Campbell is paying price for hard-hitting style

AUSTIN, Texas -- Houston's finest athletes -- Nolan Ryan, Mary Lou Retton, Roger Clemens, Moses Malone, Sheryl Swoopes, Clyde Drexler and George Foreman, among many others -- stood in tribute Monday night at Houston's Reliant Arena. The crowd of 5,000 cheered and the man seated at the center of it all, raised his hand to acknowledge the applause.

Earl Campbell, his dark suit accented with a silver tie, handkerchief, hair and beard, accepted a football from his old coach, Bum Phillips. He did not get up.

One of 11 children back in Tyler, Texas, Campbell's mother always told him that he traveled at his own speed. Well, today that speed has diminished dramatically after the ravages of a bruising eight-year career in the NFL, but Campbell is still his own man.

"Everything in life has a price on it -- there ain't a damn thing free in America," Campbell declared last week in his Austin office at Earl Campbell Meats, Inc. "And football has got a price on it, so when you are 48 years old, it comes back to haunt you sometimes."

Campbell, who played running back for seven seasons with the Houston Oilers, is the best player in franchise history. Super Bowl XXXVIII is only the second ultimate game to grace Houston in 30 years, and with it has come a great deal of attention for Campbell, who is scheduled to be introduced before Sunday's coin toss at Reliant Stadium.

He shuffles slowly, with a cane. When the walk is too long, he'll accept a wheelchair. Stairs are all but impossible. His back, the focus of an 11-hour operation six months ago, is tender. His ankles and knees are swollen. His hands are a heap of arthritic rubble. His shoulders ache. His speech is measured and, sometimes, slightly slurred. He takes Xanax daily to keep his anxiety attacks under control.

To be honest, he looks old enough to be the father of those men who were his peers on the gridiron.

"Sometimes I pay for it," Campbell said. "With the way I walk now, the things I did to my body wasn't supposed to be done. At 48 years old, it is saying, 'Hey, Earl, remember what you did to me?' "

In the beginning, he was a linebacker.

That was his position in junior high school. When his coach asked him to move across the line of scrimmage and play running back, Campbell would put the ball on the ground.

"I would just throw it down on purpose," Campbell explained, "because I wanted to be like Dick Butkus. I was bow-legged and flat-footed, and I watched how he tackled and I wanted to be like that."

Later, as a running back at the University of Texas, Campbell discovered a powerful inspiration on the other side of the ball. A friend gave him a nine-millimeter tape of Jim Brown, the Cleveland Browns' fullback. He'd thread it into the projector and watch it right on the bare wall of his dorm room.

"I just couldn't believe this guy, that he could just run over people like that," Campbell said. "So I just kind of made it up in my mind that that was how I wanted to be."

He couldn't have chosen two more fierce role models. Butkus, the Chicago Bears' middle linebacker, was a classic throwback to the Monsters of the Midway. Brown was quite simply the greatest running back the NFL had ever seen. They were both tough and brave and willing to do anything to make a play.

Campbell, 5-foot-11, 233 pounds, learned to keep his ludicrous 34-inch thighs low, keep his balance and hit the tacklers before they hit him.

"My running style was kind of just head-on, because I couldn't dance," he said. "I couldn't put a move on you. I had two things I could do: I could run over you, and I could put a good stiff arm on you. That was about it."

It was more than enough. His straight-ahead game -- he would actually pay Oilers teammates to dance with his wife because he felt so uncomfortable on the dance floor -- carried him all the way to the Heisman Trophy. As an Oilers rookie in 1978, he carried the ball 302 times for 1,450 yards. He followed that up with a 368-for-1,697 season and in 1980, he carried the ball 373 times for 1,934 yards. All three of those totals led the NFL in rushing and the last one earned him the MVP award.

In today's sports world we often see milestones and records of longevity. Don Sutton wins 300 games. Emmitt Smith breaks Walter Payton's career rushing record. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar breaks Wilt Chamberlain's career scoring record. But how do you separate excellent quantity from ethereal quality? Baseball scholars will tell you that, for a handful of seasons, no one was better than Sandy Koufax. In basketball, Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics put together one of the best sustained runs in sports history.

Campbell's first four seasons represent that kind of comet-like brilliance. He averaged more than 350 carries, 1,600 yards and 13 touchdowns each season. And it was the way he did it that moved people. Or was it the way he moved people? His helmet-to-sternum shot on Isiah Robertson is one of the most brutal highlights you will ever see. His 80-yard touchdown run on Monday Night Football left Howard Cosell momentarily speechless.

But even as he was punishing tacklers, Campbell was punishing himself, too. Too many carries, too many cortisone shots began to take their toll. He was traded to New Orleans in the middle of the 1984 season and quit in 1985.

"I got up to go to the bathroom and I literally couldn't walk," Campbell said. "I said, 'I've had enough.' I couldn't make my body do those tricks like I did in 1978, and '79 and '80."

He was a first-ballot Hall of Fame choice in 1991. You can see his cream-colored Pro Football Hall of Fame blazer under glass, propped up against the wall in his office. There he operates his meat company that produces about one million pounds of sausages and such each year. There are hunting trophies -- they stare down from the walls with a uniformly serene gaze -- and football trophies everywhere.

Campbell can only sleep about four or five hours a night -- the pain is that bad. Ask him what hurts and he says "You name it."

The back surgery, he said, was to correct a congenital problem and is not related to football. Still, it is clear he is still paying a price for his glory. He said he is embarrassed by his condition and that, sometimes, kids can be cruel. There is, he said, a sad part and a happy part to his life.

"The sad side is it is something that I am going to have to live with the rest of my life," Campbell said. "The sad side is I wanted to do it (play). The happy side is the things that were created out of that. The finances, building my mom a house, buy a ranch -- those kinds of things.

Knowing what he knows now, would he have done things differently?

"Wish I had run out of bounds more, something like that?" he asks, gazing directly at his questioner. "No. Because then you wouldn't have Earl sitting here. You would have had somebody else."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com