• Sal Maiorana

Earl Campbell, the human wrecking ball, turns 65 years old

Back when he was a teenager, Tyler Campbell wasn’t concerned about how his body was going to feel 30 years hence when he might be sitting under the Friday night lights watching his own son play high school football.

“I don’t worry about it now,” said the son of Pro Football Hall of Famer Earl Campbell in an interview with The Associated Press. “I might when I’m older.”

It’s not hard to understand why.

Every day of his youth Tyler was provided a stark reminder of how vicious football can be as he watched his father – once an unstoppable tank of a running back at the University of Texas and later in the NFL with Houston and New Orleans – limp around with the aide of a cane, his body ravaged by all the pounding he took during his spectacular career.

“I think some of it came from playing football, playing the way I did,” said Earl, who turns 65 years old today.

When the Super Bowl was played in Houston in 2004, millions of television viewers worldwide felt the anguish that Tyler and the Campbell family dealt with as they watched Earl walk gingerly to midfield to participate in the pre-game coin toss.

“It’s sad, it really is,” Tyler said at the time.

Last February, when the NFL celebrated his 100th season by bringing back its greatest players and parading them onto the field at Hard Rock Stadium, the cane was replaced by a wheelchair which Campbell now needs to get around.

It’s a vicious game indeed, but that’s the way Campbell chose to play it.

“After watching films of Jim Brown, I noticed that he never ran out of bounds,” Campbell said. “He always ran North and South and that’s what I turned my style into. I was a North and South runner.”

But that was also why his career lasted only nine NFL seasons. The 9,407 yards he gained took a brutal toll, and his early exit was directly attributable to that running style when running backs like he and Brown didn’t look to avoid contact, they initiated it.

Campbell took just as much pleasure running over a tackler as he did juking him, and his uncommon combination of speed and strength allowed him to do both. The old expression, mumbled by would-be tacklers who were left crushed in his wake, was that they were “Earled.”

The most obvious example – now an NFL Films classic – came in a game at the Astrodome against the Los Angeles Rams in 1978 when Campbell savagely bowled over linebacker Isiah Robertson.

When Campbell won the Heisman Trophy in 1977, everyone knew he was going to be the first overall choice in the following spring’s NFL draft. However, by the end of the season when the woeful Tampa Bay Buccaneers locked up the No. 1 pick, everyone knew it wouldn’t be Tampa Bay making the selection.

The previous year the Bucs had chosen USC running back Ricky Bell No. 1 overall and what they desperately needed in the 1978 draft was a quarterback.

So, coach John McKay swung a landmark trade with Houston, sending the No. 1 pick to the Oilers for tight end Jimmie Giles and four picks, including Houston’s first- and second-round choices in the ‘78 draft. The Oilers took Campbell while Tampa Bay chose Doug Williams later in the first round.

Campbell became an instant star and he led the Oilers to back-to-back appearances in the AFC Championship Game. Ultimately, he won three NFL rushing titles and three league MVP awards, but at the age of 31, Campbell had already taken enough punishment and he abruptly retired during the preseason of 1986.

“I don’t know if he’s in a class by himself, but I do know that when that class gets together, it sure don’t take long to call the roll,” his coach with the Oilers, Bum Phillips, once said.