The program lasted 28 days. Campbell stayed 44. "I had to make a choice between living and dying," he says. "It was that serious."
Tyler works in the bungalow, no more than 10 feet from his father, and takes the trips Earl used to make in the Suburban: to Kroger and Wal-Mart, as well as all the independent groceries in the small-town South. This summer, under Tyler's direction, the company is expanding from sausage to microwavable plates of shredded pork and chicken and brisket.
Now 25, Tyler has not suffered an MS episode in 18 months. He has been married almost a year to Shana, who will enroll at Texas this fall in pursuit of her master's in social work. She'd never heard of Earl Campbell when she met his son, and even today she only calls him Father-in-law. He only calls her Daughter-in-law. "I tell her, 'Daughter-in-law, I don't want you to see what Father-in-law used to be,'" Campbell says. "And she tells me, 'Father-in-law, I better not.'"
Campbell has been sober since that day in November '09. When he wakes up, he meditates, then he prays. "I pray for peace in this country," he says. "I pray for all of us to get along. I pray for my family. And I pray that God help me and other drug addicts like me. I pray that he keeps that Budweiser and those pills away from me because I'm still one Budweiser away from being a drunk." During one of his weekly Alcoholic Anonymous meetings in Austin, where he is never anonymous, a member of the group said, "Look at Earl Campbell over there. You never hear him complain." To which Campbell shot back, "What would I complain about?"
For starters, a sport that stole the second half of his life. Campbell shakes a meaty finger in the air. "I don't hold nothing against nobody," he says. "I played the way I wanted to play and ran the way I wanted to run. When you want to be the best at something, nobody is going to tell you how to do it. When it was third-and-four, I didn't just want five yards. I wanted seven." You flash back to the goal line collision with Jack Tatum, who died of a heart attack in 2010, at age 61. How much time was lost because of that play, but then again, how much satisfaction was gained? And how in the world do you calculate the math, the value of such a moment, as opposed to the cost?
Campbell's right knee was replaced last September, his left one in January, and he's traded the wheelchair for the walker. Four times a week he hobbles into the Texas weight room, and as women's volleyball players hustle over to extend a hand, Longhorns strength coach Benny Wylie shouts, "No, he has to do this on his own." When Campbell started training with Wylie last winter, he could not take more than six steps. Now, he leaves his walker by the door and spends 12 minutes on the treadmill, before moving on to the bike, the pool and the rope. He stays for an hour-and-a-half, alongside Jamaal Charles, the injured Chiefs running back and ex--Texas star.
Campbell sleeps on the second floor again, and at night he tells Reuna, "I just want to play a good nine holes of golf." He dreams about Barton Creek, the hook and the slice, the whisper of the wind and the slope of the green. "I'm going to do it," he says. "I'm going to put that tee in the ground." Nine holes may sound like a modest goal for the most fearsome runner outside of Jim Brown, but this is the best Campbell has felt in nearly two decades. Even his panic attacks have subsided. "Some people have a chemical imbalance," Campbell says. "I had a chemical imbalance too, until I decided not to put chemicals in there." When he strolls across the Texas campus, sans sunglasses, he approaches freshmen who can't seem to place him. "My name is Earl Campbell," he says. "Who are you? Where are you from?" The reactions make him laugh. "A lot of them jump," he says. Campbell's hobby used to be deer hunting. "I take pictures of them now," he says.
Business is booming, in part because Campbell shows up for the meetings. "He is a completely different person," says Big Danny. Twelve years ago Campbell opened a barbecue restaurant on Sixth Street, and its failure sent his company into temporary bankruptcy. With Tyler overseeing the meat business, he is thinking of trying again. But father and son are in the midst of another, more significant project. As ambassadors for the National MS Society, they have joined Pro Player Foundation to raise money for research. In the past six months they planned a golf tournament, a football camp and benefits in Austin and San Diego, one of which featured five Hall of Famers. "We haven't had a lot of athletes connected to multiple sclerosis," says Debbie Pope of the National MS Society. "There's never been anyone who put himself out there like Tyler."
Perseverance is just another trait he inherited from his dad. At the national MS conference in Dallas last year, Tyler was the keynote speaker, and at the MS 150 bike race from Houston to Austin in April, Tyler and Earl were waiting at the finish line. Earl said he would sign as many autographs as necessary, arthritis be damned. "In the next five to six years," Tyler says, "I want to put the MS Society out of business."
He has already helped save one life. After Earl tucks a pinch of Copenhagen under his bottom lip, a last remaining vice, a stranger walks through the unlocked door and makes his way to the backroom. He is of the generation that turned to Campbell for cues on manhood, on taking licks without complaint. The stranger explains that he went to Texas, rooted for the Oilers and bought sausage from the displays at Fiesta Mart. He says he works around the corner. Campbell reaches into one of the cardboard boxes on the floor and fishes out an old baby-blue number 34 jersey. He flings it into the stranger's unsteady hands. "Nice to meet you," Campbell says. "I want to be a good neighbor."