Don't Feel Sorry for Me
When Earl Campbell could run, Earl Campbell could run. Seen now on film, the camera tracking his movement downfield, he still looks prodigious. Accompanied by NFL Films’ typically majestic scoring, he looks unstoppable, whether propelling himself at blockers’ chests or dragging tacklers along with him, as his massive thighs keep churning—one, two, five yards.
For years Campbell dominated the running game—at John Tyler High School in Tyler, Texas, whose Lions he led to their first state championship in 43 years; at the University of Texas at Austin, where he won the Heisman Trophy in 1977; and with the Houston Oilers, who took him as the first overall draft pick in 1978 and for whom he played until 1984. In his first year in the NFL, he was named the Most Valuable Player, All-Pro, and Rookie of the Year. During his professional career, Campbell ran for 9,407 yards and scored 74 touchdowns. When he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1991, he was long since legendary.
But for all his greatness, for all his power and brilliance on the football field, for all of the punishment that he delivered, Earl Campbell also—famously—is a cautionary tale. Images of his post-NFL figure, walking with a cane or in a wheelchair, support the other part of his legend, that he sacrificed himself to a game, performing until his body collapsed after decades of abuse.
The documentary Still Standing: The Earl Campbell Story pushes back against those images, to show that he is “still standing.” It goes so far as to open with the phrase “cautionary tale,” in order to suggest the film will show another side, even it also appears to illustrate exactly that, in close shots of Campbell’s legs and feet as he makes his way—so slowly—across the green grass in Houston’s new stadium, the one built for the Texans. He’s leaning on an assistant and gripping a cane now, and as the camera tis up and back to show his still daunting figure, the narrator describes the problem it means to tackle. Earl Campbell is not just “The premiere power back whose body broke down under the stress of his running style.” That style was notorious, recalled here in footage of Campbell in motion, his body huge and his strides long and low.
The story has long been that his coach at the Oilers, Bum Phillips, ran Campbell into the ground. The film, premiering on NBC Sports Network on 4 December, offers details—and some terrific archival footage—to complicate that narrative. First, of course, Campbell had a hard life as a child, one of 11 children to his parents, who picked roses for a living in Tyler. He resisted, doing his best not to work too hard in the field and to find an alternative life. In a 1978 interview his mother Ann remembers that she worried he was going to “get involved with the police,” but laid down her own gauntlet, that she wouldn’t help him if he did. In turn, he discovered football and promised her he would build her a house.
Though he first wanted to be a linebacker (“I wanted to be the next Dick Butkus,” he says), but his high school coach steered him to offense, put the ball in his hands and sent him running. The film celebrates his many achievements, again and again showing footage of the player at work, even as it also notes the costs of his monumental labor. The movie reveals that the back pain in his later life was a function not only of his work, but also that he suffers from a genetic spinal disease. It offers testimony from his wife Reuna and his sons, to suggest the costs of his addictions, to painkillers and alcohol (“You start to see a different person,” Reuna says; while one son remembers hearing his father crying from the pain). Campbell also reveals that the pain was once so terrible that he considered suicide.
Still, the film focuses on his survival. As much as Earl Campbell might stand as an example of what’s wrong with football—the tolls it takes on bodies and psyches, the long-term effects of so much violence against bones and muscles and minds—he remains adamant here that his work was worth it, that he loved his game. The footage reminds you too of this experience, the pleasure he brought viewers and fans, the brilliance he afforded his teammates, the dread he inspired in opponents. He is incredible to watch when he runs. But it’s worth remember too, what that performance means, in all its dimensions.