But I didn’t mean to. I couldn’t stop.” He looks me over for a moment, then chuckles. “He said, ‘ Moooo.’”
The seventh of eleven children, he grew up in a weathered plank house among rose fields outside Tyler. His dad picked roses, worked nights in a convenience store, and died of a heart attack when Earl was eleven. The youth was bigger, stronger, and faster than the kids he played with, and he could be stubborn too. He quit his high school team briefly when a coach benched him over a disciplinary matter. He idolized Chicago Bears linebacker Dick Butkus, and he wanted to play middle linebacker so badly that when a new head coach moved him to running back, he tried to sabotage the switch during practice. “I rolled up to that line of scrimmage and dropped the ball every time, just for the hell of it,” he says. “A coach I was close to called me over and said, ‘I gotta make a deal with you. You hold on to that football, and we’ll let you play both ways.’ After that, I did.”
In 1973 Campbell led the newly integrated John Tyler High to an undefeated season and a state championship, surging from obscurity to Texas’ most celebrated high school running back since Doak Walker. “Everybody knew he was gonna be a great one,” says Royal. “Everybody.” The integration of athletics was still a sensitive issue at UT, and Royal’s signing of the schoolboy superstar was trumpeted in some quarters as a watershed event. When Royal visited Tyler, he found the right words to connect with Campbell, telling stories of his own boyhood and a brave, impoverished grandmother. The coach and the player became friends; Campbell used to go over to Royal’s house and stretch out on the carpet, just shooting the breeze with the coach and his wife. And when Royal retired in 1976, the coach noted, Campbell was the only Texas player who sat through the whole announcement.
He was a showcase student, but life at the University sometimes made him feel lonely and isolated. Often the only spending money he had came from his high school girlfriend, Reuna, whom he would marry in 1982. He set his mind to earning a degree, and the C’s that dominated his transcript were hard-won. Campbell knew he was going to stand out anyway, so he always claimed a desk on the front row,