Earl Campbell wrapped in sausage links.
Photograph by Laura Wilson

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, right in front of the professor. He hardly ever missed a lecture. Other students in the athletic dorm would wake up in the mornings to him rousting them out of bed to go to class.

Campbell had known Royal’s successor, Fred Akers, as a backfield coach when he was a freshman. But he was stunned when Akers called him to his office and ordered him to lose 25 pounds in preparation for being the workhorse of a new offense. Campbell ran, beat on a punching bag, and sat in a steam room until he was faint, but he got down to 220 pounds. A short jersey flaunting his trim midriff became one of his hallmarks that fall. He ran for 1,744 yards in 1977, led the nation in scoring, and honored his late dad and his mom at a Heisman trophy ceremony emceed in New York by Jesse Jackson and O. J. Simpson.

One thing the much-criticized bud Adams did right as the owner of the NFL’s Houston Oilers was to coax his counterpart in Tampa Bay into trading the first pick of the 1978 draft to Houston. Bum Phillips, the folksy journeyman defensive coordinator who was taking his turn in Adams’ revolving door of Oiler head coaches, thought Campbell looked just ordinary in his first training camp. “I never practiced good,” Campbell tells me. “They called me Brick Hands ‘cause I couldn’t catch passes, and I never could lift weights. Bum told us one day, ‘After practice I want all the rookies in the weight room, lifting.’ Bum always called me E.C. Next day he called me out and said, ‘E.C., did you hear me yesterday when I said all the rookies gotta lift weights?’

‘Yes, sir,’ I said.

‘Why didn’t you go in there?’

‘I don’t lift weights.’

‘You gotta be kidding me!’

‘No, sir. I don’t lift weights.’”

“I was always afraid that if a running back lifted weights he wouldn’t be loose,” Campbell says now. “But I didn’t tell Bum that. Those were just my beliefs. He said, ‘Well, I’m gonna have to fine you five thousand dollars if you don’t, so from now on, you go in there and do something.’ After that I’d mess around in there, but I didn’t really lift weights. I didn’t like it.”

When Campbell joined them, the Oilers were a talented team dogged by past failures. Any doubts about the value of their number one draft choice vanished in an early game against the playoff-seasoned Los Angeles Rams. Campbell has bowlegs, and in his tailback’s stance, he planted his feet wide, hands on his knees. He looked like a miniature tank. He took a pitchout and started left, then seemed to dislike what he saw, for he shifted direction and weight, his right foot coming far off the ground. The Rams had a proud star linebacker named Isiah Robertson, and he had a straight shot at Campbell. Somehow, in two steps, the running back gathered the power of his immense legs and, like a charging rhino, drove headfirst into Robertson’s chest. The linebacker landed on his back. Campbell stormed on through heavy traffic, switching the ball to his left hand and waving it around as he tried to land a stiff-arm with the right—which he threw with the shock and power of a George Foreman jab—while another Ram bumped along behind him and tried to hang on, tearing off his jersey.

Campbell looks sad when I bring up that play. He sighs and says, “I don’t talk about that play much. It was a fair play, but every way I could, I have let it be known to Isiah Robertson that I was doing my job, he was doing his job, and there was nothing personal between us. Sometimes the media can take a play and run it over and over so much. I think that damaged his life a little bit.”

Luv Ya Blue: The sea of powder blue pom-poms and echoed bedlam in the Astrodome were born the November night in 1978 when Campbell ran for four touchdowns and 199 yards as the Oilers beat the powerful Miami Dolphins, 35 30. Howard Cosell later called it the best of all of ABC’s Monday night games, and with that performance a Texas reputation went nationwide—Campbell was destined to rank as one of the all-time greats. It’s hard to explain the near-hysteria of Houston’s adoration of its football heroes then, for it was so evanescent. (Over the years, the Oilers would build a record as such heartbreakers and losers that they would scarcely be mourned when Adams moved the franchise to Tennessee in 1997.) He fired Bum Phillips in 1980, and just like that, Luv Ya Blue was over. Campbell banged on through the Oilers’ decline, losing a step or two and taking a beating. As the coach of the New Orleans Saints, Phillips traded for Campbell in mid-1984. Campbell didn’t deliver, and Phillips again got fired. In 1986 Campbell reported in top shape, but one night at training camp he told a coach, “Listen, I’m not very interested in football.” He’d given the pros eight years, and that was enough. He made calls to alert his mom and his two father figures, Royal and Phillips. Suddenly he was on a plane, going home to Texas. “I told this stewardess, ‘Bring me a six-pack of beer,’” Campbell recalls.

“She said, ‘Sir, we’re just going to Houston.’

‘I don’t care. How much does a six-pack cost?’”

“I never looked back,” he says. “That’s why I got those beers, to help me keep it right in my mind. I didn’t look out the window at New Orleans or nothing else. I looked straight ahead, thinking, ‘I am an ex-football player. I got a college education, and I’m gonna do my thing.’”

But of course he does look back. The press release about his bankruptcy begins: “As an NFL Hall-of-Fame running back, Earl Campbell was known for being able to take a direct hit, regain his balance, and keep going forward. In football it’s called ‘yards after contact.’ Now Campbell is displaying the same ability on the playing field of big business.”

The allusion is to Campbell’s greatest hit, or at least his favorite. In 1979, on the goal line against the Oakland Raiders, he drove off-tackle. All-pro defensive back Jack Tatum, nicknamed “the Assassin” for his brutal tackling, got lower than Campbell and launched all his weight and power in a helmet-first tackle. Houston quarterback Dan Pastorini said the noise of their collision was like a train wreck. Tatum fell on his backside, stunned. Campbell bent far back, but the strength of his back, hamstrings, and will jerked him upright, and he staggered in for the touchdown. “Jack came up to me after that game,” he recalls, “and said, ‘I gave you the best I got.’ I told him, ‘That’s the best I got too.’”

Campbell knows his physical condition today is the accumulation of such impacts. “For a long time everything was still attached pretty good,” he says. “But all those years of knocking and banging—there are some things you ain’t supposed to do to that body. And when you get older, it comes back and says, ‘Hey, remember me? How you did all that to me? That’s flesh and bone, man.’”

And he has learned that force of will can come up short too. For years his line of sausages, sauces, and other barbecue products seemed to thrive. Then in October 1999 he and his partners opened his Austin restaurant, Earl Campbell’s, on Sixth Street. The place was well furnished with Texas decor and memorabilia, including his Heisman trophy. The food got decent reviews, and the restaurant usually had a good crowd at lunchtime. But overheads are high on Sixth Street, and the location is not kind to dinner revenue—the roving kids want booze, music, jostle. This February, brown paper went up over the windows, and the landlord announced that the restaurant was locked up for failure to pay the rent. Campbell’s name was on the failure.

“I don’t know that business,” he says of the restaurant trade, shaking his head. “This was the first time in my life I ran up against a wall, that I ran up on something I just couldn’t do.” So he had to seek protection in bankruptcy court. In business it happens all the time. It’s just not supposed to happen to an Official State Hero of Texas.

“I went to church one Sunday,” he says, “and our reverend said, ‘When you’re in the pits of life, God knows. He’ll let you get down there, because maybe you forgot a little bit, but then He’ll come get you out of that pit. He just says, “Step,” and you rise on up.’ I think that guy knew I needed to hear that.”

A friend of many years named Danny Janecka helped Campbell start over and get back to doing what he knows—persuading retailers to give shelf space to his line of food products. And Campbell’s spirits have rebounded. He helps entertain families of recruits at UT games, and as a special assistant to the president, he counsels Longhorn athletes. He’s still married to the woman who caught his eye when he was in the ninth grade. “We’ve been together ‘most all our lives,” he says, then tilts his head and smiles. “It ain’t been easy.” He dotes on his sons, one a college freshman who runs track, the other a high school freshman who loves football. He talks on the phone to Royal and sees him at games. He goes fishing and plays dominoes with Bum Phillips. “Y’all can watch him in the movies,” Phillips said at Campbell’s induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1991. “I can watch him in my memory.”

Campbell knows that nostalgia can be a cage in the past. Not all of his decisions have been wise, and some memories hurt like his hands and knees. “That number twenty on the University of Texas, he’s no more,” he says. “That number thirty-four on the Houston Oilers, he’s gone too. But the guy who wore those numbers, he’s still the same. God just gave him something else to do. I’m nothing but a simple man.”