Plenty of issues divide Texans, but there are a few topics on which many of us can find common ground. They might include barbecue, Willie Nelson and the Tyler Rose – Earl Campbell.
During his time at John Tyler High School, the University of Texas and the Houston Oilers, Campbell was a terror on the football field, and a uniting force beyond it. His story is documented in a new book by Austin American-Statesman reporter, Asher Price: “Earl Campbell: Yards After Contact.” Even Price, who’s originally from New York, says he was aware of Earl Campbell growing up. He even collected football cards featuring Campbell as a Houston running back.
“I remember as a little kid being impressed by the Earl Campbell card, with his big thighs and Paul Bunyan legacy of running over people,” Price says.
When Price moved to Austin to take a job with the local newspaper, he became a UT football fan, and saw Campbell when he made a ceremonial appearance at a game.
“He hobbled out to midfield,” Price says. “He had a lot of dignity, but he needed a cane to get there. And I wondered to myself, What had happened to Earl Campbell, this amazing, charismatic football player from when I was a little kid?”
Campbell’s career was storied, especially in Texas. He began drawing attention as a Tyler high school football player. His speed and athleticism stood out.
“He grew up one of 11 kids to a widowed mother on a rose farm,” Price says. “He says his two older brothers were even better athletes than he was. But they went to all-black schools.”
Price says his brothers didn’t get the attention from college recruiters that Earl did.
Campbell went on to lead his high school team to a state championship. And that championship had a beneficial effect on relations between white and black residents of Tyler. And though the UT football team had belatedly integrated by the time Campbell arrived in the early 1970s, the legacy of all-white teams was still evident. Price says Campbell developed a close relationship with head coach Darrell Royal, who had presided over all-white teams throughout the 1960s.
“[Royal] could have integrated the team earlier,” Price says. “He didn’t. He faced huge pressure from the regents and donors. But there was a huge shift in Darrell Royal that I think, in some ways, reflects the shift in a lot of Texans.”
Price says Campbell connects his success as a player, and his ability to bring racial groups together as fans, to his religious faith.
“He saw the place he grew up in as segregated, and he said that God gave him the football to help bring people together,” Price says.
But Campbell was not an activist, or particularly politically outspoken.
“He was a black athlete in the 1970s,” Price says. “He wasn’t a black athlete in 1968. … The night he wins the Heisman award, he’s asked about what it’s like to be a black man winning the Heisman. He says, ‘I don’t see myself as a black man. I see myself as a man.'”
In the years after his football career, Campbell experienced substance abuse problems. He got sober after his children urged him to get help.
“Even after he got clean, he was determined to do exercises to get himself physically into better shape,” Price says. “That’s really a story of perseverance on his part.”
A free launch event for Price’s book is at 7 p.m on Thursday at the Austin Central Library.
Written by Shelly Brisbin.