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The Roots Of Greatness
Bruce Newman
September 03, 1979
Motivated by the preachings of a noble mama and propelled by his mighty legs, Earl Campbell has left plank-shack poverty far behind. But the man who was the NFL rushing leader as a rookie never forgets to look back
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September 03, 1979

The Roots Of Greatness

Motivated by the preachings of a noble mama and propelled by his mighty legs, Earl Campbell has left plank-shack poverty far behind. But the man who was the NFL rushing leader as a rookie never forgets to look back

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Elvin Bethea, Houston's standout defensive end the last 11 years, recalls the grim pre-Campbell days. "Before Earl came along," Bethea says, "this was just a stopover for a lot of players. We'd show up on Sunday and give the other team a good fight, but we knew all along what the outcome was going to be. Earl put us at the watering hole; now we're going to drink with everybody else."

Until Campbell arrived, the quarterback had long been the Oilers' most visible player. Dante Pastorini had earned a reputation as a hell-raiser by racing jet dragboats and crashing cars, and it seemed that if anyone was likely to have a personality clash with Campbell, a Baptist Bible-thumper, it would be the infernal Dante. Instead, Campbell and Pastorini soon came to hold one another in a kind of awe. Pastorini can't get over Campbell's attitude. "It would be easy for a guy coming into the game with all those accolades and all that publicity to be cocky or arrogant," says Pastorini, "but Earl's not that way. He does his job, and if he hasn't got something good to say, he doesn't say anything. You hear a lot of backbiting in this league, but I've never heard anyone say a bad word about Earl."

When Phillips talks about Campbell you could swear those tiny hairs on top of the coach's great granite head are standing straight up, out of sheer excitement. "Earl has gotten nine million compliments without letting them swell his head," Phillips says. "I said if he got by last year without changing, he'd survive. I don't believe he'll ever change now. Earl's mama did a heck of a job raising him."

There may be no greater tribute one Texan can pay another than telling him he must have a wonderful mama. Nowhere are mamas held in greater esteem, and nowhere are the things that mama don't low held in lower repute. When Campbell was going through the hazing that veterans traditionally inflict upon rookies in training camp, he was required to stand up during one meal and sing a song from soup to nuts. Campbell sang Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys, a country-and-western anthem to the Texas matriarchy that was made popular by his good friends Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings.

Like all but three of his 10 brothers and sisters, Earl Christian Campbell was born at home in the same bed where he was conceived. From the time she was pregnant with Earl until he was a sophomore at the University of Texas, Ann Campbell worked as a cleaning lady for some of the wealthiest families in Tyler, Texas. She did floors, polished other people's silver for their fine parties, and at Christmas she gratefully accepted the hams they gave her. When her famous son signed with the Oilers, Ann Campbell didn't do cartwheels. "All this money don't make me nervous," she said. "I was always in fine places, beautiful homes. They may not have been mine, but I could enjoy them just the same."

There is a prevailing roundness about Mama (it is no use calling her Ann, this being among the things that Mama most assuredly don't 'low), a pleasing full-bodiedness that makes her seem to be built implausibly close to the ground. Mama's face is expressive but doesn't give away anything she isn't ready for you to know. One of her front teeth has a gold jacket, giving a certain unassailable value to just about everything she says.

Ann and Burk Campbell were married in June 1942, soon after the U.S. entered World War II, and she spent the war years living with her parents and his uncle while he served in the Army in France. After five years of marriage they inherited a 14-acre plot in Tyler, on which they began to grow peas and corn, and eventually roses.

Now and then Willie Nelson sings Stardust, which contains this lyric:

The nightingale tells his fairy tale
Of paradise where roses grew.

Tyler grows more than half of the rosebushes sold in the U.S., as many as 20 million bushes a year. There are small wooden roadside stands all over Tyler at which a dozen roses sell for a dollar, and there are 2,000 people who depend upon the Tyler rose industry for their living. Though the Campbells couldn't hope to compete with the larger nurseries, they scratched out a living.

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