Asher Price Talks Earl Campbell at the Inaugural Clyde Rabb Littlefield Lecture

Last month, Austin American-Statesman reporter Asher Price published a biography, Earl Campbell: Yards After Contact. The book is more than a gridiron story of recollections of yards gained and touchdowns scored by the Heisman Trophy-winning, NFL Hall of Fame-enshrined running back. Thus, on Oct. 17, Price, in conjunction with the H.J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture, explained the inspiration for and the contents of his portrait of the Tyler Rose, which, he said, doubles as a snapshot of Texas during Campbell’s life.

After a brief introduction by Stark Center founder Jan Todd, the talk—the inaugural Clyde Rabb Littlefield Lecture—was filled with little-known but incredible Campbell anecdotes. That when he was born, his mother named him Earl Christian after the doctor who delivered her son, in lieu of payment. Of his bonding with his coach Darrell Royal over country music, even after Royal departed the team before Campbell’s senior season.

But most importantly, it illuminated Price’s reasons for writing a book about perhaps the state’s most famous athlete across sports. Of course, there is the sports angle. Price isn’t from Texas—he moved to Austin 15 years ago—but has become a huge Texas Longhorns fan, and Campbell’s legacy towers over the entire athletics department. Beyond that though, Price wanted to tell the story of Campbell moving through three very different areas of Texas in a transitional period for the state.

“As a journalist, I wasn’t just interested in a book about someone handing a football to Earl,” he said. “I was interested in writing about a black athlete in the 1970s, instead of in the 1960s, or in 2019.”

Campbell grew up on a rose farm in Tyler, in a small house with 10 siblings and his mother, Ann. His father died when he was 11. Price detailed the recruitment of Campbell, when 100 scouts would show up to John Tyler High School in 1973, his senior season. He spoke of Ken Dabbs—who had just died Wednesday night, to Price’s surprise—then a new Texas assistant tasked with bringing Campbell to Texas, and how he succeeded. Price spoke of Campbell’s transition to an evolving Austin of the mid-1970s, and then to the urban cowboy world of 1980s Houston.

Price was joined on stage by Tolga Ozyurtcu, assistant professor of instruction in the Department of Kinesiology. The two spoke at length about Price’s process in writing the book. In short, everyone who lived in Campbell’s orbit had a story to tell about him. Price even tracked down the bus driver who transported the John Tyler High School team to the 4A—then the highest level of competition—state championship. The author mentioned how the book transformed from genesis to final product, noting that he thought the story would have huge sections on race, and didn’t think it would be so heavy on Houston Oilers content.

That’s until Price started digging in on then-Oilers coach Bum Phillips, and the ragtag group of NFLers who Price called the perfect team and situation for Campbell in 1978, when the franchise drafted the running back first overall. Price relayed the oft-told but still always-amusing anecdote, that, at Oilers practice one season, when Campbell was struggling to run the mile, Phillips told a reporter, “When it’s first and a mile, I won’t give it to him.”

Overall, the experience of writing about Campbell was eye-opening for Price, who called himself a “foreigner”—he’s from New York City—writing about this fascinating land, this fascinating time, this fascinating person who set himself apart both on the field and off.

 
 
 

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