Days of glory lead to a painful future

Austin, Texas, is a busy high-tech metropolis these days, but in 1977 it was still a fairly small town with a big university. It was a good year to go to graduate school. I spent most of my time reading, studying, writing and enjoying a lovely, relaxed city.

Along with Willie Nelson and Darrell Royal, one of the iconic figures from those days is Earl Campbell. U.T. had a good football team in 1977, ranked No. 1 in the nation for much of the season, largely because of this hard-hitting running back from Tyler, Texas. The team went 11-0, then lost to Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl and finished fourth in the nation. It was a good year for football in Texas.

It was a good year for Earl Campbell, too. He gained 1,744 yards and scored 19 touchdowns. In December, he won the Heisman Trophy, which designates the best college football player in the country. A first-round NFL draft pick, he played eight seasons with the Houston Oilers and New Orleans Saints. He was a Pro-Bowler, and in 1991 he was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame.

I never met Campbell, but it was exciting to watch him play in the home games. Occasionally I’d see him walking around campus or eating in a nearby Mexican restaurant. He was a big, powerful, handsome guy with a reputation for intelligence, a sweet disposition and a lot of character, not the kind of player who got in trouble with the police. He completed his degree. When he signed with the NFL, the first thing he did was buy a new house for his mother. He was known for pride, determination and hard work, which he converted into a successful athletic career that changed his life.

So, why do I feel a little uneasy about Earl Campbell?

I’d already heard that he was having trouble getting around. But recent reports indicate that Campbell can no longer stand up straight and he’s hobbled by knees that don’t work anymore. He uses a walker to move at a painfully slow pace, and he keeps a wheelchair nearby for when he gets tired. He’s spent time in the hospital recently and he gets regular physical therapy. He hasn’t played golf in six years. Campbell is 52 years old.

He contends that his ailments aren’t the result of football. But according to a recent Associated Press story by Jim Vertuno, several of his fellow Heisman winners disagree. Some of them are suffering their own physical woes. Tony Dorsett, who won the Heisman in 1976, experiences numbness in his hands that he attributes to football. Even worse, a disturbing number of former NFL players suffer from headaches, amnesia, slurred speech, depression and dementia. Some have died young; some have committed suicide. Dorsett says that “it doesn’t matter how big and strong you are. Over a period of time, the game wins.”

I wonder if we should reconsider our responsibility for these damaged lives. Of course, nobody forced Campbell to play football. For all I know, he might say that the opportunity to perform in front of 80,000 cheering Longhorns was well worth all the damage. Furthermore, football raised him and his family out of grinding East Texas poverty and made him a celebrity. Perhaps it wore him out early, but what would he have been without football?

But this line of reasoning reminds me of apologists for the Spanish bullfight, who sometimes argue that while the lives of ordinary cattle are short and miserable, fighting bulls are pampered with a comfortable life in the country for four or five pleasant years, and then die in a blaze of glory, doing what they were bred for. Then, of course, they’re consumed just like any other beast. It’s not a particularly convincing argument, not for animals and certainly not for humans.

Football provides a lot of pleasure, but wouldn’t a healthier society encourage the conservation of athletes’ priceless physical and mental capital, rather than its consumption in a few short years? After all, no 20-year-old can think ahead on his own to the age of 52 and imagine a painful life without golf or playing with his kids … or without being able to walk.

(John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. E-mail jcrisp(at)delmar.edu.)

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