Review of Earl Campbell: Yards After Contact

Price, Asher. Earl Campbell: Yards After Contact. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2019. Pp. 344. 12 photos, notes, and index. $27.95 hardcover.

Reviewed by Nicholas Evan Sarantakes

It is difficult to explain how much Earl Campbell dominated American football in the late 1970s.  For roughly three years, he was the player in the sport.

University of Texas Press, 2019.

In 1977, as a senior at the University of Texas, Campbell won the Heisman Trophy and his team was ranked first in the country, playing for the mythical national championship at the end of the season. In 1978, the Houston Oilers, a mediocre franchise in the National Football League, made him the first pick in the draft. He led the league in rushing and received the Rookie of the Year Award. In his second year as a professional, he led the league in rushing again, and won the NFL’s Most Valuable Player Award.  His third year was one for the ages when he ran for 1934 yards in one season, which at the time was second most in league history and is still in the top ten. 

What is perhaps most impressive is that Campbell managed to take Houston to the conference championship game two years in row, even though he was the only major addition to an Oilers team that had gone 8-6 the year before he became a professional. Since Campbell had gone to high school and college in Texas, he also brought a strong, pre-existing fan base to the Oilers, and for a few years they rivaled the Dallas Cowboys in popularity in the state, even though the Cowboys had just won a Super Bowl and would play in another during the height of Campbell’s popularity.

One of the factors that made Campbell such a dominate player was that he combined both speed and power in the running back position in a way that few others have.  He collected many individual honors playing football, but the biggest might have come in 1981 when the state legislature made him the fourth Official State Hero of Texas.  The other three: Sam Houston, David Crockett, and Stephen F. Austin.

Given his dominance as a player, Campbell certainly merits a biography. There is also plenty of room for a good title on football. Even though football is the American national pastime these days, baseball still dominates both the historical and journalistic literature on sport. Asher Price, a reporter for the Austin American-Statesman, certainly has the professional credentials to produce this book.  He conducted a number of interviews with Campbell, his family members, his teammates, and coaches. He has also mined the clipping files of his paper, and those of The Houston Post and Houston Chronicle.  To be fair, much of the source material that could have helped him with his story is beyond his reach.  The NFL and its member teams do not appear to save their records and/or put them in archives open to the public.

Price is clear in explaining the focus and argument of his book: “This is a story about a person, a place, and a time: Earl Campbell, the Texas that Campbell traveled through; and chiefly, 1970 to 1985, a period when he came of age and dominated American football.”  Price calls him “a modern John Henry”; a hero “who worked himself into a broken-down condition by giving it is all” (p. 4-5).

The book at first appears to support this argument. Price divides the book into three sections: Tyler, Austin, and Houston—the three Texas municipalities in which Campbell played. Price’s subtitle: Yards After Contact is a good, clever play on words. The term refers to the offensive output a running back gains after taking a hit from a defensive player. Given his strength, Campbell typical gained many, many yards after first contact. The subtitle also suggests a focus on the physical damage the sport did to Campbell. This focus would have supported his John Henry metaphor, even though it was not particularly new.[1] Given his tendency to take hits willingly, to use his power to overcome defense players and an unwillingness to do conditioning work like stretching, the damage he was suffering was apparent even at his peak. Eddie George who won the Heisman Trophy playing running back at The Ohio State University before playing professionally, remarked after his retirement: “I stay focused and prayerful that I won’t have to deal with the situation of Earl Campbell one day.”[2]

The problem is that much of Price’s narrative is not about the Faustian bargain that Campbell made with the sport, but rather about race relations in Texas. That focus is different than what he initially indicates to his readers. While the story of an African-American athlete becoming the hero of millions in a state that was once part of the Confederacy might make for an interesting life and times account, Price offers his readers something different. Simply put, Price does not have the source material to tell that story, and, as a result, his narrative meanders wide and far. A perfect case is the 104-page long section about Austin. The first 42 pages of are a history of racial segregation and desegregation at the University of Texas, with many of the events in the text transpiring before Campbell was even born. (These pages also include the only primary source material used to support the book’s argument.)

Price sees racism as the explanation for most social developments during this era.  “Though Earl Campbell tried, through carrying the football, to transcend race, race, exhaustingly, remained the prism through which Texans, and Americans generally, saw one another” (p. 20). There are problems with this focus. To give one example, race might have been a factor in suburban development in Houston, or it might have had more to do with the land being cheaper away from the city center and a transportation system that could handle daily commutes within the city. The fact that suburban sprawl in the United States started immediately after World War II and before the civil rights movement, much less a white backlash against that effort, suggests other factors—like the diffusion of wealth—were at work in shaping the Houston in which Campbell played.

Texas is also a bit more complicated than Price suggests.  It is part southern state, particularly in Tyler where Campbell grew up, which validates some of this argument, but it is also part western. With a large Hispanic population, race relations have never been simply black and white. Since it was once an independent nation-state, Texas did not cling to the bitterness and anger of the “lost cause” as long as many other former Confederate states. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 applied to the South, but not Texas. This “Lone Star nationalism” and the abundant oil resources that fueled economic growth in the state allowed Texas to leave the Confederacy sometime in the middle part of the 20th Century.[3] One of the persons most responsible for this development was Lyndon Johnson.[4]

The book also is uneven in focus. The section on Houston, where Campbell was at the height of his athletic success, checks in at 67 pages, which is significantly shorter than the middle section on Austin. Most of that section covers Campbell’s first three years in the league, and/or social developments in Houston, like the popularity of Gilley’s, the country and western bar and dance club made famous in the film Urban Cowboy (1980).  Campbell played in the NFL for eight years, but Price covers his last five in 12 pages. The epilogue, where you might expect a discussion of his health problems, is only 22 pages long.

Price also exaggerates. Many Houstonians cheering for Campbell and his Oilers had no knowledge or interest in the western chic trends in high culture. They were just enjoying high caliber professional football for once.  After retiring from the NFL, Campbell returned to the University of Texas to work in the office of admissions. Price spends a page discussing an incident from the mid-1980s involving a fraternity produced t-shirt that was in poor taste, and then another controversy from the late 1990s discussing some offensive comments that a tenured professor made about the cultural attitudes of racial minorities. Price uses these two events to show how racism still permeated the University of Texas even after Earl Campbell.  Maybe, but there was a 15-year gap between each. There were also 45,000 to 50,000 students at the university in any one year during that decade and a half, and a faculty of several thousand more.  Suggesting that the actions of one professor and a small student organization spoke for that large a group shows an inability to separate sound from substance. 

Case in point, he does not discuss an event that is more significant of sentiment on campus.  Following a 2015 racial-inspired church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, the University of Texas removed from campus a statue of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America. A vote of the student senate at this southern university was overwhelmingly in favor. The statue ended up in a university run museum as part of a display on changing views on race. University officials received a great deal of praise for their handling of the controversy, and then went even further and removed three other Confederate statues that had been part of the same pavilion.[5]

To be sure, Texas has a southern heritage, with all that entails on issues of race. It would be naïve to think that there is nothing to what Price discusses.  During Campbell’s childhood, it was probably much easier to grow up in Tyler as a white child than as a black child, but the state and its culture has evolved over time. A lot of that change took place in the 1970s and it was not easy. Campbell’s quiet, reserved personality played a role and facilitated this transition. There is a story to be told about race and Texas football at the high school, college and professional levels.  Earl Campbell could very well be a large part of the story, but this “biography” is not that book.

Nicholas Evan Sarantakes is an associate professor of strategy and policy at the U.S. Naval War College.  He holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Southern California.  He is the author of Dropping the Torch: Jimmy Carter, the Olympic Boycott, and the Cold War (2011) and Fan in Chief: Richard Nixon and American Sports, 1969-1974 (2019).

[1] The damage Campbell suffered was so notorious that he was the feature of a Sports Illustrated cover story more than two and a half decades after he stopped playing: Lee Jenkins, “Life’s Roses (And Sausages): He was the Most Punishing Runner of His Generation. But there was a Price to Pay, Addiction to Overcome, a Child’s Illness to Face Down. Yeah, the Tyler Rose Has Seen a Thing or Two,” Sports Illustrated (July 9, 2012). Articles on Campbell’s health in Texas Monthly magazine—a Texas version of The New Yorker—came both before and after this article: Jason Cohen, “Earl Campbell’s Third Act,” Texas Monthly (January 21, 2013); Jan Reid, “Earl Campbell: What did Football Teach Campbell about Running a Business? Take your Hits and Keep Moving Forward,” Texas Monthly (September 2001). Only the brain trauma that Mike Webster, the center for the Pittsburgh Steelers during their four Super Bowl run in the 1970s, is better known.  Webster’s struggle with mental health issues following his playing days was depicted in the 2015 film Concussion which starred Will Smith.

[2] “Campbell Struggles to Walk These Days,” The Columbus Dispatch, July 7, 2007.

[3] Ty Cashion explores the issue of South versus West in his book: Ty Cashion, Lone Star Mind: Reimagining Texas History (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2018), 85-127.  For an alternative view that is closer to that of Price, see: Randolph B. Campbell, Gone to Texas: A History of the Lone Star State, 3rd edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).

[4] On Lyndon Johnson efforts to push a moderate political agenda on race, see: Robert Mann, The Walls of Jericho: Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Richard Russell and the Struggle for Civil Rights (New York: Harcourt, 1996).  For his efforts to pull Texas out of the Confederacy, see: Robert Dallek, Lone Star Rising: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1908-1960 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991) or Randall B. Woods, LBJ: Architect of American Ambition (New York: The Free Press, 2006).

[5] Cailin Crowe, “What Happened When One University Moved a Confederate Statue to a Museum,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 10, 2018

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s