AUSTIN, Texas (AP) – The sleek black Mercedes whipped into valet parking. Anyone expecting the driver to get out of the car with the same grace and style was in for a shock.
With the aid of the valet, Earl Campbell slowly emerged.
Left foot first, right foot next. Once they were both solidly on the ground, the Heisman Trophy winner and NFL Hall of Famer grabbed his walker with both hands and shuffled with bent back and crooked knees toward the door of the Barton Creek Resort.
Campbell was being honored this weekend by the Heisman Winners Association, a gathering to raise money for charity and toast the former Texas Longhorn 30 years after he won college sports’ most prestigious individual trophy.
But the body that was built for football now looks broken.
He insists his ailments – most recently bone spurs in his back that required surgery, a monthlong stay in the hospital and rehab three days a week – are more likely the result of bad genetics than football. In eight seasons in the NFL, he missed only six games because of injuries.
“I broke a finger one time, and broke ribs maybe,” he said.
But his Heisman mates aren’t so sure. They remember the human battering ram in a helmet and shoulder pads and see a proud man physically struggling for years now.
At a time when Congress is conducting hearings on whether the NFL should have a stronger pension and disability system for former players, they see the 52-year-old Campbell as yet another example of the violence in football and the wreckage it can leave behind.
“That was the biggest, baddest big man running I ever saw,” said Tony Dorsett, who won the Heisman at Pitt in 1976, a year before Campbell did. Campbell considers Dorsett his best friend among the Heisman winners.
“But it doesn’t matter how big and strong you are,” Dorsett said. “Over a period of time, the game wins.”
Even Dorsett, who looks fits and trim at 53, says he has aches and pains and occasional numbness in his hands he attributes to leftovers from his days in football.
The game clearly takes a different toll on different players
Archie Griffin, who won two Heismans at Ohio State in 1974-75 looked like he could almost play today as he moved easily around a reception Thursday night.
“He’s an example of what can happen playing that game. He’s paying the price,” Griffin said of Campbell. “I feel very, very fortunate. When I was in pro ball, I didn’t carry the ball as much. When I look back on it, you’re thankful you didn’t carry it 30 times a game in a 16 or 20 game schedule. I count my blessings.”
At Texas and playing for Houston and New Orleans in the NFL, Campbell was known as “The Tyler Rose,” a delicate nickname that belied 5-foot-11, 232-pound frame of pure muscle and power.
His bullish running style created a career full of highlight film clips of him crushing defenders who dared try to tackle him one-on-one.
“I used to tell Earl “Why don’t you let one man get you down sometimes?”‘ Dorsett said. “That wasn’t his thing.”
Asked why he didn’t do that, Campbell dismisses the question with a look.
Campbell won the Heisman in 1977, rushing for 4,443 yards and 41 touchdowns in his college career. He exploded into the NFL with four consecutive seasons of 1,300 yards or more, the high point coming in 1980 when he ran for 1,934 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Campbell clearly prefers not to talk about his condition. He even talks about playing golf again in the fall, something he hasn’t done in six years.
Yet arthritis in both hands make it difficult for him to open a candy wrapper or a tin of smokeless tobacco, let alone grip a golf club. And when he’s had enough of the walker, an assistant keeps a wheelchair a few feet away.
He’s sharply critical of the NFL as not doing enough to help its older players who are struggling. He doesn’t necessarily lump himself in that group. He remains part of Earl Campbell Meat Products, has a ranch in East Texas where he raises cattle and a long-standing contract with the University of Texas as a special assistant pays him a salary and covers his health insurance.
A self-described “country boy,” he remains thankful that he let his wife handle his finances. “That’s why we’ve still got something,” he said.
But some players don’t have much left. They should be taken care of, Campbell said.
“If I was good enough for them to yell for (on Sunday), I should be good enough for them to say ‘Earl, here’s you a check every month for what you’ve done,” he said. “They need to do more for ex-athletes.”
NFL players union head Gene Upshaw has come under fire from a group of Hall of Famers who say the union has concentrated too much on current players and ignored the health problems of former players.
Upshaw has stressed he works for current players, not retirees. He has also noted he helped form a program that provides up to $88,000 per year to families of former players suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
“(He) should be ashamed,” Campbell said. “He played the game and he knows.”
George Rogers, who won the Heisman at South Carolina in 1980, agreed more should be done for former NFL players. He has trouble raising both of his arms.
“People think football players are invincible sometimes. I made some money when I played. I’m not mad at anybody, but the pensions that come along after you’re done is not fair,” Rogers said.
“No matter how many carries Earl Campbell carried, they loved to see him run. But I guarantee you after the game, he was hurting. And the next week you have to get up and do it again.”