Earl Campbell is the best football player I have ever seen play in person.
Campbell's appeal crosses generations, extending from his legendary exploits at Tyler's John Tyler High School, to his Heisman career at Texas, as an NFL Hall of Fame running back, right through to his present-day battles to overcome the aftereffects of his brutal sport.
They are going to make a documentary of Earl's journey, and it is going to be made by one of the few men who is as exalted in his profession as Earl was in football.
Former HBO Executive Producer & Sports President Ross Greenburg will produce the film, in association with NFL Films. During his tenure at the cable channel, HBO Sports was chosen for 51 Sports Emmys and 8 Peabody Awards. He has produced documentaries on such sports luminaries as Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Mickey Mantle, and Muhammad Ali. The documentary on Earl is expected to be ready for airing on the NBC Sports Network (formerly Versus) by December.
Greenburg's films have delved into all aspects of his subject's lives, and he has made it clear that this documentary will look at Campbell's struggle to recover from debilitating surgeries over the years to help mend his powerful body that took in and meted out severe punishment to opposing tacklers. It is also a look at an athlete that he has followed since his college career at Texas.
When I got into sports television, one of the first things I did was work as a production assistant at a Texas-Rice football game for ABC Sports," Greenburg said by phone Tuesday. "I was immediately struck by Earl's athletic ability. Once I made my way to HBO, I started producing ‘Inside The NFL,' and there he was on a weekly basis for all of us all to see. I was just mesmerized by his talent."
Greenburg has said that he has broken with tradition and has thought about a title for the documentary even before shooting begins.
He plans to call it "Texas Fight."
In 1973, I was a student at UT working at the local NBC station (KHFI) in news production. I kept pestering Mel Pennington, the Sports Director, to let me help him cover local sports. He relented and sent me to Houston (on my own dime) to cover the Tyler John Tyler-Austin Reagan state championship game.
It was the first such game to be played in the Astrodome. Reagan was a perennial playoff team and was considered to be the deeper, more talented squad.
But they didn't have Earl.
Early in the contest, Tyler ran a toss sweep to Earl and Reagan had it defended perfectly. Two Raiders cut through the offensive line, met Campbell in the backfield, and in trying to tackle him, knocked him around. Running backwards, Earl gained 7 yards, dragging the defenders with him. Reporters, photographers and fans alike just marveled at this Man among Boys.
Tyler defeated Reagan 21-14. Earl gained 165 yards, scored the winning touchdown late in the 4th quarter, and found time to play middle linebacker for a while as well.
He obviously was the prized recruit of 1973 and when he signed with Texas, Darrell Royal knew he had a special player. He later said he didn't realize the full genius of Campbell until midway through his freshman year.
Texas defeated Arkansas 38-7 as Campbell gained 109 yards on only 8 carries. Sunday morning the coaching staff was breaking down film when everyone was called in to take a look at one play.
Royal later recounted that the staff couldn't get over a play that happened right at the end of the first half. Texas had called timeout twice to force an Arkansas punt. Campbell was on the punt block team. His first step was so electric that Texas placed him over the center and he was often pressuring punters coming right up the middle.
This time Campbell got to the punter, blocked the punt, and Doug English picked it up and scored to give Texas a 17-0 halftime lead.
But it wasn't the block that awed the coaches - it was Earl's movements.
"He was so quick off the ball, he was on that punter before he knew it," said Royal. "Now it's been my experience that when a player breaks up the middle on a punt block, just as he gets to the punter, he turns his head to one side. I mean, its human nature not to want to get kicked in the face, even if you are wearing a helmet."
"But not Earl," added Royal. "He goes in head first, blocks the punt, and then immediately looks up to see if he can catch the ball. Man, there is no way to coach that into a kid. That is pure football instinct, and it was in a freshman."
Royal was convinced that had Earl played defense he would have been an All-American and later an All-Pro. He also said that he had coached two players - Tommy Nobis and Earl Campbell - who could have made NFL squads out of high school.
Campbell's running style was swift, graceful and brutal all at once. Possessing the speed to get outside, he was fearless when it came to taking his 225 pound frame to run over, around or through defenders.
The move to I back his senior season unleashed Campbell and created a season long highlight tape as well as season long headaches for defensive coordinators.
There is a particular play at the minute mark of that tape that has become part of Earl's legacy at Texas. It is a simple sweep around end against Rice and a freshman defensive back.
That freshman was Michael Downs, who played free safety in the NFL for nine seasons, eight of them for the Dallas Cowboys.
Campbell's Hall of Fame career in the NFL was built on a stunning 4-year run at the beginning when as a Houston Oiler, he gained 6,452 yards and led the NFL in rushing three times. Only Jim Brown had previously accomplished that feat. Campbell played in five Pro Bowls and finished his career with 9,407 yards and 74 touchdowns rushing along with 806 yards on 121 receptions.1980 was Campbell's best year in the NFL as he ran for 1,934 yards including four 200-yard rushing games. Again, his running style was a no-holds barred, full speed at impact, push for extra yards and make the opponent think twice about taking him on again.
That style was epitomized by a single run against the Los Angeles Rams.
Isiah Robertson (# 58) is the victim in that head on collision. Former UT All-American Johnnie Johnson was a defensive back on that Ram team. Later he said that Robertson's teammates gave him a new nickname after that play. Whenever they wanted to get him riled up they would call him, "Grauman's" for the famous theatre in Hollywood where stars leave their handprints and footprints in concrete.
As mentioned, his first four years in the NFL were electric, as he averaged over 1,600 yards a season. He also averaged 351 carries a year, a number that when taking into account his physical running style, took a brutal toll on his body. Campbell, now 57, looks and moves like a much older man. He has had two knee replacements, numerous other surgeries, and his hands are those of a major league catcher, fingers gnarled and bent through years of handing out punishment.
Today, Earl is getting help in his rehabilitation from Bennie Wylie, the strength and conditioning coach at Texas. Several times a week, Campbell makes the trip to the Moncrief-Neuhaus workout facility, where he undergoes rehabbing with coach Bennie Wylie and Caesar Martinez, Wylie's assistant. Campbell has been spending a lot of time over the past few years in a wheelchair or with a cane, but he is improving and no one doubts that he will reach his goal of walking unassisted regularly.
Both Greenburg and Campbell have said that this documentary will be the story of his love for the game, and there will be no pity party. Rather it will show a transcendent figure in the game of football is working his way back to some semblance of a normal existence.
And Earl makes it clear in the Statesman article that he has no regrets.
"The Good Lord instilled in me the desire to be the best and being the best costs something," he said.
"I got to the trough and I took a drink of the water, and I wanted to be the best at it. Being an athlete takes so much. Hopefully in the time we spend together doing this documentary, we will have enough time to show what it was for me to be an athlete."
Greenburg also says that this documentary is about one unique individual who developed his gift to the fullest, and who is living life after football with the same determination and grace that he displayed when playing the game.
"The reason I want to do this is not only to showcase Earl as a football player, but also to document the last 20 years and explain to people that no one should feel sorry for Earl," Greenburg said. "He will eventually get out of that wheelchair. In fact, he's starting to get out of that chair. Instead of the person people worry about, he will be seen as one of the toughest, most courageous players in NFL history. I want to show a side of Earl that very few people know.