Sad shit for a great football player.
Toll of glory for Earl Campbell
Heisman winner paying price for punishing running style
08:55 AM CDT on Saturday, June 30, 2007
By CHIP BROWN / The Dallas Morning News
AUSTIN – While Tony Dorsett played with his kids and Archie Griffin and George Rogers played golf Friday at Barton Creek Resort, Earl Campbell was struggling to walk.
Wearing a burnt orange, Texas golf shirt, white knee-length shorts and new Nikes with a Longhorn logo, Campbell used a walker to inch down a window-lined hallway overlooking one of his favorite golf courses.
He took roughly six minutes to cover 40 yards – a distance he used to breeze through in less than five seconds as a punishing running back at Texas and during an eight-year, Hall of Fame career in the NFL, mostly with the Houston Oilers. Still wearing his trademark beard, now gray, he stands at a 45-degree angle, unable to straighten at his lower back. He can no longer straighten his knees, either.
When the walker becomes too much work, he uses a wheelchair that he travels with at all times. During a 40-minute interview with a few reporters on Friday, Campbell was totally lucid one second and struggling to recall names and prominent dates the next.
"The doctor says I'll be playing golf by October," Campbell said in eternal optimism, even though he hasn't swung a club in six years.
Campbell is being honored this weekend along with former Texas A&M running back John David Crow by the Heisman Winners Association. The event, sponsored by Triton Financial, has attracted more than 20 former Heisman Trophy winners to Austin to help raise funds for charity and to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Campbell's Heisman win (1977) and 50th anniversary of Crow's win (1957).
Courtesy University of Texas
Earl Campbell, who won the Heisman while playing at Texas, lost his health to football. The subject of Campbell's health became a topic of discussion among the former NFL players gathered in Austin this weekend because of testimony before Congress on Tuesday by aging NFL retirees.
Those retirees told horror stories of endless surgery, dementia and even homelessness while fighting with the NFL for better pensions and health insurance. Retired NFL players receive health insurance for the first five years after their playing career and then are on their own, when insurance is often unaffordable.
The league and the players association said pensions are improving and that there's no need for Congress to step in.
"I stay focused and prayerful that I won't have to deal with the situation of Earl Campbell one day," said former Tennessee Titans and Cowboys running back Eddie George, who won the Heisman at Ohio State in 1995.
Fortunately for Campbell, he is in his 16th year as a special assistant to the athletic director at Texas, a job that pays him $50,000 a year and provides his health insurance.
Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds on Friday called Campbell "an important ambassador for the university."
"Thank God for the University of Texas," said Campbell, whose latest back surgery came on March 26 to remove bone spurs. He goes to physical therapy three days a week and regrets quitting on the physical therapy prescribed after previous back surgeries.
"They wanted me to lift some weights, and I told them I didn't know how to do that," Campbell said. "I never lifted weights when I played football. (Former Oilers coach) Bum Phillips took $10,000 from me because I didn't lift weights."
Close to home
For Dorsett, Griffin and Rogers, Campbell's physical condition hits close to home. They are contemporaries who shared a position known for collisions akin to car accidents. Dorsett, who won the Heisman at Pitt in 1976, is 53. Campbell and Griffin are 52. Rogers, the Heisman winner at South Carolina in 1980 before an eight-year NFL career, is 48.
They all talk about ailments that still bother them today. Dorsett, a Hall of Fame running for the Cowboys, temporarily lost feeling in his left arm a while back. Rogers can't raise his right arm above his shoulder.
"Earl's an example of what can happen playing that game," said Ohio State's Griffin, the only two-time Heisman winner (1974-75). "He's paying the price for that today. But Earl never brings attention to himself. He's not going to complain. He still has a great outlook and is still bigger than life."
It's obvious to everyone but Campbell that his physical condition, on the decline for years, is the direct result of his bullish running style. Campbell repeatedly led with his helmet when taking on defenders, raising the question of concussions in addition to the toll taken on his neck and back.
Campbell, however, maintains his physical condition is genetic.
"It's not because of football," Campbell said angrily when a reporter inferred otherwise. "The most serious injury I got from football was a broken finger and broken ribs."
Still a legend
A few of Campbell's business ventures have failed, but he remains a figurehead for Earl Campbell Meat Products. Campbell keeps an office near downtown Austin, where his Heisman Trophy is kept in a glass case.
Campbell has been known to show up at the Shoal Creek Saloon, a local bar and popular hangout among New Orleans Saints fans, where he will drink Budweisers with fans and sign baseball hats that read "20 – The Legend" for $20.
On Friday, he said he can't believe he hasn't been offered more endorsements in Austin over the years.
"With all the computer companies here, not one of those companies have said, 'Would you be interested in representing our company?' " Campbell said. He then asked one of the reporters to help him get a car deal with a BMW dealership.
"I need the biggest BMW they got, black and loaded," Campbell said.
Campbell covered a lot of topics Friday, including a car accident near his hometown of Tyler last Sunday, when he was run off the road by an 18-wheeler.
"Man was I lucky," said Campbell, who was uninjured in the wreck.
On Ricky Williams, Texas' only other Heisman winner who has fallen out of the NFL after repeated failed drug tests, Campbell said, "That's his family's fault, Texas' fault and mostly Ricky's fault. If he would have played for Darrell Royal, that stuff would have stopped. But we as a Heisman group should let Ricky know we still love him."
On Vince Young, who led Texas to the national title in 2005 and then skipped his final year of eligibility for the NFL, Campbell said, "Athletes are great when they get a degree."
Campbell said he would like to see the Heisman Trophy presentation ceremony move to Austin, where the former winners "can play golf" instead of "just sitting around in a cramped hotel drinking."
When Campbell mentioned the idea Friday to former Nebraska running back/receiver Johnny Rodgers, the 1972 Heisman winner, Rodgers chuckled and patted Campbell on the shoulder.
During Friday's interview, Campbell repeatedly called this year the "20th anniversary" of his Heisman win and continued to refer to NFL Players Association chief Gene Upshaw as "Art Shell" even after being corrected twice.
But he is absolutely beloved by his peers. Only they truly know what kind of punishment he handed out – and absorbed – on the field.
"Earl Campbell was my idol," Rogers said. "When I was a player, I tried to be just like him."
Of all the Heisman winners, Campbell said he considers Dorsett his best friend because Dorsett calls on Campbell regularly.
Dorsett, who lives in Frisco, is a part owner of Hall of Fame Mortgage in Dallas and also has his own food company – Tony Dorsett Food Products, which makes precooked foods for the military.
"I called Earl and told him to sell his meats to the military because they use sausage in meals just about every day," Dorsett said. "Earl told me he wasn't sure about it because he doesn't like to travel that much."
Having won the Heisman in back-to-back years, Dorsett and Campbell tried to outperform each other during their pro careers – a fact they learned after they retired.
"One time, I asked Earl, 'Why don't you let one man bring you down sometimes?' " Dorsett said. "He said, 'I got to get them. They're talking that noise.' "
When asked about that conversation Friday, Campbell said, "Tony had his style, I had my style."
Dorsett sounded like an excited little boy when naming several defenders Campbell threw around like rag dolls on highlight reels.
"Earl was the biggest, baddest player in the game," Dorsett said. "He was my Skoal brother. But no matter how big or strong you are, the game ultimately wins."