On Sunday it came to my attention that Earl Campbell turned sixty. Hearing that the Tyler Rose quietly passed a major birthday milestone brought a smile to my face and with it a flood of memories from my childhood. The Heisman Trophy–winning powerhouse from UT was drafted by my Houston Oilers in 1978, and the joyful and colorful era that followed—the unparalleled days of “Luv Ya Blue”—defined a large part of my sports fever.
During his first three years in the league, when I saw that juggernaut of a man race toward the end zone, well, who needed the Incredible Hulk as a hero? To me, as a kid at that time, the tantrums of David Banner’s angry alter ego seemed tame in comparison to the real-life deeds of Campbell, the man who staggered Bevo and who dented the Steel Curtain. Was any sight in NFL history more fearsome than the young Earl Campbell trucking around the corner on a toss sweep?
Of course, to hear me say my childhood self was mesmerized by his formidable force may not carry all that much weight. For a sprinkle of gravitas on the notion, I turn to Pulitzer Prize–winning Los Angeles Times sportswriter Jim Murray. Murray spent more than forty years covering football and described Campbell as “the best running back I ever saw. Period. He nearly had the speed of O.J. Simpson, the power of Jim Brown and the imperviousness to pain of a hippopotamus. Put a gun on him and you had a tank.”
Campbell’s athleticism was awesome, in the true sense of that word. At about five-foot-eleven and 240 pounds, each of his thighs were three feet in circumference. And those thick legs were also long and swift (“When Earl ran, snot flew,” Texas Longhorns coach Darrell Royal once said). Campbell could run 100 meters in 10.5 seconds, a more-than-respectable time for many a lithe wide receiver, but downright unfair when paired with his wrecking-ball physique and practiced technique (he always ran with his head and shoulders low to the ground, what some coaches call “good body lean”).
Defensive players—even the big, strong guys—quaked when confronted with the physics of the Earl Campbell vector, that hurricane on legs of oak. When they tried to hit him high, he would stick his hand in their faces and smack them to the turf. To hit him low was to hurl yourself in front of a truck, as Denver Bronco Steve Foley discovered, in one of the most painful-looking attempted tackles I’ve seen in forty years of watching football. (Knocked cold, Foley left the game on a stretcher.) Just as some batters would suddenly come down with “hamstring twinges” rather than face the Houston Astros giant fireballer J.R. Richard in the late seventies, some of football’s toughest linebackers and safeties would claim “back spasms” or some other hard-to-disprove ailment before facing Campbell.
But as has been well documented, Campbell has suffered a great physical toll from slamming his body full-speed into the likes of Mean Joe Greene, Jack Lambert, L.C. Greenwood, Jack Ham, Mel Blount, and Donnie Shell one hundred times a year (or even just once into Jack “the Assassin” Tatum). He now suffers from arthritis, spinal stenosis, and diabetes.
“For a long time everything was still attached pretty good,” he told our own Jan Reid in 2001. “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 his challenges have extended beyond incurring injuries on the field. He publicly battled panic disorder (think Tony Soprano syndrome) and painkiller addiction. He weathered a bankruptcy. He’s now helping one of his sons cope with multiple sclerosis. So extensive is the damage to his nervous system that doctors tested him for ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, a few years ago (they ruled it out).
Even after realizing the damage his own once invincible body has taken, as recently as 2013 he echoed Jack Lambert’s old gripe about “quarterbacks in dresses” to an NCS sportswriter. “Number one, I think football is a very physical game, no doubt,” Campbell said. “And I think we learn that when we’re young. But I think with the NFL changing [rules about ball carrying], it’s not going to be good at all. I think at some point you gotta say ‘stop’ and let football be football. . . . I played football with my whole body. My hands, my head, my face. I did it all.”
Indeed he did. Witness this, among the most famous and bone-jarring of his runs, his proto–Beast Mode treatment of Los Angeles Rams linebacker Isaiah Robertson, followed by more broken tackles and the Hulk-ian ripping off of his jersey:
But what I loved then—what I still love now—is that Campbell had a code, a white-hat ethos that seemed based on westerns or the protagonist of one of his beloved Merle Haggard or Willie Nelson tunes. No taunting. No bullying. No showboating. No dirty play. He hit hard, but he hit fair, and he left it all between the lines. His idea of an end zone celebration was to hand the ball to the nearest official. He was slow to get up from every pile, a stoic in a world of hedonists and exhibitionists. He taught a generation of Texas kids powerful lessons about striving to be the humblest of badasses.
“That number twenty on the University of Texas, he’s no more,” Campbell told Reid fourteen years ago. “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.”