Earl Campbell: Or football as performance art

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I don't think Earl Campbell is the greatest running back ever, but he is my favorite running back of all time. I love Emmit, love Gayle, love Marcus and Bo, but I've never seen anyone run with more ferocity, intent and aggression than Earl Campbell. The most fascinating thing to me is that he really paid, ultimately, by sacrificing his body to the game. I saw a Real Sports piece on him and he can barely walk today. It was interesting because they interviewed Tony Dorsett. Dorsett and Campbell are about the same age--but I swear Tony D could be my brother, whereas Earl looks like my father. And still in all while I was watching him, I couldn't feel sorry for him. He didn't seem pitiable at all. In fact at the end of the interview, I think he said he'd do it all again.

My thing has always been you only live once. When I think of Earl Campbell I think of some old sci-fi/fantasy/comic book deal where a diety imbues a man with great power and the chance to be a legend, but at a severe cost. That's Earl Campbell. He sacrificed his body to become a superhero--The Tyler Rose--and to claim his place in our own modern day Valhalla. This may be twisted, but I have so much more respect for that attitude, than people who just try to get by.

It's also worth noting that Campbell came across as a decent human being. He said he really regretted that hit where he put his helmet into the chest of dude from the Rams (it's in the video), because it basically ruined the kids career. Apparently after that hit, psychologically, the cat was never the same. That's heavy.

UPDATE: Spottie asks who's the closest equivalent to Campbell today? Can anyone think of anyone who comes close? I can't. I think runners are dissuaded from running like Campbell now. Coincidentally, Eddie George was in Campbell's mold--but he never had as much power or speed. And yeah, the powder blue was great. I think it sucks that it's gone.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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