By Thomas Gerbasi
February 7, 2017
You had to be a special defender to take down Earl Campbell one-on-one. And even if you were, the odds weren’t on your side when it came to stopping a 5-11, 232-pound train barreling at you at full speed.
And that was the key for “The Tyler Rose.” He didn’t run around defenders during his eight seasons in the NFL; he ran at and through them. If an opponent was lucky, he could slow Campbell down long enough to break his stride and allow two or three teammates to finish the tackle. But usually, Campbell was off to the races and he was taking names along the way.
For a power back like the Hall of Famer, performing to the old Woody Hayes philosophy of “three yards and a cloud of dust” was sufficient to carve out a nice career. Yet Campbell averaged 4.3 yards per carry over his time with the Houston Oilers and New Orleans Saints, and in his best year in 1980, he averaged a remarkable 5.2 yards when he was handed the ball.
But it was never about the numbers for the man who wore the burnt orange jersey of the Texas Longhorns, even though his 4,443 yards, 5.8 per carry average and 40 touchdowns during his four years of college made him the number one overall pick of the Oilers in 1978.
It was how he ran that captivated football fans during a golden age of NFL running backs. In an era that included fellow greats Walter Payton, Marcus Allen, Tony Dorsett, Franco Harris, Billy Sims, Joe Cribbs, Ottis Anderson and Freeman McNeil, just to name a handful, Campbell had a style all his own, buoyed by thighs that, depending on who you believe, were measured at 34 or 36 inches.
“They basically were two tree trunks with cleats at the bottom,” the NFL Network’s Rich Eisen said.
No matter how you measured them, once those thighs got moving, it was wise to get out of the way or pay the price. Do a YouTube search on Earl
“Earl was scary because of his power and his speed,” said the legendary “Mean” Joe Greene on a NFL Network special that named Campbell the number three power back of all-time. “He had the ability to out run you and run over you.”
For younger fans, before Marshawn Lynch introduced “Beast Mode” to the NFL lexicon, it was Campbell taking on all comers on his way to the end zone. Helmets would fly off, jerseys would get torn to pieces, and more often than not, it was “The Tyler Rose” who was the man left standing. Once you saw him run, you never forgot it, and if you happened to play football in any way, shape or form, you wanted to be him.
Back in my day, on playgrounds throughout my native Brooklyn, trying to pull off a Walter Payton or Tony Dorsett juke could see you injuring yourself in the attempt. But we could all relate to Campbell’s style. If you ran through an opponent in a tackle game – which in those days were played on concrete without pads – “Earl Campbell” was the phrase you yelled as you did it.
He was a hero to those in working class neighborhoods, simply because he was one of us. He didn’t talk about what he was going to do; he just did it. There was no need for flash, no need to make noise. It was all about the work. That’s the way he was raised by his parents, especially his mother Ann, who had to care for all of her 11 children alone after the passing of her husband and Earl’s father, B.C., when Earl was just 11. His mother didn’t want her son to play football, but that was his way to a better life, and once he got the ball and started running, he never stopped.
The end result was a Heisman Trophy in 1977, three NFL MVP awards, and a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His 9,407 rushing yards place him 35th all-time, his 74 rushing touchdowns have him in the No. 24 slot, and he fought for every yard and touchdown. Campbell never had the chance to compete in the Super Bowl, but after the big game took over the Lone Star State last weekend, it was the perfect time to celebrate the 61-year-old who left an indelible mark on the game with a style all his own.