NFL Superstar Campbell struggles to walk these days
Heisman Trophy winner and NFL Hall of Fame member Earl Campbell uses a walker or wheelchair to get around.
Wearing a burnt orange Texas golf shirt, white knee-length shorts and new shoes with a Longhorn logo, Campbell used a walker to inch down a window-lined hallway overlooking one of his favorite golf courses.
He took roughly six minutes to cover 40 yards -- a distance he used to breeze through in less than five seconds as a punishing running back at Texas and during an eight-year, Hall of Fame career in the NFL, mostly with the Houston Oilers.
Still wearing his trademark beard, now gray, he stands at a 45-degree angle, unable to straighten his back. He can no longer straighten his knees, either.
When the walker becomes too much work, he uses a wheelchair that he travels with at all times. During a 40-minute interview with reporters, Campbell was lucid one moment and struggled to recall names and prominent dates the next.
"The doctor says I'll be playing golf by October," Campbell said, even though he hasn't swung a club in six years.
Campbell was being honored last weekend with former Texas A&M running back John David Crow by the Heisman Winners Association. The event has attracted more than 20 former Heisman Trophy winners to Austin to help raise funds for charity and to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Campbell's Heisman win (1977) and 50th anniversary of Crow's win (1957).
The subject of Campbell's health became a topic of discussion among the former NFL players gathered in Austin because of testimony before Congress last week by aging NFL retirees.
Those retirees told horror stories of endless surgery, dementia and homelessness while fighting with the NFL for better pensions and health insurance. Retired players receive health insurance for the first five years after their playing career and then are on their own, when insurance is often unaffordable.
"I stay focused and prayerful that I won't have to deal with the situation of Earl Campbell one day," said Eddie George, a Heisman-winning running back at Ohio State who played for the Tennessee Titans and Dallas Cowboys.
Fortunately for Campbell, he is in his 16th year as a special assistant to the athletic director at Texas, a job that pays him $50,000 a year and provides his health insurance.
"Thank God for the University of Texas," said Campbell, whose latest back surgery came March 26 to remove bone spurs. He goes to physical therapy three days a week and regrets quitting on the therapy prescribed after previous back surgeries.
"They wanted me to lift some weights, and I told them I didn't know how to do that," Campbell said. "I never lifted weights when I played football."
For Dorsett, Griffin and Rogers, Campbell's physical condition hits close to home. They are contemporaries who shared a position known for collisions akin to car accidents. Dorsett, who won the Heisman at Pittsburgh in 1976, is 53. Campbell and Griffin are 52. Rogers, the Heisman winner at South Carolina in 1980 before an eight-year NFL career, is 48.
They all talk about ailments that still bother them today. Dorsett, a Hall of Fame running for the Cowboys, temporarily lost feeling in his left arm a while back. Rogers can't raise his right arm above his shoulder.
"Earl's an example of what can happen playing that game," said Ohio State's Griffin, the only two-time Heisman winner. "He's paying the price for that today. But he's not going to complain. He still has a great outlook and is still bigger than life."
It's obvious to everyone but Campbell that his physical condition, on the decline for years, is the direct result of his bullish running style. Campbell repeatedly led with his helmet when taking on defenders.
Campbell, however, said his physical condition is genetic.
"It's not because of football," Campbell said. "The most serious injury I got from football was a broken finger and broken ribs."
Campbell is beloved by his peers. Only they truly know what kind of punishment he handed out -- and absorbed -- on the field.
"Earl Campbell was my idol," Rogers said. "When I was a player, I tried to be just like him."
Of all the former Heisman winners, Campbell said he considers Dorsett his best friend because Dorsett calls on Campbell regularly.
Having won the Heisman in back-to-back years, Dorsett and Campbell tried to outperform each other during their pro careers -- a fact they learned after they retired.
"One time, I asked Earl, 'Why don't you let one man bring you down sometimes?' " Dorsett said. "He said, 'I got to get them. They're talking that noise.' "
Dorsett sounded like an excited little boy when naming several defenders Campbell threw around like rag dolls on highlight reels.
"Earl was the biggest, baddest player in the game," Dorsett said. "He was my Skoal brother. But no matter how big or strong you are, the game ultimately wins."
Today in America, millions are suffering each day from the epidemic of chronic pain. Many like Earl Campbell led very active lives, were in great physical condition and have not family history of this chronic ailment. As a pastor, and chronic pain sufferer myself I see this everyday. While you can't take away a person's pain, you can be a blessing in the life of someone you love. Here are 3 things you can easily do with no problem.
1. PRAY! ... GOD is their only hope.
2. BE THERE!...JUST your presence can mean so much.
3. BE ENCOURAGING!...HELP person maintain an attitude of gratitude through it all!
My book, WHEN GOD SAY WAIT, is dedicated to those like Earl, continue to experience the goodness of God. God is FAITHFUL!
TRIBUTE TO EARL CAMPBELL VIDEO