11th Annual Earl Campbell Tyler Rose Award presented to Ollie Gordon

Arriving early in the role of a local journalist, I was intrigued for what might be in store at the 11th Annual Earl Campbell Tyler Rose Award at the W.T. Brookshire Conference Center. I first wrote about Campbell in 1976 and had an array of thoughts and feelings about what might be coming in the way of entertainment and enlightenment. It was with great anticipation that I was to witness an event entering its second decade where my hometown honors its favorite son and this year at a site so close to where his fame began. I could vividly recall that night at Rose Stadium when Campbell displayed a unique combination of speed, strength, and determination in leading his team to a lopsided win over Plano that began a march to a state championship in 1973.

My first impression on this pleasant January evening was the setting – a beautiful new building organized and decorated with an extensive collection of silent auction items ranging from the great Jim Brown’s autographed Cleveland Browns helmet to a signed guitar by the late Jimmy Buffet. At the far end of the hall was the media room where the finalists for the 2023 award would be available for interviews. Two of the finalists were absent. Alabama quarterback Jalen Milro of Katy was understandably detained in Tuscaloosa at the last minute when his coach Nick Saban announced his retirement and Texas running back Jonathan Brooks stayed away because of a commitment to showcase his talents for the NFL draft. 

Shortly after I arrived, the first of the three remaining finalists came to the media room with their families and friends. Kaidon Salter was the player to make himself available and he proved to be quiet and humble, giving credit to God, his family, and his coaches for a remarkable 2023 season at Liberty University in Virginia. The Cedar Hill quarterback passed for 32 touchdowns in leading his team to a 13-0 record before losing to Oregon in the Fiesta Bowl. Salter wore a Jesus medallion and made special mention of Hugh Freeze, the current Auburn coach, for bringing him to Liberty after Salter had a short and rocky start at Tennessee.

Second to arrive was Ashton Jeanty of Frisco who had an outstanding season at Boise State. Jeanty made the trip from Idaho with one of his coaches and the sports information director, who both lauded the running back’s toughness and good attitude. In a season that started poorly, Jeanty helped lead a big turnaround. The sophomore was known for his yards after contact, something Campbell did during his career.

The last to appear with his mom and aunt and girlfriend was Ollie Gordon II of Euless and Oklahoma State. He had a remarkable sophomore season as he led his team past its rival, the Oklahoma Sooners. Oklahoma State advanced to the Big XII conference championship game won by Texas but rebounded with a win over Texas A&M in the Valero Alamo Bowl. Gordon is tall and thin but has a knack for finding the soft spot in opposing defenses and finished the 2023 season as the nation’s leading rusher, amassing 1,732 yards. Later he would be named the winner of the Earl Campbell Tyler Rose Award as chosen by a selection panel of sports journalists and former winners. Gordon was gracious in his acceptance speech as his family and friends celebrated. Gordon took special care to visit with Earl Campbell. Gordon said, “I want to thank God for my talent, my family for supporting me, and my coaches. We worked together to grow as a team, and I want to continue to grow as a person.”

Just prior to the announcement of Gordon as the winner by Earl’s oldest son Christian, the namesake of the award made his own heartfelt remarks. “My mother used to say, Earl, you are different,” Campbell said. “And I think she was talking about me dreaming I could do something special with my life. So, when I got a shot, I took it.” The 68-year-old legend offered the same advice to the three young finalists and gave a special mention to Mckenzie Peery, the 2023 Scholarship Recipient from Chapel Hill who now attends Texas A&M Corpus Christi. “You know, when I left Tyler years ago, I thought I may never move back, but now as I see young people like Mckenzie and these finalists, I have to say I am so grateful to have grown up in Tyler and to see how this award and this evening encourages our young people to do better. I want them to strive to be respectful and to give back.”

Earl’s cogent message summarized the qualities emphasized by the City of Tyler and SPORTyler when the award was created in 2013. Those character traits cited by the organizers are integrity, performance, teamwork, sportsmanship, drive, community, and tenacity; specifically, tenacity to persist and determination to overcome adversity and injury in the pursuit of achieving goals. SPORTyler executive director Cindy Smoak welcomed everyone to the dinner emceed by CBS Sportscaster Brian Jones, a Texas linebacker during the late 1980s. Jones introduced Campbell saying it never gets old watching Campbell’s highlight reel that begins in high school and proceeds through the University of Texas, the Houston Oilers and his final two seasons for the New Orleans Saints.

Fifty years may have dulled the memory of why Tyler’s Earl Campbell is considered one of the greatest football players ever. But watching his highlights while enjoying a delicious meal brought his glory years back into focus. No other player in memory combined such power and speed with an obvious penchant for doling out more punishment than he received. That attitude of being the hunter rather than the hunted was brought out by his former coach at Houston and New Orleans, the late Bum Phillps. It was Phillips who introduced Campbell into the NFL Hall of Fame and said coaching Earl and watching him play was the highlight of his long and successful coaching career. For Campbell, who bought a new home for his beloved mother Ann soon after signing his pro contract, Phillips became the father he never had since he lost his dad Bert at age eleven.

The festive evening also included wonderful stories of Earl from his earliest days in Tyler sports. Tyler banker Tim Alexander said he asked Campbell if he remembered him from their days of playing football at Moore Junior High. Earl smiled and said, “Sure, you were with me in shop class when we sawed off that cast on my broken hand so I could play in our game that day.” Did I mention Earl was tough? It was a great evening to celebrate being in Tyler and being from Tyler. Brava Mckenzie Peery, Bravo Ollie Gordon II, Bravo Earl Campbell, and Bravo to everyone who helped make the event so memorable.