Last year, after Billy Sims of Oklahoma had won the Heisman Trophy that Campbell had won the year before, Sooners 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."
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.
In November 1978 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 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. Quarterback Dan Pastorini could see that Campbell was breathing heavily, but when he knelt down in the huddle, he called 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 [teammate] 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 Oilers victory.
After the game Campbell lay wide awake until nearly dawn, just as he does after every game. The buzz in his ears wouldn't go away, and the lightning in his body he had not used up was now flashing behind his eyes. "I usually lie there in bed, tossing and turning, until about 4 a.m.," Campbell says. "Most of the time I have flashbacks from the game, mental pictures in which I can see holes forming in front of me, and then see the defensive linemen fill them up as they charge at me. But I'm never scared. It's just like in the game, fear doesn't enter into it."
His face tried to break into a smile, but his lower lip was so full of snuff he couldn't. "Waylon says cowboys are like smoky old pool rooms," he said. "You clear 'em all out in the morning."
With that, he began to sing in an affecting falsetto:
Cowboys ain't easy to love and they're harder to hold,
They'd rather give you a song than diamonds or gold....
Mamas don't let your babies grow up to be cowboys
'Cause they'll never stay home and they're always alone,
Even with someone they love.