Says Bethea, "It's hard to go out and play when you lack confidence that the offense is going to do anything with the ball when you get it for them. With Earl, the defense isn't constantly on the field. A thing like that makes a big difference."
The Oilers gave the ball to the Tyler Rose an average of 19 times a game in 1978, and he responded with an average gain of 4.8 yards and 13 touchdowns while fumbling only seven times. With a number of talented wide receivers—notably Ken Burrough, Rich Caster and Mike Renfro—the Oilers rarely threw to Campbell; he caught only 12 passes. But if Pastorini calls on him to run pass patterns this season, or to become a blocking back, or, for that matter, to wallpaper the Astrodome, no doubt Campbell will.
"Anything you ask him to do," says Phillips, clearly impressed, "he's going to do it. It's very important to have a player of Earl Campbell's caliber, but it's even more important to have him be the kind of kid he is."
One authority on the subject of running in the NFL believes it is an instinct for leadership that makes Campbell such a surpassing talent. "Earl's physical talents are considerable, of course," says O. J. Simpson, "but he has inspirational quality far beyond those talents. He provides a certain lift to a team; everything will be going along normally, then all of a sudden he takes over. I tell you, I'm inspired by his kind of performance."
Campbell's running style is markedly different from the way Simpson ran when he was in his prime, though the results are often the same. More often Campbell, who carries 225 pounds, is compared to the Cleveland Browns' superstar of 1957-65, Jim Brown. But Brown's old coach, Paul Brown, and Simpson both feel the comparison is not entirely apt. "Earl jukes as many as he runs over," Juice points out. "He's a true halfback, and Jim was a fullback. I was amazed how short Earl is. He sure looks bigger on the TV."
Paul Brown is right when he says Campbell will have to put together a string of outstanding seasons before he can be meaningfully compared with Jim Brown. "Brown didn't take an intense physical pounding for his yardage," says Paul Brown. " Campbell does it the physical way. He's not as good a pass receiver as Jim was, and I don't think he has the same straightaway speed. But Brown never liked the blocking aspects of football, and I think Campbell tries to do his part. The only thing you can question about Campbell is whether his style is the type that will allow him to have a long career."
There are a few incandescent moments in any great athlete's career when muscle seems more tightly joined to bone, and when his body crackles like a summer cloud with heat lightning. When one of those moments coincides with desperate necessity, it is advisable not to stand too near, for the brilliance can be blinding.
Last November, Campbell had just such a moment—really an entire game of such moments—on a Monday night in the Astrodome against Miami on national TV, churning through and around the Dolphins, as previously noted, for four touchdowns and 199 yards. Campbell can remember thinking after his third touchdown that he couldn't move anymore, that he was so exhausted his legs felt like concrete piles—the kind that hold bridges up. Late in the fourth period the Oilers were holding a 28-23 lead and facing second-and-long at their own 19. Pastorini could see that Campbell was breathing heavily, but when he knelt down in the huddle he called, almost automatically, "Pitch 28."
"Before Pastorini tossed me the ball," says Campbell, "I would have sworn I couldn't run anymore at all. Even after I was through the hole and I saw [running mate] Tim Wilson hit his man, I didn't think I could make it to the other end of the field. Then I saw pure sideline, and I decided to keep running until somebody knocked me down."
Nobody did. Campbell swept right end, his body leaning hard to the left, and then straightened and rumbled down the sideline 81 yards to the end zone, ensuring a 35-30 Oiler victory.