AUSTIN, Texas – The sleek black Mercedes whipped into valet parking. Anyone expecting the driver to get out of the car with the same grace and style was in for a shock.
With the aid of the valet, Earl Campbell slowly emerged.
The Heisman Trophy winner and NFL Hall of Famer grabbed his walker with both hands and shuffled with bent back and crooked knees toward the door of the Barton Creek Resort.
Campbell was being honored this weekend by the Heisman Winners Association, a gathering to raise money for charity and toast the former Texas Longhorn 30 years after he won college sports’ most prestigious individual trophy.
But the body that was built for football now looks broken.
He insists his ailments are more likely the result of bad genetics than football.
But his Heisman mates aren’t so sure. At a time when Congress is conducting hearings on whether the NFL should have a stronger pension and disability system for former players, they see the 52-year-old Campbell as yet another example of the violence in football and the wreckage it can leave behind.
Campbell, who played for Houston and New Orleans in the NFL, clearly prefers not to talk about his condition. He even talks about playing golf again, something he hasn’t done in six years.
Yet arthritis in both hands makes it difficult for him to open a candy wrapper or a tin of smokeless tobacco, let alone grip a golf club.
He’s sharply critical of the NFL as not doing enough to help its older players who are struggling. He doesn’t necessarily lump himself in that group. He remains part of Earl Campbell Meat Products, has a ranch in East Texas where he raises cattle and a long-standing contract with the University of Texas as a special assistant pays him a salary and covers his health insurance.
But some players don’t have much left. They should be taken care of, Campbell said.
“If I was good enough for them to yell for (on Sunday), I should be good enough for them to say ‘Earl, here’s you a check every month for what you’ve done,’ ” he said. “They need to do more for ex-athletes.”
NFL players union head Gene Upshaw has come under fire from a group of Hall of Famers who say the union has concentrated too much on current players and ignored the health problems of former players.
Upshaw has stressed he works for current players, not retirees. He has also noted he helped form a program that provides up to $88,000 per year to families of former players suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
“(He) should be ashamed,” Campbell said. “He played the game and he knows.”
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