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Sports Then and Now

Earl Campbell: The Tyler Rose

Posted on December 04, 2010 by Dean Hybl

Earl Campbell

The December Sports Then and Now Vintage Athlete of the Month is considered one of the greatest running backs in both college and professional history.

Born in Tyler, Texas and known as the Tyler Rose, Earl Campbell spent more than a decade as the most dominating football player in the state of Texas.

After leading John Tyler High School to the Texas 4A State Championship, he became one of the top running backs in college football while playing at the University of Texas.

Campbell won the 1977 Heisman Trophy while playing at the University of Texas.

As a senior in 1977, Campbell rushed for 1,744 yards to win the Heisman Trophy. Texas completed the regular season with a perfect 11-0 record and ranked number one in the country, but lost to Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl. Campbell completed his college career with 4,444 yards.

Campbell didn’t have to leave Texas to play in the NFL as the Houston Oilers made him the first pick in the 1978 NFL Draft.

In his first NFL game, Campbell rushed for 137 yards against the Atlanta Falcons. He eclipsed the 100-yard mark seven times during his rookie season and led the NFL with 1,450 yards rushing. In a Monday Night Football matchup against the Miami Dolphins he became a national sensation by rushing for 199 yards, including an 81-yard run in the fourth period to put the game away.

The Houston Oilers finished the 1978 season with a 10-6 record and reached the playoffs for the first time since 1969. They reached the AFC Championship game after winning on the road against the Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots. The storybook campaign ended with a 34-5 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the conference title game.

The following season, Campbell was even better as he gained more than 100 yards 11 times and led the NFL with 1,697 yards rushing and 19 touchdowns. Houston finished the season with an 11-5 record and again lost to Pittsburgh in the AFC title game.

In 1980, Campbell enjoyed one of the finest individual seasons in NFL history as he gained 1,934 yards (then the second highest single season total in league history). Campbell gained over 100 yards in ten games and four times eclipsed the 200 yard mark.

The 1980 season proved to be the final playoff season for Campbell and the Oilers as they were 11-5, but head coach Bum Phillips was fired after the team lost their opening playoff game to the Oakland Raiders.

The 1981 season marked the beginning of the decline for Campbell as he gained 1,376 yards, but for the first time did not lead the NFL in rushing. He had only three games with 100 or more yards rushing and didn’t eclipse that mark over the final 10 games of the season as the Oilers finished with a 7-9 mark.

Campbell and the Oilers struggled during the strike-shortened 1982 season. Campbell’s only 100-yard game of the season was in week two when he rushed for 142 yards in a win over Seattle. After the strike, the Oilers lost all seven remaining games of the 1982 campaign and Campbell didn’t gain more than 66 yards in any contest. He finished with 538 yards rushing and didn’t finish in the top 10 in the league in rushing for the first time in his career.

The Oilers struggled through a 2-14 campaign in 1983, but Campbell was able to rebound to again rank among the top rushers in the NFL. He gained 1,301 yards to rank seventh in the NFL and had seven 100-yard games.

Campbell spent his final year and a half in the NFL primarily watching the action while with the New Orleans Saints.

With the Oilers looking to rebuild and it clear that Campbell was no longer the superstar he had been earlier in his career, the Tyler Rose was traded to the New Orleans Saints after the first six games of the 1984 season. Though reunited with his former coach Bum Phillips, Campbell was unable to regain his past magic and rushed for only 190 yards in eight games with the Saints.

In 1985, Campbell again struggled, but did manage to recapture his past magic for one game as he rushed for 160 yards in a victory over the Minnesota Vikings in week 12.

That proved to be the final great moment of Campbell’s career as he retired during training camp in 1986 after eight glorious, but grueling seasons in the NFL. He finished his career with 9,407 yards rushing and 74 rushing touchdowns. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1991.

Known for his tough running style and ability to punish tacklers, Campbell is one of the best examples of how over-use can shorten the career of an NFL running back. He carried the football 1,404 times (351 times per season) during his first four NFL seasons and also eclipsed the 300 attempt mark in 1983.

The pounding he took (and distributed) during his NFL career have contributed to a number of physical conditions including arthritic knees and back pain.

Even with his physical struggles, Campbell is still a successful businessman and is actively involved in the University of Texas athletic department.

Because his prime was compacted into a six-year period that didn’t allow him to compile huge career statistics, Campbell’s greatness is often forgotten by those who did not see him play. However, those who saw the Tyler Rose play remember him as one of the toughest running backs in NFL history and a true all-time great.

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