Bill Little commentary: Honoring Earl Campbell
"Ain't it funny," says our old friend Willie Nelson, "how time slips away."
Eddie Little was a great photographer, who left this world way too soon. My Dad left me many gifts, including the camera with which he took the pictures which would not only make him famous in photography circles, but would record a piece of history for the folks around Winters and Abilene and points around that part of West Texas.
And with that camera, in the summer of 1977, I rode the elevator to the top of what was then called Memorial Stadium, and took a picture of our new football coach and his top player.
The glitzy football media guides produced now were only a dream in those days. The "press guide," as we called it, was 4 inches by 9 inches -- a pamphlet of 104 pages.
And as the only assistant sports information director to SID Jones Ramsey, producing the cover was my job. So I took our new head coach and our star player up to the 11th floor, unlocked the gate to the stadium, and posed the two of them in the stands with the stadium field and the LBJ Library in the background.
Dressed in suits, they were, and looking all spiffed up for the "new beginning" of Texas Football. The picture turned out pretty well, and as we got ready to go to press, I added a cutline at the bottom of the picture, which read, "Head Coach Fred Akers, Heisman Candidate Earl Campbell."
That was a pretty big stretch for a guy who hadn't even made the all-conference team the year before. Other folks were just beginning the glitzy campaigns promoting candidates, but that one sentence, on that little guide, was the only published piece of literature proclaiming that Earl Campbell might be the best player in college football in 1977.
That same summer, Earl and his twin brothers had part-time jobs working on the construction of what is now the Bass Concert Hall in the UT Performing Arts Center, right across the street from the football stadium.
Earl's job was to carry eight-foot sheets of plywood up to the top of the construction site. He'd pick up the wood, jump over a trickling little creek which used to run outside the old baseball field which used to occupy the area, and trudge to the top.
One day at lunch, with the sweat from the Texas heat soaking his tee shirt and a cool drink of water in his hand, a co-worker was reading the morning paper. It was talking about Tony Dorsett, who had been drafted by the Dallas Cowboys. He was in the news because he still hadn't reported.
"It said in that paper that you would get a million dollars if you won that award," Earl recalled. "So I took that little piece of paper and went over to the stadium and found our trainer, Frank Medina."
Earl told Medina he wanted that trophy.
"Mr. Man," said Medina, "If you want to win that, then you get over here to the training room every day this summer when you finish your work."
The rest, as they say, is history.
This weekend at the Barton Creek Club and Resort in Austin, Heisman Trophy winners will gather in reunion. In special ceremonies, they will honor our old friend and the world's best Texas Aggie, John David Crow, for the Heisman he won 50 years ago in 1957. And they will salute Earl on the 30th anniversary of becoming the first Heisman Trophy winner in Texas Longhorns history.
Earl Campbell was famous long before he stepped on the field to play football for Darrell Royal at Texas. His high school career at Tyler (John Tyler) was the stuff from which legends are made. He was, for those who saw him, the greatest high school running back in state history. And while almost 35 years have passed since he claimed that title as a senior in 1973, folks around East Texas will tell you it is a title he still holds.
They write books and sing songs about guys like Earl Campbell. The most powerful person in his life was his momma, Ann Campbell, who raised roses to earn the money to feed her 11 kids after Earl's dad died when Earl was just past 10 years old.
"The Tyler Rose," he would become, and the recruiting of Earl Campbell was one of the most spirited competitions of the spring of 1974. Ken Dabbs, a Texas assistant who had been a fine high school coach, was the point person for Darrell Royal's staff, and he was matched against the best from every school in the country.
But whatever the challenge, it was Mamma Campbell who would stand in the doorway, fending off the other folks.
And so it was that in the spring of 1974, Earl Campbell signed to become a Texas Longhorn.
His success was immediate. With Roosevelt Leaks, the Longhorns' All-America running back battling to come back from knee surgery after a spring practice injury, Campbell became the fullback in the Texas Wishbone. He gained 928 yards and helped lead the team to the Gator Bowl. As he prepared for a sophomore season where he would lead Texas to a Southwest Conference tri-championship, he sat down in my office for one of the most memorable interviews I have ever had.
"What makes you run?" I asked.
"I want to be a pro football player. I want to be successful in what I try to do. It is part of me, just like the clothes I wear. The way I look at it, it's a gift that God gave me and this is what I am meant to do. I want to make it so I can help take care of my family. I want to buy my momma a house so she won't have to look at the stars at night through the holes in the roof. And after I have done that, maybe I can be of help to some who are less fortunate than I."
And then, at just 20 years of age, he continued talking.
"I try each night to read the Bible, and I say my prayers. People wonder how I get out there and run like I do. On game days, especially on game days, I sit on the bench, I put on that suit, and I say a prayer. I remember a sign in my high school dressing room that said, "A quitter never wins, and a winner never quits." I think about that all the time. There are times when I feel like I want to quit, but whenever I do, I just say a little prayer and suddenly my day is brighter.
"If it weren't for the dark days, we wouldn't know what it is to walk in the light."
He was named All-America that sophomore season, and then struggled throughout 1976 -- Darrell Royal's last year -- with a hamstring injury. Medina, the trainer, and the doctors knew what was the matter, but they had problems getting to the source to treat the injury. The pulled hamstring was buried deep within Earl's thigh, which measured an incredible 30 inches -- more than a lot of college students' waists.
But when we took that picture in the summer of 1977, things had changed. Fred Akers had installed the "I" formation, with Earl as the tailback. And the season upon which they were about to embark would be like a tale from a storybook.
Ramsey, who was highly respected by the national media, developed the statistic of "YAC" or "Yards After Contact." It is common today, but we were the first to use it to reflect the power of a running back. Earl set conference and school rushing records, and he led the NCAA with 1,744 yards and 114 points. Coach Royal had told him in his freshman year to always play with class.
When other players were dancing and showboating after big plays (before the NCAA outlawed such behavior), Coach Royal told Earl, "Earl, when you get in that end zone, act like you have been there before."
And Earl was in there a lot.
He led the Horns to an 11-0 record and a No. 1 ranking at the end of the regular season, and only an upset by Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl denied Texas a National Championship.
The national media recognized the story. Sports Illustrated's Doug Looney was the first to pick up on Campbell as a national figure, and it wasn't long before I received a call in my office.
"This is Kent Demaret with People Magazine," the voice on the other end of the phone said. "And I have heard a story about some football player you have there whose mother raises roses..."
"Let me tell you," I said, stopping him in mid-sentence, "about Earl Campbell."
The week when the Heisman votes came due, the story of Ann and Earl Campbell was in every super market and on every magazine stand in the country. The prediction of the little media guide came true. Earl became the first Heisman Trophy winner in Texas Longhorns history.
His storied professional career created some of the most memorable plays in league history, as he ran his way into the NFL Hall of Fame.
It has been a long time since those days when Darrell Royal became a father figure to him, and his senior season under Akers created a year in which he won the Heisman. And in some ways, the years have not been kind. The pounding he took as a pro player has aged his body, and like the old song says, he "can't get around much any more."
But when he was honored with a statue in the corner of the stadium, and this weekend when fellow Heisman winners gather here in Austin, it is a good time to remember.
It was a brave time when Earl Campbell chose to come to The University of Texas. It was a brave young heart who played the game with reckless abandon, and who came back to earn his degree, despite being one of the most famous players in pro football.
Fame, as we have learned, is not always friendly. But in the twilight of a moment, somewhere in the memory is an incredible athlete, a running back without peer, and a young man whose momma gave him values that will always stand the test of time.