You Don’t Know Earl Campbell’s Story
This week, I’ve got two stories about revered legends: Udonis Haslem and Earl Campbell. Their journeys couldn’t be much more different, but – man – they are loved.
Of course I knew of Earl Cambell. He’s before my time, sure, but I’d seen the highlights of him giving more punishment as a running back than he ever took. I didn’t know many details. I just knew he was a legend, and I knew the game had all but destroyed his body, leaving him as a cautionary tale for today’s players. It’s no wonder when you watch him run:
I was wrong. While I’m sure the game exacted a toll on Campbell, there was something else at play that had caused his deterioration. Even Campbell didn’t know it until long after retirement that he’d had spinal stenosis his entire life – a condition that, in ESPN’s Dave Wilson’s words, “causes a narrowing of the space inside the spine, leading to pressure on nerves, and causes pain, weakness or numbness.” How painful does that sound?
According to his last back surgeon, Dr. Stan Jones, Campbell was lucky to have avoided any “catastrophes” in all those collisions on the field due to the stenosis. What followed the initial diagnosis were several back surgeries that left loose screws in his spine and pain pills for recovery. It wasn’t long before Cambell was self-medicating.
“I never took pills. I never smoked a joint. I never had experience with cocaine,” Campbell said. “Now, I know a little bit about Budweiser and tequila. But this doctor (PAL Note: Not Dr. Jones) started me and I don’t know, hell, it just happened so fast with the surgeries. I mean I’ve gotten cut in my throat. I never dreamed about all this s— about my spine, and cutting bone spurs the size of your thumb off my back. They were giving me pain medication and doctorin’ on me and next thing I know I’m hooked.”
You watch Campbell in those highlights – the almost unbelievable athleticism and power – and then you’ve seen him confined to a wheelchair at the Heisman events, and when you put those details together to draw a conclusion. But you miss a much bigger story. In many ways, a much more common, relatable, and inspiring of a legend humbled.
I also loved hearing the tales about the manchild from a tiny town in Texas who Barry Switzer described as the only high school player that could’ve jumped straight to the NFL. Solid read. – PAL
Source: “Earl Campbell got up: Inside the second act of a Texas Longhorns legend”, Dave Wilson, ESPN (10/8/20)
Ten Years After the Greatest Sports Performance I Ever Saw
Many times over the years, including just two weeks ago, I have mentioned on this blog Tim Lincecum’s performance in Game 1 of the 2010 NLDS. 9 innings, 2 hits, 14 Ks. Pure dominance. I was at that game, and it was incredible. God, I loved being there. Even if we had awful seats. But we didn’t care where we sat. We were at a playoff game in the most beautiful ballpark in the most beautiful setting, and our guy was on the mound, dealing. Those Ks on the right field wall kept piling up, and the tension was palpable as the Giants won 1-0. Grant Brisbee does an excellent job capturing the feeling:
The crowd was bananas throughout. You can keep your Game 1 World Series crowds, when it’s possible to recoup the cost of an entire season by selling the tickets and the seats are filled with people who love exclusive events more than baseball. Give me the first game of a postseason for a team that’s trying to win its first World Series in a half-century. The nerves were frayed after the leadoff double. They were still tingling with each three-ball count in the first and they were raw by the final pitch of a 1-0 game. But every flailing Braves hitter forced the fans to become more and more raucous. There was no other choice. Watch the whole game here on MLB’s global account, which isn’t embeddable for some reason, and you’ll hear what I mean. In the top of the sixth, the crowd gets behind a “POSEY’S BETTER” chant while Jason Heyward is at the plate, the kind of petty, extremely niche jab that makes sense only to people who are a little too into baseball. San Francisco fans got a reputation for being a little quiet and soft in the post-Candlestick years, as if the extra 25,000 people at the ballpark somehow negated the 10,000 to 15,000 who were there the whole time, but this was a crowd that knew what it was doing. They were exhorting one of the most popular athletes the Bay Area had ever seen — will ever see — because he was giving them an entirely new feeling.
Grant is right – the crowd was incredible. And that chat was fantastic. It continued after the game, as we excitedly wound our way down the ramps, high fiving strangers, marveling that we were just 10 wins away from a friggin World Series title. God damn, what a feeling. It was October 7, 2010 – ten years ago yesterday, as I write this. It’s hard to believe it has been that long. So much has changed, both in my life (I was 28!), and as a Giants fan. Those 10 more wins I was dreaming about? They happened, of course, and the Giants won the World Series. Two more titles followed in short order. But it was that game, that night, that feeling that really sticks out as the best of the bunch. -TOB
Source: “Ten Years Ago, Tim Lincecum Dominated the Braves and Started Something Beautiful,” Grant Brisbee, The Athletic (10/07/2020)
PAL: Great story. This part really landed with me: “Hope is what was wrested from the arms of Giants fans and used to bludgeon them, time and time again. It was a feeling of rational hope that was new. A feeling that maybe this year was different because, well, just look at this guy.”
Well, the first line, anyway. And the second part of this – the idea rational hope – that captures the real power of an absolute ace.
Udonis Haslem’s Leadership Odyssey
By the time you read this, the Lakers may have very have eliminated the Heat for the NBA title, so it might feel a bit odd that I’m sharing a profile of an over-the-hill Miami Heat bench player. Yet, here’s the Udonis Haslem story you really should read, whether you think you might be interested or not. I assure you, it’s a great read. The angle, as described by its author, Andrew Sharp:
The vast majority of sports legends are so successful that their place in history is almost self-explanatory. There are others, though, who resonate for reasons that are harder to articulate. They’re known less for what they did than how they did it. These athletes generally won’t make the Hall of Fame, but they’re remembered forever by anyone who happened to be paying attention. Udonis Haslem is in that second category.
There are incredible stories about the superstars in sports – from LeBron’s origin story to the tale of a troubled kid from Baltimore named George who went on to ‘build’ Yankee Stadium, but the stories about role players finding a way, fighting their way to make it are just as inspiring, if not moreso. Haslem, or ‘UD’ to everyone who knows him, was always a very good player on very good teams. His high school team in Liberty City rattled off state titles. His Florida Gators made it to the Final Four. He was a key player on those teams – a leader who would set the tone for the team, but that skill set did not stand out, partially because he was a bit out of shape, and – for a big guy – didn’t do a lot of rebounding. So, how did that guy turn into what Miami Heat Coach Eric Spoelstra describes as the following:
“Years on from here, when we’ll say, ‘What’s the Miami Heat culture?’ We can describe it and say, ‘Hardest working team, most professional, best conditioned, and so forth.’ Or we can just pull up a picture of Udonis Haslem.”
Not only was Haslem undrafted, he wasn’t even asked to work out for a number of team. His only real option was to play overseas.
Haslem had spent much of the previous year in Chalon-sur-Saône, a small city in eastern France, where he averaged 16.1 points and 9.4 rebounds playing for a team called Élan Chalon. His season was a success, but that didn’t mean Haslem enjoyed it. “I gave myself one night to feel sorry for myself,” he says. “I had a one-night pity party. I had a bottle of Hennessy and I sat on my back porch. ‘Why am I here? I did everything right.’ Some of the guys that got drafted, I’d done really well against. I really didn’t understand. So I just gave myself one night.” But even that night, his mindset began to change. “Part of my pity party was, ‘What can I do differently?’ It’s so easy to blame the NBA, blame the coaches. It’s easy to say they made a mistake. But in the end, I don’t think that gets you anywhere. So for me, part of that bottle of Hennessy was, ‘What do I need to do?’”
I love every word of that anecdote. Even in his self-described pity party, he’s asking himself what he needs to do to change his situation. That’s a huge life lesson (or a reminder). From there, he catches on with the Heat after being so competitive and dominant in workouts that thy shut him down before he hurt somebody. He’s been with his hometown team ever since. He won a title with the Wade-Shaq version of the team, setting the tone by holding Shaq accountable when few others could. Later, when LeBron and Chris Bosh joined Wade to create the super team, it appeared UD’s time was up with the Heat.
Haslem was a 30-year-old free agent. Both the Mavericks and Nuggets were reportedly offering five-year deals worth about $34 million. Meanwhile, the entire sports world had just watched Miami use all its cap space on three superstars. “Plus,” says Riley, “we made a deal with Mike Miller. In order to get Mike, we had to get rid of Michael Beasley. There wasn’t any more room.” So a few days after that welcome party, Haslem called Wade to tell him that he loved him, but he had to leave. “I hung up,” Haslem says, “and I’m taking the exit to head downtown to meet with Pat to tell him the same thing: ‘Thank you for the opportunity, Coach. Nobody ever gave me a chance but you. I love you guys. But I’m moving on.’” Five minutes later, Haslem’s agent, the late Henry Thomas, told him to wait on a meeting with Riley. Thomas also represented Wade, and the latter was organizing an emergency conference call with his new teammates. Within hours, the Miami superstars agreed to sacrifice portions of their max salary to free up enough room for Haslem. The deal he accepted in Miami—five years, $20 million—was $14 million less than what he’d been offered elsewhere, but that was fine with Haslem. “Dwyane taking less,” he says. “LeBron taking less. Chris taking less. Everybody was sacrificing for a common goal.”
While – yes – the super team would need to fill out the rest of the roster with some player, I do think – as it’s told here – that story a lot about what other guys think of UD.
Great success story of a hometown kid done good, both on the court and off. I’ll never tire of these kinds of profiles.- PAL
Source: “The Legend of Udonis Haslem”, Andrew Sharp, The Ringer (09/29/20)
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How do you tell somebody that you care about deeply, “I told you so.” Gently with a rose? In a funny way, like it’s a hilarious joke? Or do you just let it go, because saying it would just make things worse? Probably the funny way.