Earl Campbell had just rushed for 111 yards and scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns to rally the Houston Oilers to a 20-17 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs last Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium, and now he was once again being asked the one question that forever dogs Heisman Trophy winners and NFL No. 1 draft choices, of which Campbell is both. "Uh, say, Earl, how have you been handling all the media attention you've been getting?"
If Campbell had not been Earl Campbell, he might well have said, "Listen, right off I want you guys to know that the name is Campbell now, not Campbell. You hear? And as for your question, I love the attention. I deserve it, too. When's the last time a rookie broke with 137 and 111 yards rushing in his first two games? So far this league's a piece of cake."
But that's not Earl Campbell from Tyler, Texas, old buddy. Here's what Earl Campbell from Tyler, Texas said: "When you guys leave, I'm going to get on the bus and just be like everybody else. Another guy wants to be a big shot, that may be him. This is me. I think the whole key is to just be yourself."
Houston Coach Bum Phillips will gladly take Campbell as he is, which is 5'11", 224 pounds and blue chip all the way. On the Oilers' sixth play from scrimmage in their season opener two weeks ago, against Atlanta, which they lost 20-14, Campbell took a short pass from Quarterback Dan Pastorini while still in the backfield and burst 73 yards for a touchdown. No Falcon touched him.
The' statisticians credited Campbell with a 73-yard pass reception. However, NFL film reviewers discovered that Pastorini had passed the ball back, not forward, thus making the play a lateral. As a result, those 73 yards were moved from the pass-yardage column to the rush-yardage column. And instead of being in seventh place in the AFC rushing race with 64 yards in 14 carries—which wasn't all that bad, either, for a rookie—Campbell suddenly was No. 1 with 137 yards in 15 carries.
It was not that 73-yard run or another bolt of 25 yards that most impressed Phillips, however. What brought a shine to the coach's cowboy boots was a momentous gain of two yards. "Our films showed that the Atlanta linebacker got to Earl the same time the ball did," Phillips says, "and that he hit Earl high and hit him flush. Anybody else probably would have lost yardage on that play. It was one heck of a two-yard run."
At Kansas City last Sunday, Campbell had only 63 yards going into the fourth quarter and the Oilers were trailing 17-6. But then he went to work. Campbell racked up 48 yards on eight carries and scored his two touchdowns, the first from a yard out and the game winner from two yards away with 1:53 left to play.
With Campbell at his disposal, Pastorini wisely kept the Oilers strictly on the ground for the nine-play, 65-yard drive to the winning touchdown. Campbell ignited the drive by sweeping the left side for 22 yards, giving Houston a first down at the Kansas City 43. Then he went right for six yards, right again for three more and straight up the middle for another eight. Five plays later he shot over left guard for the score.
"To appreciate Campbell," Phillips says, "you've got to give him the ball 20, 25 times a game. He's the kind of guy who doesn't let up. He'll turn a four-yard run into a 12, or a one-yarder into a four, which is a heck of an accomplishment in this league. I think most of his yardage in college was made after he got hit. Most backs, you block two yards for them and that's what they'll make. But you block two yards for Earl and he'll get four. Do that three times and you've got a first down."
With 248 yards rushing and three touchdowns in two games, Campbell already is paying handsome dividends for the Oilers, who gave Tampa Bay four draft choices and promising Tight End Jimmy Giles in exchange for the rights to Campbell, and then signed the University of Texas star to a six-year contract for a reported $1.4 million.
"He's done everything we expected." Phillips said after the Chiefs game. "He blocked extremely well today. Tim Wilson had some good runs because of Earl's blocking. Earl carried the ball well, played well in the clutch and his endurance was excellent. He took a lot of tough licks, but there were a few of them he hit who got up slow, too." On one play, Campbell collided with Chief Linebacker Thomas Howard, and for a moment it seemed he would be taking his first trip on an NFL stretcher. But Campbell left the field under his own power, and two plays later he was back in the lineup.
"When you get someone with Campbell's kind of ability and attitude, you've really got something," Phillips says. "You don't get a chance to get very many kids like him, and if you can get one, he can be the difference over the next five years. He can put this club over the hump."
Sure, Bum, but isn't there something the kid does that bothers you? Does he take up two spaces when he parks his car? Does he snore? Well, if Phillips hasn't found any fault in his rookie, one Houston official has. "I don't think Earl liked that singing bit at training camp very much," the man says, referring to that ritual in which the rookies have to get up and sing their school song. "Earl somehow found a back door out of the dining hall, and he was usually the first in line to eat and the first to leave." One day the veterans caught Campbell as he tried to sneak out the door, and he serenaded them with a song about Mamas, babies and cowboys.
So Campbell doesn't like The Eyes of Texas. Big deal. As Offensive Back Coach Andy Bourgeois says, he's still "a real pleasure to be with. You know what he reminds me of? A Sunday morning. Just an easy Sunday morning."
Campbell may give Houston some easy Sunday afternoons, too.