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Sports Illustrated SEPTEMBER 3, 1979
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 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 run-down plank shack where he had grown up into a museum where other underprivileged kids could come and see firsthand that the NFL was, indeed, the land of opportunity.
If anyone ever deserved to have a shrine of his very own after only one year in the NFL, that person surely is Campbell. As a rookie in 1978 he rushed for 1,450 yards—more than O.J. Simpson, more than Walter Payton, more than Tony Dorsett, more than any other running back in the league—and he led the Oilers, who had an 8-6 season in '77, to the AFC Championship Game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, who then put an end to Campbell's spectacular season.
The Steelers, who had lost 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.
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. From the moment Campbell touched the ball for Houston, the Oilers were the Earlers. On his third pro 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.
Among the 29 awards Campbell won were NFL Rookie of the Year and NFL Player of the Year. Bum Phillips, the Oilers' coach, 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 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 '75, a 5-9 season in '76, the 8-6 record in '77 and the big juicy No. 1 pick in May '78.
Soon Houstonians took to saying, "Since Earl came...." Well, for one thing, since Earl came, the Oilers have played to sellout crowds; 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.
When Phillips talks about Campbell, you could swear those tiny hairs on top of the coach's great granite head are standing straight up, out of sheer excitement. "Earl has gotten nine million compliments without letting them swell his head," Phillips says. "I said if he got by last year without changing, he'd survive. I don't believe he'll ever change now. Earl's mama did a heck of a job raising him."