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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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It seems odd, given his extreme rectitude now, that Earl was his mama's only real problem child, the one who came the closest to real trouble with the law. When Earl was in the sixth grade at Griffin Elementary School, he began smoking a pack and a half of cigarettes a day, a habit he maintained for three years. "I used to be a thug from about the time I was in the sixth grade until I went into high school," Earl says. "I lived the street life for a while. I gambled and stole, and I used to make a pretty good living shooting pool. I did just about everything there was except get mixed up with drugs."

Naturally, this type of behavior didn't win him his mama's gratitude. "She's the onlyest person in life I would steal for, or lie for, or kill for," Campbell says now. "She's a great lady, but she's a terrible person to be on the bad side of. I'm her son and it took me a long time to get on her good side."

That ascent to grace didn't occur until Campbell was nearly 14. One evening, as he set out upon the road to one of Tyler's iniquitous downtown street corners, probably for a crap game, Earl abruptly decided to change his ways. "I never really liked the country life when I was growing up," he says. "I was always searching for something else. Then that day out on the black tar road that passed by where we lived, I said, 'Lord, lift me up.' "

Once set upon the path of righteousness, Campbell found football. He was so strong and so gifted that in his senior year at John Tyler High School he scored 28 touchdowns, leading his team to a 15-0 season and the state 4A title.

"You just knew every time he got the ball he was going to get you three or four yards, even if there was no blocking at all," says Miami Dolphin rookie Tight End Ron Lee, a teammate of Campbell's at John Tyler. "And at each level he's advanced—and made it look easy. I guess you could say that Earl's just a person who was born to be great."

After Campbell had scored two touchdowns in the state championship game, the coach of the losing team said, "I always thought Superman was white and wore an "S," but now I know he's black and wears No. 20."

When Campbell left home for the first time in his life, to attend the University of Texas, 200 miles away in Austin, he became so homesick that, as former Longhorn Coach Darrell Royal recalls, he "would sit on the curb and face in the direction of Tyler."

In college Campbell took every opportunity to spread the credit for his rushing feats among his teammates. "If it were up to Earl," wrote David Casstevens in The Houston Post, "he would probably change the name of the 'I' formation to the 'We.' "

Last year, after Billy Sims of Oklahoma had won the Heisman Trophy that Campbell had won the year before, Sooner Coach Barry Switzer offered this comparison between Campbell and his own star running back: " Earl Campbell is the greatest player who ever suited up. He's the greatest football player I've ever seen. Billy Sims is human. Campbell isn't."

When the Oilers, desperate for both a quality football player and a box office attraction, acquired the No. 1 pick in the 1978 draft from Tampa Bay and then used it to select Campbell, former Texas Assistant Coach Pat Patterson warned Bum Phillips what to expect. "When you meet Earl," Patterson said, "you're not going to believe anybody can be that honest and sincere. So you're going to be waiting for him to make a slip, for his true temperament to show through. But you can stop waiting because it's not going to happen. Earl is exactly what he seems to be, one of the nicest people you'll ever meet."

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