Asher Price is an American-Statesman reporter whose book, "Earl Campbell: Yards After Contact," will be published in September by UT Press. In honor of Mother's Day, he put together a condensed look at the relationship between Ann Campbell and her 11 children.
Forty years ago this month, a long line of residents of the East Texas community of Swan lined up to visit a new four-bedroom house amid the pines and farmland northwest of Tyler.
In many ways, the house — brick, low-slung, insulated — was unremarkable, a middle-class sort of place, one that wouldn’t be out of place in any number of 1970s suburban developments. But here, in poor and rural Texas, it was a monument to tenacity and frugality and, chiefly, to a remarkable single mother’s love for her 11 children, including the one who had paid for the house with his first professional contract, Earl Campbell.
When her husband died 13 years earlier, in 1966, Ann Campbell had two dollars in cash, a rose farm to tend and all those children to support — including 11 year-old Earl, destined to be a Heisman Award winner, NFL MVP and Rookie of the Year, and, for a glorious period in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the most beloved man in Texas.
In many ways, Ann Campbell was a forerunner to the single mothers of famous athletes of our day, ones who became media sensations in their own right. The camera has lingered on the mothers of Michael Phelps, Lance Armstrong and LeBron James, all fixtures at their swim meets, bike races and basketball games. Kevin Durant started crying in 2014 during his NBA acceptance speech as he praised his mother, Wanda Pratt, there in the audience. “We weren’t supposed to be here. You made us believe,” Durant said. “You kept us off the street. You put clothes on our backs. You put food on the table. When you didn’t eat, you made sure we ate and (you) went to sleep hungry.
“You sacrificed for us. You’re the real MVP.”
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The story of how Ann Campbell shepherded her son and other kids through school and into adulthood is a peek into the kinds of sacrifices Durant was talking about.
The Campbell family had lived in a creaky, cramped cottage with peeling linoleum floors. A rough dirt driveway led to the front door; across the road sat a junkyard. The backseat of an old automobile served as the porch bench. The family would wake up cold in the winter, even though they nailed quilts to the walls as rudimentary insulation. “You’d walk through that house and you might step through the floor” is the way a high school classmate of Earl Campbell’s described the place to me. Alvin Flynn, whose family owned the land once worked by Ann Campbell’s father and who would drop off hand-me-downs and fresh deer meat for the Campbells, remembered that the cracks in the wood-frame house were so wide that you could see outside. Rain leaked through the roof. The bathroom was an outhouse. Three or four kids crowded into each bed. Earl Campbell’s first agent remembers that when he journeyed to Tyler to get Ann Campbell’s permission to represent her John Henry of a son, he could feel the wind blowing inside the house.
Ann Campbell, newly widowed, stricken but indomitable, took stock of a suddenly dire situation. Her youngest child was just 3 years old. She began clothing the kids in Salvation Army castoffs and made sure to give them as much loving as she could muster, without playing favorites. She kept the house neat, and visitors remembered it as full of family pictures. The wood-frame home is “not much to somebody coming in,” Earl said his senior season, when he was the most heavily recruited football player in the state of Texas. Because Earl and his brothers didn’t have luggage, they packed their uniforms for away games into Brookshire’s supermarket brown paper bags. “But to me, it’s the world. We don’t have much, but we’re happy with what we’ve got. I’m happy and I’m loved. That’s all I want. Without love, you’re nobody.”
Self-reliant, Ann Campbell baked bread, churned butter, made plum and pear jelly, canned peach preserves and each spring slaughtered a calf or a hog. At one point, when Earl was a young teen, the family had a pig named Arnold that had earned the kids’ affection. (The pig was named for the swine on the TV show "Green Acres.") “I said to Mama, ‘I don’t want to eat that poor thing,’” said Margaret, one of Earl’s sisters. The reply was succinct: “Y’all are going to eat that pig.”
In many ways, the life of the Campbells was not unusual for African Americans in the South. In 1975, the year after Earl Campbell graduated from John Tyler High, 13.5 percent of white Texans lived below the poverty line; among black Texans, the figure was nearly 28 percent. (Today, a fifth of black Texans live below the poverty line.) The annual income for whites was about $41,000 in today’s dollars; for African Americans, $27,000. Extra money came to the Campbells by way of $20 every month and $100 every Christmas from Laura McGregor, Ann Campbell’s sister-in-law. McGregor, childless, saw Ann Campbell as a hero. Her kids thought of her that way, too. They took to calling her the first lady. “When God took that rib from Adam to make a woman,” Campbell wrote in a Mother’s Day appreciation in a now-defunct Austin paper in 1989, “I believe he gave some of that rib to my mother, because she’s such a strong woman.”
As Earl’s star rose, so did his mother’s. When Earl’s talent emerged — when, finally, he led his high school team to a state championship — the people of Tyler were grateful. New bumper stickers began appearing around town: “Thank You, Mrs. Campbell.”
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Once Earl started wowing crowds at Memorial Stadium at the University of Texas, an Austin band put together a song in praise of Ann Campbell — “Lord Don’t Let It Rain on Mrs. Campbell’s Roses.” With Campbell in his senior season a bona fide contender for the Heisman Trophy, reporters looking for an angle were drawn to the story of his modest beginnings and began making calls to Tyler. Ann Campbell rearranged her schedule for all the media inquiries, working the rose fields in the morning and talking to reporters at 2:30 p.m., after her bath. “I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it,” she said, “I really have.” Reporters, in turn, took keenly to her: “One of her front teeth has a gold jacket, giving a certain unassailable value to just about everything she says,” Bruce Newman wrote in Sports Illustrated.
She made the trip to Austin to watch her son play in a late-October matchup against Texas Tech, and when she was recognized by the public-address announcer, the crowd of 79,000 gave her a standing ovation. After the game — the Longhorns shut out the Red Raiders — Earl, always the sweet son, said he thought she could never get enough applause. “I don’t think she could ever be as famous as I’d like for her to be,” he said.
And at the Heisman Award ceremony that December, Ann Campbell milled with O. J. Simpson, Reggie Jackson, Elliott Gould — in the winter of 1977, they were A-list celebrities. Only a day before, Ann Campbell had worked her hands in the sand of her rose patch, and now here she was, on the 46th floor of the Downtown Athletic Club in Manhattan, a view across the Battery to the Twin Towers spread before her.
“I had no idea,” Ann Campbell said quietly, “no idea, I had no idea that I would be able to enjoy the blessings I have behind that kid.” And, being Ann Campbell, she revised herself: “I have enjoyed blessings behind all my kids.”
That evening, when Earl was finally tripped up, after a season of running roughshod, suddenly unsure of what to say upon receiving the Heisman on prime time television, he grasped for what was closest. “You know, when I was a kid and I’d get in trouble,” he told the well-heeled crowd, “I’d always want to say, ‘Hey, Momma, I’m in trouble.’ So, hey, Momma, I’m in trouble!” The room burst into laughter.
After the Houston Oilers signed him to a rookie contract in 1978 — he was the first pick in the NFL draft — he finally had the money to get a quick start on what he described as his prime goal: “to build a house for my mother so that when she lays down at night she can’t see the Big Dipper.” Ever since people started telling him in high school that he could one day go pro, that had been his dream.
“It’s going to be simple, and it’s going to be big,” said Ann Campbell, who already had nine grandkids. “I want them to have plenty of room when they come see me. The main thing is to have a house that’s full of love and a roof that doesn’t leak.”
Behind the new home, the old ramshackle place remained, a kind of house museum. Ann Campbell opened the new house up to the public — visitors lined up outside to catch a glimpse of the Heisman Trophy on a pedestal in the living room. She was asked what she made of her son’s contract and how it felt to have a place of her own. “All this money don’t make me nervous,” said Campbell, who had long also worked as a housekeeper. “I was always in new places, beautiful homes. They may not have been mine, but I could enjoy them just the same.”
Even when her kids were grown and she had lived for years in the brick bungalow that Earl bought for her, Ann remained resourceful. Tyler attorney Charles Clark, who has represented members of the Campbell family, including Earl, remembered visiting the Campbell place for a cookout around 2003. It was hard for Ann to get around, and she sat on an elevated chair frying hamburgers in an iron skillet. Clark started talking with her about the burgers and noticed that she was mixing oatmeal into the burger meat. “I said, ‘That’s unusual.’ ‘It will make it go a lot further,’ she told me.”
When Ann Campbell died in 2009, at age 85, she left behind nine living children, 33 grandchildren and 36 great-grandchildren. The obituary her family placed in the paper was modest as ever. It described her as “a housewife and rose grower” and a member of the Hopewell Valley Baptist Church and the Senior Ladies Sunday School Class. It made no mention that she had raised a Heisman Trophy winner in that old broken-down, immaculately kept house of hers. She was buried in the old Hopewell Community Cemetery in Swan.
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