Campbell Breaks Free Again

Earl Campbell was the best running back I ever saw. Period. He nearly had the speed of O.J. Simpson, the power of Jim Brown and the imperviousness to pain of a hippopotamus. Put a gun on him and you had a tank.

He was fearless, powerful, confident. He wasn’t nifty. He didn’t run around you, he ran through you. Earl Campbell’s footprints were on the front of every linebacker’s jersey in the conference.

“I ran north and south,” he says, grinning.

He wouldn’t run sideways to get away from a train. He never stepped out of bounds in his life.


He never got to a Super Bowl but my favorite line was, if Earl Campbell can’t get you to a Super Bowl, no running back can. I believe it.

He loved the combat. Pittsburgh’s Steel Curtain never menaced Earl Campbell. Dallas’ Doomsday Defense was merely a Sunday stroll. Earl thought the Chicago Bears’ three-yard-line was a fun place to be with a football.

Although he played only eight seasons, he is seventh in NFL history in rushing with 9,407 yards, and eighth in rushing touchdowns with 74. He ran for 19 touchdowns one season and 1,934 yards another. In college, he was a Heisman Trophy winner.

So, why was Earl Campbell sitting in a station wagon three years ago, breaking out in a cold sweat, shaking from limb to limb, heart pounding, palms sweating, lips trembling? What would it take to put Earl Campbell in that condition? King Kong? The Red Army? A high plains twister? Oncoming tidal wave? Nothing human, surely.

The Chicago Bears’ goal-line defense could never inspire that kind of panic. Mean Joe Greene couldn’t even make Campbell breathe faster.

But this was something tougher than the flex defense. This was something you couldn’t stiff-arm, bull through, run over. This was a nameless terror of the soul.

At first, Campbell thought he was having a heart attack. All the Campbell men died young. His father succumbed too young to a heart attack.

So, he checked himself into a hospital. For seven days. Medicine was baffled. His cholesterol was a little high, but his heart was as sound as Texas. The EKGs indicated one solid, healthy American.

Campbell was relieved. But not for long. The symptoms returned. It was like living in a haunted house.

Earl Campbell, of all people, was a victim of panic. He heard, as it were, footsteps. The NFL could never do it to him. They didn’t make the nose tackle who could even make him flinch or hesitate, but something was putting Earl Campbell in a fit of hysteria. He, so to speak, didn’t want the ball anymore. He wanted to go hide.

It was so unthinkable, the medics kept suspecting the heart, lungs, liver. Something physical. After all, here was a guy who thought nothing of taking a football in front of 70,000 screaming fans and running 89 yards through the toughest physical specimens in the world.

Earl Campbell was a victim of a disorder that affects as many as 1.2 million men in this country--sudden, unexplained, uncompromising panic. Cause? Unknown.

Men fight it. The worst thing you can do. It’s like fighting a fog.

Campbell’s condition began to bother him. After all, he jogged three to four miles a day, he played golf, he was, if anything, in better physical condition than he had been. Yet, here he was betraying all the symptoms of a man about to have a stroke.

Finally, a psychiatrist entered the picture. He dropped off a brochure on panic attacks. A light came on.

It was Franklin Roosevelt who said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Of course, that’s enough. Fear is hard to run over. Hard to tackle. It doesn’t play by the rules. It’s offside, holds, bites, kicks, leaves the line of scrimmage early and blind-sides you whenever possible.

Earl Campbell was in a Super Bowl, all right.

He did what he would have done for any important game--got a scouting report on the enemy. That’s what his old coach, Bum Phillips, would have told him to do.

“I read everything I could about the problem, " Earl recalls.

He learned that some men mask the disorder with medication of their own--booze. That doesn’t work. Some people drop out, give in to a bogey called agoraphobia. This is a fear of the world around you, an instinct to hide from the world in a closet of your own fears.

Campbell didn’t want to spend his life in his own end zone. He read. He sought expert help. He hit the line, in short.

“There are two things panic patients hate to do,” he explains. “They hate to take medication--and they hate to go to doctors. They hate to come to grips.”

Earl Campbell’s whole life has been coming to grips. As usual, panic missed the tackle.

Earl Campbell was through here this week, meeting with doctors, patients and the public at Las Encinas Hospital in Pasadena, a nearly-century-old center for psychiatric care that has been treating the mentally disordered since cars had bubble horns and the Rose Bowl game was polo.

Earl Campbell has hit the open field now. He is in the clear. He lectures and works for big yardage agains his old nemesis, leaving his meat-packing business and university duties in Austin, Tex., periodically to help those who seem caught behind the line.

“I have people call me up at all hours, from all over the country,” he says proudly. “I am happy to be able to help them out, to talk them through. They figure if Earl Campbell can get this thing, they shouldn’t feel too bad.”

Around the NFL, they feel sorry for panic. It’ll be lying on the three-yard-line with its nose bleeding and its arms empty any minute now. Wondering which way he went.