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"I realized later it wasn't my eyes. He hit me so hard that both my contacts flew out. The next day we were watching film with our defensive coordinator, Jerry Glanville, and he asked me why I was running the wrong direction the rest of the game. I told him, 'Coach, I couldn't see s---. Earl Campbell knocked my contacts out of my head.'"
The bungalow is the headquarters of Earl Campbell Meat Products, and the founder just moved in two weeks ago. His yellow Hall of Fame blazer still hangs by the fireplace. Campbell started the company in 1991 with $150,000 and built it into the ninth-biggest sausage manufacturer in the country, selling more than 11 million pounds per year in 38 states. He is also special assistant to Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds, in charge of mentoring Longhorns athletes. "I don't know what's wrong with college kids today," Campbell says. "They want the world. They want all these material things. I know a kid who got drafted by the Ravens and made $55 million. Guess where he is now, son. He's back home, broke, living with his parents."
On the day the Oilers handed Campbell his $1.5 million signing bonus, Bum Phillips told him, "You're kind of country like I am. You go put that money over there." Phillips was pointing at Fannin Bank, down the road from the Oilers' training facility. Campbell never hired an agent. Local bankers and accountants managed his portfolio. He met with them after practice, sometimes in his jersey and cleats. The only major purchase he remembers, besides a barbecue pit so wide it barely fit through the fence in his backyard, was the house he bought his mother in Tyler, Texas. Ann Campbell didn't care much for locks on her house, either. She thought neighbors should be able to see her boy's Heisman when they pleased.
Campbell's career was successful, charmed even. He didn't go broke, and only once did he miss more than two games in a season. He married his high school sweetheart, Reuna, and they had two sons, Christian and Tyler. The meat company was born at a tailgate party before a Texas-Colorado game, when Campbell was tinkering with sausage recipes, and guests raved about the one with black pepper. A friend told him, "I want you to take these hot links down Interstate 10 and keep straight until you come to a little town called Waelder. Ask for a guy named Big Danny."
Big Danny was Danny Janecka, who owned the J Bar B sausage plant and would become Campbell's business partner. To peddle the sausage, Campbell burned through three Chevy Suburbans driving across Texas. He stood for hours next to displays at Fiesta Mart. He showed up at radio stations at 5 a.m. and served hot links to the disc jockeys in hopes they would mention them on their morning shows. He told Christian and Tyler, "I'm not going to be home all the time, but I'm building something for you."
In advertisements, Campbell posed next to a flaming grill in his cowboy hat and silver belt buckle, looking as strong as a bull rider. On Friday nights he stood in the bleachers at Westlake High School in Austin, watching Christian and Tyler play football. On weekends he golfed at Barton Creek Country Club, usually with former Texas coach Darrell Royal. Campbell's teammates didn't know why he retired at 30, until they saw him at 40.
But eventually the game hits back, and every stiff arm is returned tenfold. As Campbell charged into middle age, arthritis froze his knees, back and feet. He developed gout and diabetes. Three bone spurs had to be removed from his vertebrae. He underwent more operations than he can remember. Around 2000, still only 45, he played his last round of golf, and soon after he required a wheelchair. He often slept on the couch in the living room of his two-story house because he couldn't make it upstairs to bed. Panic attacks, which had hounded him since retirement, grew more frequent. He wore sunglasses to shield himself from crowds. "I was not comfortable being Earl Campbell," he says.
He started taking Tylenol with codeine, then graduated to OxyContin. He popped as many as 10 pills a day, downing each with a Budweiser. "I didn't do no Scotch or wine or mixed drinks," Campbell says. "I'm from Texas. I'm real Texas. My deal was them four horses." He skipped business meetings and dozed off at public appearances. "He didn't want to do anything," Janecka says. "He was high all the time."
One weekend in 2007, ahead of the 30th anniversary of Campbell's Heisman, 18 fellow winners traveled to Barton Creek to celebrate a legend, but all they found was a cautionary tale. Campbell struggled to remember names and dates. A reporter wrote that he took six minutes to walk 40 yards. "I stay focused and prayerful that I won't have to deal with the situation of Earl Campbell one day," former Heisman winner and NFL running back Eddie George said that weekend.
"Why I was doing that I don't know," Campbell says. "I got with a doctor, and I figured I needed this pain medication, and I kept wearing him out." Campbell filled his prescriptions at a pharmacy on Guadalupe Street in Austin. He sometimes sent a business partner, Gilbert Velasquez, to pick them up so the pharmacist wouldn't judge him. Once, Velasquez returned with the pills, along with a message from the pharmacist: "This is going to kill you."