The Life and Times of a Texas Football Legend
Running Back Earl Campbell, at the Intersection of Politics and Sports
Even beneath the supernova-bright lights of the Astrodome, Earl Campbell’s eyelids are slipping. It’s late in the fourth quarter of a midseason seesaw game on Monday night, and his Oilers are huddling up on the sandpaper-rough artificial turf, stretched thin over a hard concrete subfloor, far below the arena’s vast roof. The crowd of more than 50,000 is a frothy sea of shaking powder-blue-and-white pom-poms, and on the sidelines, the big-haired Derrick Dolls strut in their shiny white boots.
Facing Don Shula’s storied Miami Dolphins, Earl has already carried the ball nearly thirty times, including on nine of his team’s previous thirteen plays. He has gone for three touchdowns, scoring them with power and speed: on one three-yard run, he lowered his shoulder and lifted a defensive end up into the air as if he were a bull flinging a matador; in another, he rammed into a linebacker with his head, leaving his opponent sprawled out on the Astroturf.
“Crunching power,” Howard Cosell, in his staccato Brooklynese, tells the nearly 50 million Americans watching the game on ABC. Each time Campbell scores, the giant Astrodome scoreboard lights up with a rendering of a bull snorting steam out its nostrils. “Earl Campbell had some head-on collisions with our players,” Shula would say after the game. “I think he won them all.”
But all that impact has left Earl Campbell wobbly.
“Big fellow, you got one more in you?” Dan Pastorini, Houston’s shaggy-haired, perennially beat-up playboy quarterback, asks him in the huddle.
With just over a minute left, the Oilers have the ball and a five-point lead. At second-and-eight from their own nineteen-yard line, all they need to ice the game is a first down. Coach Bum Phillips, the lovable cowboy-quipster riding herd on this resurgent Oilers team, has signaled that he wants to go with Campbell, the reliable rookie, once again.
The play is Toss 38. Pastorini will lateral to a sweeping Campbell, who is to turn upfield behind a leading fullback or pulling guard. It’s a routine sequence, one that is deemed a success if it nets four or five yards. Except Tim Wilson, the Oilers’ fullback and lead blocker, glances at Earl as the huddle breaks. “I swear, his eyes were closed,” Wilson said later. “He looked like he was about to drop. I had to tell him the play, and he barely responded.” Campbell has a foggy look from a night of pounding. “It’s on two,” Wilson tells him, reminding him of the snap count. “Follow me. We’re going right.”
Act like you’ve been there before goes the old sports chestnut, and Earl Campbell had: only five years earlier, on this very field, announcing himself as the best schoolboy football player in the nation, he had lifted his newly integrated high school football team to the state title. Two years after that, he was back in the same building, leading the University of Texas Longhorns to victory in the Astro-Bluebonnet Bowl.Around Earl Campbell moved a transforming, modernizing Texas, one that loved him and exploited him.
Happy hoots and whistles rain down from the frenzied crowd, and on the terraced seating levels, the dome feels as if it’s vibrating, a space-age building about to launch itself skyward. A sign hanging from one of the decks says, “Look Out America, Here Comes Houston.” For years, this city’s losing squads had played before half-empty arenas, but now, with Campbell on board, the team is 7–4. The marquee Monday Night Football matchup feels like a coming-out party. “They’ve waited a long time for professional football excellence in Houston, and they’ve got it now,” Cosell nasals out. “An underpublicized team, an underappreciated team.”
Wilson, squeezing into his stance a couple of yards into the backfield, reaches a hand behind him, lays it against the small of his own back, and flashes an upside-down victory sign—given the timing needed in this football waltz, he wants to make sure Campbell remembers that they’ll start on the second hut.
Behind him, dropped into a frozen stance of his own, is Campbell, all of 23 years old, his face and full beard bursting with sweat, his massive thighs—each 33 inches in diameter, the size of a grown man’s waist—nearly vibrating in anticipation. “We make four sizes of thigh pads,” a Houston equipment manufacturer once observed, “small, medium, large, and Earl Campbell.”
Pastorini receives the snap, turns over his right shoulder and pitches the ball. Campbell’s eyes suddenly widen—“When that ball got in my hands, that leather, it’s like I turned into a different human being,” he once said. Wilson lands a glancing block in the backfield, just enough to protect Campbell from a loss of five yards. But now five Dolphins, including two speedy cornerbacks, have an angle on the running back. If they can force him out of bounds, they can stop the clock—and maybe give their own offense the ball with one more shot in a high-scoring game.
But Earl Campbell doesn’t do out of bounds. He possesses what the journalist Willie Morris once described as “the quality of potentiality”—that feeling that at any moment he might go the distance. And so, just as the Dolphin defenders appear to close in on their quarry, Campbell, as if he has rockets laced to his cleats, suddenly outstrips them all.
Alfred Jackson, a wide receiver who played with Campbell at the University of Texas, once said he could sense when Earl was striking a big play even as he looked to lay a block downfield: “You could always tell when Earl got in the open because the crowd would roar.” Just such a rumble rises out of the Houston crowd now as Campbell sprints down the right sideline past the Derrick Dolls, past the blue-and-white pom-poms, across the Astroturf, all of 81 yards for the touchdown.
He gets to the end zone so fast that it seems like a good minute before his jubilant teammates join him to celebrate—mostly Campbell just stands there, hands on hips, sucking air. After half collecting himself, he staggers to the sideline, where Bum Phillips greets him with a big-lipped kiss on his sweat-beaded cheek.
“What you’ve seen tonight, ladies and gentlemen,” Cosell says, in his grandiose way, “is a truly great football player in the late moments take total personal command of a game.”
Back in the locker room, Campbell told reporters that even after he got past the first line of defenders he didn’t think he had the wind to make it all the way down the field. “Then I saw pure sideline, and I decided to keep running until somebody knocked me down,” he said. He had “never been so happy to get in the end zone and get something out of my hand, that football.” He was so exhausted, he said, that even getting back to the Houston sideline had seemed an impossible chore. “It looked a mile away,” he half joked.
A few lockers down, Pastorini shook his head. “Don’t you just love him?” he asked. And sure enough, it was the dawn of what came to be known as the Luv Ya Blue period in Houston, an all-around lovefest in which Earl Campbell would lead the once-woebegone Oilers to the brink of two Super Bowls.
But over in the visitors’ locker room, the play that sealed the game had already fixed itself into the mind of Steve Towle, one of the Dolphin defenders, just as encounters with Earl Campbell stuck with so many would-be tacklers. “My career with the Dolphins defines me,” Towle once said. “When you play sports from eight years old to the NFL level, it defines everything that I do every day, good and bad. It represents how I wake up each morning. I still miss Earl Campbell every time I chase him down the sidelines and it haunts me.”
This is a story about a person, a place, and a time: Earl Campbell; the Texas that Campbell traveled through; and, chiefly, 1970 to 1985, a period when he came of age and dominated American football. It is the Texas of Dallas’s J. R. Ewing and 64-ounce steaks, of 10-gallon hats and pitch-black oil, of the Astrodome and Congressman “Good Time” Charlie Wilson, of the Chicken Ranch—the tolerated brothel that inspired The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.
It is also the Texas of segregation and desegregation, of the trailblazing politician Barbara Jordan, and of urbanization, as the Marlboro Men and their kids left their ranches and moved into the swelling cities. Seen from an age in which the bitter divisions of American society play out on football fields across the country—Trump versus Kaepernick, NFL versus CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy)—Campbell is an archetype, a modern John Henry, the heroic and tragic figure of a hard-working, plow-straight-ahead man who worked himself into a broken-down condition by giving it his all—his body an atlas of the brutality of the game.
Around Earl Campbell moved a transforming, modernizing Texas, one that loved him and exploited him, just as, no matter where we live, we love and leave behind so many of the athletes who labor not only for money but also for our affection.
Campbell’s own path, from a small town to big-city lights, mirrors a period of political change in Texas, as Democrats who had so long held control began to see their grip weaken; of demographic change, as hundreds of thousands of Texans began making the same migration as Campbell did, from rural areas to urban and suburban ones; of racial change, during which the long-static balance of whites, African Americans, and Latinos was transformed. (In 2005, Texas became a majority-minority state, one in which people of color outnumber whites.)
As a story about football, it’s inevitably, too, about race: if you imagine arraying football cards in front of you from the 1960s through the 1980s, they chronicle a shift from crew cuts to Afros. Eulogizing his black Dallas Cowboy teammate “Bullet” Bob Hayes, who had won gold sprinting for the United States in the 1964 Olympics before playing football, the writer and athlete Peter Gent remembered how challenging Texas was even for an American hero.
As late as 1965, Gent writes, colored entrance signs remained on all the downtown theaters, leading to the upper balcony, and there were still two separate drinking fountains. “We trained in southern California because there was no place in Texas that would allow black players to live during camp,” remembers Gent. Through at least 1969, Gent’s last year of playing on the squad—when Earl Campbell was 14 years old, growing up in Tyler, an hour and a half east of Dallas—the Cowboys gave rookies a personality test specially “weighted to make certain the blacks could deal with the pressure of living in the South.”What marked Campbell among the pantheon of great running backs was not just his size and speed but his will, especially to squeeze out that extra yard.
In Hayes’s retirement, Gent wrote, following a turbulent period in the late 1970s that included prison time for a drug-related conviction that was later overturned, he “finally left Texas for the safety of his home state of Florida after Texas beat the shit outta him.”
Even though he was handsomely paid, Earl Campbell was a black player toiling, to the point of ruin, for white coaches and white owners. One Orangeblood, as diehard fans of the University of Texas’ burnt-orange-and-white-clad athletes are known, whose father was an Austin oil and gas lawyer and a big UT Longhorns booster, tells a story of being invited as a teenager in the mid-1970s into the Longhorns’ locker room.
There, his father pointed out what he said were unusual back muscles, ones he concluded had emerged during Campbell’s upbringing in the East Texas rose fields and made him singularly suited to a bruising running style. The story has the unsettling cast of white people examining black bodies, of seeing those bodies as fit for both field work and football, for labor and abuse.
It’s no coincidence that when the aforementioned Chicken Ranch, long accepted (and patronized) by lawmakers and lawmen, was shut down in 1973—an ambitious TV news reporter put together an exposé, much to the chagrin of both blue-collars and blue bloods—only one African American had ever crossed its threshold, and that was its longtime maid, Lilly.
Against this backdrop, we might think of Earl Campbell as a survivalist, in life and on the field, who made use of whatever resources were available to him until they—and he—had been completely juiced. What marked Campbell among the pantheon of great running backs was not just his size and speed but his will, especially to squeeze out that extra yard. Rather than step out of bounds toward the end of a run, he was famous for lowering his shoulder to punish yet another would-be tackler. He leaned forward, almost as if he were looking to pick something up off the turf, and pumped his knees high, leaving little of his body open to direct hits.
Campbell, a weary defender once complained, was “all ass and thighs.” A University of Texas assistant coach once said that Campbell’s running style reminded him of the way Groucho Marx walked—although, of course, opposing defenders viewed the whole thing as desperately unfunny. He wielded not a cigar, but a wicked stiff arm—tutored in the technique by his ninth-grade football coach—the better to slap down would-be tacklers as he trampled forward.
“Every time Earl carried the football, we’d have to run a stretcher onto the field to carry one or more of our guys off,” the head coach of the Rice football team observed in 1977. “He’s a physical, brutal runner. Very hard to stop. I know our defensive unit hurt for three days after the Texas game.”
Reaching for a way to describe the violence of football, the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates remembered watching Earl Campbell as a little kid: “[He] played offense like he was playing defense. He looked for contact and exacted a price on all who went looking for him.”
Excerpted from Earl Campbell: Yards After Contact by Asher Price, © 2019. Reproduced with permission from the University of Texas Press.