On a quiet block in downtown Austin, a few broken-field runs from the University of Texas, is a beige Craftsman bungalow fronted by a white fence, an overgrown yard and a dark-red door that has been left unlocked. The house could easily be mistaken for an upperclassman's off-campus crash pad or the jam space for Sixth Street dreamers. Cardboard boxes line the hardwood floors and R&B plays even though nobody seems to be home. The living room is empty, except for two orange parrot fish swimming in a tank, a stuffed bobcat with a bird in its mouth and a familiar bronze figure spinning on a lazy Susan. The figure is the 1977 Heisman Trophy. The only thing guarding it is the bobcat.
The owner of the trophy calls out from a backroom in a leisurely baritone drawl that is part country, part blues. Fifty-seven-year-old Earl Campbell is sitting at the head of a conference table, walker by his side, white hair matching his white goatee. He wears a Longhorns logo on every article of clothing, including his burnt-orange mesh shorts, which are skimpy enough to reveal his thighs. Football may have ravaged the man's knees, his back and his feet, but it spared his thighs. They are still thicker than watercoolers. They barely fit under the table.
Through his gold-rimmed glasses, Campbell eyes a bottle of orange juice and a bag of trail mix in front of him. "Jack Tatum is the orange juice," he says. "I'm the trail mix." It is 1979 again, and the Oilers are on the Raiders' one-yard line as baby-blue pom-poms shake in unison inside the Astrodome. Campbell is the Oilers' tailback, positioned about eight yards deep, as was his habit. Tatum is the Raiders' free safety, creeping toward the line of scrimmage, as was his. The juice and the nuts stand across from each other.
"We had a wingback named Rob Carpenter," Campbell says. "Our coach, Bum Phillips, told Carpenter, 'I want you to go in motion, and when you get down on the right guard's ass, I want you to turn up into the hole. That's where you're going to meet Jack Tatum.' Then Carpenter goes in motion, but for some reason he keeps running to the sideline. And old Jack says, 'Nah, I ain't fallin' for that.' So when I get the ball, I turn up in the hole, and there's Jack waiting for me." Campbell inches the glass toward the nuts. "He put a hit on me I will never forget. He knocked the hell out of me. My neck popped out. My sternum shot back. But, you know, he forgot to wrap up, so I spun out of there and backed into the end zone."
Campbell reaches for his keys, slices open the bag of trail mix and raises it to his lips. He chuckles as he chews.
Earl Campbell never wanted to be a running back. He preferred to deliver the hits. Campbell played linebacker during his first three years of high school, a self-styled Dick Butkus, and coaches at Texas had to push him out of defensive drills. They gave him a 9-millimeter film of Jim Brown, and as Campbell studied the tape in his dorm room, he became convinced it was possible to punish people with the ball in his hands.
Campbell was Butkus with an eight-yard running start, taking safeties on 10-yard piggyback rides before brushing them off his shoulder pads like lint. He mimicked Brown, staggering back to every huddle as if he were hurt, only to unleash yet another combination of head butts and stiff arms. Defenses dispatched one convoy to slow him and another to ground him.
On one touchdown run at Texas, Campbell raced full speed through the corner of the end zone and plowed into Bevo, the school's 1,700-pound pet Longhorn. "I hit him in the flank, right here," Campbell says, pointing at the midsection of a longhorn sculpture that happens to be on hand. "Bevo took most of the blow. He didn't fall, but I could feel him stumble backward. After he got his balance, he looked at me and said, 'Moo.'"
Drafted first overall by the Oilers in 1978, Campbell vowed that he would play seven years in the NFL but stuck around for eight. He helped inspire the elimination of tearaway jerseys and the creation of yards-after-contact statistics. He defined mesquite-tough masculinity for a generation in Texas and beyond. Five times he cleared 300 carries and 1,300 yards. When former defenders describe what it felt like to tackle him, they sound as if they are recalling a near-death experience. This was just one collision, during a meaningless exhibition game before the start of Campbell's final season, in 1985. By then he had been traded to New Orleans, supposedly washed up. He was playing his old team.
"It was at the Superdome, and the Saints were on the one-yard line coming in," says former Oilers safety Bo Eason. "My job was to jump over the goal line and meet Earl at the peak. He was all ass and thighs, so there was no place to hit him, but I jumped up, and I hit him square. I mean I popped him face-to-face. After I hit him, I couldn't see anything. All I could see was black. I thought I was blind. Then I opened my eyes, and I was lying on my back in the end zone, and I could make out the lights on the ceiling. They were all fuzzy and blurry and spinning. I thought I was in heaven. Then I turned my head, and Earl was lying right next to me. He reached his hand over to help me up, and I said, 'Earl, I've got to lie here awhile; I think you knocked out my eyes.'