Here is what we know about the state of poverty: its boundaries do not appear on any map; it has no flag or official song, but once you are there it is difficult to get your zip code changed; as a character-building experience it is overrated by the rich and overpopulated by the poor; and it's a place where nobody goes for the weekend.
Earl Campbell had never given much thought to being poor, had never really realized how deprived his family had been, until—in the space of a single year—he won the Heisman Trophy, signed a contract worth $1.4 million to play for the Houston Oilers and became the hottest thing to hit the NFL since
Monday Night Football
. When the full weight of his family's privation hit him, Campbell decided to take some of his NFL greenbacks and build a spacious new house for his mother and then turn the rundown plank shack where he had grown up into a museum where other underprivileged kids could come see firsthand that the NFL was, indeed, the land of opportunity.
And so, as Campbell's fortunes soared on football fields across America last season, his mama's new house went up. And lest the contrast between his past and his present would be too subtle to grasp, Campbell had the new house built about 25 feet from the old one, with only a large gray septic tank between them.
If anyone ever deserved to have a shrine of his very own after only one year in the NFL, that person surely is Earl Campbell. Last year as a rookie he rushed for 1,450 yards—more than O.J., more than Walter Payton, more than Tony Dorsett, more than any other running back in the entire league—and he led the Oilers, who had had an 8-6 season in 1977, to the AFC championship game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, who then put an end to Campbell's spectacular season.
The Steelers, who had lost a game to the Oilers in Pittsburgh during the regular season when Campbell ran for three touchdowns, were glad to have seen the last of Campbell. "He can inflict more damage on a team than any back I know of," says Mean Joe Greene. "O.J. did it with speed, Campbell does it with power. He's a punishing runner. He hurts you. There are very few tacklers in the league who will bring Earl Campbell down one-on-one. When we're preparing for the Oilers, we emphasize the importance of gang-tackling Campbell. We work on it."
For Campbell, there was no period of transition as there had been for Simpson, no bow to the depth chart as Dorsett had been obliged to make with the Cowboys the year before. From the moment Campbell touched the ball for Houston, the Oilers were the Earlers. On his third professional carry he took a pitchout and thundered 73 yards for a touchdown against the Atlanta Falcons. Campbell became the first rookie to lead the NFL in rushing since Jim Brown did it in 1957, and he led the Oilers to a 10-6 record—and their first playoff berth in 12 seasons.
" Houston could always move the ball with the passing game and the quick screens and the gimmicks," says Coach Don Shula of the Miami Dolphins, who lost to the Oilers in the Astrodome in a game in which Campbell scored four touchdowns and rushed for 199 yards, and then lost a playoff game to the Oilers in Miami. "When the Oilers got Campbell it made Dan Pastorini that much more effective at all the things he's been doing through the years. I don't think it's any coincidence that Pastorini came into his own as an NFL quarterback at the same time the Oilers got Campbell. He's the guy Pastorini was always looking for and never had."
Among the 29 awards Campbell won were NFL Rookie of the Year and NFL Player of the Year. Bum Phillips, the Oilers' coach and maybe the only clipboard toter in the league who refuses to take himself seriously, says of Campbell that no one in the past 20 years had a greater impact on the NFL in his first season "except Pete Rozelle."
The Oilers had gone 9-33 for the previous three years when Phillips, wearing his lizard-skin, zircon-encrusted, needle-hosed cowboy boots, took over in 1975. In those days you could fire a cannon into the Astrodome's stands without hitting anybody and fire the same cannon at the Oilers with only a 50-50 chance of hitting a real football player. Bum had a 10-4 record in 1975, a 5-9 season in 1976, the 8-6 record in 1977, and the big juicy No. 1 pick in May of 1978.
Soon Houstonians took to saying, "Since Earl came...." Well, for one thing, since Earl came, the Oilers have played to sellout crowds in the Astrodome; average attendance rose to a capacity 51,573 in 1978, and all tickets for this season's 10 games, including exhibitions, were sold out last March.