December 05, 1977 12:00 PM

“He looked right straight at me, and he said, ‘Coach, my people were bought and sold when they didn’t have a choice. There ain’t nobody gonna buy Earl Campbell.’ ”

Darrell Royal

The conversation took place four years ago when Earl Campbell was the most-sought-after high school running back in Texas. Royal was trying to recruit him for the University of Texas and at the same time find out if he had big-money offers from other schools.

Today Royal watches games from the athletic director’s seat in the press box, while Fred Akers coaches the top-ranked Longhorns. But 22-year-old senior running back Campbell is still the kind of football player money can’t buy. He is also a favorite to become the first athlete from his school to win college football’s most prestigious award, the Heisman Trophy.

At 5’11” and 224 pounds, Campbell is the fifth leading rusher in the history of major college football; only four other backs have ever gained as much as 4,000 yards. “He has size, speed, strength and quickness,” says Akers. “And he has a sense of values that is very sound. He’s a dream football player.”

The coach’s dream was born the sixth of 11 children to Ann and B. C. Campbell and raised in a small, tin-roofed house outside Tyler, Texas. His father supported the family by taking odd jobs and growing roses; the children helped by hauling water and budding the tender new rosebushes. When the weather turned bad, the family rested inside. “You could hear the rain on the roof,” Campbell remembers, “and look around the room, and there would be children sleeping everywhere.”

When Earl was 9, B.C. died. Earl’s mother gathered her family. “I can clothe you and feed you and put you through school,” she told them. “But if you get into trouble, I can’t afford to pay no fines.”

Her concern was well founded. By his teens, Earl was smoking two packs a day, drinking and hustling pool (though not into dope). His admiring friends called him “Bad Earl.” “I was,” he says, “on the path to the penitentiary.”

Ann Campbell had other plans. “My mom,” he remembers, “brought me to a realization that changed my life. She told me that I was something special, that God had given me a talent. She said I could go on and use that blessing, get an education and play professional football. But I couldn’t do any of that if I kept on doing what my friends were doing.”

Finding himself, however, was not easy. Then one day he stopped despondently beside a tall pine tree near home and prayed. “I said, ‘Lord, I can’t help myself. Would you take over?’ And it just started happening.”

Often running four miles on his way home from school—with a belt wrapped around his fist to ward off stray dogs—Campbell made All-State in high school and won a scholarship to Texas. Now he earns B’s and C’s in communications, has missed only six classes in three and a half years and is a deeply religious Baptist. He was even thrown out of an Austin bar once—for ordering only orange juice at a table reserved for patrons drinking alcoholic beverages.

With his first pro football money, he’ll buy his mother a house “with a roof that don’t leak. People probably wonder,” he says, “why I talk about my mother so much. One reason is she’s so great and another is that I believe if you are going to let anyone know how you feel about them, don’t wait until they die. Always give them roses while they are alive, so they can smell them and see them.”

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