By Dave Wilson
In the late 1990s, at a benefit 30 miles away from his East Texas hometown of Tyler, Earl Campbell sat at a table while the party’s host, a colorful businessman and one of Campbell’s best friends, summoned sheepish onlookers to come say hello to the legend.
“Well, what are you waiting for? Get on over here,” he said. “Earl don’t get up.”
Campbell wasn’t aloof, wasn’t too cool to get up, despite the darkened Wayfarers that made him look cool. “Earl don’t get up” because he couldn’t.
Campbell was once seen as the baddest man on the planet. He left tacklers and pieces of his tearaway jersey on the field behind him. Off the field, he wore Wranglers and giant belt buckles and did Skoal commercials. He was declared an official State Hero in 1981 by the Texas legislature, an honor previously bestowed upon only Stephen F. Austin, Sam Houston and Davy Crockett.
As time went on and he was out of public view, Campbell broke down. At the Heisman Trophy ceremony, he remained in his seat while his fraternity brothers lined up on stage behind the winner. At Texas football games, he was always in a golf cart or riding on a scooter. Fans would pity him, muttering “Poor Earl,” as they tried to reconcile their love of football with Campbell being seen as a cautionary tale of its ravages.
But years later, he would discover through a decades-long medical odyssey, that was only part of the story.
“What happened over time is everybody just thinks I had football injuries,” says Campbell, who turned 65 in March. “They look at me and they think, ‘Oh, poor Earl.’ People really don’t know the truth about it.”
The truth came late to Campbell himself, which is why he hasn’t told this story in much detail before. Yet this year, he is deliberative as he relishes the biggest honor of a football life filled with so many of them. In July, the University of Texas announced it would immediately change the name of the football field at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium to Campbell-Williams Field to honor Campbell, who won the 1977 Heisman Trophy, and the Longhorns’ other Heisman winner, Ricky Williams (1998).
It is remarkable for several reasons. First, for how it happened: The field was previously named for Joe Jamail, a billionaire attorney and Texas mega-booster who was a close friend of Campbell’s. But amid a conversation about social justice led by Texas players on campus following George Floyd’s death in police custody in Minneapolis, Jamail’s three sons asked the university to remove their late father’s name and replace it with the names of the two Longhorns legends, replacing a wealthy booster’s name with two of the most prominent Black athletes in school history.
Campbell considers it the greatest honor of his career, both because of his love for “The University,” as he respectfully calls it, and for his appreciation for Dahr, Randall and Rob Jamail, who Campbell says made a statement that change is possible at Texas, a school that was notoriously slow to integrate both on and off the football field.
He also realizes the lasting influence of having his name forever etched on a football field. The turf was the place that changed his life. Campbell grew up poor as one of 11 siblings who all worked the rose fields in Tyler by day. And by night, they could see the stars through the holes in their roof.
And even more incredibly, he now realizes it’s possible the career that changed the trajectory of his life might not have even happened if he were playing today.
After his abrupt retirement from the NFL in 1986 at age 31, Campbell spent years of trying to unravel what he thought was damage inflicted by football, mostly to address severe back pain. What he found, starting with several tests by a spinal surgeon in 1999, went much deeper.
“I know you were this great athlete that everybody knows — Heisman Trophy winner, all this stuff — but you probably should’ve never played football,” Campbell said the doctor told him. “The amazing thing to me about Earl Campbell, this exceptional athlete I’m looking at, is that you weren’t paralyzed.”
Campbell learned he had played with spinal stenosis all his life.
It’s a narrowing of the space inside the spine, leading to pressure on nerves, and causes pain, weakness or numbness. It’s the same diagnosis that caused Michael Irvin to retire midseason and caused Cooper Manning to give up football at Ole Miss before his brothers went on to the NFL. Obviously, it would be a red flag for a football player like Campbell who ran with such brute force that he’s celebrated in YouTube videos titled “The Human Wrecking Ball.”
“Earl has been very lucky that he didn’t have any catastrophes when he was playing,” said Dr. Stan Jones, a spinal surgeon in Houston who performed Campbell’s fifth, and he hopes, final, back procedure in 2008. “I think if people had known — the doctors he was seeing at the time and the team doctors — that he was really significantly stenotic, they wouldn’t have let him play. He escaped a horrible possible situation.”
‘Small, medium, large and Earl Campbell’
As a sophomore at John Tyler High School, Campbell played middle linebacker — “I wanted to be the Black Dick Butkus,” he says now — and had eight sacks in his first varsity game.
He didn’t start at running back until his senior year, yet averaged 225 yards per game in leading the school to the 1973 state championship. He became the most coveted recruit in the country, a mythical, out-of-nowhere phenomenon who former Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer famously said was the only high school player he’d ever seen who could’ve gone straight to the NFL.
Campbell arrived at the University of Texas in 1974 with his clothes in a single paper grocery bag from Brookshire’s, the store where his mother, Ann, shopped.
He became a two-time All-American for the Longhorns, leading the nation with 1,744 rushing yards as a senior in an undefeated 1977 regular season on his way to winning the Heisman. After watching Campbell brutalize the Southwest Conference for four years, the Houston Oilers traded up to get the No. 1 pick in the 1978 draft to select him.
Wade Phillips, then the Oilers’ defensive line coach for his father, head coach Bum Phillips, said he hadn’t even seen Campbell play yet. He was shocked by Bum’s question to the coaches and scouts the first time they met to discuss potential prospects.
Pointing to Campbell’s name at the top of their draft board, Bum said, “Do you think he’s the best player that you’ve ever seen?”
Oilers offensive coordinator King Hill, himself a former No. 1 overall pick who had worked in pro football for 20 years, stunned Wade again.
“I can’t say he isn’t,” Hill said.
Campbell didn’t do anything to dissuade the notion. In his first three years, he became the first NFL running back other than his hero, Jim Brown, to lead the NFL in rushing for three straight seasons, being named first-team All-Pro each year. He was Offensive Player of the Year as a rookie and the NFL MVP in his second season. He followed that by running for 1,934 yards in 1980, averaging 5.2 yards per carry despite being a marked man by every defense.
With the medical technology available at the time, there certainly weren’t any reasons to suspect any physical imperfections for Campbell. He was renowned for his incredible natural strength and massive legs that had literally knocked defenders unconscious when they tried to hit him at the hip.
“Most of the people playing against him were worried about getting hurt, him running over them,” Wade Phillips said.
In 1980, Houston equipment manufacturer Byron Donzis, who invented the quarterback “flak” jacket, spoke of the challenges of outfitting Campbell’s massive 34½-inch thighs.
“We make four sizes of thigh pads,” he said. “Small, medium, large and Earl Campbell.”
And with every standard physical, Campbell said, everything checked out.
“In college and pro football, I never had nothing but a doctor telling me to turn your head to the right and cough,” Campbell said.
‘If that right lick had ever hit me, I would’ve permanently been in a wheelchair’
You don’t even have to look elsewhere to consider how Campbell’s condition might have been handled today. Just last year, Texas signed linebacker De’Gabriel Floyd, the No. 55 overall recruit in the ESPN 300 and the No. 6 linebacker in the country. He arrived in January at 6-2, 226 pounds and went through winter workouts with the Longhorns primed to live up to his immense promise.
“Texas took me and put 30-40 more pounds of muscle and had me running 21 miles an hour at 260. I felt nearly invincible,” Floyd said. “My body felt the greatest I’ve ever felt.”
But during his senior year of high school in California, Floyd was having the game of his life with more than 30 tackles when he collided with an offensive lineman, pinning his chin against his chest. The jolt sent a tingling sensation down his fingers and into his right leg.
He played seven more games that season, saying he felt fine. But at Texas, during workouts, he described feeling the same tingling sensation, which medical staff immediately recognized as the classic symptoms of a stinger, a spinal cord injury. Texas’ doctors did multiple MRIs until they were able to find the exact positioning of his neck, and then they saw it: spinal stenosis. Floyd was immediately held out of spring practice.
“[Former Texas defensive coordinator Todd] Orlando told me to my face, ‘We’re trying to save you from you. We know how you play and do what you do,'” Floyd said. “They were trying to save me from possibly harming myself.”
Floyd was told by doctors that his injury was connected to his diaphragm.
“If I got hit a certain way and something tapped my diaphragm, I could just stop breathing and die, on the field,” Floyd said. “That’s the worst-case scenario. The other one would just be like paralyzed from the neck down. Something like that.”
Despite the dire warnings, Floyd begged to keep playing but finally had to relent. He retired from football last December before ever playing a game for the Longhorns. He remains on scholarship at Texas but is continuing life as a student, pursuing a career in music. Still, he has regrets.
“I was mad at myself, literally crying in my dorm, like why did I tell them about the symptoms?” he said. “Even if I would’ve known, I would’ve been truly completely happy playing.
“God forbid I died,” he said as he voice trails off. “But, I mean, playing ball …”
As unthinkable as it is now, doctors would’ve had the same debate about Campbell. He says he would’ve listened, knowing what he knows now and understands the sense of loss Floyd must be feeling.
“As bad as it would have been for me not to be an athlete, I think when they tell a young man that they can’t do something because of stenosis, I think they should really take a hearing to what the doctors are saying,” Campbell said. “Because if that right lick had ever hit me, I would’ve permanently been in a wheelchair.”
Dr. Mark Spoonamore, who works with college and pro athletes at the USC Spine Center in Los Angeles, said Campbell’s back condition was more dangerous for him than most anyone else who might have played with stenosis.
“There’s more risk, frankly, for the player putting your head down than it is for the player enduring the hit,” Spoonamore said. “It’s actually more common for people to get paralyzed or have a bad neck injury because you lower your head and engage the other player that way. You know, like, Earl Campbell played.”
He might have just escaped that one fateful blow.
‘The only time I ever felt somebody hit me’
In 1978, Oakland Raiders safety Jack Tatum ended the career of New England Patriots receiver Darryl Stingley in one of the NFL’s most tragic injuries. As Stingley reached for a pass, Tatum’s helmet slammed into his shoulder pad. The force compressed Stingley’s spinal cord and fractured two vertebrae, leaving him paralyzed and a quadriplegic. He lived the next 30 years in a wheelchair before dying at 55 from complications from his condition.
A year after the Stingley hit, Tatum and Campbell met in the Astrodome in the first quarter of a November game between the Oilers and the Raiders. With Houston at the 1-yard line, the entire building knew Campbell would get the ball. He took a handoff on the 1-yard line and veered off tackle to the right.
Campbell never saw Tatum, who was obscured by his linemen and arrived at full speed, meeting him at the goal line with the crown of his helmet delivering a brutal blow right under Campbell’s chin. The big running back won the battle, an oft-cited, celebrated moment of Campbell’s superhuman strength. He absorbed the blow, stumbled backward and fell into the end zone, rolling over to see Tatum left in his wake.
“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.'”
Campbell has talked about this hit often as an example of the physicality of football. But he never told doctors about what he felt on the play or mentioned it until now. With this revelation, Jones, Campbell’s surgeon, went back and watched the play.
“It is terrifying,” Jones said. “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.”
Spoonamore agrees with Jones’ concerns.
“That’s essentially a spinal cord inflammation, a transient inflammation usually, where it jolts the spinal cord and it usually happens because you’ve got some preexisting stenosis and narrowing,” Spoonamore said, noting that there are now medical staffers who would check a player after a hit like that rather than just taking their word for it. For him, it’s just one more instance where Campbell might have been sidelined.
“Now we’re much more attuned to that,” he said. “Not just myself as a spine specialist. But even the general doctors on the sidelines and the trainers are much more attuned to that, where they would probably keep the player off the field after that play for further evaluation.”
The hit came on Campbell’s fourth carry of the game. He finished with 32 rushes for 107 yards.
‘He said he couldn’t walk’
Campbell had one doctor from birth to college. Dr. Kinsey delivered him and was so close to the family he even suggested names. When Earl Christian Campbell was leaving for Austin, Dr. Earl Christian Kinsey performed his physical.
Team doctors looked after Campbell once he arrived in Texas and then in the NFL. But after retirement, he started out on his own and followed whatever advice was offered. From 1999 to 2008, he had five different back surgeries.
“I started going to these damn doctors,” Campbell said. “I’m sure they’re excited to have Earl Campbell in their office and doctor on him. Hell, I didn’t know no better, I thought you go to a doctor and that’s somebody that’s gonna save your life. Next thing I know, I was in so much pain.”
Campbell said he followed their advice then, too. The self-professed country boy who had avoided the temptations of the 1980s as a football star didn’t foresee the danger of prescription painkillers.
“I never took pills. I never smoked a joint. I never had experience with cocaine,” Campbell said. “Now, I know a little bit about Budweiser and tequila. But this doctor started me and I don’t know, hell, it just happened so fast with the surgeries. I mean I’ve gotten cut in my throat. I never dreamed about all this s— about my spine, and cutting bone spurs the size of your thumb off my back. They were giving me pain medication and doctorin’ on me and next thing I know I’m hooked.”
In 2008, Bum Phillips, Campbell’s old NFL coach and a father figure to him, insisted Campbell come see his own doctor in Houston. There, Jones was surprised to see the man who had captivated the city with the Oilers arrive in a wheelchair.
“He said he couldn’t walk,” Jones said. “I said, ‘Aw, come on, show me what you can do.’ And he said, ‘No. I can’t do anything.'”
MRIs revealed Campbell had metal rods, along with 12 screws, in his vertebrae from the previous procedures. Jones performed surgery to insert new rods and remove all the extraneous hardware, much of which had become loose.
As Campbell lay unconscious, his massive legs would jump on the operating room table when Jones would try to remove the screws, which had begun poking into nerves.
The wheelchair suddenly made sense. So did the constant agitation for painkillers, which he would wash down with Budweiser.
“Those screws were much more mobile than I have ever seen and were irritating the nerves badly,” Jones said. “So you can imagine every time he would move, sure enough, it would send him sky-high with pain. There was good reason for him to be so miserable.”
The source of the pain might have been eliminated, but the addiction remained. Following the death of Michael Jackson from physician-administered painkillers, Jones became introspective about his role in Campbell’s abuse and the likelihood that Campbell, too, could die. Jones enlisted Campbell’s sons, Christian and Tyler, to confront him, knowing they had the best chance of getting his ear.
Christian said nobody knew how serious the addiction was except for the two sons and their mom, Reuna, who hadn’t had much luck getting through to her husband on her own. Texas didn’t know. Earl’s own brothers and sisters didn’t know.
Christian and Tyler were scared to have the conversation with their dad, worried it would affect their relationship. And rightfully so. Earl was furious. He was hurt and embarrassed, but said he’d do anything for them. He realized that they were right, so he spent Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s in a rehab facility, suffering from tremors and cold sweats from the withdrawal.
“The competitor in him never goes away,” Christian said. “He pulled it together and went and got the help that he needed.”
Earl gets up
Campbell now speaks openly about the dangers of painkillers and his addiction. He is a proud member of Alcoholics Anonymous, even going to meetings in Times Square during his trip for the Heisman Trophy ceremony. Big Earl isn’t the center of attention at parties or holding court at country music shows in Austin anymore. The family that helped pull him back from the brink got a new man in return.
“The other person had indulged in so much over the years that we always thought that that’s who our dad was,” Christian said. “The person that we’d known, up until that point, he wasn’t sober. After a decade-plus, it’s still taking time for us to really get to know him again.”
Similarly, our understanding of Campbell’s story is changing. Remarkably, he feels better than he has for much of his life, an uncommon case among retired NFL running backs.
“I’m not in none of that pain,” Campbell said. “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.”
Earl Campbell ran from the rose fields of Tyler to become one of the greatest running backs of all time, only to discover that the same body that made him a superhero contained its own kryptonite. He endured a series of medical missteps that put him in a wheelchair and led him to a dangerous addiction. But now, Campbell can sit in a luxury box and appreciate the miracle of watching the University of Texas play on a football field bearing his name.
“At least Earl Campbell can walk,” he said, although his balance is a problem from the surgeries. He still prefers to be careful and use a scooter or golf cart, “but I still drive a car. I go places. I travel. There’s no problem with me.”
After all these years, Earl got up.
COLLEGE: Kilgore College, UT-Arlington
BACKGROUND: Wilson won for a story on the long medical odyssey of Texas legend Earl Campbell, who suffered from an undiagnosed spinal condition that could have threatened his football career if doctors had discovered it while he was playing.
The subject was a meaningful one for Wilson, an East Texas native who grew up in Kilgore, 30 miles away from Campbell’s hometown of Tyler. After starting out as a business major at Texas A&M, Wilson left and found journalism back home at Kilgore College and wrote for the Kilgore News-Herald and Longview News-Journal before attending the University of Texas at Arlington. He spent nearly 15 years as a newspaper designer at The Dallas Morning News (1996-2002), San Diego Union-Tribune (2002-2006) and Las Vegas Sun (2006-2009), before a layoff led to a year-long stint as sports editor of the Beaumont (Texas) Enterprise in 2010. Somehow, he found his way to ESPN, where he worked as an editor from 2011-2020, first for Page 2 and later in the college sports group, where he got to edit Ivan Maisel and dozens of other talented folks. Moonlighting as a writer, he won FWAA honorable mentions for feature and enterprise in 2020 and for feature in 2019. He moved into a full-time role as a writer in February 2020, which was impeccable timing for a year of covering football in a pandemic via Zoom interviews.
After living in Bristol, Conn., for eight years, Wilson returned to Texas three years ago. He now lives in the Austin area with his wife, Alicia, the office manager at a school for dyslexic students, and sons Parks and Coen and daughter Rosemary.