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.More…