Tim Wilson and Carl Mauck still wear the inscribed wristwatches that Earl Campbell gave them in 1980 for blocking prowess during the second year of the Houston Oilers' best three NFL years.
Those watches, two of the seven Campbell handed out, are beautiful and durable watches. But they also symbolize the strong bond that remains among these men. Special athletic effort and everyday friendship are the mainsprings of that bond.
"To Tim Wilson. 1,697 yards. Earl Campbell rushing leader," Wilson's watch reads.
Fullback Wilson and coach Mauck cherish their expensive mementos, but some things have changed now that those two, plus Campbell and head Coach Bum Phillips, are suffering through their first pre-season training camp together in four years.
For one thing, Campbell, the latest former Oiler to rejoin Coach Phillips with the New Orleans Saints, has had to learn to play the card game "booray." Formerly, Phillips' room at Oilers camps in the late 1970s was big on dominoes.
The noise of the dominoes' clacking back then, and banter and laughter coming from Phillips' room would pierce the nighttime stillness at some God-forsaken outpost.
Then, as now, money is a requisite to sit at Phillip's card table. The action is fast and fair. Recently, Denver Bronco Coach Dan Reeves sat in for a couple of hands while the Saints were visiting the Broncos' camp in Greeley, and he lost his lunch money.
Reeves was one in a parade of players, coaches and officials from three teams--the Houston Oilers also were at Greeley--who sauntered by Phillips room to shake hands, hug the 61-year-old coach and bask in the warmth and comaraderie of that room.
The next day, Reeves' Broncos team embarrassed the Saints in a scrimmage.
But one individual--Campbell--stood out against the Broncos' highly rated first defense. He ran tough and showed, with a few gliding yet brutish steps, he was back to the form he exhibited when he carried John Tyler High School, The University of Texas and the Houston Oilers to or near the top.
Jack Cherry, Phillips' administrative assistant, observes Campbell's work with the scrutiny of a coach. Cherry was an Oilers' front office official when Campbell was an all-pro in Houston, and he thinks the 5-11, 230-pound athlete, although he will be 30 years old this season, is still as durable and rugged an individual as ever. Cherry says Campbell just needed to get back under Phillips' fair hand to explode again.
"All world. That's what he's going to be. He's ready to pick up where he left off in 1980," Cherry says.
In three years of playing for Phillips at Houston, Campbell averaged 1,694 yards and 15 touchdowns a season. He carried the Oilers to the playoffs all three years.
In the four years the two men have been apart since Phillips was fired at Houston, Campbell's numbers have dipped to 920 yards and seven touchdowns, and the Oilers have gone nowhere. Phillips' last season at Houston had more victories than the four seasons since.
The Saints' 1985 season may depend on Campbell's running. Phillips set it up that way by trading for Campbell in l984 and by trading away George Rogers. Phillips' plan has been criticized.
"There were those who thought Bum's heart, not his head, was playing the Saints' hand," said Dave Krieger of the Rocky Mountain News.
Phillips' job has depended on Campbell in the past, and Campbell has delivered. Phillips gives Campbell and the others around him responsibility. He treats them maturely. And those people work extremely hard for him.
Campbell enjoys the responsibility and freedom he is given by a coach who is confident in himself.
Campbell proved from 1978 to 1980 he would do anything to win. The best defensive players in the NFL at that time predicted a short career for Campbell if he did not quit playing so hard and running over people en route to the end zone. His body wouldn't last, they said. Those defenders did not know how much Campbell burned to succeed for himself and for the coach he respected.
It is an oddly quiet relationship between the two men.
Phillips, the retirement age, crewcut, former Pacific Theater Marine, and Campbell, the son of an East Texas dirt farmer, hardly ever speak to one another. About the only similarity is they both are products of East Texas. The idle chitchat is usually about country music.
"It's good being back together. Things are good between us, like they always were," Phillips said. "You know, he's a good friend as well as a good ballplayer."
When Phillips was fired at Houston on New Year's Eve, l980, Campbell was confused. The Oilers offense was diversifying according to a trend in the NFL. He became unhappy with the coaches.
"He's a great guy," Campbell says of Phillips. "He knows how to handle men, and I'm thankful that I'm able to play for him a second time around."
Of Campbell, Phillips says, "I always like being around Earl. He is a good friend of mine. We enjoy the same things. We're both country as hell."
When he traded for Campbell last year, Phillips did not sit down for a father-son talk--or even a coach-player chat.
"Hell, he knows what it takes. I don't think it would accomplish a whole lot sitting down talking to him. He's got to give his best effort, and we've got to give our best effort," Phillips said.
The truth is, Campbell did not expect any acknowledgement of the task from his coach.
"I've been knowing Bum Phillips now for what, eight years? I don't think Bum Phillips and I ever sit down and really talked one-on-one," Campbell says.
But Campbell feels he knows Phillips, and that the communication lines are clear.
"I'll tell you this, I think he knows enough to know that if I'm messing up. I know that he looks at me a certain way and gets me to do the job. He knows me that way. But we don't hardly sit down and talk one on one," he says.
"I think our deal is just two people who respect one another," he adds.
Does Campbell regret Phillips being fired when the Oilers were at their strongest? (At the time of the firing, Oilers owner Bud Adams said Phillips was using an ineffective offense based on the running game. Campbell had just gained 1,934 yards in one season).
"Yeah, I do," Campbell says. "I wish when Bum Phillips left the Oilers organization that I had left, too."
Campbell hestitated to predict the Saints would experience the success he enjoyed with the Oilers, but he did say, with all due respect to the former Oilers, that the Saints' present offensive line is better than the one that led him to all-pro status--the former line that is now wearing Rolex watches.
"These guys are a lot better," he said of the Saints. "They're a lot bigger and a lot younger."
It was guys like Mauck--an undersized, slow and overage center--who used to block for Campbell when the Oilers won consistently. And Campbell still has great respect for those linemen and fullback Wilson. That is why he gave them the expensive, inscribed watches after the 1979 season.
Phillips would like to have an offense like the one that Oilers owner Adams said caused Phillips' demise. Campbell is one of the few running backs who could deliver that kind of offense.
"The good football teams run the football. Always have. All the good football teams down through the years have run the football. The San Diego Chargers have had probably the most success passing the last eight years, but they've never been in the damn playoffs," he said.
His philosophy has not changed, despite game rules changes to aid the passing game, and despite his having been fired for his emphasis on a running game.
"You win 'em up front. We haven't been bad where it counts. We're in all our ballgames. We're not getting killed by anybody. We have flat given away some games. We've never been able to get over the hump. We've got to win some of those big games," he says.
He says his goal is to produce the Saints first winning season. In his first years in Houston, he made similar statements. Then he drafted Earl Campbell and the situation changed. He was predicting a Super Bowl.
Things have changed from then to now, but the important things to Phillips--like the relationship between him and Earl--remain the same.
"We more or less are depending on him," fullback Wilson says of Campbell. "The way he's going, I better get my rear end to blocking. I don't want that son of a gun running over me."