Earl Campbell’s Third Act

Sports Illustrated catches up with the former Houston Oilers running back, painting an affecting portrait of the Tyler Rose, who overcame substance abuse addiction in 2009. 
Thu July 12, 2012 10:54 pm
Associated Press | Ed Kolenovsky

We didn’t need the “Where Are They Now” issue of Sports Illustrated to know where Earl Campbell is. But Lee Jenkins’ cover story is an affecting portrait of the Tyler Rose—who sunk into both physical decline and chemical dependence before getting sober in 2009—and the strong bond he formed with his two sons, Tyler and Christian.

Jenkins starts his story by recounting Campbell’s legendary power. One priceless recollection: the time Earl barreled into Bevo, a story you can also find in Jan Reid’s 2001 TEXAS MONTHLY profile of Campbell ,

“I hit him in the left flank,” he said. “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 recalled to Reid. “But I didn’t mean to. I couldn’t stop.” He looks me over for a moment, then chuckles. “He said, ‘Moooo.’”

Former Oilers safety Bo Eason told Jenkins about trying to tackle Campbell at the goal-line when the latter was playing his final season in the NFL, as a New Orleans Saint. Both men ended up flat on the ground (Campbell scored the touchdown, of course), with Eason getting the worst of it.

“…Earl was lying right next to me. He reached his hand over to help me up, and I said, ‘Earl, I’ve got to lie here awhile; I think you knocked out my eyes,’” said Eason, who actually lost his contact lenses from the hit.

But the story is really about Earl’s fall, and, happily, his comeback.

“Campbell’s teammates didn’t know why he retired at 30, until they saw him at 40,” Jenkins wrote.

He had bone spurs, gout, arthritis, and diabetes. Even as he rebuilt his company, Earl Campbell Meat Products, which had gone bankrupt around the time of Reid’s story, he had to stop playing golf, and was frequently in a wheelchair. Eventually, he became addicted to painkillers–first Tylenol with codeine, and then Oxycontin.

“I stay focused and prayerful that I won’t have to deal with the situation of Earl Campbell one day,” former Heisman winner (and one-season Houston Oiler, before the move to Tennessee) Eddie George said after meeting him during a celebration at Barton Creek Country Club for the thirtieth anniversary of Campbell’s trophy.

It was when Campbell’s son Tyler was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis that Earl finally faced up to his own problems, after a family intervention and a 44-day stint in rehab (longer than the prescribed 28, by choice. Among those helping him with an encouraging word was former Cowboy and Austin native Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson, who’d battled his own sustance abuse demons.

Campbell has since had a knee replacement, and can get around with a walker as he works out on the University of Texas campus (where he’s a special assistant to athletic director DeLoss Dodds), hoping to become pain-free enough to swing the golf clubs once again (nine holes would suffice). He and Tyler work together on Earl Campbell Meat Products, and they are considering opening up another barbecue restaurant, after a failed first attempt.

Read the entire piece here.

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