They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and I believe it.
It was a wonderful photograph of John Tyler running back Earl Campbell on the front page of the Tyler Morning Telegraph back in November 1973. Earl was dragging eight Plano Wildcats defenders into the end zone during a lopsided 34-0 bi-district win. Counting the Plano players again, my first thought then and now was, “where are the other three players?”
Campbell was so dominant that Barry Switzer, the legendary Oklahoma coach who lost Earl to Texas in a heated recruiting battle, said later that year that Campbell was one of those very rare players who could go directly to the NFL from high school.
To my knowledge, only the late Cookie Gilchrist of the Buffalo Bills is the only player to actually make such an audacious jump and his size and speed were comparable to Campbell’s.
The win over Plano in 1973 began a five-game playoff run that gave John Tyler a state championship in 1973. The only game I missed was the second round game at Conroe where the Lions eked out a 10-7 win with Earl scoring a 5-yard TD run with 2:04 on the clock in the fourth quarter.
My friend Mike Herrington and I traveled to Fort Worth the following week to see JT run over Mike Renfro and Fort Worth Arlington Heights. Then we went to Waco to see the Lions win over Arlington Sam Houston and finally the Astrodome for the championship game when John Tyler prevailed over Austin Reagan.
Campbell was surrounded by good talent on that team including Ronnie Lee and Gary Don Johnson going on the play major college football and then the NFL. Campbell of course won the Heisman Trophy his senior year at Texas, was the first player selected in the 1978 draft when Houston traded up to get him. He then led the league in rushing the following fall on his way to Rookie of the Year honors and ultimately the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
But it all started in Tyler at Moore Junior High in Tyler. Campbell was coached at Moore by someone who helped him tremendously, the late Lawrence LaCroix.
“I played with Earl at Moore and obviously he was special even then and we won the city championship,” Tyler banker Tim Alexander said. “Anyone could see he was very gifted and I think it was Coach LaCroix who helped Earl realize just what a gift he had and that he should do something with it.”
Alexander laughed when recalling he played against Earl in high school. An outside linebacker for Tyler Lee, Alexander said they studied film on John Tyler and picked up some tendencies they thought might help them stop Campbell in the big cross-town rivalry the final game of the 1973 regular season.
“We studied the film and saw that John Tyler ran basically four plays with Earl and Lynn King, who was also very good. Each guy either ran off tackle or around end on a sweep. Whoever inched up in their split backfield was getting the ball and so I would move up and attack that player. When read it right but in the end it didn’t matter. They were just too good.”
One other memory of Alexander’s coincided with my first memory of Campbell during his college days at Texas. He was very good at lining up over the center and blocking punts. Alexander said he was the safety blocker for the punter and during that game against John Tyler, he just ran forward to block Campbell on every punt because it was a given that Earl would crash through the line almost at will.
Against Arkansas during Earl’s freshman year at Texas, I was sitting in my dorm room at SMU and watched Campbell block a punt during a critical time in the second half to help the Longhorns take the win.
Another college memory of Earl popped into my head many years later when I was driving down a toll road in Tampa, Florida. I saw the name of the freeway and called my friend Robert Owen in Tyler and declared, “I’m driving down the ‘Earl Stopper’ freeway.”
Owen struggle to name the only football player who could stop Earl one on one? He mentioned Bob Golic of Notre Dame and I said no way.
“I’m on the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway,” I blurted out as Owen laughed.
I may be giving the late Selmon too much credit but I watched the Texas versus OU game in 1975 from the press box at the Cotton Bowl when Campbell gained 95 yards on 20 carries from the fullback position of the Wishbone offense. He earned every bit of because he was hit at the line of scrimmage by Lee Roy and his brother Lucious Selmon. Earl had to burrow his way to those 95 yards.
Campbell was injured a lot of his junior year with a bad hamstring but as a know-it-all young sportswriter, I advocated “unleashing Earl,” by getting him out of the fullback position in that Wishbone so they could toss him the ball on sweeps like they did at JT.
The rest is history, Darrell Royal, who bristled at the unleash Earl rhetoric by saying the only thing that could leash Earl was an injury, retired and Fred Akers ditched the Wishbone and put Campbell as the featured back in an I formation. He won the Heisman and then went to Houston.
Earl and the Houston “Earlers” reached another pinnacle on a Monday night game that 1978 season when Campbell rushed for 199 yards and four touchdowns in a win over Miami coached by the great Don Shula. Earl was lauded by the inestimable Howard Cosell and the world learned that night what I learned five years earlier.
Earl Campbell was a once-in-a-lifetime football player, a bonafide superstar.
“I remember running into Earl at a charity golf tournament at Hollytree not too long after he had retired,” former John Tyler quarterback Don Thedford said. “It was in the locker room and Earl was changing his shoes. My friend Jim Gillen brought up that Monday night game and said he thought one long run that night by Earl was the best he had ever seen.”
Campbell, Thedford remembers, looked up, grinned, and said, “they don’t make running backs like that anymore.”
Indeed they don’t. ...the Tyler Rose.