Earl Campbell achieved every major honor possible during his football career. He won the Heisman Trophy in 1977, his senior season at UT; the NFL Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player Award in his first season for the Houston Oilers; and an induction into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1991. Passion and tenacity took him from Tyler, Texas, to the top of the sporting world.
Yet family has always been Earl’s top priority. So when his son Tyler was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis during his junior season at San Diego State, it was a blow to the Campbell family. MS is an often disabling disease that affects the central nervous system.
“My dad hearing that I was diagnosed in college, he didn’t really understand,” Tyler explains. “It wasn’t until I came back to Austin and had one of my episodes that he started to understand. No parent ever wants to see their child in pain, so my MS is still a hard thing for him, but helping out in any way he can helps him, too.”
Since his diagnosis, Tyler has become an ambassador for the National MS Society. Earl? He has a new mission: get all those friends inside and outside of the sporting world to learn, give, and get involved in the fight against MS.
His first major project was The Unstoppable Earl Campbell, a limited edition, autographed lithograph designed by Warner Brothers that features Earl running over a collection of Looney Tunes characters. He chose to have the lithograph feature his Longhorn playing days rather than his professional ones.
The Longhorn community has reciprocated that support for Earl and his family, attending the Campbells’ other MS fundraisers, such as Flavors of Austin. Held earlier this year, Earl wanted the event to be as much fun for the wives as it was for their husbands, featured local restaurants and a rotating list of four different NFL Hall of Famers each year. The event raised $30,000 for the National MS Society.
The Campbells only have more in store. This summer Earl will host a football camp for the first time since the early ’90s, plus a charity golf event, both benefiting the National MS Society.
A few years ago, however, none of this would have been possible. Earl has been plagued by his own knee and back problems. Watching his father going through his own problems helped prepare Tyler for his fight with MS.
“I’ve seen my Pops in the worst of shapes,” Tyler says. “When I got diagnosed, for the first time I understood, ‘This is how it feels.’ My dad never blames football for anything he’s gone through. Seeing my father lay that model of how he would handle what he would go through kind of helped lay the foundation of how I wanted to handle my disease.”
Asked whether he draws strength from Tyler too, Earl says, “We’ve never mentioned it to one another.” Pausing briefly, he goes on, “But yes. We do. We look at one another and we say, ‘If he can do that, I can do this.’ In my mind I relate to the way I was raised and play sports. There was always a lot of discipline involved, and you have to look at life like that.”
Discipline, strength, and resilience have become a family tradition. With the same grace and power with which his father once ran down football fields, Tyler has now taken full control of the family meat company and has become a powerful, uplifting voice for the MS community.
“Somewhere along the line, we’re hoping that people will catch [my] story and take away some form of awareness about MS,” Tyler says. “And if you can do that and touch somebody and tell somebody something about MS that they didn’t know, we’ve done our job. Just raising awareness.”
As for Earl, with two new knees, MS fundraisers, and new projects coming along every day, he seems to have found a reinvigoration for life. It’s obvious, though, that his greatest accomplishment will never sit in a trophy case or be mentioned in the halls of sports history. It’s being a great father.
“What dad is trying to do is nothing different than anything he’s been trying to do his entire life, from the moment he walked onto the Forty Acres,” Tyler said. “It’s something to further add to his legacy.”
The Unstoppable Earl Campbell lithograph and more on the lithograph process can be found here.
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Judy Jude Thompson:
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