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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. She did floors and 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."
Ann and Burk Campbell were married in June 1942. 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. The city grows more than half of the rosebushes sold in the U.S., as many as 20 million bushes a year, 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.
When Earl was growing up, he shared a room as well as a bed in an old plank house with his brothers Herbert and Alfred Ray. It was the first room you saw when you opened the front door. The air above the peeling linoleum floorboards always was close and clammy during the long Texas summers. In the winter the family sometimes used space heaters to keep warm, but the body heat of several Campbells to a bed usually provided warmth enough even on the coldest nights.
It seems odd, given his extreme rectitude now, that Earl, whose dad died of a heart attack in 1966, 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."
One evening as a 14-year-old Campbell 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 Dolphins rookie tight end Ronnie 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 number 20."
When Campbell left home for the first time in his life, to attend the University of Texas, more than 200 miles away in Austin, he became so homesick that, as former Longhorns 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.' "