He was born in Tyler, Texas, the sixth of eleven children. His father died when Campbell was 11 years old. He began playing football in fifth grade as a kicker, but moved to linebacker and then to running back in sixth grade. In 1973, he led the Corky Nelson-coached John Tyler High School to the Texas 4A State Championship (4A then was the largest classification in the state). Then-Oklahoma Sooners head coach Barry Switzer, who unsuccessfully recruited Campbell, said in his 1989 book that Campbell was the only player he ever saw who could have gone straight from high school to the NFL and immediately become a star.
Campbell possessed a rare combination of speed and power, and was a prolific running back from 1978 through 1985. His outstanding single-season performance in 1979 earned him All-Pro, Pro Bowl, and NFL Offensive Player of the Year honors. It was also the second of three consecutive seasons in which he led the league in rushing. Only Jim Brown had previously accomplished that feat. Campbell led the NFL in rushing in 1978, 1979, and 1980. He played in five Pro Bowls and finished his career with 9,407 yards and 74 touchdowns rushing along with 806 yards on 121 receptions. In 1980, Campbell's best year in the NFL, he ran for 1,934 yards including four 200-yard rushing games, including a personal best 206 yards against the Chicago Bears. Despite playing against stacked defenses Campbell managed to average 5.2 yards per carry and score 13 rushing touchdowns in 1980 alone.
In 1984, he was traded to the New Orleans Saints, reuniting him with his former Oilers coach O.A. "Bum" Phillips. The trade was controversial in New Orleans, as it was widely believed that Campbell's skills had diminished, and the Saints already had the young George Rogers in the backfield. Campbell played in a diminished role in 1984 and 1985, and retired during the preseason of 1986, feeling that the beating he had taken during his career had taken too much of a toll.
Campbell is widely acknowledged as one of the best power backs in NFL history. Described as a "one-man demolition team", Campbell was a punishing runner. His 34-inch (860 mm) thighs, 5-11, 244-pound frame, coupled with 10.5 seconds in the 100 meters and 4.5 seconds in the 40-yard dash, made him the most feared runner of his time. Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Fame defensive tackle Joe Greene claimed that Campbell could inflict more damage on a team than any other back he ever faced.
The pride that prodded Campbell to stretch out every run over eight grueling seasons for the Oilers and New Orleans Saints also might have been responsible for his relatively short career. All of the pounding he absorbed, all of the bone-jarring blows from second, third and fourth tacklers wore down his body and prompted a premature drop-off in performance. Debate still rages as to whether Coach Bum Phillips hastened the end of Campbell's career by overworking him; nevertheless, the consensus is clear that during Campbell's heyday, few running backs were as productive or imposing.
In 1999, he was ranked number 33 on The Sporting News' list of the 100 Greatest Football Players, the highest-ranked player for the Houston Oilers franchise. In 2007, he was ranked #12 on ESPN's Top 25 Players In College Football History list.
The Statue of Earl Campbell at Royal-Memorial Stadium.
Campbell, The University of Texas’ first Heisman Trophy winner in 1977, was honored at halftime against Ohio State on September 9, 2006 including the unveiling of a 9-foot (2.7 m) statue of Campbell in the southwest corner of Royal-Memorial Stadium. The same year, Campbell graced the cover of Dave Campbell's Texas Football, an honor that eluded him during his playing days.
Due to the many carries in his NFL career and numerous hits on his body (including one from Jack Tatum that knocked him unconscious during play), Campbell has great difficulty walking and sometimes requires the use of a wheelchair. In 2004, ESPN showed a segment about retired and current NFL players who deal with chronic injuries due to playing in the NFL over a number of years. The segment showed Earl Campbell at a farm using a wheelchair. Campbell has developed severe arthritis in his knees and has debilitating back pain. He attributes his back pain to a congenital back condition aggravated by his football career.
A profile in the Austin American-Statesman in December 2007 describes Campbell's daily struggle with his back pain, and states that he had surgery to remove three large bone spurs.
Earl is now a prominent businessman residing in Austin, Texas and still actively participates in University of Texas Athletics. Earl Campbell currently serves as President of Earl Campbell Meat Products, Inc. which manufactures and sells Earl Campbell's Smoked Sausage and other food products and barbecue sauce. Campbell and his associates also opened a restaurant on Sixth Street in Austin, Earl Campbell's Lone Star BBQ, which closed in 2001.