For NFL defenders in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the prospect of tackling Earl Campbell must have been terrifying.
When Campbell’s 5’11”, 230-pound frame and tree trunk sized legs were powered by a full head of steam, the sight was akin to a runaway cement truck crushing anything in its path.
One of the greatest power runners the game has ever seen.
— NFL Throwback (@nflthrowback) March 29, 2020
After becoming a megawatt star at the University of Texas, Campbell plied his craft in the NFL for eight seasons.
His combination of size and speed was not commonly found in a running back and is still a sought after commodity.
To this day, draft hopefuls who tote the rock hope to become ‘the next Earl Campbell’ but regularly fall short of expectations.
While Campbell exemplified the ideal of a pro football player on the field, he has become an unfortunate modern stereotype of the broken down former ball player.
Despite the constant pain in his body, the “Tyler Rose” continues to soldier on and is a beloved, highly respected icon in the state of Texas.
This is the story of Earl Campbell.
Earl Christian Campbell was born on March 29, 1955 in Tyler, Texas.
His birthplace later spawned his well-known nickname of “the Tyler Rose.”
Campbell was the fifth of 11 siblings living in poverty in rural Texas and his father, Bert, died when he was 11 years old.
Around the same time, Campbell gravitated toward the sport of football, though his mother tried to discourage her son from playing.
“I dis-encouraged Earl,” his mother said in 1977. “But he always loved football.”
As he got older, Campbell played for men that would become surrogate fathers in his life.
He began his journey on the gridiron as a kicker, then moved to linebacker after watching Chicago Bears great Dick Butkus.
When Campbell reached John Tyler High School he was still playing linebacker and had an astounding eight sacks in his first varsity game.
During his junior year, he played running back on occasion and averaged more than 11 yards per carry.
Then, as a senior in 1973, Campbell started at running back for the first time and led Tyler High to a state title after rushing for 2,036 yards (225 yards per game average) and a 15-0 record.
— 𝕃𝕦𝕧 𝕐𝕒 𝔹𝕝𝕦𝕖 (@BudsOilers) January 18, 2019
Once the season concluded, Campbell was named Mr. Football USA and picked as the national high school player of the year.
He was recruited heavily by schools throughout the country and especially schools from the Southwest Conference.
Oklahoma head coach Barry Switzer tried desperately to get Campbell to become a Sooner.
Years later, Switzer admitted that the young man from Tyler was the only player he ever met that could have gone straight to the NFL from high school and starred immediately.
Another fixture around Campbell and his family at the time was Longhorns coach Darrell Royal.
After a number of home visits and conversations from Royal, Campbell eventually decided to make the University of Texas his college home.
Campbell Shines as a Longhorn
It didn’t take long for Royal to break out his shiny new toy.
As a freshman in 1974, Campbell played in 11 games and rushed for 928 yards and six touchdowns.
In 1975, he busted loose for 1,118 yards on 198 carries and added 13 scores.
Happy Birthday Earl Campbell!
— Texas Football (@TexasFootball) March 29, 2021
Campbell led the SWC that season in rushing and would be named a first-team All-American as a fullback.
During Campbell’s junior year, he sustained leg injuries which kept him absent from four games.
He was still able to accumulate 653 yards and three touchdowns, but Texas felt his absence and fell from 10-2 in 1975 to 5-5-1 in 1976.
Campbell Wins the Heisman
With his leg injuries behind him, Campbell returned for his senior year in 1977 ready to set the world on fire.
In the Longhorns’ third game of the year against the Rice Owls, Campbell scored four times in a 72-15 blowout.
During the final game of the season against Texas A&M, he romped for a career-high 222 yards in a 57-28 win.
At that point, Texas was undefeated and played Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl.
Although Campbell would carry the ball 29 times for 116 yards, the Irish were led by quarterback Joe Montana and rolled over the ‘Horns 38-10.
Despite not finishing the year undefeated and winning a national title (Texas would finish fourth overall), Campbell still led the nation in rushing with 1,744 yards and 19 total scores.
He would receive his second first-team All-American nomination and became the first recipient of the Davey O’Brien Trophy, which is awarded to the outstanding player in the Southwest Conference.
Campbell also became the first University of Texas player in history to win the Heisman Trophy as college football’s top athlete.
Today in 1977, Earl Campbell wins the Heisman Trophy. pic.twitter.com/PLn6bzjroi
— Texas Sports History (@TXSportsHistory) December 8, 2021
During his Longhorns career, Campbell had 4,443 rushing yards and 41 total touchdowns in 40 games through four seasons.
His jersey number 20 has been retired by the school.
Staying Home to Play Pro Ball
By the time 1978 arrived, it had been a long time since the Houston Oilers were contenders.
The franchise reached the postseason in 1969 and played in the AFL Championship in 1967.
Both appearances were against the Oakland Raiders and both were blowout losses by Houston by a combined score of 96-14.
In 1977, Houston went 8-6 and made a series of moves to get the first pick of the 1978 NFL Draft.
Oilers owner Bud Adams introduces #1 draft pick Earl Campbell while looking like the villain from a Porky’s sequel that was regrettably never made. pic.twitter.com/22CYDROfO3
— Super 70s Sports (@Super70sSports) May 19, 2019
With that selection, the Oilers grabbed Campbell and signed him to a six-year, $1.4 million contract.
“This is a commitment to excellence,” said Oilers head coach Bum Phillips at the time. “It takes a great running back to have a winning football team and this kid is a great running back.”
In his rookie year, Campbell rushed for an NFL and rookie record 1,450 yards and 13 touchdowns.
He also led the league in yards per game with 96.7.
After the season, Campbell was named the Offensive Rookie of the Year and NFL Offensive Player of the Year by several media groups, AFC Offensive Player of the Year, NFL MVP by the Newspaper Enterprise Association, and was voted to the first of five Pro Bowls.
His play that season led the Oilers to a 10-6 record and victories over the Dolphins and the Patriots in the first two rounds of the playoffs (Campbell scored a rushing touchdown in each game).
The home crowd made Houston an intimidating place to play and the “Luv-Ya-Blue” movement was in full swing.
Unfortunately, the dream season ended when the Pittsburgh Steelers rolled over Houston 34-5 in the AFC Championship Game.
Piling up Yardage
In 1979, Campbell improved his previous year’s totals and ran for 1,697 yards, 19 touchdowns, and a 106.1 yards per game average.
All three categories led the NFL that season.
He would be named the NFL’s MVP by numerous media outlets, repeated as the AP Offensive Player of the Year, and won the Bert Bell Award as the league’s most outstanding player.
"I don't know if he's in a class by himself, but I do know that when that class gets together, it sure don't take long to call the roll." – Bum Phillips speaking about Earl Campbell.#NFL #1970s #1980s #Houston #Oilers pic.twitter.com/aK1l5sfWhB
— JVAN (@VanderlansJim) April 23, 2022
Around that time, Phillips was asked if Campbell was in a class by himself.
“I dunno,” Phillips responded. “But if he ain’t, it don’t take long to call the roll.”
The Oilers continued benefiting from their featured back and went 11-5 in ‘79.
After dispatching Denver and San Diego in the first two rounds, Houston lost again to Pittsburgh in the AFC title game 27-13.
1980 witnessed Campbell topping the NFL again in yardage (1,934, a career-high), carries (373), touchdowns (13), yards per average (5.2), yards per game (128.9), total touches (394) and total yards from scrimmage (1,981).
He further dazzled the fans with four games of over 200 rushing yards (a record that stood for several years), a 57-yard touchdown pass to receiver Billy “White Shoes” Johnson, and the fact that over 60% of his yards came during the fourth quarter.
“That’s when the tough get going,” said Campbell at the time.
For opposing tacklers, Campbell was an intimidating presence who preferred to go through opponents rather than around.
The Snake handing off to Earl Campbell, both wearing Pony's. Powerful image. pic.twitter.com/Vko7EEI1K7
— Melankomas.edu; M.D. (doctor of medicine) (@Melankomas) April 26, 2022
Just the sight of his powerful legs was enough to send shivers down the spine of defenders.
“We make four sizes of thigh pads,” said Houston equipment manager Byron Donzis. “Small, medium, large and Earl Campbell.”
Meanwhile, a number of NFL peers were cautioning Campbell about his running style, explaining that it wasn’t sustainable.
“Knocking over people can look very good but you can’t do it forever,” said Steelers great Franco Harris. “Sometimes it’s going to be somebody else who knocks you over … so the most important thing I think isn’t to get a few extra yards every time but to make sure you’re healthy enough to play.”
However, Campbell’s coach, Phillips, dismissed the calls for caution.
“I’ve been looking for a back like Earl,” Phillips said. “I’m not going to change his style. Why would I? You don’t want a guy who gets hit and then flops on the ground. Earl does the same thing other backs do, only better.”
Despite Campbell’s outstanding year, the Oilers went 11-5 and lost to the Raiders in the Wild Card round, leading to Phillips’ firing.
Houston Falters while Campbell Runs Hard
When Phillips was shown the door, defensive coordinator Ed Biles was elevated to the top spot.
Without the charismatic Phillips leading the team, the Oilers began a period of bad football beginning in 1981.
That year the franchise went 7-9 while Campbell rushed for 1,376 yards and 10 touchdowns and led the NFL in total touches with 397.
His rushing yardage total marked the fourth straight year that Campbell ran for over 1,000 yards.
Earl Campbell in the 4th quarter was like a great boxer in the championship rounds. Just when you were exhausted from trying to stop this freight train for three quarters, that’s when he really went to work on you. pic.twitter.com/osUJbBOnD9
— Super 70s Sports (@Super70sSports) February 6, 2022
The following season was cut short by a players strike, which limited Campbell’s stats to 538 yards and only two touchdowns.
Houston won only one game in ‘82.
In 1983, Biles was given his walking papers as the Oilers began 0-6 and Chuck Studley went 2-8 as the interim coach.
Even with the upheaval of a coaching change, Campbell rushed for over 1,000 yards again and finished ‘83 with 1,301 yards and 12 touchdowns.
He was voted to his fifth Pro Bowl, but by the end of the year, Campbell wanted a change of scenery and demanded a trade.
“I’m tired of hearing every week how I’m too dumb, washed up, too dumb to read holes, can’t block, can’t catch the football,” Campbell said.
Before the 1984 season, Houston hired Hugh Campbell to be their new coach.
The team also tried to keep Campbell.
However, by the sixth game of the season, the Oilers hadn’t won a game and Campbell had all of 278 rushing yards.
Seeing the writing on the wall, the organization traded Campbell to the New Orleans Saints.
The move reunited him with Bum Phillips, who had been hired by the organization in 1981.
”I always thought Earl was a good back, obviously, and I’m happy to be able to get him,” Phillips said after the trade was announced.
Campbell Unexpectedly Retires
Campbell’s signing meant that the Saints had two Heisman winners in the backfield with George Rogers firmly entrenched as New Orleans’ starter.
For the remainder of the ‘84 season, Campbell didn’t see many carries and finished the season with a combined 468 rushing yards and four scores.
In 1985, he posted 643 yards and one touchdown.
— Ken Gelman (@kengfunk) November 29, 2020
Campbell’s best game that season was against Minnesota in which he ran for 160 yards and his lone score.
It would be his final 100-yard rushing game.
During the year, Phillips resigned after a rocky start and his son, Wade Phillips, coached the rest of the 5-11 season.
Phillips’ decision to leave was tough on Campbell, who considered the coach a father figure.
With two tough years behind him, Campbell briefly considered returning in 1986 to try and get to the elusive 10,000-yard rushing mark.
However, during the ‘86 preseason, he surprised Saints management and new coach Jim Mora by retiring.
“I’m a man; I’m not a little boy,” Campbell said. “I believe this is the best thing–not only for myself, but for the Saints.”
During his eight-year career, Campbell carried the ball a total of 2,187 times for 9,407 yards and 74 touchdowns.
He was a five-time Pro Bowler, an NFL MVP, an Offensive Player of the Year, a three-time first-team All-Pro, Bert Bell Award winner, and an NFL leader in several statistical categories.
After retiring, Campbell’s jersey number 34 was retired by the Tennessee Titans, and he was placed in the Oilers/Titans Ring of Honor.
Additionally, Campbell has been named to the NFL’s 1970s All-Decade Team and the league’s 100th Anniversary All-Time Team.
Not long after retiring, Campbell was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1990 and the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1991.
With the announcement, several of his former peers sang Campbell’s praises.
“Every time you hit him you lower your own IQ,” said former Washington Redskins linebacker Pete Wysocki.
Former Dallas Cowboys safety Cliff Harris claimed that Campbell was the hardest-hitting running back he ever played against.
“He didn’t have the elusiveness of an O. J. Simpson. But when you finished a game against Earl, you had to sit in a tub with Epsom salts,” said Harris.
For a number of years, Campbell has been active with the University of Texas athletic department.
He also owned and operated a restaurant.
By 2001, Campbell found that he had difficulty moving and had trouble closing his fist due to arthritis.
He then developed issues with his back, knees, and legs.
In 2009, Campbell was diagnosed with spinal stenosis, a condition where the spinal cord narrows, causing pain, numbness, and weakness in the arms or legs.
Initially, Campbell attributed the condition to genetics.
He later changed course and said he believed the start of his condition came in 1979.
That year while playing for Houston, Campbell was rushing for a touchdown when he was hit hard by Raiders safety Jack Tatum.
Earl Campbell's undiagnosed spinal condition was particularly dangerous for the type of power runner he was. He said this hit, by Jack Tatum in 1979, sent a shock down his legs. pic.twitter.com/O9goi6mEeJ
— Dave Wilson (@dwil) October 8, 2020
The collision with the man they called “the Assassin” was the hardest hit of Campbell’s career.
“The lick I took from Jack Tatum, that’s the only time I ever felt somebody hit me,” Campbell said. “A shock went down to the heels on my feet. And it burned. When I was standing on my head in my end zone, nobody knew this, but I was thinking, ‘Something’s wrong.'”
Years later, one of Campbell’s doctors, Dr. Stan Jones, watched the play and agreed that the Tatum hit most likely caused Campbell’s spinal issues.
“It is terrifying,” Jones said of the play. “It’s really dangerous. Earl probably had a contusion of the spinal cord at that time, which would explain the burning. He’s really lucky he was not injured severely with that hit, the way his head snaps back and then the way he falls. That’s a severe whiplash, which can cause spinal cord injury, especially with spinal stenosis.”
After consulting with Jones and receiving medical treatment, Campbell was still addicted to the painkillers he took before surgery.
He was eventually able to kick the habit due to an intense stint in rehab and the support from his sons, Christian and Tyler, and his wife, Reuna.
“The competitor in him never goes away,” Christian said. “He pulled it together and went and got the help that he needed.”
With surgery and his addiction behind him, Campbell has returned to some semblance of a normal life.
He now spends time speaking out about the dangers of substance abuse and helping others to avoid the mental traps he fell into after his retirement from football.
“I’m not in none of that pain,” Campbell said in 2020. “Dr. Jones took that away from me and I learned how to live my life without drugs and alcohol and pain pills. I went and got help for that and I’m not ashamed of it.”