As the sun set on the 2022 East Texas football season, we found a familiar champion at the top of the podium. The legendary Scott Surratt brought his state-record tying ninth ring back to Panola County as his Carthage Bulldogs purely dominated the competition all year long.
But just as the sun sets, it always rises again. This time, on the dawn of a new 2023 football season in arguably one of the toughest regions in terms of pure talent and competition in the country.
Just as in years past, there was no better way to welcome the new season than with the East Texas Kickoff Luncheon. Over 40 programs were in attendance, entering the W.T. Brookshire Conference Center hopeful and excited. Those emotions remained, but they left the venue two hours later with a new one: inspiration.
The guest speaker was none other than Tyler Campbell, son of the legendary Earl. Around East Texas, the Campbell last name is pure royalty. However, his twenty-minute speech coming straight from the heart wasn’t about his father, nor was it about living up to his family’s legacy. Instead, it was a lesson he wanted to hammer home to the players within the room just like an Earl Campbell run right up the middle on the one-yard line.
The biggest thing that Tyler Campbell spoke about to every single individual listening intently wasn’t about continuing a legacy, but rather creating your own. Growing up in the Lone Star State, it was no surprise that the son of a Texas football legend would also excel on the gridiron. In fact, his talents led him to sunny Southern California, where he would play on the San Diego State football team, as a running back for the Aztecs.
Growing up as a Campbell, there was never room to hide from the sky-high expectations. As he explained to the kickoff luncheon crowd, that all came crashing down in 2007 when he was unable to stand after falling out of his bed one morning. Unsure of the cause, his world was turned upside down when he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a disease that attacks the nervous system. Thus, his playing career was put into immediate jeopardy. But knowing the legacy he had to fulfill, he kept it all under wraps, deflecting questions from the Aztec program while continuing his hopeful path to the National Football League.
The dream ended in 2009, when his condition returned more malicious than before, sidelining him forever from his sport and his lifelong dream. After he revealed this, the venue went silent. Breaking the silence, Campbell delivered his thesis. It was only after losing what he thought was his dream and his purpose, that he discovered something he’d never realized in all the turmoil.
This wasn’t the end of his dream, his passion, his purpose. This was simply the beginning.
After speaking with his mother, he realized that God had given him a new purpose. From that day on, he knew that he would use his condition as an opportunity to educate and inspire. The reality was harsh but true: Tyler Campbell would never play football again. Nonetheless, the new opportunity presented to him provided a way to create his own legacy.
Those who lose their dream due to reasons beyond their control may find it hard to see the positive outlook within. For Campbell, that was the case at first. After that, he said something that many found shocking: MS was the best thing that could have happened to him. Not only did it give him a chance to persevere and overcome adversity, it provided him with a new opportunity to educate and inspire.
That opportunity led him right back to his father’s hometown, where Earl began his own legacy back in the day. It led him to the East Texas Kickoff Luncheon, with over 100 players and coaches total in attendance. And it led him to serve a greater purpose, to touch the hearts and souls of the next generation of Texas football players in the Piney Woods, and to carry on the lesson into the new season.
Such a lesson was immediately fulfilled minutes later with the presentation of the Coach Danny Palmer East Texas Community Service Award. The honor went to the program most fulfilling of the characteristics of the former coach. In fact, emcee Bill Coates explained that multiple other programs had nominated this year’s winner.
The name was announced to a deafening round of applause: none other than head coach Sam Wells and his Troup Tigers. They too had battled heartache and adversity throughout their past season when beloved football player Cooper Reid suffered a traumatic brain injury on the field of play. It has been a constant state of recovery for Reid since, but Coach Wells and his Tiger players have been there for the family every step of the way, dedicating their season to him, setting up fundraisers, and more to provide support and hope.
The East Texas football community left the event center fulfilled and inspired; the words of Tyler Campbell glued in their mind. As they begin a new season, they’ll add their shoulder pads and helmets, but never letting those words stray too far from their hearts.
As seen through Tyler Campbell or Cooper Reid, the opportunity to play the game you love is a great privilege. Not many receive the opportunity, and it could change at any second. But as long as they can step on the field in front of their home crowd on a beautiful East Texas night, they’ll always have the opportunity to lead, to make a difference, and to inspire.
And just like Tyler Campbell, son of the great Earl Campbell, they too can all carve the path to create their very own legacy.