Earl Campbell and the Houston Oilers were watching game films. Tony Dorsett, the other running back in Texas, was showing some fancy footwork, cutting across the screen.

"Boy," said Earl Campbell, the 1978 National Football Conference's most valuable player, "I wish I could do that."

He wasn't kidding, either.

In Texas, where football is the most organized religion, they are ready to canonize Earl Campbell, perhaps prematurely. He was, after all, the savior of a team that had languished somewhere in the standings below mediocrity until he arrived last year.

The Oilers would have you believe that Campbell, a deeply religious man, is as saintly off the field as he is on it. "You wonder whether he's for real or not," said Pat Peppler, the club's assistant general manager. "That's what everyone always asks."

The answer, says Tim Wilson, a former Maryland player and Campbell's friend and teammate, is emphatically yes.

One day last year "when Earl first got here," Wilson recalled, "he asked it if would be all right if he went running with me. As we ran, he said, 'I sure hope I do well and make this team.'

"I said, 'What is this guy talking about? He is the team.'"

Oiler Coach O. A. (Bum) Phillips said, "You'd have a hard time writing a bad story about him. Any time you can answer every question about a guy and it's always good, well, it's kind of hard to add to it."

These are not the kind of things Campbell will say about himself. In fact, he does not say much to anyone at all. He has been known to elude writers almost as well as he eludes tacklers. Andy Bourgeois, the offensive backfield coach, said, "In meetings, he never says a word. On the practice field, he never says a word."

"That's because you're shy?" Campbell was asked.

"Yeah," he said looking down, "Can't you tell?"

Earl Campbell thinks it is a bit unfair to expect an athlete whose job it is to carry a football to carry on a witty conversation about himself as well.

He is suspicious of and uncomfortable with the celebrity that comes with being a personality in the era of personality journalism. "If someone wrote about your job," he said, "you'd be signing autographs too. So would the man at the bank and so would the housewife."

Charlie Angelo, who owns the restaurant where Campbell eats at least four times a week, says Campbell is one of the few athletes who always sign autographs. Angelo accompanied him to Las Vegas after the 1979 Pro Bowl. "His momma asked what he did there. And I said, 'He went with a $10 bill and the 10 Commandments and didn't break either of 'em.'"

While in Vegas, Angelo recalled, Campbell was approached by a lady who kept insisting Campbell was Leon Spinks. Campbell was too nice to tell her he wasn't.

"Everybody gets him mixed up with me," he said. "We're about the same size. She was going on with that stuff, so why didn't I just go on being Leon."

Campbell says he would like to meet Spinks and perhaps Muhammad Ali, too. Unlike Ali, Campbell is the last to say, "I'm the greatest."

"He could afford to do it," said Campbell. "The sport he plays, boxing, is a one-man sport. Mine, there's 10 or 11 guys."

Those guys are the other reason Campbell is reluctant to talk about himself. "He thinks, 'If reporters don't talk to me, then they'll have to talk to the others,'" said Phillips. "He thinks he shouldn't hog it all the time."

Recently, when a Sports Illustrated photographer arrived to take Campbell's picture for the magazine's cover, he resisted. "It wasn't that I didn't want to be on the cover," he said. "They wanted me to take this picture in the whole uniform with full pads and pants. The other guys were in shorts. I don't like being different from my teammates."

Although Campbell says he doesn't "like to step out of the woodwork too much," that is hardly possible on the football field. Several years ago, when Phillips scouted Campbell at the University of Texas, he remarked, "Earl Campbell is the difference between winning a national championship and losing your job."

Today Phillips says, "He's that important, all right. No one man can win it for you. But with him, you have a chance to win it all."

Although the Oilers did not win it all last season (they lost to Pittsburgh in the American Football Conference championship game), Campbell seemed to. An entire page in the 1979 Oilers media guide is devoted to the team records he broke (9) and the awards he received (29). He was, among other things, the first rookie since Jim Brown to lead the league in rushing (1,450 yards).

The party line now is, as Phillips put it, that "Campbell may have a better year, but may not gain as many yards."

"A football player is only as good as his opponents let him be," said Phillips. "You can stop a running back by bringing everyone up on the line of scrimmage but then you may get killed by the other running back or the passing game."

That is exactly what happened to Miami in the first round of the playoffs last year against Houston. Campbell, who gained only 16 yards on 13 carries in the first half, seemed perplexed.

You get the feeling that the Oilers are now trying to prepare him for the inevitable letdown should defenses stack up on him this year.

Campbell says that this year, "I know what I'm doing more -- little things like following the blockers, reading defenses, knowing when the linebacker is on the dog." He says he does not care about yards and touchdowns. "If we're winning, I've got nothing to say."

Remarkably, Campbell seems as well balanced off the field as he is on it."Let me tell you," he said, "all this stuff going on is new to me. I don't see no reason to change from the way I've been. Some day they're going to cut Earl Campbell just the way they cut Steve Kiner, a friend of mine."

It is not entirely surprising that Campbell senses that his fame is ephemeral. He knows that poor black kids from Tyler, Tex., who can't run with the football are treated differently. "See, I had two older brothers, they played sports also," he said. "They went to an all-black high school and at that time the thing called prejudice was even stronger than it is now. They never got the chance they deserved."

Campbell doesn't really like to think about what would have happened if he had been the older brother because, he says, that can "start playing games with your mind."

"They'd have been what Earl Campbell is now," he said. "And I would have been just like them, working 8 to 5."