Blackwell: Laughter through tears

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The ballroom was filled with football players, yet all I could think of was Dolly Parton’s character, Truvy, in the now-old movie, Steel Magnolias. Weird where the mind goes when emotions, words, music and love intersect.

Granted, this wasn’t just a run-of-the-mill ballroom on February 29: this was the Zilker Ballroom at the Hyatt Regency Austin. And it wasn’t just a run-of-the-mill event: this was the Ninth Annual Flavors of Austin, presented by Biogen, hosted by THE Earl Campbell and Pro Player Foundation, with the highlighted charity being the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

The Texas Heisman Trophy winner and his son, Tyler, have turned the event into a “must-attend” activity each spring, hosting a who’s-who gathering of Pro Football Hall of Famers, current and former University of Texas athletes and a cuisine sponsor list that provides food worthy of the Roman Empire.

So what does a celebration of epic proportions such as this have to do with Truvy? Simple. At one point in the movie, Truvy utters the line that is the most-recited line of the film, one that has echoed loudly since the movie was made in 1989:

“Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion.”

The sentiment was never more clear than when Tyler Campbell began to speak last Saturday night in what has become a yearly tradition, delivered in a tone that is part personal testimony, part poignant narrative, part open mic night and part Sunday morning gospel.

Hence, laughter through tears.

The big names at the event certainly felt a tinge of both laughter and tears as they heard the words from Tyler, who was diagnosed with MS while playing football at San Diego State University. How big were the names? Well, you start with Earl, obviously. Joe Greene. Tony Dorsett. Eric Dickerson. Robert Brazile. Ed “Too Tall” Jones. Derrick Johnson. Fozzy Whittaker. Kasey Studdard. Brian Orakpo. Michael Griffin. Etc. etc. etc.

How big were the sponsors? Biogen. Celgene. Bristol Meyers-Squibb. Mitchell & Ness. Dupont Carlson Family. Dine N Vine. 5D Printing. ResorTime. Lux Haus. Wrangler and Cavender’s. UT’s Silver Spurs. Austin Gourmet Popcorn. Bravo Company BBQ. Eberly. Fleming’s Prime Steak House and Wine Bar. Hoover’s Cooking. Hyatt Regency Austin. Jugo. Pitchfork Pretty. Ranch 616. Quality Seafood Austin. Salt Lick BBQ. Toss Pizzeria & Pub. Whitfield’s. The University of Texas Club. Amy’s Ice Cream. Sinsational Cakes Bakery. Yummi Joy. Etc. etc. etc.

The first tears began to flow when Tyler told the story of his personal relationship with Biogen, the neurological biotechnology company that has worked unrelentingly toward the pursuit of eradicating MS.

“When I was diagnosed, it forced me to figure things out,” Tyler told the audience. “I talked to Biogen and they answered all of my questions…these people believed in my dream from day one.”

“You think you have life figured out, but plans are interrupted. What do I do next? They helped me find the answer to that question.”

One thing Tyler did was lean on his wife, Shana Campbell, whom he said “always has my back.”

Flavors of Austin is a result of the generosity from corporations such as Biogen and numerous others that support Pro Player Foundation and the Campbells in their mission of ending MS. It is the result of a team of chefs, volunteers and unsung heroes who work tirelessly to ensure that the event and auction are successful. It is the result of the NFL Family who show up to shine a light on MS. It is the result of the MS community who join the Pro Player Family and never stop moving to beat MS.

All things, it was apparent on Saturday night, are possible to those who believe.

Tyler shared his dream of one day speaking in front of famed motivational speaker Eric Thomas, a dream that came true when he took part in Thomas’ Game Changers program.

Dreams, Tyler told the crowd through tears, come true. Dream fulfilled.

But a final dream of Tyler’s will be an ongoing dream, and one that might never be completely fulfilled. But it is noble and worthy and attainable for anyone who is determined for it to be so. For Tyler, a man of words who has seen his challenges conquered though the mantra, it is something that anyone breathing in and out can accomplish if they wish: the sharing of love.

“Tell the people around you that you love them,” Tyler said. “You have to tell them.”

He then briefly – sort of – apologized for his tears.

“A real man can cry,” Tyler explained, “when he’s been through some stuff.”

Tyler has certainly been through some stuff. He and Truvy are, clearly, kindred spirits.