Tale of two legends: new documentaries examine careers and lives of Barry Sanders, Earl Campbell







They had two different styles carrying the ball. Barry Sanders ran around people; Earl Campbell ran through them.

They also had two different lives after football. Sanders retired early long before his body burned out; Campbell wasn’t as fortunate. It is stunning to see the one-time beast in a football uniform struggle to walk.

The careers and lives of both legends are examined in two new documentaries. Still Standing: The Earl Campbell Story, produced by Ross Greenburg, airs tonight at 11 p.m. (ET) on NBC Network. Wednesday, Sanders is the latest subject of A Football Life on NFL Network at 8 p.m. ET.

Here’s the rundown on both films. Highly recommended.


NBC Sports Network presents Still Standing: The Earl Campbell Story, a riveting documentary about one of the greatest running backs in the history of the NFL, and the touching life story that followed his retirement. Still Standing: The Earl Campbell Story, debuts Tuesday, December 4 at 11 p.m. ET/10 p.m. CT/9 p.m. MT/8 p.m. PT on NBC Sports Network.

Born in Tyler, Texas, to a family with 12 children, Earl Campbell began his life working the rose fields and living in a shack, where his brothers joked, ‘you could see the big dipper from your bed at night.’ His father, B.C. Campbell, died of a heart attack at the age of 50, when Earl was 11, leaving his mother, Ann, to raise all 12 Campbell kids.

After winning the Texas State Football Championship in his senior year at John Tyler High School, Campbell went on to the University of Texas, where in his senior year he won the coveted Heisman Trophy (1977). He became the No. 1 pick in the 1978 NFL Draft when the Houston Oilers traded with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the top pick in the draft, and the Oilers immediately chose Campbell.

Campbell’s Hall-of-Fame career was a highlight reel of running over those who would attempt to tackle him. Campbell’s 199-yard, four touchdown performance in a 35-30 win over the Miami Dolphins before a national audience on Monday Night Football in Week 12 of his rookie season is the signature individual performance of his career.

Halfway through the 1984 season, Campbell was traded by the Oilers to the Saints where he rejoined his mentor and coach Bum Phillips. He finished his career in New Orleans, retiring during the 1986 preseason, but he will always be remembered as the best of Bum’s Bunch in Houston.

After his retirement, Campbell battled five spinal surgeries, two knee replacements and an addiction to pain pills and alcohol. He was confined to a wheelchair for six years, but due to a successful spinal surgery performed by Dr. Stan Jones in Houston, and his sons Christian and Tyler convincing him to check into a rehabilitation center for his addictions, Campbell is still standing today. He is walking again, and tossed the coin at a University of Texas game in Austin earlier this season.


For 10 seasons, Detroit Lions running back Barry Sanders electrified the NFL with unbelievable runs while putting up prolific rushing numbers. Yet just before the start of the 1999 NFL season, as one of the league’s biggest stars, he quietly walked away from the game.

 NFL Network’s Emmy-nominated series A Football Life continues Wednesday, December 5 at 8:00 PM ET with a profile of one of the NFL’s greatest players who retired during the prime of his career. Barry Sanders: A Football Life examines Sanders’ incredible Hall of Fame career, his unexpected retirement and the reaction it garnered throughout both the NFL and the city of Detroit, and his relationship with his late father, William.

The one-hour documentary features a sitdown interview with Sanders in which he discusses his fascinating football life. The NFL’s third all-time leading rusher talks about how he was overlooked in high school, his decision to attend Oklahoma State, the unwanted media attention that came as a result of winning the Heisman Trophy award in 1988 and being an NFL superstar, and the lessons he imparts to his children, including his son BJ Sanders, a redshirt freshman running back at Stanford University.

Additional interviews include fellow Hall of Fame running backs Emmitt Smith and Curtis Martin, former teammates Thurman Thomas, Herman Moore, Kevin Glover and Lomas Brown, former Lions head coaches Wayne Fontes and Bobby Ross, and Hall of Fame guard for the Detroit Pistons, Joe Dumars, among others.

Barry Sanders: A Football Life also includes past interviews with his father and Barry reading the statement he released to the Wichita Eagle announcing his retirement for the first time publically.

My lunch with Steve Sabol: In search of art museums at a Super Bowl

Like everyone else, I was a big fan of NFL Films.

So when I was approached during Super Bowl XXXV in 2000 about having lunch with Steve Sabol, I jumped at the opportunity. I looked forward to discussing football, the upcoming game between the Giants and Baltimore in Tampa, and film making, most definitely film making, with the famed president of NFL Films.

Now my memory is a bit foggy, but I’m fairly sure we initially started by talking about art museums. Yes, art museums.

Sabol loved going to art museums in towns he visited, and he was interested in what Tampa had to offer.

I’m not from Tampa and hardly an art expert. But thanks to my parents living in Sarasota, I was able to tell him about the Ringling Art Museum. I had been there once. All I knew is that Ringling (from the circus) was a notable collector and had some famous paintings from the 15th and 16th Centuries.

“Really?” he said, scribbling the name on a piece of paper. “That sounds terrific.”

I learned quickly that Sabol was a different breed. In fact, he had no interest in sports other than football.

“I have no idea who played in the World Series,” Sabol said. “Don’t care.”

Who knows? Sabol might not have had an interest in football if not for the chance to put the game on film.

Looking back, it really wasn’t a surprise that he was in search of a art museum during a Super Bowl. He truly was an artist with his vision for NFL Films.

My favorite was a series called Lost Treasures of NFL Films. It featured vintage old footage that had never been used before.

In a 1999 story for the Chicago Tribune, I wrote:

The programs are like opening a time capsule, tracing the roots of both the NFL and NFL Films, which first started shooting games in 1962. The shows go back to a period when everything was innocent, gritty and more passionate. Everything looked more genuine.

Included are vintage shots of Bears games at Wrigley Field, botched attempts to get audio from Vince Lombardi and the incomprehensible notion of players simply handing the ball to officials after scoring a touchdown.

“You think to yourself, `Boy, how have things changed?’ ” Sabol said. “There were no earrings or headsets. The feeling you get is like sitting around with a bunch of friends, saying, `I can remember what it was like.’ “

The original plan was to have actor Richard Kiley narrate the films. Unfortunately, the actor died two weeks before production.

Fortunately, it led to Sabol filling in. From the story:

Sabol doesn’t read from a script. Instead he talks over on the film, remembering things as he sees them again.

“It’s like sitting around with a proud father who has a bunch of old movies and is dying to talk about it,” Sabol said.

Sabol, the proud father, told those stories as only he could. In the clip above, he discusses working with John Facenda.

“The first words he said for us, ‘It starts with a whistle and ends with a gun,” Sabol said in this Lost Treasure. “We knew we were on to something. He read our scripts as if he was an after-dinner speaker for the Last Supper.”

Hence, Facenda’s nickname, “The Voice of God.”

Sabol, though, was the star of this series. He showed the evolution of the league and NFL Films. It was like an artist detailing every brush stroke.

And then there were stories. It seemed like every frame of film had a tale behind it, one better than the other.

“My dad has a great expression,” Sabol said when his father and NFL Films founder Ed was inducted into the Hall of Fame. ” ‘Tell me a fact, and I’ll learn. Tell me a truth, and I’ll believe. But tell me a story, and it will live in my heart forever.'”

Thanks to his work at NFL Films, Sabol’s stories will live forever.

Thinking back at our lunch at Super Bowl XXXV, I wonder what art museum Sabol chose to visit. I’d like to think he took the hour drive down to Sarasota to see the Ringling Museum.

It would make me feel good to give something back to Sabol considering all that he gave to us.








The Autumn Wind: The poetry of Steve Sabol in video and words

If there is an iconic image of NFL Films, it has to be “The Autumn Wind.” The piece was the NFL Films’ version of Sandy Koufax pitching a perfect game.

Legendary talents all delivering peak performances.

The ode to the Oakland Raiders was written by Steve Sabol, who died today. I printed the words below. Read them to feel their power in another way.

The film was narrated by John Facenda, whose great voice and delivery enhanced the drama of Sabol’s poem. Sam Spence wrote the music that made you feel that “Autumn Wind.”

Keep in mind: The original film was made in 1974. The art was beyond cutting edge back then and it stands the test of time nearly 40 years later.

The Autumn wind is a pirate

Blustering in from sea

With a rollicking song he sweeps along

Swaggering boisterously.

His face is weatherbeaten

He wears a hooded sash

With a silver hat about his head

And a bristling black mustache.

He growls as he storms the country

A villain big and bold

And the trees all shake and quiver and quake

As he robs them of their gold.

The Autumn wind is a Raider Pillaging just for fun

He’ll knock you ’round and upside down

And laugh when he’s conquered and won.