The Earl of east Texas
Before Heisman and NFL, Campbell had season of state high school lore in Tyler, Texas
Maybe running back Earl Campbell shouldn't have won the 1977 Heisman Trophy playing for Texas as a senior.
The "Tyler Rose" ran for 1,184 yards through an unbeaten 10-game regular season as a high school senior in his first year as a full-time running back. The 214-pound combination of power and speed then stepped it up more during the playoffs.
He increased his per-game rushing average from 131.6 yards to 170.4 as the Lions won five more games and claimed the championship in a 21-14 thriller against Reagan High of Austin in Houston's Astrodome. For the full season, he averaged 6.6 yards a carry while rolling up 2,036 yards.
"I'd never seen as dominant a football player in high school," said Ken Dabbs, the Texas assistant coach assigned to recruit Campbell that fall for head coach Darrell Royal. And Dabbs saw a lot of Campbell, watching every one of the Lions' home games, then spending 17 consecutive days in Tyler leading up to signing day.
It all paid off. Campbell was the Longhorns' top rusher in each of his four seasons at Texas and captured the Heisman his last year in Austin.
He followed his heroics at the University of Texas with a brilliant but relatively brief NFL career that saw him inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1991. Recovering from recent knee replacement surgery, Campbell declined to be interviewed for this story.
There are numbers and plays from Campbell's senior year at John Tyler that remain in state high school football lore: his 73-yard option pass late to beat Texarkana in the regular season; the career-high 219 rushing yards in the first playoff win, over Plano, when he carried six defenders for the better part of a 24-yard gain; an 18-yard option thrown for a critical first down setting up his winning run in the playoffs against Conroe; and the tie-breaking touchdown in the title game against Reagan with 51 seconds to play.
Behind the numbers and highlights were turbulent times in east Texas. The city of Tyler, situated about 100 miles east of Dallas, was still grappling with court-ordered school desegregation instituted during the summer of 1970. Tyler's black high school, Emmett Scott, was closed, with students sent to the town's two previously all-white schools -- John Tyler and Robert E. Lee. The school system then was 67 percent white and 32 percent black.
John Tyler is located on the city's north side, home then to most of Tyler's black population, and had a senior class in 1973-74 that was 40 percent black. Robert E. Lee, located on the primarily white south side, was 16 percent black.
The new black students at John Tyler in 1970-71 protested a quota built into cheerleader elections, and hundreds were suspended. The white majority at Robert E. Lee bristled in 1971-72 when the Texas Education Agency ordered the school to replace its Rebels nickname in midyear. (The students chose Red Raiders.) No longer would a couple of male students dress in Confederate army uniforms and bring a cannon to games.
Michael Johnson, a black receiver on the 1973 John Tyler team, sums up the relationship between the two schools back then in one word.
"Terrible," he said.
"We stayed on the north side. They stayed on the south side."
Based on the team photo in the John Tyler yearbook, there were 25 blacks and 14 whites on the 1973 football team. Johnson credits Lions head coach Corky Nelson for being proactive in getting the black players comfortable with the predominantly white coaching staff when he arrived at the school in 1971.
"He had each position coach go to a player's house and eat," Johnson said. "To me, that broke the barrier. We had a fantastic time. My parents enjoyed him. In the heart of north Tyler, that was pretty bold."
Campbell was a ninth grader in junior high when desegregation went into effect and, according to the website earlcampbell.com, developed bad attitudes about school and football because of the racial climate in Tyler. Entering John Tyler as a sophomore, he skipped the team's first few practices under new coach Nelson and was placed on the junior varsity.
Campbell played more linebacker than running back and was promoted to the varsity in midseason when injuries struck the linebacking corps. As a junior, he was named the district's outstanding defensive player and also rushed for 529 yards in four games as a tailback.
The tone for Campbell and the 1973 Lions was set when he barreled for 177 yards in the season opener against Greenville. The only times that season he didn't crack 100 yards were when he was injured or being rested on the sideline after victories already were clinched.
Bob Peppard, a defensive back for district rival Nacogdoches, recalls coaches warning defenders that their only chance against Campbell was to hit him low.
"You couldn't try to tackle him above the waist," Peppard said. "When that forearm hit you, it was like an anvil."
With a weapon like Campbell, John Tyler rarely passed. Johnson understood, but it didn't make it any easier when he was wide open with defenses putting all 11 players on the line of scrimmage.
"I'd be so wide open, I'd do jumping jacks in the end zone," Johnson said. "It would be on the film. Corky would say, 'If you do another jumping jack, you'll never play another down for this football team.'"
While Campbell dominated games, he did so quietly. When he scored late in the 10-7 playoff win over Conroe, he reacted with a rare emotional display -- jumping off the turf and racing to the bench area with fists held high.
"He just did his thing," said Tim Campbell. "He'd get in the end zone, hand the ball to the referee and walk away."
Tim Campbell said the city of Tyler came together as the Lions made their postseason march to the Astrodome and the 1973 Class 4A state title.
"After the first week of the playoffs, it didn't matter what race you were; you rooted for John Tyler," he said. "The kids from Robert E. Lee came to our pep rallies."
From Tyler, Earl Campbell would go on to lead the nation as a senior at Texas with 1,744 yards, after new coach Fred Akers replaced the program's familiar wishbone attack for an I-formation that increased Campbell's workload from 138 carries as a junior to 267. He averaged 6.5 yards a carry that year.
The first pick of the 1978 NFL draft by the Houston Oilers, Campbell led the NFL in rushing each of his first three seasons, was named the league's most valuable player by The Associated Press in 1979 and retired after eight punishing seasons.
When the 1973 John Tyler team gathered for its 15-year reunion in 1988 shortly after Campbell's retirement, he presented his old Lions teammates with rings commemorating their state championship.
Robert E. Lee High School won a Class 5A football state championship in 2004, and Tim Campbell said city fans united behind that team like they did behind his Lions in 1973. John Tyler is now 46 percent black, 46 percent Hispanic and 8 percent white. Robert E. Lee is 45 percent white, 35 percent black and 17 percent Hispanic.
Two months ago, the Tyler school district began taking steps to officially lift the desegregation order of 1970.
Earl Campbell lives in Austin, where he splits time between representing the University of Texas and running a meat company. In 2006, the field at Rose Stadium in Tyler was renamed Earl Campbell Field.
Michael Johnson is an assistant coach at John Tyler, where the team passes more than when he played. Tim Campbell's son, Austin, was a senior linebacker this season for Robert E. Lee.
Tim Campbell also has a niece who is a cheerleader for his alma mater. When he complied recently with her request to sit on the John Tyler side and watch her cheer, he said he caught a lot of grief from Robert E. Lee people.
"From the fans. From my family!" he said. "But it was all in fun."