Long On Memories

Father never far from '77 Heisman winner's mind

Oct. 3, 2007

By Adam Caparell




Adam is CSTV.com's football editor and national football writer.
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Earl Campbell didn't spend much time tossing and turning over his decision about which school to attend.


All he needed to do was sleep on it for a night.


"I said, `Lord if I sleep tonight I'll come to the University of Texas and if I wake up to use the restroom I'll go to the University of Oklahoma,'" Campbell said, "and I slept all night."




And with that fateful night of uninterrupted slumber, Campbell was off to Austin where he would author one of the greatest careers in college football history at Texas, becoming the first running back in Southwest Conference history to be named to the all-conference team four straight years, running for 4,444 yards and, to top it all off, he took home the 1977 Heisman Trophy.


Rushing for 1,744 yards his senior season, it was widely assumed that Campbell would be the Heisman Trophy winner, but the reserved running back wasn't so sure.


In fact, entering his final game of the `77 season, his coach Fred Akers wasn't so sure either. He told Earl that he would need 200 yards rushing against rival Texas A&M that afternoon to seal the Heisman Trophy. Campbell did him 20 better as the Longhorns pounded the Aggies.  


A few short weeks later, Campbell was on his way to New York for the Heisman Trophy presentation and the first year it took on the distinct made-for-television mode that many are familiar with now. The enormity of it all was a little overwhelming for Campbell.


"I couldn't believe a little country boy who started out in the fifth grade was in New York and the whole world was watching what I was doing," Campbell said.


Still uncertain right up until the announcement itself, Campbell was stunned to be named the 43rd Heisman Trophy winner - the first Texas Longhorn to win the award - and made his way up to the podium to accept the bronze statue.


It was a special moment for him and his mother in attendance for sure, but a bittersweet one at that.


It was Campbell's mother, Ann, who had reared him all on her own since he was in the fifth grade after Earl's father unexpectedly died of a heart attack. In a matter of moments, seven boys and four girls were without a father with only their mother left to pick up the pieces.


But to her credit, she didn't miss a beat.


Growing up in Tyler, Texas, the Rose Capital of the World, Campbell learned about hard work the hard way, working in the rose fields with his family alongside his father.


"You're taught to do more and want more and that just carries over into your everyday life," Campbell said.


Campbell was not only taught to do more, but more was expected from him. Campbell's mother always knew he was destined for greatness and she always told little Earl how special he was, how different he was from his brothers and sisters. And he understood.


"I had that in my mind and it was planted in me that I was the best," Campbell said.

From winning a state championship in high school to his numerous accolades in four years of college, it hit Campbell at the Downtown Athletic Club what he had just done. He had become the best, achieved the goal set for himself years ago, but when it was time to speak, Campbell clammed. He would always go quiet when he was in trouble growing up. And now in front of not only an assembled audience, but the nation, he uttered the only words he could think of.  


"I'm in trouble, momma," Campbell said. "I don't know what to say."


And as Campbell gave his acceptance speech, some of his thoughts drifted toward his father, the man he barely got to know growing up, the man who never see him play in high school or college and would never see him play professionally. And it hurt.


"There's not a day go by I don't think about my dad," Campbell said.


It took a while for Campbell to accept his father's death. He was angry, frustrated and left to wonder why he was taken away from him more times than he could remember.


"For a long time I was mad because I did not understand why the Good Lord had took my dad because he was such a good guy," Campbell said.


"I started understanding it was just his time."


From the fields of his East Texas hometown to the big city streets of New York, Campbell had pulled off something no one could have every imagined.


"It's one of the greatest things the Good Lord has let happen," Campbell said.


Campbell would go on to have an equally impressive NFL career. The Houston Oilers would select him with the No. 1 overall pick in 1978 and he would earn Rookie of the Year and MVP honors, retiring eight seasons later.


But for all the success he accumulated as a professional, Campbell is a living Longhorn legend. Texas unveiled a statue of him last season and this year marks the 30th anniversary of his award winning season.


"You're stuck with that name the rest of your life," Campbell said. "I guess it would be, Earl Campbell, the Heisman Trophy winner from the University of Texas."


And the son of a proud mother and father, for sure.