Bill Little commentary: Momma's roses
Aug. 3, 2009
Bill Little, Texas Media Relations
It has been over 30 years, but it seems only yesterday.
I was working late one autumn afternoon when the phone rang in our office.
"This is Kent Demaret of People Magazine," the voice on the other end of the line said. "And somebody's been telling me about some great football player you have whose mother raises roses in East Texas. Sounded like there might be a story there."
I took a deep breath and paused for a moment.
"Let me tell you," I said, "about Earl Campbell, and his mother, Ann."
In a few weeks, just as the Heisman Trophy writers were about to cast their ballots, Ann Campbell's picture was on the cover of the magazine, right there in every grocery story in America.
I thought about that phone call, which has been etched in my memory for all of these years, when word reached our office Monday that Ann Campbell had died, convinced in her own mind that she was heading to a Greater Rose Field somewhere beyond the sky just a few months shy of her 86th birthday. Because in many ways, Ann Campbell was one of the most important women in the history of Texas Longhorns football.
Not only did she raise roses in the Tyler fields, she raised 11 children. Ten of them were high school age or younger when her husband died in 1966. With a strong belief in God and a commitment to hard work and discipline, she reared those children, never expecting that one day, one of them would become arguably the greatest football player of his era.
By the time Earl Campbell was in the running for the Heisman Trophy in the fall of 1977, the legend of Momma's Roses was gaining national attention. And while Earl was the record-setting running back at John Tyler High School and an All-American at Texas, it was the lady who moved with equal efficiency and grace from the fields to the skyscrapers of Manhattan who clearly was the person who made Earl run.
Once, when a college coach had come to visit Earl in those days when recruiters could come at anytime, Earl sent word that he was just "too tired" to talk to him. "Earl," said Ann Campbell, "this man had come a long way to see you, now you get up and go talk to him."
But in a time when recruiting irregularities were rampant, honesty and integrity were the roses Ann Campbell brought forward to a business rift with thorns. This remarkable woman of meager means believed that life was better with a smile on your face, and that "great" was a word reserved only for God Almighty.
When Earl was being recruited, she listened and watched until she finally made a decision that would change forever the face of Texas Longhorns football, and The University of Texas.
Ken Dabbs remembers the moment as if it were yesterday. He can still see Ann Campbell, lying in bed in the tiny house where she lived by the rose fields and raised Earl and his 10 brothers and sisters.
High blood pressure had felled her, Dabbs says, and it was past nine o'clock in the evening, two days from signing day for high school football stars.
Earl Campbell may have been the premier recruit in Texas high school history. He was coming off a spectacular senior season in 1973, where he had led Tyler to the state high school championship.
It was not uncommon for a school to place a young assistant in an apartment in a town where a prized player lived, and for them to woo them at all hours.
Dabbs was the recruiting coordinator for Coach Darrell Royal at Texas. He was a former high school coach in Texas, so he understood kids. He was older than some of his competitors, so he brought respect from parents.
And at the top of that list was Ann Campbell of Tyler, Texas. In fact, at one point early in the recruiting process, Dabbs had to explain to Momma Campbell that he was, in fact, not the head coach at The University of Texas. That was a guy with three National Championships to his credit named Darrell Royal.
But Ann Campbell didn't care about National Championships. She cared about who would be the best mentors for her son, and she cared about integrity. When recruiters came at the Campbells with illegal offers, Earl replied with a strong answer that he was not for sale.
After her husband died at a young age, Ann Campbell had supported her family working in the Tyler rose fields, selling roses. She normally had a song in her heart and a smile on her face, but the night Dabbs remembers, the stress of recruiting was getting her down.
Dabbs was practically a member of the family as far as Ann Campbell was concerned. She was a proud woman. The first time Royal came to visit, she apologized to him for her meager home.
"I'll tell you the truth, Mrs. Campbell," said Royal, who came from humble beginnings during the Dust Bowl Days in Hollis, Okla., "your house is nicer than the one my grandmother raised me in."
For Ann Campbell and Darrell Royal, it was always about how you treated people.
As Dabbs was saying good night just a few days before National Signing Day in 1973, coaches from other schools were making their final run at Earl Campbell. And as he turned to go, the phone rang.
On the other end of the line was an Oklahoma assistant coach. He wanted to know if head coach Barry Switzer could come by on Monday for a visit.
Dabbs remembers that Ann Campbell was flat on her back in bed when Earl asked the question about the possible visit.
"She raised up and looked Earl straight in the eye," remembers Dabbs. "Earl," she began according to Dabbs, "This has gone on long enough. You know you are going down to Texas with Coach Dabbs and Coach Royal, so you tell them that. Those Oklahoma coaches are the reason I'm laying here in this bed right now."
In today's advertising vernacular, the phrase would be, "Can you hear me now?"
History tells us Ann Campbell's son Earl did come to Texas. He became one of the greatest running backs in the history of both the college and professional game. As a student-athlete at Texas, he became the school's first Heisman Trophy winner and won every award for which he was eligible. He is in both the College Football Hall of Fame and the NFL Hall of Fame.
He earned his degree, and when he signed his first professional contract, he built his mother a house, in his words, "So she wouldn't have to look at the stars at night through the holes in the roof."
More than anything, this was the gift Ann Campbell left us with. In a time of doubt, she believed. When others didn't trust, she had faith.
In so many ways, it is fitting that she will be remembered for her roses. Because the rose is a flower of beauty, with layers of petals reflecting substance and grace. Most of all, it transitions its metamorphosis through a bud, then a bloom, and finally with petals that scatter, touching lives with a smile and a blessing in all directions.
And that is the story of Ann Campbell.