There he sat. Grinning. At ease with his age and his time. And the story of his recovery. Which is a champion tale told by a champion.
Uneasy on a couch to his left atop the ACL Live stage were Earl Campbell’s sons — buttoned-up Christian Campbell and beaming Tyler Campbell — handsome chips off the old block.
To his right, veteran sportscaster Ron Franklin, who had studied the Heisman Trophy winner closely, especially during his Houston Oilers years.
The occasion was a luncheon for Recovery Austin, the Austin-area nonprofit that offers treatment for drug and alcohol addiction. Typically at these benefits, we hear uplifting stories of redemption. This one was different.
First, several speakers praised Edith Royal, coach Darrell K Royal’ s widow, whose charity event for the DKR Research Fund would fill the same hall the next night.
Edith Royal on the University of Texas coach who recruited Campbell: “I wish Darrell were alive to see you today. He would be so proud.”
Next we viewed tapes of the awesome running back’s triumphs. Then Campbell, with the help of his sons, recounted his road to recovery.
“I got really involved in pain pills and alcohol,” he says. “I shut down any family attempt at intervention.”
It took an ambush from his sons.
“He needs to get some help or he’s going to die,” a doctor told Christian Campbell about his father’s addiction.
At their home in Tyler three years ago, Christian had repeated that prediction in plain English during an intercession that included copious cursing. That’s when his brother thought they had a chance.
“I was nervous,” Tyler says with a huge grin. “We had the Texas Tornado up in the house.”
The hardest part for the smoked meat company founder was getting over his status as a football legend.
“I was so embarrassed because I’m Earl Campbell,” he says. “But it can happen to Earl Campbell, too. I got with the program.”
His sons told him: “You think you can help people now, but you’ll do so much more when you’re clean.”
At least once at the treatment center, Campbell called to tell his wife it was a big mistake, that he was stuck there with real drug addicts. She made sure he stuck it out.
Campbell went on to tell fond anecdotes about Darrell Royal — who became his “partner” — Willie Nelson, Hollywood Henderson and other celebrated friends.
“Coach Royal could be for you or against you,” Campbell says. “I’m just happy I wasn’t Barry Switzer. They say you’ve done good when you’ve helped one person. I was that one person he really did help.”
We also learned that one of the greatest running backs of all time really wanted to serve as a linebacker and how he was assigned the now-famous “34” Oilers jersey on a whim. (He wanted “20” but didn’t care to take it from another player.)
“I thought I was existing all those years as ‘Earl Campbell.’ But the last three years have been the best. It’s made all our lives better.”
A sacred moment marred
If football is secular religion in Texas, then the next benevolent event turned downright sacramental.
Willie Nelson, patron saint of Texas music, offered up sacred sounds for the DKR Research Fund benefit.
The spirit of late revered Longhorns coach, Darrell Royal, hovered over the evening’s drive to raise $1 million for Alzheimer’s research.
The congregation rose time and again to praise his adored wife, Edith Royal. In a video snip, she delivered the night’s most moving sentiment: “I wish I told him I loved him more. I just assumed he knew. You should say it over and over to somebody who is sick like that.”
Sports legends, including golfer and friend Ben Crenshaw, processed to the altar-like stage to submit their tributes.
Stories and parables spilled from the speakers. Current Longhorns coach Mack Brown: “I asked Coach Royal if he would talk to my team. ‘I didn’t like talking to my teams. I’m sure as hell not talking to yours.’”
Then, one scalawag broke the reverent mood: Former country star Larry Gatlin suggested that DKR died when he did rather than endure four more years of President Barack Obama.
Some gasped. Others laughed and clapped. One visiting music fan promptly dumped her proffered pledge card. A Twitter kerfuffle followed, but it was later drowned out by Kim Jong Un’s threats to Austin. (Best joke of many: “Looks like somebody was dissed at South by Southwest.”)
A neurologist from UT Southwestern saved the mood on the blessed DKR night: “This disease is nonpartisan. It strikes Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives.”