As they say of Houston Oilers running back Earl Campbell, up in the Piney Woods of East Texas, “He’d rather do than say.” And, of course, the MVP honors voted him by the Professional Football Writers of America each of his two seasons in the National Football League stand not for most voluble but most valuable player. To be precise on his value, it’s estimated to be $3 million over the next six years. The Oilers pay him for yards (in which he led the league), not words—where he ranks about last.
The silence, however, was beginning to sound awfully loud to Reuna Smith, who had been Earl’s steady girl since ninth grade. “I was beginning to wonder if we were ever going to get engaged,” she concedes. “Earl doesn’t tell you what’s on his mind.” Finally, this Valentine’s Day, he showed up at her parents’ home, far more nervous than anyone’s ever seen him on a football field, and scored on the romantic equivalent of the fullback draw play. “It’s Valentine’s Day, and I wanted to see the one I love,” he announced disarmingly. A long pause followed. Then he added, “Will you marry me?” Before Reuna, taken aback, could reply, Earl mumbled sheepishly, “Yeah, well, I finally had to do it.”
Reuna, 24, happily accepted. They wed in May, and after three months as a husband, Earl, 25, says: “It makes me realize my responsibilities, because there’s more than just me to think about. Before, I felt like I wasn’t really accomplishing anything.” That’s bad news for the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers, whom the Oilers play in their regular season opener September 7. After all, last season Earl averaged 106 yards a game. Now he also has a new on-field helpmeet in newly acquired quarterback Kenny Stabler. And Campbell hasn’t forgotten last January’s American Conference title game, when Pittsburgh eliminated Houston and held him to a career low of 15 yards in 17 carries.
If Earl feels he still has something to prove to the NFL, he has long since made a believer of Reuna (pronounced ruh-NAY). “It was love at first sight,” she recalls of the day in 1970 she first spotted Earl in the Moore Junior High School yard in the East Texas town of Tyler (pop. 61,200). “My cousin kind of liked him, too. But I decided I’d go after him.”
She knew her pursuit was paying off when Earl, the sixth of 11 children, invited her home to meet his adored mother. “You can’t beat Mrs. Campbell, even with a hickory stick,” Reuna understates affectionately. Ann Campbell’s husband, Burk, an odd-jobman and commercial rose grower, died when Earl was 9. So she became a cleaning lady in Tyler, keeping her family together in a tin-roofed shack, while everybody worked part-time tending the rosebushes. She shepherded the children to church on Sundays and persuaded Earl to exploit his athletic prowess rather than his already precocious tastes for smoking, drinking and gambling. Earl heeded—during one prayerful moment on a country road, he even pleaded with God to help him—and went on to win the Heisman Trophy at the University of Texas, where he was, ironically enough, a communications major.
Meanwhile Reuna, daughter of a machine operator and a hairstylist, put herself through Tyler Junior College working as a legal secretary. She occasionally sent Earl a few dollars in her daily letter and lent him her battered old Volkswagen; they visited whenever he came home on weekends. “I would have married him right out of college,” confesses Reuna. “But I’m glad we didn’t. It gave us both a chance to know what we wanted. And I knew he had some things on his mind.”
Earl wanted to establish himself as a pro and, as he once put it, “to build a house for my mother so that when she lies down at night she can’t see the Big Dipper.” On his way to becoming NFL Rookie of the Year as well as MVP in 1978, he commissioned a spacious brick dwelling 25 feet from the tin-roofed shack. In thanks he also bought Reuna a new Mercedes, but no ring until this February. “I just had to wait until he was ready to say what he wanted to say,” she reckons. (Just as meaningful is the judgment of Earl’s mother on Reuna: “I couldn’t be any happier. The marriage has taken a lot of pressure off me, and I don’t worry about Earl as much.”)
At their Baptist wedding in Tyler, the white-tuxedo-clad Earl toed the carpet shyly with his beige boots as half the Oilers and a host of friends and kin beamed at him and Reuna, who had written part of the vows. Since they felt “honor” went without saying and “obey” was too subservient, he promised to “love, cooperate with and cherish” her; she pledged to “love, support and cherish” him. Afterward, when asked about honeymoon plans, Earl joked: “I can’t afford one right now. I’ve got to wait until Stabler puts us in the Super Bowl so I can pick up some cash.”
Now the newlyweds live in a Houston suburb in a three-bedroom brick home, furnished in high-gloss pecan woods, chrome, glass and trophies. Pam, the pet boxer Earl gave Reuna in 1975, keeps them company while they watch TV (Dallas is a favorite, as are rented videocassettes of Western movies) or listen to C&W music (Earl’s a fan of Tom T. Hall and Johnny Rodriguez). They often head out to a movie, usually a late show because box office lines are shorter.
Reuna still rises at 6 a.m. and, while Earl is asleep in their king-size bed, jogs a mile or so with Oiler Tim Wilson’s wife, Valanda. Earl drives his modest Datsun to workouts, then returns to nap, answer some of the 1,000 fan letters he gets each month or maybe mow the lawn. (A maid handles major household chores, but Earl has not forgotten the poverty in his past, and he keeps a tight budget.) In-season practice lasts about two hours, and Earl is usually home for dinner about 7 p.m. His appetite is voracious but specialized. “I’ve got a whole batch of cookbooks,” Reuna shrugs, “but Earl likes the same things at every meal—steak, broccoli, orange juice and a banana dessert.”
Steak on the hoof is Earl’s avocation. He grazes a herd of cattle on a ranch he calls “the Seven C’s” after the Campbell brothers, who all pitch in on upkeep. Reuna has learned to drive a tractor, mend fence, tend livestock and ride a horse. “Down the line,” she says, “we may turn the ranch into a camp for kids who can’t afford the usual kind.”
The Campbells will start a family of their own “in about three years,” Reuna hopes. “Earl wants to give his kids the right kind of time. He’s at peace with himself, but he’s not satisfied yet. He’s always striving.” Before any children arrive, Reuna plans to return to school and study business. “I don’t want to sit around the house and get bored and turn into a nag,” she smiles. “It’s important I find something I want to do, even if we don’t need the money.”
She attends all the Houston home games, but is not one of the more fervent “Luv Ya Blue” zealots. “It’s nice to see Earl run, because that’s what he loves,” she says, “but I’m not that excited about football.”
She is not unduly alarmed by the sport’s violence—”Frankly, I haven’t given it that much thought”—and has no fear Earl’s success will inflate his ego. “His fame doesn’t bother me,” she says. “Earl, to everybody who has known him very long, hasn’t changed a bit. He’s the same Earl he was in the ninth grade,” Reuna insists. “If not, I probably wouldn’t be with him, and he probably would have taken a different woman. To me, Earl is not really number 34. He’s just Earl.”