HOUSTON -- As Babe Ruth is to baseball in New York, as Michael Jordan is to basketball in Chicago, Earl Campbell is to football in Houston.
Never before or since has Houston had a team that electrified the city as the Oilers did during the Luv Ya Blue years, an era when the home team’s offense seemed as explosive as the city’s economy.
And no image better exemplifies that storied time better than the sight of an unstoppable running back charging across the Astroturf, wearing a Columbia blue jersey bearing the number 34.
Indeed, Campbell is as much a Houston sports icon as the stadium where he once played, the Astrodome. Just like the greatest running back in Houston history, the Astrodome has been retired for years.
Now, like a proud retiree, Campbell has taken a special interest in the future of the unique building where he once worked.
“The dome needs to stay,” he said. “That’s part of Houston. That’s part of history.”
What’s happened to the eighth wonder of the world during the last few years is heartbreaking not only to fans, but also to many of the athletes who once played there. The dome looks like it’s been trashed by vandals, with good reason. That’s exactly what’s happened in some parts of the stadium.
Astroturf, the trademark playing surface introduced to the world in the dome, now lies rolled up on the stadium’s concrete floor looking like little more than discarded carpet left in an abandoned home. The bright orange seats, from which fans leapt to their feet to watch Campbell barrel toward the end zone, now have ripped upholstery exposing foam rubber cushions.
“I know we live in world today that’s all about, ‘What have you done for me today?’” Campbell said. “And it’s all about what, right now, want it right now. But there are a lot of things in this world we need to save.”
Campbell has a long history with the Astrodome dating back to his boyhood, long before he electrified the city playing for Bum Phillips’ Oilers.
“A lot of people might not believe this, but that’s where I won the state championship against Austin-Reagan, was in the dome,” Campbell said. “So I was there before I got in college and I played the Bluebonnet Bowl there. And then all my pro football career was there.”
So the NFL Hall of Fame legend is happy Harris County officials have drawn up plans to save the Astrodome, converting it into a giant exhibition hall that can also host occasional sporting events.
“I feel fortunate that one day, because of Houston is going to keep the Astrodome, being able to bring my grandson show him right here where his granddad did his thing,” he said.
“So I got a lot of memories coming back,” he said. “And I must say, in my situation, it’s a lot of great memories.”