Earl Campbell

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Earl Campbell
"The Tyler Rose"
Running Back
Houston Oilers

Career: Jimmy Giles.

Arguably, the most famous footnote in Houston sports history, Giles was the man who helped bring Earl Campbell to Houston; he was the Oilers’ version of Larry Anderson long before Jeff Bagwell was old enough to lift a bat.

With nothing to lose, and just days prior to the 1978 NFL draft, Bum Phillips, the Oilers’ head coach and general manager, made a phone call to Florida to discuss the possibility of trading for Tampa Bay’s first overall pick with Buccaneer coach John McKay. Campbell, fresh off his record-setting, Heisman Trophy-winning season at Texas, was the consensus best player in the draft. But the Buccaneers, who had a habit of picking at the top of the draft in those days, had used their first pick in 1977 on a running back, and thus, were not altogether interested in Campbell. So when Phillips called, and asked what it might take to pry away their top pick, Tampa’s response was "Jimmy Giles."

OK, OK, Giles and some draft picks (Houston’s first and second round picks in ’78 and their third rounder in 1979); but draft picks are harder to romanticize. And the bottom line was that Phillips had just landed what he thought was the missing piece to his team’s playoff puzzle. He was wrong, of course — Campbell was so much more.

News of the trade made the rounds quickly, and Campbell’s impact was immediate, at least locally. After draft day, season ticket purchases soared and for the first time in nearly twenty years, maybe even ever, there was a buzz around town about the Oilers. And in week 8, the rest of the nation was finally introduced to The Tyler Rose of Texas.

Against Pittsburgh, the league’s best team, Campbell scored three touchdowns, rushed for 89 yards, and stuck the Steelers with their first of only two losses on the year, all before the watchful eye of ABC’s Monday Night Football. The Oilers were suddenly a legitimate force, a team to be reckoned with, and Campbell was establishing himself as one of the league’s best backs. Five weeks later, he would cement his reputation and give birth to a legend.

In a week 12 showdown with the Miami Dolphins, the Oilers again found themselves on Monday Night’s center stage. By now, the city of Houston had been galvanized by Bum’s group of overachieving, blue collar grunts. For the Dolphins’ visit, they packed the Dome and feverishly waved Columbia blue and white pompoms. Their enthusiasm created an college football-like atmosphere that, even to this very day, is still talked about by those who witnessed it. And the players on both sides seemed to rise to the occasion, and helped produce one of the program’s greatest games. Back and forth they went; Campbell and Miami QB Bob Griese playing one-upmanship all night, until, at long last, Houston seemed to pull away.

Leading 28-23, and needing to run out the final 1:22 on the game clock, QB Dan Pastorini whirled to his right, and pitched the football to Campbell; it was the rookie’s 28th carry of the night. Already, he had 118 yards and 3 touchdowns. All the Oilers needed was 8 more yards for another first down and the game would be over… Campbell had other ideas.

Taking Pastorini’s pitch, he hit the sidelines, accelerated and turned upfield. Despite his fatigue, Campbell was able to move into the Dolphins’ secondary, and from there, it became a foot race to the goal line. Miraculously, Campbell found another gear and managed to outrun two Miami defenders, putting a stamp on his greatest evening as a pro. The 81-yard run gave Campbell 199 on the evening, the touchdown was his fourth. Luv Ya Blue ceased being a catchphrase and became a way of life for football-mad Houstonians. Phillips was so overcome with emotion, he planted a wet one on Campbell’s cheek as his prized halfback made his way back to the bench.

Campbell finished his rookie year with 1,450 yards and 13 TD’s. He was named the unanimous Rookie of the Year and took the league’s MVP trophy as well, one of only two players to ever win both awards in the same year (Jim Brown was the other). Riding Campbell, the Oilers made the playoffs and came within a game of reaching the Super Bowl. Two weeks later, Campbell played in his first of five Pro Bowls.

Earl upped the ante in 1979, rushing for 1,697 yards and scoring 19 TD’s, a team record. His crowning moment that year was a 61-yard run against the Cowboys on Thanksgiving Day, where he outdueled instate rival Tony Dorsett while leading Houston over Dallas in one of the team’s most storied victories. The team again made the playoffs, and again, fell victim to the Steelers in the AFC Championship Game. Campbell was the league’s MVP and a Pro Bowler to boot.

In 1980, Campbell made a run at 2,000 yards, but came up short, finishing with 1,934; at the time, second most in league history. He averaged over five yards a carry and turned in 4 200-yard games. He also set league records for most 100-yard games in a season (11) and most consecutive 100-yard games (7). Campbell again ended his season in Honolulu. But unlike 1978 and 1979, the Oilers failed to win a playoff game and Phillips was forced to take the fall. Almost overnight, the franchise’s three-year glory run had come to an abrupt end.

Campbell carried on without Phillips, but missed his good friend; things in Houston would never be quite the same. In 1981, Campbell finished with 1,376 yards, his fourth straight year with at least 1,300 yards, but some of the magic was missing. For the first time in his career, he failed to average 4 yards a carry (3.9), and he managed only 10 touchdowns. The team was in rapid decline, and under Ed Biles, finished 7-9. The next year would prove to be Campbell’s toughest.

Labor unrest led to a strike that cost the NFL its first seven games in 1982. Back to play an aborted nine-game schedule, Campbell rushed for 538 yards on 157 carries, averaging just 3.4 yards an attempt. The wear and tear was beginning to take its toll (Campbell played in just seven of the team’s games), as was Houston’s massive exodus of talent. Defenses could, at long last, key on Campbell and not have to worry about Pastorini’s long bombs or Ken Stabler’s precision-like short game. The offensive line was in disarray. Campbell managed to get healthy in 1983, rushing for 1,301 yards, but the writing was on the wall. The Oilers were in drastic need of an overhaul, and in 1984, they signed QB Warren Moon to the largest free agent contract in NFL history. Stung, Campbell groused privately before finally requesting a trade midway through the season. Not surprisingly, Phillips, who had landed in New Orleans, offered a first-round pick for his longtime friend, and Campbell’s days as an Oiler were over.

Campbell struggled to stay healthy in New Orleans and retired in 1985. Five years later, he took his rightful place among football’s immortals in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. That Campbell made the Hall on his first ballot is a testament to what he meant beyond the numbers.

One of only four men ever granted official legend status by the state of Texas, the memories of Campbell burn bright in the hearts of football fans everywhere. Ask anyone fortunate enough to have seen Campbell play, and they’ll likely have a favorite run. If it’s not the 81-yard jaunt against the Dolphins, it’s the helmet-to-sternum hit he unleashed on Isiah Robertson, or the collision he survived with Jack Tatum at the goal line, or the seven tackles he broke on one run against the Redskins before speeding into the end zone.

Campbell was a compact back with massive thighs, deceptive speed and a stiff arm that should have been registered as a lethal weapon. He could run through a defense, over a defense, or by a defense, and rarely could one man alone bring him down. His jersey was often ripped to shreds by game’s end, evidence of how difficult he was to bring down. And when Campbell scored a touchdown (which was often), he acted as if he’d done it before; no demonstrative dancing, no spiking of the football, no showing up his opponent. If he didn’t flip the ball to the nearest official, then he’d simply place the ball on the ground. He was the epitome of class, both on and off the field, as fine an ambassador as the city, or the league, has ever known. As Phillips once noted, "I wouldn’t say Earl is in a class by himself, but I’ll tell you one damn thing: it don’t take them long to call the roll."

In later years, Campbell began to have panic attacks so violent and severe, it rendered him incapable of facing even his closest friends. But as he had done on the football field, Campbell attacked the disorder head-on, and with the help of his family, learned to control it. Not surprisingly, Campbell selflessly talked of his illness and brought the disorder to light, helping many people also suffering from panic attacks. For a new generation and for an entirely different reason, Campbell was once again a hero.

Houston Highlight: To pick just one when so many are deserving… but in truth, his 81-yard run against the Dolphins on Monday Night Football in 1978 will probably be the play they’ll place in his time capsule. Campbell himself often cites that game as being the one that put him on the map professionally.

Earl Campbell’s career stats Year Carries Yards Avg. TD 1978 302 1,450 4.8 13 1979 368 1,697 4.6 19 1980 373 1,934 5.2 13 1981 361 1,376 3.9 10 1982 157 538 3.4 2 1983 322 1,301 4.0 12 1984 96 278 2.9 4 Totals 1,979 8,574 4.3 73 Earl Campbell Earl Campbell Return to Houston Pro Football Archives Find out who else has made the All-Time Team.