College Football

How a judge helped Earl Campbell become Texas' first Heisman winner

February 26

By RJ Young
FOX Sports College Football Writer

Editor's Note: As part of FOX Sports' series of Black History Month Stories, writer RJ Young is examining the players, teams and moments that changed college and professional football.

Read the rest of the series:

In 1981, Earl Campbell became the fourth man in history to be named an Official State Hero of Texas.

The trio who preceded him: Davey Crockett, Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston. 

That’s three men who defended the damn Alamo and a running back from Tyler, Texas. 

‘Tis the rare Black man who can convince an overwhelmingly white chamber full of lawmakers to designate him a hero. But, Lord, when you see it? Everybody else sees it, too, and they will write your story, scribble your legend, orate your epic. 

Earl Campbell led the nation with 1,744 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns in 1977, becoming the first Texas player to win the Heisman Trophy.

Darrell K. Royal, who coached Campbell for three years at the University of Texas, didn’t care if teams knew Campbell was going to get the ball. 

We’re gonna hand it off to the tank in the back, and we dare you to hit him before he hits you. 

Once, Campbell ran over one of his own blockers. The fella had committed the sin of falling down in front of him. Royal was asked for his thoughts on the blocker’s misfortune. 

"Ol’ Earl doesn’t believe in taking any prisoners." 

Campbell was the first Longhorn to win the Heisman Trophy in 1977, and he’s one half of the football field’s namesake at Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium today. But if not for a federal judge’s commitment to fighting segregation in the state, Campbell might not have played at UT. 

That’s what Campbell believed happened with his older brothers, who came along before the school integrated its football team. 

"Two of them were better than I, but they got caught up in the race thing and never got the chance," Campbell said in author Michael Hurd’s history of Black high school football in Texas. 

"My two older brothers didn’t get the same opportunity I got, or they probably would’ve gone farther than I went as far as pro ball."    

Many Black high school football players were overlooked until the late 1960s and early ’70s. In some cases, these athletes lacked exposure because they didn’t attend integrated high schools. 

Campbell became an unstoppable force for the Houston Oilers, winning the NFL's MVP award in 1979 and making five Pro Bowls in his Hall of Fame career.

Other times, college coaches at predominantly white institutions feared the racist backlash they’d receive for recruiting Black players. Not to mention that at many schools, administrators and team boosters prevented coaches from signing Black athletes.

This was the case at Texas for Royal’s first six years in Austin. University regents explicitly forbade Black athletes from any UT sport until 1963. 

In 1976, Texas Monthly writer Gary Cartwright observed that some UT boosters were "that splendid assortment of dentists and bankers and contractors and regents who hired Royal in the first place, then attached themselves to the UT football program like ticks on a bird dog." 

As Cartwright wrote, those boosters "made it clear that the first Black Longhorn had better be two steps faster than Jesus and able to run through a brick wall." 

The same magazine called U.S. District Judge William Wayne Justice the "Real Governor of Texas." Justice, who presided over the state’s Eastern District, left an everlasting mark on Texas and its flagship university football team. 

He did that in Campbell’s hometown of Tyler, with rulings that forced East Texans to integrate when many white residents remained hell-bent segregationists. 

The Real Governor of Texas had encountered — and learned to despise — racism when he was young. In author Asher Price’s biography of Campbell, Justice recalled an afternoon when he and another white friend were playing with a Black boy they’d met that day. 

Campbell's greatness is commemorated in a statute outside Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium in Austin.

Before long, the white friend’s mother called her son inside. "He came back out and said that he couldn’t play with n-----s," Justice said. "This little ol’ Black kid, he just didn’t know what to make out of this. I imagine it just crushed him. He just slunk on home. That angered me." 

Justice held on to that anger for damn near 80 years and turned it into his calling. As a judge, he became a steadfast defender of civil rights. 

His rulings halted systematic discrimination against Black students in Tyler high schools, barred local schools from flying the Confederate flag and playing "Dixie" before football games, and led to the formation of a "bi-racial committee" tasked with "achieving inter-racial harmony and understanding among students, teachers, and patrons" in the Tyler School System.

Among those who benefited from the reforms was Earl Campbell, who began his freshman year at John Tyler High School in 1970. By his senior year, Campbell was the best prep football player in the country. That season, he rushed for 2,036 yards and led Tyler to the 4A state title — the highest classification at the time — en route to winning the title of Mr. Football USA.

Campbell was such a force in high school that Royal hired an assistant coach specifically to recruit Campbell, whom Royal saw as the heir apparent to the Longhorns’ All-American tailback, Roosevelt Leaks

"There’s a kid in Tyler, Texas, named Earl Campbell," Royal said. "And I want you to get him for us."

A decade earlier, UT would not have been recruiting a Black running back — or any Black player, for that matter — and Campbell would not have been playing at an integrated high school.  

In 1973, thanks to the advances won by the Civil Rights Movement and Judge Justice’s application of the law throughout Texas, Campbell’s greatness could not be ignored as many of his predecessors had been. 

For his efforts, Justice was given a new title, along with federal judge: Antichrist of Smith County. 

White Texans sent Justice death threats. Local hair stylists refused his wife’s business. His cousin wrote to a Tyler newspaper, expressing his shame at being related to the judge. A full sixth of Tyler’s population signed a petition to impeach him.  

In response, Justice bought additional insurance on his home. He lost 50 pounds because of stress. Rather than hire bodyguards, he took up taekwondo for self-defense.   

"It was a great way to take out my frustrations," he told the New York Times. "You build up a lot of hostilities sitting on the bench all day." 

This is the man who prepared the way for Campbell to become an NFL tailback so good that he amazed the likes of Barry Switzer and Jim Brown. 

"Earl Campbell is the greatest player who ever suited up," Switzer said when his player at Oklahoma, Billy Sims, won the Heisman the year after Campbell. 

"He’s the greatest football player I’ve ever seen. Billy Sims is human. Campbell isn’t."

When Jim Brown was asked to rank all-time great running backs, he said: "It’s me first, Earl second and everybody else? Get in line."

Over an eight-season NFL career, Campbell made five Pro Bowls and three All-Pro teams, led the league in rushing three times and was crowned MVP in 1979. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1990 and the Pro Football Hall of Fame one year later.

Campbell made a habit of running through arm tackles and over NFL defenders.

Judge Justice didn’t know everything Campbell would achieve when he issued his rulings. He held fast to what is right, and he made certain to uphold that from the moment he was appointed to the bench in 1968 until his death in 2009. 

It wasn’t about creating opportunities for Campbell to become one of the greatest football players who ever lived — because most of us won’t achieve anything close to that.

No, for Justice, it was about using the power and privilege of his position to right the wrongs that few others in East Texas would.

When white Americans ask what they can do for Black folks, Justice remains one example of not just what to do but also what they must be willing to endure to achieve racial harmony.

RJ Young is a national college football writer and analyst for FOX Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @RJ_Young. Subscribe to The RJ Young Show on YouTube. He is not on a StepMill. 

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