Before Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders were duking it out on Monday Night Football to determine who was the better football player, Walter Payton and Earl Campbell were gashing National Football League defenses in the 1970s and 1980s.
While Campbell didn’t quite finish near Smith, Sanders or Payton’s names in the career record books, few players in NFL history have been as dominant at such a young age as Campbell was his rookie year. He was the Mike Trout of football before Mike Trout was even born.
After Campbell won the Heisman Trophy award in 1977 at Texas, the Houston Oilers selected him with the first-overall draft pick in the 1978 NFL Draft. As a 23-year-old rookie, he led the league and set the rookie rushing record with 1,450 yards. He sprinkled in 13 touchdowns and was named The Associated Press Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Campbell’s first three seasons were statistically one of the best stretches by a running back ever, let alone that he did in his first three seasons. He rushed for 1,450, 1,697 and 1,934 yards, the latter of which was 70 yards short of O.J. Simpson’s single-season record set in 1973. Not even Smith or Payton ever broke 1,900 yards in a season.
By his age-26 season, Campbell already had 5,000 yards and 45 touchdowns to his name. He was chasing Payton and looked well on his way to at least slating in behind him on the NFL all-time rushing leaderboard.
Campbell’s running style might have ultimately been his downfall, though.
Praised for his ability to run through defenders and break tackles, Campbell’s hard-nosed running took a toll and wore down his body during and after his playing days. As ESPN detailed, the 64-year-old Campbell now uses a cane and takes Xanax daily.
He played until he was 30 and recorded just two 1,000-yard rushing seasons from 1981-85. He finished with 9,407 career rushing yards.
“He runs with a lot of reckless abandon. You can run like that in college. But you can’t do that for 10 years and hope to survive.”
— Ron Johnson, former running back, to the Observer-Reporter in 1979.
Campbell began to get agitated in 1983. The Oilers finished 2-14. Despite running for another 1,000 yards that season, he was pulled in a game against the Cincinnati Bengals and immediately asked to be traded.
The Oilers flipped Campbell to the NFC’s New Orleans Saints in 1984 for a 1985 first-round pick, pairing him with former Heisman winner George Rogers in the backfield. He also reunited with head coach Bum Phillips, who told the New York Times he was elated to get his guy.
Campbell rushed for just one 100-yard game in 1985, a 160-yard game against the Minnesota Vikings. He retired during the preseason of the 1986 season.
Campbell’s career flamed out relatively early and he never appeared in a Super Bowl but he took the AFC’s Oilers to the playoffs in his first three years. In 1979, the Oilers made it to the AFC Championship Game after beating the Denver Broncos and the San Diego Chargers (now Los Angeles Chargers) but ran into the Pittsburgh Steelers “Steel Curtain” defense that stifled Campbell to 15 yards.
Campbell did, however, win countless awards in college and the NFL:
- Five-time Pro-Bowl selextion
- Three-time All-Pro
- NFL MVP (1979)
- Three-time NFL Offensive Player of the Year
- Titans/Oilers Ring of Honor
- Heisman Trophy Winner (1977)
- Davey O’Brien Memorial Trophy (1977)
- Two-time First-Team All-American
Born Earl Christian Campbell to Ann and Bert “B.C.” Campbell in 1955 in Tyler, Texas, Earl was one of 11 children growing up.
Campbell idolized Hall-of-Fame linebacker Dick Butkus as a kid and was a star running back for John Tyler High School, where he won a state championship and Mr. Football USA honors. Later dubbed “The Tyler Rose”, his nickname stemmed from his hometown.
Campbell chose the University of Texas Longhorns over other major programs like Houston, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Baylor. Not even Sooners coach Barry Switzer, who said Campbell could have been a star in the NFL straight out of high school could dissuade Campbell from Texas.
Campbell’s legendary career blossomed at Texas, where he rushed for an NCAA-leading 1,744 yards as a senior in 1977 and took the Longhorns to the national championship game. He finished his collegiate career with nearly 4,500 yards and 40 touchdowns, and is considered the best back in UT history, ahead of Ricky Williams.
Inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1990 and Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1991, Campbell served as a special assistant for the Longhorns football team as recently as 2016.
Campbell’s two sons — Christian and Tyler — both played football. Christian played high school football with Drew Brees in Austin and Tyler played running back at Pasadena City College and San Diego State.
Campbell’s legendary career may not have lasted as long as other Hall of Famers like Emmitt Smith or Walter Payton, but ask defenders and they’ll tell you he was one of the most punishing backs of all time.