Honor the Heroes of the Game, Preserve Its History, Promote its Values & Celebrate Excellence Everywhere
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In a countdown to the NFL’s Centennial celebration on September 17, 2020, Pro Football Hall of Fame Archivist Jon Kendle shares unique and interesting stories starting from the league’s founding in downtown Canton to the present day. This series is featured in The Canton Repository, the Official Newspaper of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Six months after the United States was devastated by the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the National Football League set the stage for America’s most popular sport, with one of the most entertaining and empowering Super Bowls of all time. Super Bowl XXXVI was a classic matchup of David and Goliath between the heavily favored St. Louis Rams, fueled by their high-powered offense, and the team-oriented New England Patriots led by backup quarterback Tom Brady.
The Rams came into the game ranked No. 1 in the NFL in total offense and No. 3 in total defense. They clearly looked poised to capture their second Super Bowl title in three years. On the other hand, the Patriots had come off a 5-11 season in 2000 and started ’01 with two losses before starting QB Drew Bledsoe went down with an injury. Brady was inserted in the starting lineup and led the Pats who finished with an 11-5 record, two playoff victories and the franchise’s third Super Bowl appearance. New England was in search of its first Lombardi Trophy.
St. Louis kicker Jeff Wilkins started the scoring with a 50-yard field goal, that capped a 10-play, 48-yard drive midway through the first quarter and gave the Rams a 3-0 lead. The first turnover of the game came in the second quarter, when Ty Law stepped in front of a pass intended for Isaac Bruce and raced 47 yards down the sideline to put the Patriots ahead 7-3.
Then just before halftime, Rams’ Hall of Fame QB Kurt Warner completed a 15-yard pass to receiver Ricky Proehl to the Patriots’ 40, but backup safety Antwan Harris forced a fumble that was recovered by veteran cornerback Terrell Buckley. Five plays later, Brady connected with wide receiver David Patten for an 8-yard touchdown pass with 21 seconds left that gave New England a 14-3 lead.
Play resumed after an emotional halftime show featuring U2 that paid tribute to the victims of the 9/11 attacks. Late in the third quarter, the Rams turned the ball over for the third time when receiver Torry Holt slipped coming off the line of scrimmage, and New England corner Otis Smith intercepted Warner’s pass. After a 30-yard return to the Rams’ 33, Patriots’ kicker Adam Vinatieri kicked a 37-yard field goal. The Patriots led 17-3 with only one quarter to play.
The Rams may have been down, but they weren’t out, as the Rams’ offense, known as “The Greatest Show on Turf,” responded by putting together two fourth-quarter scoring drives. The first capped by a Warner 2-yard quarterback sneak cut the deficit to 17-10. The second, a 26-yard touchdown pass to Proehl, tied the game with 1:30 remaining.
After a short Patriots’ kickoff return left them at their own 17-yard-line without any timeouts, New England played for the win, and Brady became a star. He ran the 2-minute offense to perfection and a 16-yard completion to tight end Jermaine Wiggins placed the Pats at the Rams’ 30-yard line with seven seconds to play.
Vinatieri then drilled the 48-yard field-goal attempt that marked the first time in Super Bowl history the game had been won on the final play.
Although the Rams outgained the Patriots 427-267 in total yards, the Patriots forced three turnovers, which resulted in 17 points and sealed St. Louis’ fate.
Brady earned Most Valuable Player honors for his clutch play, as he completed 16 of 27 passes for 145 yards and one touchdown and led New England to its first Super Bowl victory.
The game proved to be a great diversion for a nation in need of healing from the tragedy that occurred at the outset of the season. The tie between the values and virtues taught on football fields across our nation and ones that yield great communities, and, ultimately, a great country is strong. The 2001 NFL season showcased the best of what football means to America. Football is not just America’s pastime, it truly is America’s passion and one of the greatest teachers of character for a nation in need.
The forward pass has been a legal practice in the game of professional football since 1906. George “Peggy” Parratt of the Massillon Tigers holds the distinction as being the first man in pro football history to successfully complete a pass. Parratt hooked up with end Dan “Bullet” Riley against the combined Benwood-Moundsville, W. Va. team on Oct. 25 that year.
The rule change to allow passing was predicated by the college rule book. Pro football at the time, mostly because there was no organized league, strictly adhered to the college rules of the day.
At that time, however, the passing game did not resemble the air-it-out type of attack that teams operate today. In fact, the rules in place didn’t really encourage the pass at all. To legally pass the ball, the thrower had to be at least 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage. The penalty if this rule was not adhered to: a turnover to the defense. The rules even stipulated that if a pass was incomplete and untouched by either team the ball would also turn over to the defense.
Many tweaks to the passing rules occurred over the years since the practice was legalized. The biggest may have been in 1933 when the National Football League, which had formed in 1920 and had operated under the college rules, finally developed its own rule book. That year the league made provisions to allow a forward pass from anywhere behind the line of scrimmage as opposed to the 5-yard buffer requisite.
This change grew out of a controversial touchdown pass thrown by Chicago Bears Hall of Fame fullback Bronko Nagurski in the 1932 indoor playoff game that decided the ’32 league title. In that game against the Portsmouth Spartans (who later became the Detroit Lions), Nagurski faked a run toward the line and then quickly threw a TD pass to Red Grange. The Spartans contested that Nagurski was not 5 yards behind the line when he fired the pass. The play stood, and the Bears later added a safety to put the final touches on a 9-0 victory.
At the league meetings the next offseason, Spartans coach George “Potsy” Clark lobbied for a change in the rules to allow passes anywhere behind the line of scrimmage as he argued “because Nagurski will do it anyway!”
Over the next several hours, sweeping changes were made to the NFL’s playing rules. Chief among the revisions was the sixth motion of the meeting. Per the official meeting minutes from that session, which are a part of the collection in the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Ralph Wilson, Jr. Pro Football Research and Preservation Center, Boston Redskins owner George Preston Marshall made the motion that was seconded by Chicago Bears owner George Halas.
″... the rule covering the use of the forward pass, whereby it is necessary for the passer to be at least five yards behind the line of scrimmage before he can pass the ball, be changed permitting the passer to pass the ball from any point behind the line of scrimmage.”
The motion was passed unanimously and with that the NFL entered a new era with a more wide-open style of play.
Unencumbered by the rules, it wasn’t long before the league had its first 1,000-yard passer. That came in 1936 when the Green Bay Packers Arnie Herber threw 173 times for 1,239 yards. Another Packers QB became the NFL’s first 2,000-yard passer, when Cecil Isbell completed 146 of 268 passes for 2,021 yards in 1942.
It wasn’t until the 1960 season that pro football finally had a passer eclipse 3,000 yards through the air in one season. In fact, it had two. Johnny Unitas of the NFL’s Baltimore Colts and Jack Kemp of the American Football League’s Los Angeles Chargers both threw for over 3,000 yards that season.
Seven seasons later, Joe Namath of the New York Jets became the first to eclipse 4,000 yards through the air. He accomplished that feat in 1967. Another 4,000-yard passer didn’t surface until Dan Fouts in 1979. Five years later in 1984, Dan Marino became the first player in history to reach 5,000 yards passing in a single season.
The forward pass has come a long way from its modest beginnings over 100 years ago. Year after year it becomes more and more integral to the strategy of the game, while captivating fans from a screen pass and check down to every long bomb and “Hail Mary.” The NFL has seen passing yardage soar in every decade of its existence. From the 69,444 passing yards that were gained from 1933-39 (Note: the first seven years the statistic was officially compiled) to the 1,135,331 yards gained 2000-09. As Hall of Famer and Green Bay Packer founder, player and coach Curly Lambeau once said, “I’d rather pass. I figured it was the easiest way to pick up yards.”
Beginning in 1933, the National Football League divided into two divisions. The winner of each division played for the NFL championship. Seven times in the first eight seasons of this format, the Western Division representative in the title game was Chicago Bears or the Green Bay Packers.
Since their first regular season meeting in 1921, the year the Packers joined the NFL and Chicago was still known as the Staleys, this rivalry has been super-charged. But, as the 1941 season inched closer there was about to be even more fuel added to the fire. The Bears were coming off an NFL Championship season capped by a dominating 73-0 win over the Washington Redskins in the 1940 title game. The Packers, on the other hand, were rebounding from a disappointing 6-4-1 on the heels of a league title in 1939.
The first meeting between the clubs in `41 took place on Sept. 28 in Green Bay. Chicago had won their last three games against Green Bay and sported an overall record of 22-18-4 against their rival. George Halas, the Bears’ Hall of Fame owner and coach, worried that his team would come out flat since this was Chicago’s season opener and Green Bay had already beaten the Detroit Lions 23-0 and Cleveland Rams 24-7, during the previous two weeks.
However, that wasn’t the case as the Bears jumped out to a 6-0 lead in the first quarter on a Ken Kavanaugh touchdown reception from George McAfee who had taken a lateral from quarterback Sid Luckman. Bob Snyder’s extra point was blocked. Chicago built its lead before the Packers surged for 10 points in the final four minutes of the second quarter and cut the Chicago lead to 15-10 at halftime.
When play resumed, Green Bay took its first lead of the day on a 1-yard touchdown plunge by Clarke Hinkle. Trailing 17-15, Chicago answered as McAfee turned the left corner and breezed into the end zone on a 13-yard TD run. Holding a 22-17 edge, the Bears defense dug in and kept the Packers away from the goal line. Finally, with three minutes to play Snyder atoned for the earlier missed extra point when he kicked his second field goal of the game and all but clinched the victory. Green Bay threatened once more as the clock ran down but was stopped at Chicago’s 7-yard-line when Bears’ Hall of Famer Dan Fortmann picked off a Cecil Isbell pass.
The second matchup of the season proved even more thrilling than the first. Played on Nov. 2, the undefeated Bears hosted the one-loss Packers, who had won four straight since falling to Chicago five weeks earlier. This was a “must win” game for the Packers if they had any hope of a Western Division crown.
The rivals played for the division lead before a record crowd of 46,484. The Packers unveiled a new defense to help keep the Bears scoreless for three quarters. Offensively, Green Bay nearly doubled Chicago’s total yardage 276-159, but only managed 16 points due in part to three missed field goals by Hinkle. Trailing 16-0 in the final period Chicago rallied back with two touchdowns and looked poised to win the game on a field goal attempt with five seconds remaining. However, the referee let the clock run out and did not grant the Bears a timeout. Rules at the time required that only team captains could signal for a timeout. The Bears’ captain George Musso did in fact call for the time out but Emil Heintz, the referee, ignored his request.
Musso explained after the game, “several of the Bears joined me in the group and insisted to Heintz (the referee) that I was the team’s captain, but he refused to stop the clock.” Despite the officiating crew getting an earful from Halas at game’s end, the Bears never got the chance to attempt what would have been a long 40-plus yard field goal to win the game.
The 16-14 loss snapped the Bears’ four-game winning streak over the Packers and forced both teams to win out to have a chance at a division title and an opportunity to play the New York Giants in the NFL Championship game.
On Dec. 1, 1941, six days before the Bears played their regular season finale against the cross-town rival Chicago Cardinals, the NFL held a special coin flip to determine the site of a playoff game that would be scheduled if the Bears beat the Cardinals forcing a tie with Green Bay atop the Western Division.
Attending the coin flip for the potential “rubber match” was NFL Commissioner Elmer Layden, Halas, and the Packers’ Curly Lambeau. Halas’ Bears won the toss to host the playoff game. The trio also came to agreement that a sudden-death format would be used for the playoff game in the event it ended in a regulation tie.
As it turned out, the Bears downed the Cardinals to force the playoff against the Packers. The teams were greeted by 16-degree temperatures in the matchup. The game didn’t start in an ideal fashion for the Bears when rookie halfback Hugh Gallarneau showed some nerves early and fumbled the opening kickoff of the game. This set up Green Bay’s first score, a 1-yard TD run by Hinkle. On the next kickoff Gallarneau fumbled once again, but this time he recovered the ball and was knocked out of bounds. After a few possessions by each team Green Bay set up for a punt. Gallarneau fielded the punt, secured the ball, and he was off to the races for an 81-yard touchdown to atone for his earlier gaffe. Snyder missed the extra point, so the first quarter ended with Chicago still trailing 7-6 but the momentum had shifted.
The Bears, ready to roll in the second period, took the lead 9-7 on a Snyder field goal on their way to a 24-point outburst that quarter. The rout was on and the Bears went into the half with a 30-7 lead. Chicago only added a field goal in the second half, but the “Monsters of the Midway” defense held and only allowed a meaningless third-quarter score by the Packers.
After a season-long battle, the Bears had triumphed with this 33-14 win over the Packers in the first-ever non-championship playoff game in NFL history. Chicago was crowned Western Division champions and then successfully defended its NFL title with a convincing 37-9 win over the New York Giants in the ’41 NFL Championship Game.
Hall of Fame linebacker Derrick Thomas amassed 126.5 quarterback sacks during his 11-season career. The bulk of them, 116.5 or 92 percent, were collected during the decade of the 1990s. No player tallied more sacks during that ten-year span than Thomas. He was a sack machine and his ability to rush the quarterback allowed him to completely take over games.
Generally, when a quarterback got hit by Thomas, it wasn’t the first nor was it the last time during the game. He logged 27 multi-sack games during his career that accounted for 73 or 58 percent of his career sacks.
Thomas also dominated division opponents. He recorded 14 of his 27 multi-sack games against the Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders, Denver Broncos, San Diego Chargers and Seattle Seahawks. One of his most memorable games occurred in just his second National Football League season when the Kansas City Chiefs hosted the Seahawks at Arrowhead Stadium on Nov. 11, 1990.
Kansas City entered the game with a record of 5-3 against the 3-5 Seahawks in a tight AFC Western Division. The midseason battle was a defensive struggle with neither team’s offense able to assert themselves. However, one player on the field that day, decided to take matters into his own hands. Thomas’ rare abilities were on total display.
Thomas was ready to go from the opening kickoff. He recorded his first sack on Seattle’s first possession when he dropped Dave Krieg for a five-yard loss on third-and-20. The Seahawks didn’t fare any better on their next possession as Thomas continued to wreak havoc. He recorded his second sack of the game knocking Krieg back for a 14-yard loss.
The teams traded field goals on the following two possessions and with three seconds to go before halftime, Kansas City tacked on another three points, taking a 6-3 lead as the teams headed to the locker rooms. Two sacks in a game is a good day’s work for any defensive player, but Derrick wasn’t finished. In fact, he was just getting started.
When the third quarter kicked off, Thomas was ready to turn up the heat. Seattle scored quickly on a four-play drive that included a 54-yard touchdown pass and Kansas City’s offense was only able to respond with a field goal.
The Chiefs trailed 10-9 and looked to their defensive leader for support. In true Thomas fashion, he delivered. Not only did he produce his third sack of the game, he also stripped Krieg of the football, which was picked up by Kansas City in the end zone for a touchdown giving them a 16-10 lead.
As the final quarter began, the Chiefs held a one-point lead and Seattle was forced to throw the football to score quickly and stop the clock. This played right to Thomas’ strength. Over the Seahawks’ next three possessions, Thomas sacked Krieg four more times, which included three sacks in five plays. His game total of seven sacks set a new NFL single game sack record which still stands today.
Surprisingly, with just four seconds left and Seattle looking to score the go-ahead touchdown with one last play, Krieg somehow escaped the grasp of Thomas, who was looking for his eight and the game clinching sack, to throw a 25-yard touchdown pass to win the game 17-16. Krieg explained, “I’m glad they didn’t call me in-the-grasp, he had his hands around my hips. Fortunately, I just shook away from him.”
“I thought I had him, that last sack I didn’t get is the one I’m going to remember,” Thomas said recalling his record-setting game. Thomas, always a team player, would have certainly taken the win over the record. Despite the loss to Seattle, Thomas helped lead the Chiefs to an 11-5 record and a playoff berth that season. On his way, he collected a career-high and team-record 20 sacks.
Throughout his career, Thomas possessed a strong work ethic, great motor, lightning fast first step and superior athletic ability that he combined with a natural tenacity to get to the quarterback. Thomas’s impact on Kansas City’s defense was felt from the first time he put on a Chiefs jersey. The defense took shape around Thomas and his style of play. They attacked. They hit the quarterback. They forced fumbles. That is the true mark an impact player.
The Minnesota Vikings finished at the bottom of the NFC Central Division with a 3-13 record in 1984. They spent the next three seasons hovering around the .500 mark. Even though the Vikings made it to the NFC Championship game during the 1987 season, at 8-7, they did so despite having the weakest record of any playoff team. This landed them the 19th pick overall in the 1988 National Football League Draft.
In just two seasons, 1986-87, Minnesota watched its total offensive ranking drop from fourth to 15th in the NFL. Having spent four of their last five first-round draft picks on the defensive side of the ball, the Vikings began looking at prospects to help get their offense back on track.
They found that player in guard Randall McDaniel, out of Arizona State. At 6-foot-4 and 270 pounds, McDaniel was the fourth offensive lineman and first guard drafted in 1988. Most NFL scouts agreed that Randall was the most athletic offensive lineman in the draft. In fact, before he enrolled at Arizona State to play football, McDaniel was a highly recruited basketball standout averaging nearly 25 points a game in high school. His passion for football was evident though, and quickly he began getting recognized for his outstanding play at tight end.
McDaniel saw limited action at the position as a freshman for the Sun Devils. In his sophomore season, the coaching staff switched him to guard where he started the next 39 consecutive games. By the time his college career came to an end, he had won first team All-Pac 10 honors as well as the Morris Trophy given to the conference’s most outstanding offensive lineman.
His desire to succeed was only equaled by his athleticism and size. “I take advantage of my quickness whenever they allow me to pull on sweep plays,” McDaniel said. “I’m able to use my speed downfield. I can get on a defensive back better than some other guards; I can be running three-quarters speed and they think I’m just some big offensive lineman they can slip around, then I open up full speed and I’m right there with them.”
“Any time a guy weighing 270 pounds runs into a guy weighing 190 pounds, he should be able to run right over him. That’s what I do. I use my size and quickness and I think that’s what sets me apart from other lineman.”
As a rookie, McDaniel provided everything the Vikings were looking for out of their first-round pick. He earned All-Rookie and second team All-NFC honors after becoming a starter in Week 2 of the season. He started the final 15 games at left guard and the offense rebounded, climbing back into the top 10, ranking seventh in NFL total offense. The team went 11-5 and made its second straight playoff appearance. The next season, Minnesota saw even more from its future star as McDaniel led the way to its first NFC Central Division title in nine seasons.
During his 14-year playing career, McDaniel started 186 straight games, was selected All-Pro nine times, named to the NFL’s All-Decade Team of the 1990s, was voted to 12 consecutive trips to the Pro Bowl and was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009. Following his football career, McDaniel utilizes the values he learned by playing the game to impact children’s lives as an educator at Neill Elementary School in Crystal, Minn.
In a countdown to the NFL’s Centennial celebration on Sept. 17, 2020, Pro Football Hall of Fame Archivist Jon Kendle shares unique and interesting stories starting from the league’s founding in downtown Canton to the present day.
During Richard Dent’s 15-year career in the National Football League, the 6-foot-5, 265-pound defensive end, was a sack machine that harassed opposing quarterbacks nearly every time they dropped back to pass. While the quarterback sack has been the measure of success for defensive linemen for quite some time, it did not actually become an official NFL statistic until 1982, one year before Dent entered the 1983 NFL Draft. After the Chicago Bears selected him in the eighth round, 203rd pick overall, he set his sights to take full advantage of the newly minted statistic.
As a rookie, Dent played in all 16 games and filled in as a starter for the injured Dan Hampton in three of them. As a solid replacement, Dent showed a great deal of promise and finished the season with three sacks. He registered the first sack of his career on Nov. 27, 1983 against the San Francisco 49ers early in the second quarter with a 3-3 tie. The 49ers had just entered Chicago territory on a fake punt which gained 16 yards on fourth-and-9 and were on the threshold of field goal range. Three plays later, on third-and-1 from the Chicago 32, Dent rushed the end and took down quarterback Joe Montana for a loss of 9 yards to force the Niners to punt the ball. The Bears scored a touchdown on their ensuing possession and took the lead 10-3 just before halftime. Chicago’s defense didn’t allow a second half score and the Bears went on to win 13-3. Dent was awarded his first game ball. It was a sign of things to come.
(Note: Sacking Joe Montana became a staple for Dent throughout his career. Eight times the future Hall of Fame quarterback was dropped behind the line by Dent. Montana and Steve DeBerg (8) were the signal callers most sacked by Dent.)
Dent became a full-time starter early in his second season and rewarded the Bears when he led the NFC and set a team record with 17.5 sacks in 1984. Six times during that season Dent recorded multiple sacks in a game, helping Chicago to their first title of any kind since the 1963 season when they won both the Western Conference and NFL championships. For his effort, Dent earned the first of four Pro Bowl selections as well as All-Pro and All-NFC honors.
For an encore, the Bears’ 1985 season proved to be even better as they cruised to a 15-1 regular season record. Dent put together another phenomenal year as he led the league with 17 sacks, recorded his first two career interceptions and the lone “pick-six” of his career. The season was capped in remarkable fashion as the Bears blitzed through the playoffs. Led by a dominating defense, Chicago shut out the New York Giants 21-0 in the NFC Divisional round and then the Los Angeles Rams 24-0 in the NFC Championship game. Dent set the tone in those games and was credited with a combined total of nine tackles and 4.5 sacks. It all came together in Super Bowl XX with an MVP performance against the New England Patriots. Dent finished with 1.5 sacks, three tackles, one pass defensed and two forced fumbles as the Bears dominated the Patriots 46-10.
Dent continued his consistently stellar play as he added six more double-digit sack seasons over the next eight years (1986-1993). During that span he only missed double-digit totals in 1989 (9) and 1992 (8.5). In all, the Bears’ defensive end registered 137.5 sacks against 67 different QBs including six Hall of Famers during his career. Dent’s career sack total ranked third all-time in NFL history at the time of his retirement and helped ensure his place in Canton. His bronze bust is forever displayed in the Hall of Fame alongside the greatest legends of all time.
Every season, the National Football League provides fans close games, exciting plays and record-breaking performances. Many of which are aided by or are the result of special teams play.
In Week 12 of the 2011 season, the Arizona Cardinals faced their NFC West Division rival St. Louis Rams. The matchup ended as the first game in NFL history in which both teams scored touchdowns of 80-plus yards on punt returns. The Rams opened the scoring in the first quarter with Nick Miller’s 88-yard punt return touchdown. Not to be outdone, Arizona’s Patrick Peterson recorded an 80-yard punt return for a score in the third quarter as the Cardinals topped the Rams, 23-20.
Since arriving on the NFL stage, Peterson has electrified fans with is extraordinary play on both defense and special teams. The Cardinals’ dynamic cornerback is the first player in NFL history to record four punt return touchdowns of at least 80 yards in a single season (89, 82, 99 and 80 yards in 2011).
Those four punt-return touchdowns also tied for the most in a single season with Pro Football Hall of Famer Jack Christiansen (1951), Rick Upchurch (1976) and Devin Hester (2007). Peterson and Christiansen, however, are the only rookies to accomplish the feat and the only players in NFL history to score four punt-return touchdowns in their first 11 career games.
Christiansen, the Detroit Lions’ Hall of Fame safety, returned four of his eight career punt-returns touchdowns during his first NFL season. Amazingly, the 6-foot-1, 180-pound defensive back returned all four of his punt-return touchdowns in 1951 against just two teams in two games. The first two touchdowns of Christiansen’s career came during a 27-21 loss to the Los Angeles Rams on Oct. 14, 1951. The previously unbeaten (2-0) Lions struggled most of the day against the (1-1) Rams, but their lone bright spot was Christiansen’s play in the return game when he returned two punts for points.
The first came with the Lions trailing 10-7 in the second quarter, when Christiansen took a Glenn Davis punt 67 yards to put Detroit up 14-10. The second came as the Lions tried to battle back from a 27-14 deficit in the fourth quarter. Jack once again streaked into the end zone this time on a 48-yard punt return, which gave the Detroit life until the game’s final whistle.
Christiansen established his mark as a returner against the Green Bay Packers on Nov. 22, 1951. The Lions at 5-2-1 were fighting to keep pace with the Chicago Bears and the Rams in the NFL’s National Conference. The Packers jumped out to an early 21-10 lead on Thanksgiving Day. Hall of Fame quarterback Bobby Layne then threw Detroit back into the game with three of his four TD passes coming in the second quarter, which had the Lions up 31-21 at halftime.
The second half opened with a long touchdown run by Bob Hoernschemeyer. Then a few minutes later Christiansen put the proverbial nail in the coffin when he retrieved a Green Bay punt and raced 71 yards to the end zone. The stunned Packers tried to regroup, but Christiansen finished Detroit’s scoring with a spectacular 89-yard punt return TD, weaving around and through Green Bay defenders to seal the 52-35 Lions victory.
Christiansen, when not putting on a show as a punt returner, anchored the Lions’ famed secondary. He intercepted 46 passes in his career, returning three for TDs.
His legacy on the gridiron was firmly cemented with his election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1970.
Jerry Rice ended his career at B.L. Moor High School in Crawford, Miss. with three straight all-conference selections and helped the team to a combined 18-2 record over his final two seasons. Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough to get Rice noticed by big Division I-A college recruiters. There was, however, a small Division I-AA school, Mississippi Valley State, that showed strong interest in the future Pro Football Hall of Famer.
Head football coach Archie Cooley watched the 6-foot-2, 200-pound Rice on the basketball court during one recruiting trip. “When I saw him rebound and bring the ball down the court going coast-to-coast, running, jumping, dunking, I knew we had to have him.”
Rice developed into a superstar at Mississippi Valley State. With the combination of his athletic talent, tireless work ethic and a great coaching scheme, Rice set 18 NCAA Division I-AA records. In four years at MVSU, Rice totaled 310 receptions, 4,856 receiving yards and 51 touchdowns. Coach Cooley’s “Satellite Express” offense usually featured four or five wide receivers and no running back. The receivers were often stacked at the line of scrimmage. The formation included as many as four, single file, on one side which forced single coverage on the other side where Rice lined up. This allowed him to often dominate games. During Rice’s senior season, the Delta Devils’ exotic aerial attack averaged 57.1 points, nearly 500 yards and six touchdown passes per game.
The concern most NFL scouts had was the type of talent Rice was playing against in the Southwestern Athletic Conference. They wanted to see how he would fare in the Blue-Gray All-Star game against big-time opponents. The skeptics got their answer as Rice caught four passes for 101 yards, two touchdowns and was named the game’s Most Valuable Player.
“I had a lot of morale coming into the game.” Rice said, “I wanted to make a point for small-college players everywhere. I wanted to play well for them.”
As the 1985 NFL Draft approached, teams began to scramble to find tape on the wide receiver. A consensus ranking of the top 28 “best athletes” in the draft was released by a group of 10 NFL scouts and writers including the likes of Gil Brandt, Dick Steinberg, Pro Football Hall of Famer Ron Wolf, Joe Stein and Bob Oates. Rice ranked sixth on that chart. Still many clubs were not sold on the wideout’s ability to become a star at the next level.
That didn’t seem to be an issue for the NFL’s upstart rival at the time, the United States Football League. Rice was selected first overall by the Birmingham Stallions. The hope was he would sign to play in the 3-year-old league if he slipped into the second round of the NFL draft.
Dick LeBeau has been involved in professional football for well over a half century as both a player and a coach. It was his success as a player that earned him a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a member of the Class of 2010. The vast knowledge he gained through his experience and dedication to the game has been passed on to his players as a coach. LeBeau’s passion for coaching character ensures that the game’s history, traditions, and techniques will live on through future generations of pro football players and coaches.
Playing under the tutelage of legendary head coach Woody Hayes at Ohio State, LeBeau was a key member of the Buckeyes’ 1957 National Championship team. Dick played quarterback as a freshman at Ohio State and though he threw the ball well, he was even better at running it. When he reported to the varsity squad, Coach Hayes moved him to halfback where he could be more effective in the open field. As a senior, LeBeau’s role changed once again and he found himself throwing around his 6-foot-1, 185-pound body as a blocking back for Don Clark.
LeBeau also displayed his toughness as a solid tackler in the defensive backfield throughout his college career. Unfortunately, Ohio State’s defense rarely played man-to-man coverage, something NFL teams would want him to do at the next level.
As a professional, nothing in LeBeau’s 14-year career came easy. But for the boy who grew up in London, Ohio cheering for the Cleveland Browns, it couldn’t have started any better. The Browns selected him in the fifth round (58th overall pick) of the 1959 NFL Draft. This was a fairly high pick considering the ’59 draft had 30 rounds. The Browns had just come off a 9-3 season in which they lost the Eastern Conference playoff game to the New York Giants 10-0. That defeat came after Hall of Fame head coach Paul Brown had led Cleveland to seven NFL Championship game appearances in eight years from 1950-57.
The Browns were not short on talent, but LeBeau was confident he could make Cleveland’s squad. While roster sizes were much smaller than they are today, with only 36 players on an active roster, LeBeau’s intelligence, speed, toughness and versatility made him an intriguing prospect. LeBeau received a great deal of playing time in the secondary during the preseason.
Although he acclimated himself well, he was waived by the team just days before the season opener. Unfortunately, players cut that late had a hard time finding open roster spots on other teams.
Obviously upset, LeBeau began searching for a place to play. He phoned his old friend from Ohio State, Detroit Lions halfback Howard “Hopalong” Cassidy, and asked if the Lions had openings at defensive back. “No chance here, we’re loaded.” Cassidy replied.
LeBeau set his sights on the Baltimore Colts. Although the Colts didn’t sign him to their roster, they did try convincing him to join their “taxi squad.” They invited Dick to join the team on the sideline for their home opener against the Lions. During warm-ups before the game, Cassidy spotted LeBeau on the field wearing street clothes and informed him that the Lions now had space on their roster and he should inquire about signing with them. Since he still hadn’t technically signed with Baltimore, LeBeau walked across the field and introduced himself to the Lions staff. Shortly after the meeting, Detroit inked him to a deal.
After spending the first six weeks on Detroit’s taxi squad, LeBeau was surprised when defensive coach Buster Ramsey informed him he would start at safety against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Nov. 8, 1959. The rookie played well and spent the final five games in the starting lineup and playing on special teams.
The next season, with an entire training camp under his belt, LeBeau won the Lions’ starting left cornerback position. He admittedly made many mistakes at first, but learned from each one, and made the most of his opportunity. He ended the season with four interceptions and began a streak of 12 seasons with three or more picks.
The following season LeBeau locked down the right cornerback spot. He remained at that position for the next 12 seasons. He started 171 consecutive games which was a Lions’ record at the time of his retirement in 1972. Shortly after walking off the football field for the final time as a player, LeBeau went right to coaching special teams for the Philadelphia Eagles. He may have ended his days in the NFL after one last season in 2017, at age 80, when he served as the defensive coordinator of the Tennessee Titans. His legacy is firmly cemented through him epitomizing the values of commitment, integrity, courage, respect and excellence.
The 2018 National Football League Draft is just three weeks away and there is already movement among clubs trading up to secure their “quarterback of the future.” This is not always an easy thing to find and there is little consensus about what specific traits make up a franchise quarterback. Every player is unique, and every team will ask them to do something different related to their individual circumstances.
Many believe we are just now entering the era of dual-threat quarterbacks in the NFL. I would say that couldn’t be further from the truth. What about Bobby Layne, Sid Luckman, Ace Parker, Roger Staubach, Fran Tarkenton and Steve Young? Those are just a few Hall of Fame quarterbacks who could hurt opponents both through the air and on the ground. While Cam Newton and Michael Vick are now the names synonymous with running quarterbacks, the individual they supplanted was former Philadelphia Eagles QB Randall Cunningham. He gained an incredible 4,928 rushing yards during his 16-year career that also included stops with the Minnesota Vikings, Dallas Cowboys, and Baltimore Ravens.
Do you remember when Cunningham scorched the New England Patriots in an Eagles 48-20 victory at home on Nov. 4, 1990? The win evened the Eagles’ record at 4-4 en route to a 10-6 final record and their third straight playoff appearance.
“Rockin’ Randall” did it all that afternoon as he put together one of the best all-around games in NFL history. The day started well for Cunningham and the Eagles as they methodically moved down the field on their opening possession. The drive was highlighted by a 26-yard pass completion to running back Heath Sherman on second-and-22 from the Patriots’ 43-yard line and capped by a field goal that put the Eagles in front.
Things only got better from there, and after New England tied the game at 3-3, Randall converted a crucial third-and-2 when he scrambled right for 15 yards. On the very next play Cunningham connected with receiver Fred Barnett for a 37-yard touchdown pass to put the Eagles back on top 10-3 at the end of the first quarter.
The first five possessions of the second quarter ended without big plays or points from either team. But as the half inched closer to the end Philadelphia mustered a field goal. The Patriots then took advantage of a great punt return as they strung together two big plays from scrimmage to score their first touchdown of the game and cut Philly’s lead to 13-10.
Then with just less than two minutes remaining in the half Cunningham went back to work converting on a third-and-10 with a 13-yard run, before he fired a 37-yard strike to tight end Keith Jackson for his second TD pass of the game and 20-10 halftime lead.
The Eagles began the second half with the ball and Cunningham capped an eight-play, 80-yard drive with a 23-yard TD pass to receiver Calvin Williams. The Patriots answered with a field goal to cut the lead to 27-13, but on the very next possession Philadelphia shut the door as Randall threw his fourth TD pass of the game, a 3-yarder to Jackson, that gave the Eagles a comfortable 34-13 lead. New England continued to fight and scored another touchdown, but Cunningham put the icing on his career day when he busted through the Patriots’ line and cruised to the end zone on a 52-yard TD run.
Philly added one more touchdown late in the game, but the final score didn’t matter. Cunningham had already stolen the show. He completed 15 of 24 passes for 240 yards and four touchdowns while also rushing the ball eight times for 124 yards and a touchdown. By the end of that season, Cunningham had accounted for an astonishing 69.8% of the Eagles’ total net offense. He threw for 3,466 yards and 30 TDs and rushed for 942 yards (second most by a quarterback at that time) and five scores.
The 2017 National Football League season is in the rearview mirror and clubs are working tirelessly to build the best team they can to compete for a Super Bowl title in 2018. So much focus and discussion over the past five seasons has been on offense and more specifically, quarterback play. Last season, NFL passers helped fuel a total of 11,120 points scored. The corral of QBs threw for almost 115,000 yards and 741 touchdowns. And while these numbers are actually down a bit from the past several seasons, historically they are still impressive.
So, what about defense?
While production on offense has somewhat overshadowed the play of defenders recently, the fact remains defenses are creating highlights, too. Last year, defenses created 706 total turnovers on 430 interceptions and 276 fumble recoveries. This proves that while NFL offenses are scoring in bunches, they aren’t achieving this feat alone. Defenders are doing their part to set up offenses to put points on the scoreboard via turnovers, and in some instances, they’re putting six on the board themselves.
Last season, the Jacksonville Jaguars shocked the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 5 in large part to the Jags’ stingy defense. Jacksonville intercepted Ben Roethlisberger five times, including two returned for touchdowns during the 30-9 Jacksonville victory. While any defense would be more than happy with five interceptions and ecstatic with returning two for scores, that doesn’t come close to matching an incredible performance by the Seattle Seahawks in a game against the Kansas City Chiefs in 1984.
Do you remember when the Seahawks and Chiefs were bitter AFC Western Division rivals? One of the more memorable Sunday afternoon showdowns took place in Seattle’s Kingdome on Nov. 4, 1984. Unfortunately for the Chiefs, it was a one-sided beating by the Seahawks who came away with a 45-0 win. Seattle’s defense ruled the day with six interceptions of Kansas City passes, four of which were returned for touchdowns. The four pick-6′s in one game remain an NFL record.
The game started slowly with Seattle owning a 3-0 lead after the first quarter. However, early in the second quarter left cornerback Dave Brown, an Akron native, intercepted Chiefs’ QB Bill Kenney and returned it 95 yards to pay dirt putting the Seahawks up 10-0. During Kansas City’s next possession, Kenney was picked off once again, this time by Keith Simpson who raced 76 yards for a score. By halftime the score was 28-0 and a woozy Chiefs team had given the ball to second-year QB Todd Blackledge of North Canton. Seattle’s secondary, however, wasn’t finished.
The Chiefs opened the second half with the ball and after four consecutive pass completions, Blackledge was picked off by Brown who returned that interception 58 yards for his second TD of the game. Finally, with time winding down in the fourth quarter, Kansas City’s third-string QB Sandy Osiecki threw the final interception of the game to Hall of Fame safety Kenny Easley, who returned it down the right sideline 58 yards for a TD to put the exclamation point on one spectacular day of defense.
The shutout victory lifted the Seahawks to an 8-2 record and thrust them into the record books. Aside from the record number of pick-6′s, the total of 325 yards on interceptions remains the most by one team in a single game in NFL history. To put the yardage figure in perspective, Seattle’s defensive backfield racked up more yardage than the Chiefs entire offense that day.
Another National Football League Scouting Combine is in the books. The last 40-yard dash was timed and the final interview conducted. Pro Days are now underway and the 2018 NFL Draft is just around the corner. This is the time when championship teams can be built. Scouts have been on the road all year scouring the country for the best prospects. Their days have been spent taking notes, breaking down film, watching live game action, interviewing players and coaches and cataloging notes and stats from the Combine in Indianapolis. Now, each NFL club gather their personnel departments, coaching staffs, all the information and video that has been collected throughout the scouting process and start building out their draft boards.
Over the years, many clubs have done great work building their teams through the draft. Franchises such as the New England Patriots have put together a solid system of identifying the types of player that fit their scheme. Other teams such as the Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants and the Philadelphia Eagles from the NFC East all do a solid job of evaluating talent in the draft. However, arguably no club has done it better or more consistent than the Pittsburgh Steelers, and it all started in 1969 with the hiring of Hall of Fame coach Chuck Noll. From 1969-74, Noll and the Steelers drafted nine future Hall of Famers: Joe Greene, Terry Bradshaw, Mel Blount, Jack Ham, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth and Mike Webster.
Only 17 times since the league’s first draft in 1936 has a club drafted multiple players in the same draft who have gone on to be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The Steelers (1970, 1974), the Green Bay Packers (1956, 1958) and the Cleveland Browns (1957, 1964) have all done it twice. Three of the 17 (Bears, Buccaneers and Ravens) selected multiple Hall of Famers in the first round of the same draft. Four franchises hit the jackpot when they selected three or more future Hall of Fame players in the same draft. The Browns did it in 1957, under the direction of Paul Brown, when they chose Jim Brown, Henry Jordan and Gene Hickerson (a future selection). The Packers drafted Jim Taylor, Ray Nitschke and Class of 2018 Hall of Famer Jerry Kramer in 1958 and gave coach Vince Lombardi a great foundation to build his dynasty teams of the 1960s. The Cowboys accomplished the feat in 1964, when the brain trust of coach Tom Landry, general manager Tex Schramm and player personnel guru Gil Brandt drafted Mel Renfro and two future selections in Bob Hayes and Roger Staubach. As impressive as three Hall of Famers by the same club in the same draft is, it all comes back to the Steelers. Remarkably, they are the only franchise to ever select four future Hall of Fame players in the same draft with Swann, Lambert, Stallworth and Webster in 1974.
While neither the draft nor the scouting process is an exact science, and every year there are more draft misses than All-Pro players selected, the course of an entire franchise can be changed if it hits just right on a draft class. When a franchise can understand exactly the kind of team they want to be and what type of players they need. Each player can have the confidence to play their specific role and the T.E.A.M (Together Everyone Achieves More) begins to grow. Together the team will begin to win, and with team success, individual stats and accolades are sure to follow.
Here is the complete list of these memorable draft combinations:
Year, Team Hall of Famers (round)
1996 Ravens Jonathan Ogden (1), Ray Lewis (1)
1995 Buccaneers Warren Sapp (1), Derrick Brooks (1)
1985 Bills Bruce Smith (1), Andre Reed (4)
1974 Steelers Lynn Swann (1), Jack Lambert (2), John Stallworth (4), Mike Webster (5)
1970 Steelers Terry Bradshaw (1), Mel Blount (3)
1965 Bears Dick Butkus (1), Gale Sayers (1)
1964 Redskins Charley Taylor (1), Paul Krause (2)
1964 Cowboys Mel Renfro (2), Bob Hayes (7), Roger Staubach (10)
1964 Browns Paul Warfield (1), Leroy Kelly (8)
1963 Texans Buck Buchanan (1), Bobby Bell (7)
1958 Packers Jerry Kramer (1), Jim Taylor (2), Ray Nitschke (3)
1957 Browns Jim Brown (1), Henry Jordan (5), Gene Hickerson (7)
1957 Eagles Tommy McDonald (3), Sonny Jurgensen (4)
1956 Packers Forrest Gregg (2), Bart Starr (17)
1952 Yanks Les Richter (1), Gino Marchetti (2)
1945 Rams Elroy Hirsch (1), Tom Fears (11)
1936 Bears Joe Stydahar (1), Dan Fortmann (9)
The National Football League Scouting Combine kicks off this week. The event draws virtually every scout, general manager and player personnel staff members. The ultimate goal is to find the one player from the more than 300 NFL prospects whose unique traits will one day lead them to Canton.
The Pittsburgh Steelers entered the 1987 NFL Draft looking to bolster its lineup. After reaching the AFC championship game in 1984, the team suffered two straight losing seasons, something rarely experienced by a Chuck Noll-led team that had been so dominant over the previous decade. The Steelers landed a top-10 pick in the draft based on its 6-10 finish in 1986. It marked two consecutive years Pittsburgh drafted within the first 10 selections.
After falling from sixth in total defense in 1985 to 18th in 1986, Noll determined it was time to rebuild his once proud defense. With five defensive players already off the board in the first nine picks, the Steelers were surprised who was still available when they were put on the clock.
One of the most versatile and all-around athletic players they had scouted was still on the board. That player was consensus All-American Rod Woodson from Purdue University. The Steelers were elated at the chance to pick the four-year starter who played cornerback, safety, running back and wide receiver while also returning kickoffs and punts for the Boilermakers.
Woodson, at 6-foot, 202 pounds, started 44 consecutive games and set 13 school records at Purdue. He totaled 320 solo tackles, 11 interceptions, three interceptions returned for touchdowns, 276 interception return yards, 71 kickoff returns and 1,535 kickoff return yards. In his final regular season college game, Woodson started at running back and rushed for 93 yards, caught three passes for 67 yards, made 10 tackles on defense, forced a fumble, returned two kickoffs for 46 yards, and returned three punts for 30 yards, while playing 137 snaps.
He had blazing speed — 4.29 seconds in the 40-yard dash — combined with great explosiveness and exceptional balance. Scouts loved his athleticism, and his work ethic. The unique traits he developed as a football player also helped him as a hurdler and sprinter at Purdue.
Initially there was some concern Woodson may not want to play in the NFL. Rather, there were whispers he’d forego the start of his pro football career for an opportunity to compete in the 1988 Olympic Games in track and field. Fortunately for the NFL and its fans, Woodson abandoned his Olympic training and joined the Steelers. Woodson’s primary goal was to be the NFL’s best cornerback.
“To play cornerback you have to be the best athlete on the field,” Woodson said. “You’re all by yourself against a wide receiver. You have to run backward, which isn’t natural, then turn and sprint as soon as the receiver makes his break, matching him stride for stride at top speed.
“If you want to be the best cornerback, you have to play like a linebacker, too. You have to take on pulling guards and tackles, and you must hit tight ends and running backs. Most cornerbacks, if they’re honest, will say, ‘I’m a cover guy. I don’t want to get involved in contact.’ You can’t be passive. If you don’t sell out on every play, you’ll come up a play or two short.”
Woodson’s Olympic ambitions and the inability to quickly come to contract terms with the Steelers limited him to seeing action in just eight games during his rookie season. Once he took the field, however, he made an immediate impact playing nickel cornerback and returning kicks. Woodson led the Steelers in both kickoff returns and punt returns as a rookie. He also had his first career interception, which he returned 45 yards for a touchdown against the Cincinnati Bengals.
By his third season, Woodson was highly regarded not only as an All-Pro return man but as one of the game’s finer cornerbacks. In 1994, he was voted to the NFL’s 75th Anniversary All-Time Team. Woodson was one of just five active players included on that team.
The Steelers’ adept scouting and drafting of Woodson paid huge dividends. His natural talent not only equated to impressive individual numbers for Woodson, but the team’s winning ways were restored. During the 10 seasons he played in Pittsburgh, the Steelers had winning records in all but two, made the postseason five times, won three divisional titles, and claimed one AFC championship. Woodson was enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009.
Super Bowl 52 was amazing from start to finish. The festivities on display throughout Super Bowl week in Minneapolis were second to none. Unfortunately, one of the Minnesota Vikings’ all-time greats wasn’t able to participate in the celebration. Hall of Famer Chris Doleman recently had surgery to remove a brain tumor. While we pray for a healthy recovery, we know the values Chris developed on the football field will serve him well as he faces this battle.
Doleman’s rise to pro football immortality didn’t begin with a “blue chip” label. The talent was obvious, yes, but the 6-foot-5, 218-pound product out of William Penn High School in York, Pa., wasn’t finding recruiters knocking down his door during his senior year. Perhaps part of the issue was the coaching he was receiving, or more accurately, the lack of coaching.
Despite all the ability and potential, Doleman’s high school teams struggled to find leadership and direction. It all began during his junior season when the teachers went on strike just before the school year. That left the football team without a coach. Forced to fend for themselves, the squad never quite recovered from their stunted development and struggled to find their way that season.
The following year, with the optimism of a fresh start, the team was once again left without guidance when their coach suffered a heart attack. As Doleman’s senior season ended, his options seemed limited and he decided to sign with Temple University. Shortly thereafter, an unexpected suitor came calling that summer.
“I was never known as the high school All-America type,” Doleman said. “I only had one honor in high school that was all-state. But I played in the Big 33 game. ... Jackie Sherrill (University of Pittsburgh head football coach) saw me and said I was the best player out there. Pitt started recruiting me heavier after that game.”
Sherrill was obviously impressed with Doleman’s potential and convinced both him and his parents to reconsider the offer from Temple. Chris opted to follow Sherrill’s suggestion and sat out one year and attended Valley Forge Military Academy. He was then eligible to join the Panthers for the 1981 season.
Doleman was making an impact by the third game of his freshman season at Pitt and entrenched himself as the starter at left defensive end. When the season ended he had compiled 45 tackles, two tackles for losses, four passes defensed, one fumble recovery and 12 sacks for the No. 1 ranked defense in the nation.
When Doleman returned for his sophomore season, Sherrill had left Pitt and Doleman struggled to duplicate his freshman sack total. But by his senior season he had matured both physically and mentally and was garnering comparisons to another former Panther star and future Hall of Famer Rickey Jackson.
Although Pitt was ranked in the preseason top five, the team struggled against a tough schedule and finished a disappointing 3-7-1. Despite the team’s record, NFL scouts loved Doleman’s combination of size, athleticism, speed and strength. The only concern was which position he would play at the next level, defensive end or linebacker.
As the 1985 NFL Draft got underway, many of the experts viewed the field as deep in talent but shallow on stars. The Buffalo Bills began by selecting Virginia Tech defensive end Bruce Smith No. 1 overall. The Minnesota Vikings held the second selection and traded the pick to the Atlanta Falcons for the fourth overall selection and the Falcons’ third-round choice. Atlanta drafted Doleman’s Pitt teammate, offensive tackle Bill Fralic. The Houston Oilers then stayed close to home with the third pick by selecting Texas A&M defensive tackle Ray Childress. Most of the media was expecting the Vikings to pick Miami (Florida) receiver Eddie Brown, but the team opted for Doleman who they had pegged for a linebacker spot.
Doleman had an impressive rookie season with the Vikings. He played in all 16 games with 13 starts at linebacker and finished third on the team with 113 total tackles, recovered three fumbles and intercepted one pass. He was recognized for his performance with a selection to the All-Rookie team by the Pro Football Writers Association.
The following season Doleman continued his growth and started six games at outside linebacker before he transitioned back to his natural defensive end position for the final three games of the regular season. It was there where Doleman showed off his pass rush ability by recording two of his three sacks that season. He added 20 pounds to his frame in the offseason and came into the 1987 season as the starting defensive end. He responded with a team-high 11 sacks and six forced fumbles. Doleman was named All-Pro, All-NFC and voted to play in his first of eight Pro Bowls.
He may not have been a “blue chip” prospect coming out of high school but following a career that showcased his character, in 2012, Doleman was forever immortalized in bronze. His legacy will always be honored and preserved in Canton at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The Chargers completed their first full season back in Los Angeles. That’s right, I said back!
The franchise began playing pro football in 1960 as the Los Angeles Chargers of the American Football League, before moving to San Diego in 1961. As a charter team of the AFL, finding star power was integral to the league’s success. Direct competition with the National Football League has never been seen as a successful business venture. The NFL had been rooted in the fabric of American culture for 40 years before the birth of the ’60s AFL. Without stars, the upstart league was bound for failure. However, with the leadership of young, wealthy, and successful owners such as Lamar Hunt, Bud Adams, Ralph Wilson, Jr. and Barron Hilton the league found a way to compete with NFL franchises for the stars needed to survive.
Paul Lowe was one of those players who helped the AFL shine. Unfortunately, his legacy is seldom shared. It’s one of my career goals that the legacies of every professional player be shared with future generations of family, friends and fans.
Lowe was one of just 20 players to play in the AFL for its entire 10-year existence before it merged with the NFL. Lowe’s contributions were more than just the stats he accumulated. Lowe was a 6-foot-1 205-pound halfback from Oregon State with an exciting breakaway running style. Lowe not only helped the Chargers win football games, but maybe more importantly for the AFL, he kept fans in the seats. His abilities were on full display from the moment he first stepped onto the field during the Chargers first-ever preseason game. Lowe received the opening kickoff against the New York Titans (who later changed their nickname to the Jets) and returned it 105 yards for a touchdown, sending a bolt of electricity through the crowd. That excitement radiated throughout the entire season and quintessential to the success of the AFL. Stars such as Lowe allowed the AFL to market itself as a wide-open offensive league that could wow and entertain fans and become a formidable rival to the NFL.
The long-striding running back also produced some very impressive and league-leading statistics throughout his career. During the Chargers’ inaugural season, Lowe led the team to a 10-4 record and an AFL Western Division Championship. He rushed for 855 yards, caught 23 passes for 277 yards and was named a first team All-AFL halfback. The following year, though hampered by a series of injuries, Lowe still managed to gain 767 yards, fourth in league rushing, and once again guided the Chargers to a Western Division Championship. Unfortunately, he suffered a broken arm and missed the entire 1962 regular season. Lowe’s injury was a huge blow to the Chargers as it left them sliding toward the cellar in the standings.
On the comeback trail, in 1963, Lowe recaptured his form and the Chargers returned to their winning ways. The Chargers captured yet another AFL Western Division championship, and for the season, Lowe finished with 1,010 yards rushing (first player in Chargers history to run for 1,000 yards in a season).
The following season, he rushed for just 496 yards, while sharing carries with running mate Keith Lincoln. However, he rebounded with his best year as a pro in 1965 rushing into the AFL record books with a then all-time league-best 1,121 yards. He was named AFL Player of the Year and the Chargers claimed their fifth AFL Western Division championship in six years.
In 1966, the competition between the AFL and the NFL came to an end and the leagues announced a merger, which took place following the 1969 season. Unfortunately, injuries began to sideline Lowe and he missed most of the 1967 season. After a trade, the final two seasons of Lowe’s brilliant career took place as a member of the Kansas City Chiefs where he earned both an AFL and Super Bowl championship. He retired shortly before the 1970 season and his 4,963 rushing yards ranked second only to Clem Daniels on the AFL’s all-time list.
Although the super-charged Lowe never officially played a down in the NFL, the passion and electricity he brought to the field helped change the game and create an excited and loyal fan base. It was the blending of two leagues, in 1970, which created the style of football we see being played today. It’s a testament to the talents and dedication of every player, coach and administrator that has built the game into, what I believe is, the greatest sport in the world.
The eye in the sky doesn’t lie, but it may stretch the truth a little sometimes to make for a better story. Before the days when every team in the National Football League had 10 or more people coaching from the press box, Chicago Bears assistant coach Luke Johnsos grabbed a seat in the stands during a 1941 exhibition game between the Bears and the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field, hoping for a better view. The way the story has been told through the years by some reputable news sources is that this was the beginning of coaching from above. Apparently, at some point, Johnsos decided to start drawing up plays and throwing them down to the sideline to be used in the game.
As it was described by both the Saturday Evening Post in 1941 and then again by the New York Times in 1960, when Johnsos thought a certain play would work he drew it, balled it up, and tossed it down to the sideline where a young kid picked it up to deliver the play. According to the story, the very first play Johnsos drew up resulted in a 47-yard run by Hall of Fame halfback George McAfee to set up a touchdown.
By the time Johnsos was ready to send down the next play, though, the Ebbets Field crowd had caught on. Just as Johnsos threw his play down from the upper deck, the irate crowd tossed their crumpled scorecards to the sideline as well. The Bears never received the second message and the clean-up crew swept it up and hauled it away the next day with all the other trash.
With so many offensive and defensive coordinators calling plays from the press box in recent history, it doesn’t seem farfetched to think this is how the coaching trend all got started.
However, like many folklores throughout the history of professional football, while there is some truth to the tale it didn’t happen quite the way it was reported. Fake news? Not quite, but after extensive research in the Ralph Wilson, Jr. Pro Football Research and Preservation Center, the truth was revealed.
As great of a story as that might have been, when asked later about Johnsos’s new coaching method, both McAfee and the Bears’ Hall of Fame quarterback Sid Luckman laughed hysterically. Luckman even explained Johnsos would send down plays, but they weren’t passed along to the quarterback at that time. According to Luckman, the team would find out about the plays during timeouts. Remember, this was still during the era when sideline coaching was illegal and even though subs could relay information to the huddle, the player he subbed for had to sit out the rest of the half.
To further dispel the myth, McAfee’s 47-yard run, which supposedly set up one of Chicago’s two touchdowns never happened. McAfee did, however, score both of the Bears touchdowns in their 14-9 victory over the Dodgers, but one came via a fumble recovery and the other a punt return.
While coaching from the stands was unusual during the 1940s, and Luke Johnsos was certainly a pioneer of press box coaching, he wasn’t the first. Actually, the Bears and Johnsos may have even gotten the idea from one of their opponents during the 1934 NFL Championship Game game against the New York Giants. The New York Times reported Columbia coach Lou Little watched the game from the stands and was seen phoning to the New York bench throughout the game. Was Little really talking to the Giants coaches or just another case of facts getting in the way of a good story?
Regardless, here inside the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Archives, among the 40 million pages of documents and six million photographic images, the truth is preserved and waiting to be discovered and revealed.
The Duluth Kelleys originally operated as an independent pro team before it joined the National Football League in 1923. Founded two years earlier by M.C. Gebert and Dewey Scanlon the franchise struggled financially during the early years. The situation was made even more difficult by its remote location in Duluth, Minn., a city situated in the northern part of the state. In addition, the team also lacked an adequate stadium to host home games.
Gebert and Scanlon remained owners until 1922 when Gebert dropped out and the team was taken over and run by the players from 1923-25. At the end of the ’25 season the team had no operating funds and was buried in debt. The players wanted out, so they sold the Duluth franchise for the bargain basement price of $1 to team manager Ole Haugsrud and Coach Scanlon who took over the financially struggling team. Haugsrud’s plan centered around the signing of his longtime friend and Stanford All-American Ernie Nevers to a pro contract as the team’s player-coach.
Nevers was the best-known athlete coming out of college in 1926 and Haugsrud thought the star’s gate appeal would assure the team’s success. Unfortunately, the American Football League, a new pro league started by Red Grange and his agent C.C. Pyle, offered Nevers a very lucrative contract. Out of friendship to Haugsrud, Nevers agreed to play for Duluth if Haugsrud matched the AFL’s offer of $15,000 and 25 percent of the gate. Haugsrud agreed. He even changed the name of the team to Ernie Nevers’ Eskimos, although the press usually referred to the team as the Duluth Eskimos.
Haugsrud, who eventually took sole control of the team, was determined to make his $1 investment pay off. Even the players decided to help by agreeing to play for just $50 a game if they lost, $60 if they tied, and $75 if they won. All three pay scales were below the average NFL wage of the day. The upside, however, was Haugsrud scheduled as many games as he could find takers, thus guaranteeing his players more paydays.
As part of his plan, Haugsrud turned the Eskimos into a traveling team. After just one game at home, the squad set out on a journey of 20-plus games and more than 17,000 miles of travel. To keep expenses down, the Eskimos rarely traveled with more than 15 players. To make it appear the squad had a bigger roster, Haugsrud often suited up as if he were a player.
Famed sportswriter Grantland Rice was so impressed by the vagabond team he named them “the Ironmen of the North.”
Just as Haugsrud predicted, Nevers was a terrific gate attraction. He also was a great player. He did most of the ball carrying and passing and all of the placekicking and punting. He even returned punts and kickoffs and played defense. During the entire season, Nevers missed only 26 minutes of playing time, when doctors ordered him to sit out a game in Milwaukee. But when the Eskimos fell behind, the future Pro Football Hall of Famer put himself back in and threw a touchdown pass to defeat the Badgers 7-6.
In 1926, the team was a financial success. However, the 1927 season was much less successful and in 1928 the team suspended operations. Finally, at the urging of the NFL, Haugsrud reluctantly agreed to fold his franchise. When he did, however, he gained a promise from the league that if it ever placed another franchise in the state of Minnesota, he would be given an opportunity to purchase it.
Decades later, in 1960, when it was announced the Minnesota Vikings would join the NFL the following season, Haugsrud reminded the league of its commitment. He purchased 10 percent of the team. Not bad, considering it all began with a $1 investment.
Many great stories have been generated by the games, players and moments that have shaped pro football’s history. However, every fan should understand — like your father’s famous fishing story — there has been some fiction mixed in with the facts throughout the years. Luckily, when the tale gets too tall, the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s collection of more than 40 million pages of documents and six million photographic images can come save the day. Through meticulous research in the Ralph Wilson, Jr. Pro Football Research and Preservation Center, historians can add the facts back into the story so the truth can be known.
Rules research can be a very tricky thing. It is very time-consuming process and subtle changes in language throughout the years can make it difficult to follow the chronology of a certain rule. This year’s “Official Playing Rules of the National Football League” book is nearly 100 pages long. While the most passionate fans of this great game might know a good portion of the guidelines, most probably don’t know the origins of why those rules were created and the characters who made the game what it is today.
For example, Rule 4, Section 5 Article 3; Injury Timeouts Prior To Two-Minute Warning of Either Half — or some might know it as the “George Halas Rule” — has a wonderful story dating back further than many know. Now that so many teams run some form of the no-huddle offense throughout a game, it seems defenses are constantly getting worn down in the fourth quarter. It’s logical to think many of those defenders, especially the big defensive tackles, might begin to think about not getting off the ground after a play. That act would thereby stop the clock because of an injury timeout, and give the defenders a chance to rest.
Some may even remember back to the 1988 AFC playoffs when Seattle Seahawks’ nose tackles Joe Nash and Ken Clarke took to faking injuries to slow down the Cincinnati Bengals’ potent no-huddle attack.
That was minor compared to what George Halas and the Chicago Bears pulled in the final two minutes of three consecutive games during the 1938 regular season. The legendary Hall of Fame player, coach and owner and his team limped their way through those games to slow down their opponents and try to pull out the victories.
During the combined six minutes of play, which took nearly an hour to complete, 27 Bears players were injured and needed help off the field. The most interesting thing about all the injuries was that considering how frequently they were occurring there always seemed to be a sub warmed up and ready to come into the ballgame.
Chicago’s tactics may have caused more of a stir had they been able to win any one of those games. As it was though, the Bears lost to Cleveland 23-21, Detroit 13-7 and Green Bay 24-17. Halas’s tactic actually backfired during the game against Green Bay when two Bears players went down on the same play. The first player was physically fine, just playing his role to stop the clock. The other player, Hall of Fame guard Danny Fortmann, was actually hurt and in need of some medical attention. Unfortunately, the sub that was on the sideline warmed up and ready to check in had already reported into the game for the first Bears player, leaving Fortmann stuck in the game forced to play injured. Well, at least until the next play when he could take his turn as the next injured Bear.
Following the season, during a 1939 league meeting, the owners discussed the tactic at length and decided that any such strategy should be outlawed, which led directly to the creation of the “Halas Rule.” The rule reads a team is allowed one extra timeout for an injury during the final two minutes of either half. Teams using any additional injury timeouts are assessed a 5-yard penalty. Additionally, if the clock was running and the score is tied or the team in possession is losing, the ball cannot be put in play for at least 10 seconds on the fourth or more timeout. The half or game can end while those 10 seconds are run off on the clock, thus, eliminating teams from limping to the finish line.
The great game of football teaches the incredible concept of “TEAM,” which at the Pro Football Hall of Fame we believe stands for “Together Everyone Achieves More.” In the sanctity of the huddle, we learn, that despite our differences, there isn’t anything we can’t work through together if we “huddle up” with respect for each other, listen to the call and execute the designed play.
The huddle is a magical and special place of trust. Gallaudet College in Washington, D.C. is credited with the formation of the football huddle in the 1890s. Gallaudet is devoted to providing higher education to both deaf and mute students. Because their opponents were often schools for the hearing-impaired, Gallaudet quarterback Paul Hubbard was concerned they were watching his hands to see his team’s intentions. Hubbard’s solution was to huddle up so their opponents couldn’t read their signs as the quarterback signaled the plays.
Gallaudet College was still developing young men and women through education and athletics when the Goodyear company came calling in the early 1900s. The Ohio State Labor Department contacted Goodyear about utilizing individuals with hearing impairments in its factory operations. The potential partnership was met with skepticism at first because many Goodyear officials believed this was creating excessive liability.
However, the Goodyear Company hired its first hearing-impaired employee in 1913. Three years later that numbered had swelled to over 100 and by 1920, because of a strong work ethic and the fact that they weren’t distracted by the loudness of the factory, the number of deaf employees working at the Goodyear factory rose to around 800. Due to the fact that so many of Goodyear’s hearing-impaired employees were competing in athletics such as basketball, baseball, track, swimming, bowling, boxing, wrestling and, of course, football, the company established the Goodyear Silent Athletic Club at 1233 East Market Street. While this was wasn’t the company’s only athletic club, it was solely dedicated to the personal and professional welfare through athletics of its deaf employees.
The football club had little success during those early years (1915-17). However, by 1918 the Goodyear Company began beefing up its football squad when it recruited recent Gallaudet College graduates Ed Foltz, Fred Moore, Charles Marshall, Scott Cuscaden and Dewey Deer. Armed with their new recruits the Wingfoot Clan, as they were known, competed at the highest level of semi-professional football at the time.
Surprisingly, the Silents weren’t just good compared to the best semi-pro teams. They competed extremely well against fully professional clubs such as the Akron Pros, the first NFL champions in 1920. Although they never beat the Pros, the games were always highly contested and the scores never wildly lopsided. Even including the losses to the Pros, the Silents outscored their opponents 1,514 to 257, compiled a 60-9-6 record and won three Ohio semi-pro championships during a span from 1917 to 1923. The Wingfoot Clan played their final game in 1927 when they defeated the Ohio School for the Deaf 18-7.
The Hall of Fame promotes the many values learned from the game like commitment, integrity, courage, respect and excellence. These values not only make someone a great football player, but are also the same values that make someone a great businessperson, soldier, or, a great parent. The silent men from the Wingfoot Clan were not defined by the differences between them and their opponents. They used collective talents alongside their determination and perseverance to yield not just a great football team, but, ultimately, helped build a great corporate asset in Northeast Ohio.
Legendary Boston Celtics guard K.C. Jones was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1989. That honor may never have occurred as he almost chose a much different career path. Jones had been drafted by the Los Angeles Rams general manager and future National Football League Commissioner Pete Rozelle in the 30th round of the 1955 NFL Draft and by the Celtics’ Head Coach Red Auerbach in 1956.
L.A. took a gamble on him basing their evaluation solely on his elite athletic ability. Following two years in the Army, Jones tried out for the Rams in 1958, because he didn’t believe he was good enough to play in the NBA. In the process, Jones may have very well changed the way football teams defend the passing game.
An All-American basketball star from the University of San Francisco, Jones was a multi-sport athlete who didn’t care what he was playing, he just loved the competition. He had been an all-city football player in high school and played two years of Army football before heading to college at USF. Seen as a long shot to even tryout with the team, it was an even a slimmer chance that he would actually make the 35-man Rams’ roster.
During the Rams’ training camp, Jones began to turn heads and made a determined bid for a job as a defensive back. The Rams defensive back coach Jack Faulkner thought Jones could have been a great defender and once said, “He had great size (6-foot-1, 200 pounds), quickness, toughness and intelligence.”
In a one-on-one drill during practice, Jones used a technique that gave the L.A. receivers fits. He lined up in front of them with no cushion between the receiver and himself. At the snap he hand-checked them off the line and did so again while running with them stride for stride. Jones was defending with the same tenacity as he did on hardwood. He maintained contact with the receivers throughout their routes, which caused them to complain this technique was against the rules.
Faulkner decided to check it out. “I went through the rule book,” he said, “and I’ll be damned if I could find anything that said it was illegal.”
As preseason opened, Jones saw some spot action against Washington and actually intercepted a pass. Two weeks later he started against the New York Giants. However, before the preseason ended and final cuts had to be made, Jones decided to give up football and return to the basketball court.
“I had an injury that would have gotten worse if I had continued to play football.” Jones said, “I called Red Auerbach and asked if there was still a spot for me on the team. Had Red said no, I would have gone back to the Rams.”
The Celtics already had waited two years for his services and were eager to get him back on the court. It proved to be a wise decision. Jones embarked on a Hall of Fame career defined mostly by his reputation as a defensive specialist, winning eight NBA titles as a player, two as an assistant coach and two as a head coach.
Jones may not have stuck in professional football, but his technique helped revolutionize the game. Two years after Jones’ tryout with the Rams, Faulkner was hired as defensive coach of the Los Angeles Chargers in the upstart American Football League where he made the “bump and run” technique famous.
“That’s where I learned it,” Faulkner stated. “I was so impressed I took it with me when I went to the AFL.”
The most recent generation of Americans are known as Generation Z, but as it pertains to sport, they might as well be known as a Generation of Specialists. It seems throughout the country, children are steered at an early age toward one sport in which they train and play the entire year. While being a specialist in any sport or profession is a good thing, there is tremendous value in being well-rounded. Competing in multiple sports throughout the year prepares your body and mind in a different way.
Minnesota Vikings quarterback Sam Bradford once said, “My favorite was always whichever sport was in season. ... By playing different sports ... you become a better all-around athlete.”
Throughout the years, many great athletes have competed in multiple sports, not only during their developmental years, but also as professionals. For example, Pro Football Hall of Fame legend Jim Thorpe was not only exceptional on the gridiron for the Canton Bulldogs and other teams, but he also played baseball for the New York Giants, Cincinnati Reds and Boston Braves — in addition to winning gold medals in the decathlon and pentathlon during the 1912 Olympic Games. More recently, Deion Sanders and Bo Jackson both excelled as players in the National Football League and Major League Baseball.
However, one man, Robert “Cal” Hubbard, holds the distinction of being the only person selected to both the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the National Baseball Hall of Fame, albeit not as a player. Hubbard grew up on a small farm near Keytesville, Mo., and loved participating in baseball and football. While he didn’t play both sports professionally, his love of competition and for upholding the integrity of sports helped pave the way for his unprecedented honors.
Hubbard, at 6-foot-2, 253 pounds, was one of the most feared linemen of his time. Cal signed with the New York Giants as a rookie despite the fact the team already was well-stocked at the tackle position. Showing his versatility, the big man moved to the end position on offense and linebacker on defense. A powerful blocker, Hubbard was credited with being one of the first men to pull out of the line and lead interference for the ball carrier. He also was the first to pursue the runner in the days when a tackle generally was rooted to his interior position.
The Giants’ defense went from good to great with the addition of Hubbard. New York posted 10 shutouts in 13 games in 1927 and allowed a mere 20 points over the entire season en route to the franchise’s first NFL title. Hubbard earned all-league honors in the two seasons he suited up for New York.
In 1929, at his request, Hubbard was traded to Green Bay Packers, where coach Earl (Curly) Lambeau was building a championship organization. Lambeau moved Hubbard back to tackle, where he helped them become the first NFL team to win three consecutive NFL championships (1929, 1930 and 1931). Hubbard enjoyed his best seasons with the Packers from 1929-1933. During that time, he earned first-team all-league acclaim as a guard in 1929 and at tackle in 1931, 1932, and 1933.
During the offseason, Hubbard stayed in Green Bay to umpire minor league baseball games. In 1936, after his final year playing pro football and eighth year as a minor league umpire, he was called up to the major leagues, where he began a new career as an umpire in the American League. He almost became more famous as a baseball umpire than he had been as a football player.
As he had been in his football career, Hubbard was dedicated and well-respected as an umpire. He had a special knack for dealing with tough situations on the field. He was extremely efficient and was an authority when it came to the rule book. He excelled for 16 seasons, during which time he umpired four World Series and three All-Star Games. Unfortunately, a hunting accident led to his premature retirement from the field. Hubbard, though, later served as assistant umpire supervisor in 1952 and as umpire supervisor from 1953 to 1969.
Hubbard was enshrined as a charter member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963. Thirteen years later, in 1976, Cal was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Through sports, Hubbard developed character that lead him to great heights. It was his commitment to the team that earned him admiration from him teammates, but it was his courage and integrity that brought respect from his opponents.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame opened its doors on Sept. 7, 1963. Since that time, only 310 of the greatest men to ever play, coach or administer the game at the professional level have been enshrined into the most exclusive club in all of sports. However, digging through the archives at the Ralph Wilson, Jr. Pro Football Research and Preservation Center reveals that only three with bronzed busts in Canton also have competed in an Olympics. The distinguished list includes the great running back Ollie Matson along with Jim Thorpe and Bob Hayes.
The commitment, integrity, courage, respect and excellence Matson, Thorpe and Hayes showcased on the gridiron were also on display when competing in track and field. All three of football greats earned Olympic medals. Thorpe won gold medals in the Decathlon and Pentathlon during the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, Sweden. Hayes took home gold in both the 100 meters and 400 relay during the 1964 games in Tokyo, Japan.
Matson captured a bronze medal in the 400 meters and a silver medal in the 1,600 relay in the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki, Finland.
One of the most versatile players to ever put on a football uniform, Matson ran for more than 3,000 yards and established himself as one of the top football players in America during his three seasons starting at the University of San Francisco. While at USF, he joined two other future Pro Football Hall of Famers, Gino Marchetti and Bob St. Clair, to form one of the best college teams “no one remembers.” The 1951 USF Dons went undefeated and untied, but unfortunately never received an invite to a bowl game. Word circulated that the Dons might be invited to play in the Orange Bowl. However, if an invitation were issued, it would be extended only to the team’s white players, excluding Matson and Burl Toler, because of the color of their skin. The Dons showed their character and remained united and committed to one another by staying home on New Year’s Day.
“We were shocked,” St. Clair said. “We didn’t even vote on such a stupid request.”
By 1952, Matson entered the NFL draft and was chosen No. 1 overall by the Chicago Cardinals. However, he had already sat out all the All-Star games that offseason in order to protect his amateur status and had no intention of reporting to the Cardinals until after the`52 Olympic Games.
His hope was to be added to the United States Olympic track squad and that goal was obtained when he was selected to participate in the 400 and the 1,600 relay. Looking back on his experience Matson explained, “At Helsinki, my main advantage was strength. The Olympics test your ability to hold up over a three-day period. By the time the final came around, I still had my strength and my 9-foot stride.”
The 400 final was a highly competitive event with two Jamaicans, George Rhoden and Herb McKenley, finishing first and second, respectively. Down the home stretch a third Jamaican, Arthur Wint, who had been the pre-Olympic favorite, was held off by Matson who captured the bronze with a time 46.8 seconds. Matson later ran the lead leg of the 1,600 relay, helping the USA team earn the silver medal by placing second behind Jamaica’s world-record performance.
The closing ceremonies were the following day, but Matson didn’t have time to stick around and enjoy his accomplishments. He boarded a flight and was on his way to Chicago for the Chicago All-Star Game where he’d be playing defense against the Los Angeles Rams’ Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch.
After Matson returned home, his focus returned to football which his Cardinals coach Joe Kuharich, who also coached him at the University of San Francisco, was glad to see.
“He is the best all-around player I’ve ever seen or coached,” Kuharich said. “Just consider his talents. No one can match his speed. Yet his power is as sharp as that of any plunging fullback. He is not Mr. Outside or Mr. Inside. He is Mr. Allsides and Mr. Everywhere. Add to this his blocking, his pass protection and terrific defensive work and you have something that’s never been duplicated in a generation.”
Matson enjoyed a spectacular rookie season with the Cardinals. Then military service interrupted his career for a year but, once back in a football uniform, Matson earned first- or second-team All-NFL honors six times and was selected to play in six Pro Bowls during 14 pro seasons. While Matson’s prowess on the football field has been highlighted with good reason throughout the years, his overall athletic abilities and the strong character he possessed allowed him to transcend the gridiron.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame’s important Mission is to “Honor the Heroes of the Game, Preserve its History, Promote its Values and Celebrates Excellence EVERYWHERE!”
The mission is at the center of everything we do and is evident in the Hall’s vast archives. The Ralph Wilson, Jr. Pro Football Research and Preservation Center houses over 40 million pages of documents, six million photographic images and 40,000 artifacts.
When we talk about “Honoring the Heroes of the Game,” we are not just referring to the 310 Pro Football Hall of Famers. We focus on ALL 27,000 men who have played the game at the professional level and the countless men and women who have coached, officiated and administered the game.
We “Honor” them by “Preserving” their legacies. Through our archives we protect a lifetime of work, dedication and sacrifice to the game. We are so passionate about this because we want to share the successes and the character of these individuals to inspire future generations of family, friends and fans.
By caring for the legacies of these men and women, we are “Preserving the History of the Game.” And by sharing their stories of commitment, integrity, courage, respect and excellence, we are promoting the values the game teaches.
When we disseminate these stories or listen to these legends speak during interviews we conduct, it becomes very clear, the character that made them great on the football field applies to life for everyone off it. This is how we “Celebrate Excellence Everywhere” at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And the excellence of each legend, on and off the field, is captured in their own personal legacy archive.
Every time a former player walks through the doors of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, whether they played one snap in an NFL regular season game or 18 seasons, they are thanked for all they have done for the game. They are brought to the Ralph Wilson, Jr. Pro Football Research and Preservation Center for a personal tour and a look at their own personal legacy archive. The players are provided the opportunity to thumb through photos, biographies, newspaper and magazine articles, scouting reports and anything and everything related to their careers. Following a trip down memory lane, we place them before a camera for an interview to capture the essence of what made them great. The emotion, sincerity and appreciation expressed during these interviews is magical. When they leave “The Most Inspiring Pace on Earth!” they walk away as family knowing they can always call Canton home.
On Oct. 21, 2016, a gentleman by the name of Jack Laraway walked into the Pro Football Hall of Fame with his son Michael. Jack was a former player with the Buffalo Bills during their inaugural season in 1960. He then won an American Football League championship with the 1961 Houston Oilers. His pro career ended after just two seasons, but the experience and the character he developed by playing football helped him throughout his entire life.
Jack and Michael walked into the Hall of Fame as football fans last year. Throughout the day, we made them friends and when they left, they were part of the Pro Football Hall of Fame family. Michael has kept in touch and continues to add files and photographs to his father’s legacy archive at the Hall. A few months after their visit, Jack was diagnosed with ALS at the age of 82. Just last week, with Jack’s health fading, the father and son returned to Canton to peruse Jack Laraway’s legacy archive once again. They shared memories, laughed, cried, and celebrated life for about three hours of which Michael described as, “some of the best he will ever spend with his dad.”
The National Football League kicked off its 98th season earlier this month and now Canton, Ohio is on the clock. Two years from now, the NFL will kick off its 100th season that will culminate with the league’s centennial celebration on Sept. 17, 2020, three years to the day from last Sunday.
Canton, and Johnson Controls Hall of Fame Village, will take center stage for the rest of the world as the Pro Football Hall of Fame celebrates all that is great about the game of football.
Around the world, people know the NFL as a $14 billion-a-year business. It’s surprising to many that the league has such humble beginnings. A variety of problems plagued the game of pro football with increasing regularity in the early 1900s. The need for a sense of order brought men such as George Halas, Ralph Hay, Jim Thorpe, Carl Storck, Stan Coffal and Art Ranney together in Canton to form the first professional football league. While many fans can tell you in detail historical and statistical information related to their favorite teams and players, there are a few things you probably did not know about the founding of the NFL.
The NFL was originally founded as the American Professional Football Association (APFA) on Sept. 17, 1920 in Canton. The first order of business at the organizational meeting held in Hay’s Hupmobile showroom, was that the Massillon team sent word, through Hay (the owner of the Canton Bulldogs), they would not be joining the association. The teams’ representatives then unanimously elected Thorpe, the Bulldogs star, as their first president. Thorpe’s name recognition helped the national appeal of the upstart league.
When news of the APFA’s founding was made public it had little fanfare. The top headline in the newspaper the next day was the Bulldogs’ signing of future Pro Football Hall of Fame tackle Wilbur “Pete” Henry, while the birth of the new pro football league was relegated to Page 3. According to newspaper reports from the surrounding areas, the goals of the new venture would be to combat players’ high salary demands, to keep players from jumping from team to team and to protect college eligibility by preventing college players from “moonlighting” with pro teams.
The Racine (Chicago) Cardinals and the Decatur Staleys are the only two teams who attended the APFA’s organizational meeting and continue to operate in the NFL today. The Cardinals are now known as the Arizona Cardinals, while the Staleys moved from Decatur to Chicago and are known today as the Chicago Bears. While the meeting minutes, which are on display at the Hall of Fame, stated a fee of $100.00 be charged for membership in the association in 1920, the Bears and Cardinals franchises were valued by Forbes this week at $2.85 billion and $2.15 billion, respectively.
Apparently, Akron Pros’ manager and first secretary and treasurer of the APFA, Ranney wasn’t even sure where the Cardinals played. The meeting minutes mistakenly listed the Racine Cardinals, who played home games at Normal Park on Chicago’s Racine Avenue, as being from the Wisconsin city of the same name. The Cardinals franchise is the oldest continuously operating organization in pro football history. They trace their lineage back to 1898 when Chris O’Brien formed the Morgan Athletic Club.
The APFA modified its name to the NFL in 1922 and there are eleven players, coaches and contributors enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame whose careers date back to before the name change. Those Hall of Famers are: Joe Carr, Guy Chamberlin, Jimmy Conzelman, John “Paddy” Driscoll, Joe Guyon, George Halas, Wilbur “Pete” Henry, Earl “Curly” Lambeau, Fritz Pollard, Jim Thorpe and George Trafton. These men are the pillars that the NFL was built upon in its earliest years. However, throughout the league’s 98-year history, over 29,000 people have played, coached or administered the game at the professional level. So, when we celebrate the NFL centennial on Sept. 17, 2020 in the birthplace of the NFL, we are honoring the legacies of each and every person who helped move this great game forward.
The 98th season of the National Football League kicked off on Thursday night when the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots hosted the Kansas City Chiefs at Gillette Stadium. Today, football will bring millions of people together to enjoy Kickoff Weekend and cheer for their favorite teams and players. Whether it’s friends and families around the television rooting for a win or outside in the backyard tossing the pigskin, one thing will become crystal clear this afternoon; Football is family!
The Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Archives, The Ralph Wilson, Jr. Pro Football Research and Preservation Center, is home to over 40 million pages of documents related to players, coaches and contributors who helped build the game to what it is today. The archives staff maintains a variety of information pertaining to the history of professional football. For example, there is a list that contains names such as Farr, Hasselbeck, Kramer, Manning, and Klecko. It even includes Hall of Fame names such as Dorsett, Shula, and Winslow. The list I reference is one that documents the 233 father-and-son combinations who have played at least one regular season snap of professional football in the NFL, the AFL of the 1960s (that merged with the NFL), as well as the short-lived All-America Football Conference (1946-49).
Potentially several more combos will be added to the list after today’s games if, and when, rookies such as Jamal Adams of the New York Jets, Hardy Nickerson, Jr. of the Cincinnati Bengals, Christian McCaffrey of the Carolina Panthers and Zach Banner of the Cleveland Browns take the field this weekend. The distinction of a father-son combination to play pro football is quite an honor and will put these family’s names into select company. However, there are just three families who provide the extremely rare historical notation of having three generations from the same family play in an NFL regular season game.
Surprisingly, the Matthews family has that distinction twice. They just may be the most prestigious lineage of professional football players ever. It all began with Clay Matthews, Sr., a two-way lineman, who played four seasons with the San Francisco 49ers from 1950, 1953-55. His sons Clay Matthews, Jr. and Bruce Matthews not only followed in their father’s footsteps with their own NFL careers, they expanded on them. Clay Jr. played linebacker for 19 seasons in the NFL from 1978-1993 with the Cleveland Browns and 1994-96 with the Atlanta Falcons. His brother Bruce also played 19 seasons in the NFL as a guard, center, and a tackle for the Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans from 1983-2001. He earned enshrinement into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2007.
The third generation of Matthews family members made their way to an NFL field when both of Clay, Jr.’s sons suited up at linebacker, Clay III for the Green Bay Packers currently and Casey for the Philadelphia Eagles from 2011 to 2014. Bruce also has two sons, Kevin, who played center for the Tennessee Titans from 2010 to 2013, and Jake, presently the starting left tackle for the Atlanta Falcons.
“I can’t say I didn’t expect it,” Clay, Sr. said about his grandsons’ careers in the NFL. “I think there’s another three generations behind them that might be playing someday.”
The NFL’s first three-generation family happened when Matt Suhey lined up at fullback for the Chicago Bears in 1980. He followed his father Steve who had played guard for the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1948-49, and his maternal grandfather Bob Higgins, an end for the Canton Bulldogs from 1920-21. Higgins’ teammates over those two seasons included Hall of Fame legends Joe Guyon, Wilbur “Pete” Henry, and Jim Thorpe.
The Pyne family became the second three-generation family and first family to have two genetic father-son relationships. The family’s first pro football player was George Pyne, Jr. who played one season with the 1931 Providence Steamroller. George Jr.’s son George Pyne III played the 1965 season with the AFL’s Boston Patriots. Finally, George III’s son Jim completed the Pyne family’s place in history during the 1995 season while playing with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In all, Jim Pyne played eight seasons with four different clubs.
Football teaches so many great life lessons. As a game for life, it instills values like commitment, integrity, courage, respect and excellence in those who play. These are ideals that every parent wants their sons and daughters to develop. There is an adage “like father like son,” that rings true in the great game of football. As the family gather to participate in the NFL’s 2017 regular season kickoff, fans will be reminded that the when it comes to developing NFL talent, “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
Northeast Ohio is still buzzing over the National Basketball Association trade that sent Kyrie Irving from the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Boston Celtics. Trades are part of the business side of any professional sports league and throughout its 97-year history the National Football League has experienced its share of blockbuster deals.
One example, the Herschel Walker trade in 1989, remains the largest trade in NFL history based on number of players or draft choices involved. Although the deal sent shockwaves through the Dallas Cowboys locker room and initially received negative criticism from the media, for Cowboys Owner and Hall of Famer Jerry Jones, the trade provided a nest-egg of talent. The deal catapulted the Cowboys’ turnaround from a 1-15 mark in 1989 to three Super Bowls in a four-year period in the early-to-mid 1990s.
While Jones rebuilt his franchise with the assets received by trading Walker, sometimes a player with elite athleticism, physical and mental toughness, and competitive drive to win is worth trading nearly an entire team to get. In 1952, California All-American and future Pro Football Hall of Famer Les Richter was drafted with the second pick overall by the New York Yanks. Two days after the draft, the team folded. Five months later, the Dallas Texans, who received the rights to Richter, dealt him to the Los Angeles Rams in exchange for 11 players. Head coach Joe Stydahar was ecstatic when owner Dan Reeves made the announcement that the team had acquired the hometown guard-linebacker.
"We regretted giving up many of the boys," said Stydahar. "I feel they will be a definite help to Dallas. However, the Rams have always regarded Richter as one of the country's greatest football players and we're sure he'll be a tremendous help to us."
Richter, after serving two years of military service in Korea as an Army lieutenant, made his Rams debut on Sept. 25, 1954 against the Baltimore Colts. A versatile athlete, he played on both the offensive and defensive units. He also connected on one field goal and four extra points as he handled the place-kicking duties during the 48-0 victory over the Colts. Richter continued his consistent play throughout the season and finished his rookie year as the team's second-leading scorer with 62 points on 38 extra points (38-38) and eight field goals (8-15). He also added an interception on defense which he returned for a 24-yard gain. For his efforts Richter was selected to the first of eight consecutive Pro Bowls (1955-1962).
The following season Richter continued to develop as a player and for the first of two consecutive years (1955-56) he led the team in scoring when he connected on 31-32 extra points and added 13 field goals (which tied the Rams all-time record at the time) for a total of 69 points. L.A. won their final three games in '55 to finish at 8-3-1 as Richter made good on his final seven field goal attempts of the regular season including a 26-yard game-winner against the Philadelphia Eagles with seven seconds remaining. His kick helped the Rams finish one spot ahead of the Chicago Bears in the Western Conference.
Perhaps his biggest growth came on the defensive side of the ball. His toughness made him a wall against the run while his intelligence and aggressiveness helped him become one of the undisputed leaders in the Rams' locker room. Richter attributed his success to desire.
"Desire is 80% of the game," he said, "Everybody has the ability or they wouldn't be out there. It is the one with the desire who gets the most out of it."
Richter's desire was unquestioned and unfortunately it translated too many of his opponents viewing his aggressiveness as outside the limits of the rules. He never let the label of "a dirty player" change the way he approached the game. He once explained that, "the football field is no place for sentiment. I'm not sure my own grandmother would be safe if she made the mistake of wearing a uniform of the wrong color."
The Rams, for nine seasons, reaped the benefit of Richter's tenacity. He was the bedrock for which the Rams were built upon. During his 112-game career he fought through a fractured cheekbone, busted ribs, a broken hand and toe, a trick knee as well as more lacerations, bruises and aches to count. Through it all he never missed a single game and played at any position the team needed filled, middle linebacker, guard, center, or placekicker. His athletic ability and strong sense of determination allowed him to do it all.
Richter was named the Rams' Most Valuable Player three times (1956, 1957 and 1960). As for the eleven players the Rams swapped for Richter, fullback Dick Hoerner and defensive back/end Tom Keane were the headline names. Hoerner, L.A.'s all-time leading rusher at the time, played just one more season in the league. Keane, a four-year veteran, reached the peak of his NFL career and amassed 32 interceptions in his four seasons after the trade. The rest struggled to make or never made an impact at all in the NFL. Billy Baggett (HB) and Joe Reid (C) ended their NFL careers following just one season with the Texans in 1952. Dick McKissack (FB) played just one game with Dallas, while Dave Anderson (RB), Jack Halliday (T), Aubrey Phillips (C), George Sims (DB), Vic Vasicek (LB) and Richard Wilkins (E) decided not to continue their NFL careers.
Even at the end of his career, Richter played with the passion of a rookie. Head coach Bob Waterfield responded to a question about whether his aging star was slowed up and hurting the defense.
"Slow up? Hurting us? Let me tell you, I hate to think how bad we would be without Richter. If I had 36 like him, I would laugh at the rest of the league!"
Throughout the nearly 100 seasons of football played in the National Football League, fans have been treated to amazing plays made by legendary players on historic teams. However, sometimes it is those plays that were not made or the players who did not make the team that provide the best stories of inspiration. Many times, the story unfolds when a player is faced with adversity that would make most people falter. When all is said and done, it is these moments that take football from being just a game to an encouraging metaphor for life. Even the best teams have bad days and the fight to persevere help build character.
On Oct. 24, 1965, two of the NFL’s most storied franchises made history during a game played in week six of the regular season. The results of the game remain a distinction that both Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers and Tom Landry’s Dallas Cowboys could have lived without. The two teams set a little-known record for the fewest passing yards gained by both teams in a game (-11 yards). To this day, it is the only time in league history that both teams finished with negative passing yardage in a game.
The newspapers reported the game as an “off day” for the two clubs. Regardless, these were two clubs were rather good football teams. That makes this type of poor offensive performance even more astonishing. Dallas was in its sixth year of existence and they were beginning to turn the corner under Landry’s supervision. Green Bay was in its seventh season with Lombardi at the helm. The legendary coaching figure had already led the Packers to three NFL championship games and two titles. The Packers had started the ‘65 season at 5-0. Meanwhile, the Cowboys won their first two games before they dropped three closely contested battles prior to their matchup with the Pack.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t the weather at County Stadium in Milwaukee, Wis. that played the role of spoiler in either team’s inept passing game. The official statistical play-by-play from the game listed the sky as clear, the temperature at 41 degrees, and the wind out of the northwest at a mere five miles per hour. What did have an effect was each team’s defense as they chased the opposing quarterbacks all over the field that day.
Hall of Fame quarterback Bart Starr completed just four of his 19 pass attempts for 42 yards. He was also sacked five times for 52 yards in losses which resulted in minus-10 yards of total net passing. Lombardi stated, “I can’t remember when Bart Starr has had a worse day moving the team.”
Cowboys quarterback Craig Morton didn’t fare much better as he hit just 10 of his 20 passes for 61 yards, threw two interceptions, lost one fumble and was sacked 10 times for 62 yards in losses. That computed to a negative one total net yard of passing.
The Cowboys outgained the Packers in total net offensive yards 192 to 63 thanks to a valiant effort by fullback Don Perkins who rushed the ball 22 times for 133 yards. Unfortunately, Perkins also had one of the Cowboys’ five costly turnovers. The Packers converted three of Dallas’ turnovers into a touchdown and two field goals for a 13-3 win which allowed them to remain undefeated.
Despite such a terrible outing by Green Bay’s offense, the fact is, as a team they were very strong. The game against the Cowboys proved to be an anomaly. The Packers went on to finish with a 10-3-1 record before they knocked off the Baltimore Colts in a Western Conference playoff game. The season ended with a victory over the Cleveland Browns in the 1965 NFL Championship Game to claim their third NFL title under Coach Lombardi.
After the Green Bay loss, Dallas rebounded and closed the season 5-3. They finished the year at 7-7 and reached the .500 mark for the first time in franchise history. The next year, the Cowboys won the Eastern Conference to earn a showdown against the Packers in the championship game. This time, with a trip to Super Bowl I on the line, the Packers and Cowboys combined for more than 500 yards through the air. That was a far cry from their previous meeting.
As Coach Lombardi once said, “Football is a great deal like life in that it teaches that work, sacrifice, perseverance, competitive drive, selflessness and respect for authority is the price that each and every one of us must pay to achieve any goal that is worthwhile.”
Football builds great character. Even the best teams are going to play games where the ball doesn’t want to bounce their way. However, some of the best lessons are learned from those crushing defeats. And the next victory is that much sweeter, because of the determination and commitment to the mission that led the way.
The 2017 National Football League season kicks off Thursday when the Dallas Cowboys host the Arizona Cardinals in the annual Hall of Fame Game at the spectacular new Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium. Preseason games afford a great opportunity for players to showcase their talents and, for many, to hopefully earn a roster spot. Each training camp ends with the tough task of 32 NFL clubs needing to perform the final cuts and trim to the required 53-man roster for the regular season.
Unfortunately, this means many NFL hopefuls will be released from their current teams. Some players will be placed on the team’s practice squad, while others will find a home with another club.
It’s a very difficult process for a lot of usually tough-minded and resilient men. For many it’s the first time in their football careers they will feel the failure of being cut from a team. Every situation is different and emotions vary from player to player. One thing remaining the same, year after year, is when cut down day comes, rookies and veterans alike hope to steer clear of “The Turk.”
Most rookies come into their first NFL training camp and have no idea who “The Turk” is or what he does. But by the end of the summer, all players quickly learned who he is and to avoid him at all costs.
“The Turk” is the NFL’s version of the “Grim Reaper.” He is the individual assigned by the team to track down players and explain to them they are being released. “Coach wants to see you, and make sure you bring your playbook” are the famous last words no player wants to hear come from “The Turk.”
In years past, he was known as “Squeaky Shoes.” Players said they could hear his shoes squeaking down the halls of the dormitories during training camp as he made his way from room to room cutting players who didn’t make the final roster. It wasn’t until the 1950s, in Los Angeles, the name “Turk” became synonymous with the man given the distasteful duty of releasing players.
Don Paul, a former linebacker with the Los Angeles Rams from 1948-1955, reportedly came up with the name. His coach, Clark Shaughnessy, had a specific method of releasing players. He would send someone in the organization to wake the player in the middle of the night.
That way the individual would be less apt to get angry since he still would be trying to wake up. The player would be told to grab all his stuff because the coach wanted to see him.
The player would then have an exit interview with the coach, turn in his playbook and be gone by breakfast. Shaughnessy’s method made everyone uncomfortable, which one can only assume was part of the reason he used this method. From rookies to seasoned veterans, nobody felt safe. There was no time to say goodbye, simply out of sight and out of mind. Don began proclaiming “The Turk strikes at night.” The story began floating around the league. Soon everyone was on alert to beware of “The Turk” who lurks in the halls of the teams’ facilities waiting to utter those dreaded words, “Coach wants to see you ... and bring your playbook.”
For obvious reasons, it’s a hard thing for NFL teams to do. Nobody likes the process and clubs are very aware to try and make the task as professional and personal as they can. But it’s a necessary part of any NFL season. Unfortunately, all the players in camp are competing for just 53 spots and something must give. So, whether it’s a late-night knock at the door, an early morning greeting on the way to the locker room after breakfast or being pulled from the weight room, the time eventually comes for many around the NFL. It’s a numbers game that is just part of the competition that makes football so great.
It’s that competitive nature that helps instill values such as commitment, perseverance and courage which makes everyone that much better. So, when someone says, “preseason games are meaningless,” it’s important to understand training camps and preseason games provide NFL players a time for not only professional but personal growth as well. And whenever “The Turk” comes calling, the game may be left behind for an individual, but values football teaches will have prepared these men for their own game for life.
As the dog days of summer approach, the thoughts of fall begin to invade the hot July and August air once again. Every NFL club shares a feeling of hope as the offseason work comes to completion. Each has a renewed sense of confidence as training camps begin over the next few weeks.
The ultimate goal is a Super Bowl championship. The path to that goal begins at training camp.
In 1926, the New York Giants became the first team to take their training camp on the road when they spent two weeks in Lake Ariel, Pennsylvania. Two decades later, future Hall of Famer Earl “Curly” Lambeau of the Green Bay Packers expanded on that idea when, in 1946, he convinced the team’s executive committee to purchase the Rockwood Lodge.
The 40-room stone retreat boasted 55-acres of land on the Green Bay peninsula about 15 miles north of the city and was bought for a mere $25,000. An additional $8,000 was spent on renovations to the main building and constructing prefab housing intended for married players and their families. The Rockwood Lodge became the NFL’s most elaborate franchise headquarter and team training facility.
It may be commonplace today, but as William Fay of the Chicago Tribune Press Service explained on Aug. 14, 1946; “There’s never been anything quite like this Packers training camp at Rockwood Lodge.” Fay added, “It’s downright domestic.”
To other NFL franchises, Lambeau’s idea was visionary, and that’s exactly how he portrayed it to the media. “The Packers bought Rockwood recently to provide an all-season home for the players and their families. We have two chefs. It’s a community training table. We have no housing troubles. We’ve eliminated all disciplinary and policy problems. The players will always be available for practice and meetings. Frankly, I don’t believe our setup can be matched by any professional or college team in the country.”
Rockwood Lodge offered the Packers a great location to build character and camaraderie, promoting a family atmosphere with community meals and leisure activities during off hours. Unfortunately, the reality wasn’t as rosy as the picture was painted. Many looked at the new facility as a way for Lambeau to exert more control over the team, keeping the club from the prying eyes of the Packers executives. Fans, who were used to socializing with players downtown, struggled to find that personal connection with the team. However, the team’s biggest issue laid more with the talent on the club and physical conditioning of the players due to the practice field.
The practice fields were placed in areas with only a thin layer of topsoil and grass above layers upon layers of hard limestone. By the middle of camp, players complained of weary-legs, shin-splints and other nagging injuries. Players began referring to the field as the “shin-splint special” or simply “The Rock.” It got so bad the team actually began busing back to Green Bay for practices as the season approached.
Many of the issues surrounding Rockwood may have been forgotten had the Packers come out and earned a Western Division title in 1946. But after a disappointing 30-7 home-opening loss to the Chicago Bears on Sept. 29, 1946, Lambeau’s Packers never recovered and finished third in the division that season and again in 1947.
In 1948 and ’49, the team sunk even lower and finished with the two worst records in franchise history at 3-9 and 2-10 respectively. Lambeau’s final chapter with the Packers began on Jan. 25, 1950 in a stunning event which seemed to prophesize the Packers legend’s fate. A rare January thunderstorm with lightning, high winds and sleet rolled through the Green Bay peninsula. A fire stared at the Rockwood Lodge and in a matter of hours, burned the Packers’ training facility to the ground. Five days later with his vision destroyed, Lambeau submitted his resignation more than 30 years after he founded the franchise.
Now, almost seven decades later, NFL clubs are not only embracing Lambeau’s idea, they are expanding on it to create some of the most magnificent developments in the country. Franchises are investing in communities to build huge complexes featuring not only team headquarters and training facilities, but the stadiums, halls of fame, retail shops, restaurants and hotels that enhance the fans experience. These investments are creating entire villages centered around the great game of football.
The Detroit Lions struggled for years to find an elite quarterback to lead the franchise like Hall of Famer Bobby Layne did during the 1950s. Football fans everywhere know what a talented signal caller can do for the fortunes of their favorite team. In the 2009 NFL Draft, the Lions selected Mathew Stafford first overall and have watched him develop into a legitimate franchise quarterback. However, if the Lions want to win their first NFL Championship since 1957, they may want to look toward the defensive side of the ball and call for the resurrection of the Lions’ record-setting 1934 defense.
As the old saying goes “defense wins championships,” and during the 1934 season the Lions looked to be well on their way to bringing their first-ever NFL championship to the city of Detroit. The defense put the team in great position by astonishly holding their first seven opponents scoreless.
The original “No Name Defense,” besides Hall of Fame quarterback Earl “Dutch” Clark, who also played safety as the last line of defense in Detroit’s 6-2-2-1 formation, the rest of the defenders were average in both size and talent. The Lions apparently didn’t run a fancy scheme either, just about everyone in the league played the same basic defense that season. The Lions just played it better than anyone else at that time.
By 1934, pro football’s revolution had begun and the game had emerged from the dark ages of three yards and a cloud of dust. Through my research, a few numbers illustrated the dominance of the Lions’ defense during their seven-game shutout streak. Detroit didn’t allow an opponent inside the 20-yard line, and gave up a total of 835 yards which is an average of just 119 yards per game, low even by the standards of that era.
The shutouts began on September 23 with a 9-0 victory against the defending Eastern Division and eventual NFL Champion New York Giants. They continued through September and all of October as the Lions defeated the Chicago Cardinals 6-0, Green Bay Packers 3-0, Philadelphia Eagles 10-0, Boston Redskins 24-0, Brooklyn Dodgers 28-0 and the Cincinnati Reds 38-0 (yes, those last two opponents were NFL teams not baseball clubs).
The streak finally ended on November 4 against the Pittsburgh Pirates (later renamed Steelers) on somewhat of a fluke play. The Pirates tried to catch the Lions off guard by faking a punt in the first quarter. Harp Vaughan took the snap and threw a pass to Muggsy Skladany. Dutch Clark was defending the play and in great position to intercept the pass, unfortunately for the Lions, Clark was unable to make the play resulting in a 62-yard touchdown pass, catch and run. Regardless, the Lions won the game 40-7. The Pirates only managed that one score, and Clark made amends for his missed open field play, by leading the Lions to a then-NFL team record 426 yards rushing.
At the time, the shutout streak garnered a lot of attention. Many felt the Lions were a lock to finish the season undefeated and take home their first NFL championship, but that was not the case. After winning their first 10 games, they finished with three straight losses, one to the Packers and two to the Chicago Bears, by a total of nine points. The Bears finished the ‘34 season undefeated at 13-0, won the Western Division and left the Detroit Lions at home disappointed while they played for the NFL championship. The Giants would go on to defeat the Bears 30-13.
The following season, despite the Lions finishing just 7-3-2 and their defense not creating nearly as many headlines, the team regrouped from their collapse the year before and brought Detroit its first NFL title with a 26-7 victory over the Giants. The Lions of 1935 were not defined by the disappointment of the previous season. They showed tremendous perseverance through adversity to realize their championship aspirations. Remember, the character developed through the struggles of defeat will ultimately open the doors of success if one continues to compete.
Change was sweeping the streets of America as the 1950s drew to conclusion. The morality of our society was at a tipping point. Racial tension was high, the Cold War was escalating and many Americans were on edge.
It was at this time that a relatively unknown New York Giants’ offensive coordinator by the name of Vince Lombardi was hired to become the head coach and general manager of the Green Bay Packers. Imagine a man from Brooklyn, New York, who was already coaching his hometown football team, agreeing to coach a franchise in the National Football League’s smallest market.
Over the next nine years, as the leader of the Packers, Lombardi not only restored pride, passion and integrity to his football team, but to the community as well. During his tenure, Coach Lombardi taught America what the values of commitment, integrity, courage, respect and excellence could ultimately accomplish. In doing so, he helped propel the NFL into its golden era and establish the foundation of professionalism we see in the game today.
The legend of Lombardi began quietly on January 28, 1959. He took over a Green Bay franchise that had fallen on hard times and was coming off a 1-10-1 season. Lombardi ultimately achieved unparalleled success during time in Green Bay and restored the tradition of “Titletown, U.S.A.” He amassed an 89-29-4 regular season record, a 9-1 postseason record, three NFL championships and two Super Bowl victories.
Lombardi’s focus that first season was not on wins and losses nor was it on championships. Lombardi’s philosophy was simple. His lessons went further than the field, and that is why the legacy of his legend is living on today.
Lombardi left an impression on everyone he met from the football field to the conference room to American’s living rooms. During practice sessions, Lombardi could be seen teaching football fundamentals, while simultaneously preaching to his players the importance of dedication, love, passion and pride. Lombardi built his teams on the premise of selflessness and unity. He always surrounded himself with the right kind of people. He wanted high-spirited, disciplined, talented people willing to pay the price to succeed. Those were Lombardi’s kind of people. His teams were fueled by heart power. He loved his players, and in return, his players loved him.
Through raw human emotion Lombardi communicated to his players. Good or bad he never held back. He learned to use emotion to create the desired effect. He motivated, he led, and he taught through his passion, never concerning himself with what others thought about him. He was his own toughest critic, remaining disciplined and focused making sure to never let himself fail. He built character through action, teaching his players by example, and instilling confidence in everyone he met. Lombardi taught honesty. He never tried to emulate anybody else. He demanded players to find their own strengths and utilize them to keep moving forward at all times. Lombardi’s leadership did not rest on ability, his leadership was a combination of intangibles, it was a culmination of commitment, loyalty, pride, and discipline held together with relentless emotions. That is leadership and that is the character of Vince Lombardi, his work never ended because his job was more than coaching football it was teaching life lessons.
Lombardi not only had a tremendous influence on the game of football, but more important was his impact on the lives of others. Lombardi once said, “After the cheers have died down and the stadium is empty, after the headlines have been written, and after you are back in the quiet of your room and the championship ring has been placed on the dresser and all the pomp and fanfare have faded, the enduring thing that is left is the dedication to doing with our lives the very best we can to make the world a better place in which to live." These words should ring true not only for the players and coaches directly influenced by Lombardi on the football field but with everyone everywhere.
Football and golf don’t seem to have a whole lot in common on the surface. Football is a team sport played with high energy and full contact, while golf is mainly an individual sport played at a slow focused pace where the only contact is between your club and the ball. For most National Football League players, perhaps it’s these differences that draw them to the links. It allows them to unwind while still fueling their competitive fires.
There are a few, like Tony Romo the recently retired quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys, who every now and again try their stroke on the Pro Tour. Romo, you might know, is an avid player who carries a 0.3 handicap, recently made news by attempting to qualify for the U.S. Open. Unfortunately, he shot a 3-over 75 in an 18-hole local qualifier at Split Rail Links & Golf Club in Aledo, Texas and fell just a few shots short.
Nearly sixty years ago, another prominent quarterback, John Brodie, was invited to the play the 1960 Yorba Linda (California) PGA Tour Open Invitational. Success in this tournament for Brodie meant the NFL could have lost one of its finest quarterbacks and surely altered the league’s history books.
When Brodie first arrived on the campus of Stanford University, he actually planned to concentrate on baseball and basketball, the sports he earned all-city honors in at Oakland Tech High School across the bay. Unfortunately, Brodie suffered a separated shoulder in a freshman basketball game and missed most of the hoops season as well as the upcoming baseball season. A constant competitor, Brodie turned to football the next fall and immediately got the attention of head coach Chuck Taylor. The next Spring football when football began Taylor couldn’t find his starting quarterback anywhere. What Taylor didn’t know then was that Brodie aspired to play golf and was busy trying out for the Cardinal golf team.
Brodie secured a spot on the golf team as well and went on to compete in two NCAA Golf Championships for Stanford in between football seasons. On the gridiron, Brodie played three seasons of college football (1954-56) and during his senior year led the nation in pass completions (139), completion percentage (.579), passing yards (1,633) and passing touchdowns (12).
The All-American quarterback was selected third overall in the 1957 NFL Draft by his hometown San Francisco 49ers. In his first three seasons in San Francisco, Brodie backed up future Hall of Fame quarterback Y.A. Tittle. During that stretch, Brodie spent his offseason competing on the golf course. He shot an opening-round 65 at the San Francisco Open, won the Northern California Amateur golf tournament in 1958 and qualified for the U.S. Open in 1959.
In 1960, Brodie was going into his fourth year as the 49ers quarterback-in-training. To add to the frustration of not starting, Head Coach Howard “Red” Hickey started to tinker with a shotgun offense. Brodie wanted nothing to do with that style of offense since the quarterbacks who ran it generally took a pounding. Life as a golfer on the Pro Tour started to sound pretty sweet.
In just his 10th pro tournament, Brodie shot a second-round low of 67, five strokes under par at Yorba Linda. At that point, he trailed the leader and eventual champion Jerry Barber by only four strokes while leading the legendary Arnold Palmer by two shots. As they say, it’s not where you start but how you finish.
On the final day, still in contention, John stared down the par-5 15th fairway. He needed to be aggressive if he had any chance to overtake the leader. He gambled and tried to reach the green in two. Instead, the shot came up short and the ball landed in a pond. Ultimately, Brodie recorded a double-bogey on the hole and finished the tournament at even par, ten strokes behind Barber.
“I always wonder what would have happened if I had knocked that ball on the green and holed it and won the tournament.” Brodie stated years later. Maybe he would have retired from pro football and embarked on a solid pro golf career. However, in 1961 the 49ers traded Tittle to the New York Giants and Brodie became the team’s starting quarterback. He decided to put golf on the backburner and finished his 17-year career with the 49ers much stronger than it began. Brodie threw for more than 30,000 yards and 214 touchdowns and left pro football as one of the greatest quarterbacks the 49ers franchise and the NFL had ever seen.
There is no doubt about it; professional football is a physical game. Injuries happen, fractures, stitches, bumps and bruises by the hundreds. Some players can tough it out and produce through the pain. Other times, the production level drops and the injured player is relegated to the sidelines to watch.
Throughout the 1960s, two professional football leagues (the American Football League and the National Football League) were rivals competing against one another for players and fans. The two leagues ultimately merged in 1970, but in the back-to-back seasons of 1965 and 1966 each league showcased the toughness of its star players. The NFL’s Larry Wilson and the AFL’s Lance Alworth, both members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, accomplished amazing production with two broken hands (well...sort of). It’s these types of performances that elevate a player’s status from great to legendary and turn his story into folklore.
Wilson, a safety, who perfected the safety blitz and terrorized opposing quarterbacks by driving them into the ground. The legend of his toughness grew in 1965, when he took the field for the St. Louis Cardinals during a midseason match-up against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Wilson was injured a week earlier in a rough game against the New York Giants. His first injury occurred early in the game when he came up from his secondary spot to make a tackle. In the collision, he landed on his right hand. Wilson explained, “I landed on the finger. For a split second, all my weight was on it. And I knew something wasn’t right.” At halftime, he taped it up and continued to play. During the second half, Wilson once again barreled up to make a tackle and this time his left hand was smashed between the helmets of two players in the pileup. After the game, the team trainer came up to Larry to look at his finger. “Never mind the finger,” Wilson said, “You better look at this hand.” The X-rays showed a fracture across the back of his left hand, and another fracture of his right middle finger.
Regardless of the pain, Wilson ignored the advice of team doctors not to take the field. With both hands in casts and his fingertips barely showing, he not only started the game, but practiced the entire week leading up to it like normal. He couldn’t button his shirts or cut his food all week, but on game day the trainer put a foam rubber pad on each of his casts and Wilson went out to play. During the game, he proved that a banged-up Larry Wilson is better than most healthy players. He not only performed his duties but made a game-changing play when he tipped a pass from quarterback Bill Nelsen to himself and as he cradled the intercepted ball into his body, he returned it 35 yards which set up the go-ahead touchdown. To Wilson, pain was just a part of the game. He stated, “If you don’t get hurt, you haven’t played.”
Wilson remained in the lineup one more week and then opted for surgery on the finger of his right hand as the bone was sliding down to the palm and getting worse. Wilson sat out four games, but talked his way back into the lineup for the season finale against the Eastern Division Champion Cleveland Browns. He had healed enough to play and wore only bulky pads around each hand. The slight freedom must have helped as he intercepted three of quarterback Frank Ryan’s passes and returned one of them for a then team record 96-yard touchdown.
The next year Alworth, of the AFL’s San Diego Chargers, followed Wilson with an “I see yours and raise you one” type of season in 1966. As a receiver, Alworth made his living catching footballs. Unfortunately, two preseason injuries severely limited his ability to do that without immense pain. Whenever the media asked him how he felt in the early part of ‘66, “fine” was the simple answer he gave. Most people didn’t know Alworth was hurting. Even fewer people knew what he was battling.
The fleet-footed receiver had chipped a bone in his right hand against the Oakland Raiders during Week Four of the preseason. The very next week against the Kansas City Chiefs, although he only played sparingly, his quarterback John Hadl left a ball short on a “go” route and as Alworth jumped to grab the ball out of the air he ran into the defender and fell on his left wrist. X-rays after the game revealed a fracture.
Most receivers would have packed it in at that point. Opting for a cast on both hands and wrists and missed at least half of the season. Not Alworth, he preferred a 5-inch leather brace and some tape. As he explained, “The cast would have immobilized the hand for eight weeks. This way I play week to week, hoping it heals in place.”
Neither the Chargers nor Alworth talked about the injuries till midway through the season for fear that other teams may try to aggravate the injuries or play a different style of defense than they would usually play against San Diego’s potent passing attack. Instead Alworth kept quiet and kept producing. He compiled eight 100-yard receiving games, five games scoring multiple receiving touchdowns and an astounding 18.9 average per reception.
When the season ended, Alworth had not only earned his first AFL receiving title with 73 receptions, 1,383 yards and 13 touchdowns, but also changed the perception many people had about the 6-0, 184-pound flanker’s toughness. Fewer and fewer people referred to him as “Bambi” as they did in his younger days for the smooth and graceful way he moved in and out of breaks. Instead he earned a new nickname that coincided with his legendary toughness the “Mean Gnat.”
The 2017 National Football League Draft begins on Thursday night and for each club it is an opportunity to infuse their roster with young talent. Fans need to understand that these young men are far from being finished products both on and off the field. In some cases, players drafted this year might not be certain that professional football is their calling. Such was the case surrounding Gold Jacket Curtis Martin on his draft day in 1995.
Raised in one of the roughest sections of Pittsburgh, Martin had to rise above the difficulties of a traumatic and challenging upbringing to fulfill a dream that many of his friends and family would never get the opportunity to achieve.
“I know God saved me so many times,” Martin explained about his childhood. “I don’t want to make it sound like Vietnam or anything, but I have seen a lot of people killed. A lot of my friends and family members have been killed. I just thank God I didn’t end up that way.”
Martin didn’t suit up to play organized football until his senior year at Allderdice High School. He exploded onto the scene and earned All-State honors, was named City League Player of the Year and had colleges knocking on his door to recruit him. Martin realized at that point not to put limits on where his talent could take him.
Though Martin had options, he decided to stay close to home and play running back for the University of Pittsburgh. He seemed to be on a fast track to the NFL following two seasons of steady improvement with the Panthers. Martin gained national attention with a breakout junior campaign rushing for 1,075 yards and scoring eight total touchdowns.
Amid whispers of Martin being a Heisman Trophy candidate he returned for his senior season. Those whispers became screams following his 251-yard rushing performance to open the season against the University of Texas. Unfortunately, the hype fell silent when Martin severely sprained his ankle ending his senior year in just the second game of the season.
Martin had a decision to make, heed the advice of Pitt head coach Johnny Majors and apply for a fifth year of college eligibility or became eligible for the 1995 NFL Draft. He bet on his talent and decided to see where it could take him. Determined to prove he was healthy, Martin performed well during postseason college all-star games and pre-draft workouts.
The 5-11, 207-pound running caught the attention of New England Patriots and Hall of Fame head coach Bill Parcells, who likened Martin to a back, Joe Morris, who he had with the New York Giants. With the 74th pick overall (a third-round selection acquired from the Philadelphia Eagles) Parcells made Martin the eighth running back off the board. The media criticized the pick and worried that durability would be an issue for Martin.
However, following the selection, Martin was more concerned with his love for the game than making the Patriots roster. He turned to his friends and family and said, “I just don’t want to play football. I don’t like it enough.” Luckily for football fans everywhere, Martin’s mentor, Pastor Leroy Joseph, explained to him that maybe football was just the vehicle he had been blessed with to reach other people. From that moment on, Martin committed himself to the game. “I was more determined, more focused…worked hard…because I always viewed football as my vehicle to reach people and impact their lives in a positive way.”
Martin’s impact on the field was immediate. He ran 30 yards on his first NFL carry, scored the game-winning touchdown and became the first Patriots player to rush for 100 yards in his pro debut. Martin amassed nine 100-yard games that season and finished the year as the AFC’s leading rusher with 1,487 yards and scored 14 touchdowns. He was named the NFL’s Rookie of the Year, All-AFC and voted to his first of five Pro Bowls. Martin played in a total of 168 games during his 11-year career, three in New England and eight with the New York Jets, and led his team in rushing in each of those seasons.
While Martin ran his way to Canton on the field, the values of commitment, integrity, courage, respect and excellence he developed by playing the game, have helped him impact people’s lives off it. And that is what will define his legacy as a man for all time.
Every person whose name is called in this year’s NFL draft is playing the game for different reasons. Individually, each has their own set of personal goals and aspirations. However, if they are willing to sacrifice a little of themselves for the greater good of the team, while giving themselves completely to the Game. The Game will give them back the tools to build a legacy that has no limits.
Throughout the years, pro football has become one of the most marketable sports in the world. Advertising and promotions are a large source of revenue for the National Football League and its 32 clubs. That being said, it makes perfect sense that when a franchise wants to honor a great longtime player or coach for their services, that a local company steps up and sponsors the celebration.
Commonplace in the 1940s, ‘50s and early ‘60s was for local auto dealers to provide cars to star players. The football greats would be showered with a variety of gifts as well as have their pictures splashed across the game’s program cover. For three Hall of Famers – Sammy Baugh, Jack Butler and Alphonse “Tuffy” Leemans – being honored with their own special day had both memorable highlights and a few subsequent low points to follow.
“Sammy Baugh Day” occurred on November 23, 1947 when the Washington Touchdown Club honored the legendary quarterback with a brand new 1948 Packard station wagon during a ceremony before the Washington Redskins game against the Chicago Cardinals at Griffith Stadium. "Slingin’ Sammy accepted the $3,000 gift and then proceeded to put on a performance that justified the pre-game tribute. He completed 25 of 33 passes for 355 yards, tossed a record-tying six touchdown passes and led his team to a commanding 45-21 victory during that unforgettable day.
Four days later, Baugh was driving his shiny new vehicle home from a celebrity appearance in Philadelphia. Baugh crashed into a culvert near College Park, Maryland when he tried to avoid a car that had swerved into his lane. Baugh was shaken up and suffered a cut on his forehead and knee, but was otherwise uninjured and didn’t miss any action on the football field. His car didn’t fare as well when it suffered significant damages to both passenger side doors and the rear fender that required several hundred dollars in repairs.
Although Baugh wrecked the automobile he was given, he at least got to drive away in his gift. The same wasn’t true for Butler during his final season with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Class of 2012 Hall of Fame great was honored with a “Jack Butler Day” by a local promoter during a game against the New York Giants on October 25, 1959 at Forbes Field. Butler was presented with a car at halftime but since he had a second half to play, the promoter took the keys and the car back for safe keeping.
Coming out of the locker room the Steelers trailed 14-10, but surged to within one point on a third quarter field goal by Hall of Famer Bobby Layne. The game, however, was put on ice by another Hall of Famer when Giants’ linebacker Sam Huff recovered a Pittsburgh fumble in the fourth quarter and returned it for the game-winning score. As if losing wasn’t bad enough for Butler, imagine his shock when after the game he learned that there were no keys or car waiting for him to drive home. The car presentation at halftime had been all for show and he never saw the car again.
For Leemans things had started well on “Tuffy Leemans Day.” A crowd of 55,051 showed up to honor the halfback/fullback at the Polo Grounds in New York as his Giants took on the crosstown rival Brooklyn Dodgers on December 7, 1941. The Giants’ star was presented with a $1,500 defense bond, a silver tray and a watch during a 10-minute presentation before kickoff. “Tuffy” then delivered a sincere speech in which he thanked all the fans in attendance, everyone who presented him with gifts, and praised his teammates and all associated with the Giants organization.
The celebration ended and things went downhill once the game began. The Dodgers handed the Giants a one-sided 21-7 defeat and Leemans only managed to gain a meager 18 yards rushing. To taint “Tuffy Leemans Day” further it was noticeable throughout the game that the stadium’s public address announcer was continually paging military personnel to contact their offices. Immediately following the game there was a mad scramble to get all men from the Army and Navy out of the stadium and report to their stations. It was at that point that everyone at the venue was made aware that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States was under attack. Unfortunately for Leemans his “day” wasn’t only ruined on the field but is forever marred by being associated with one of the darkest days in U.S. history.
The All-America Football Conference (AAFC) existed for only four seasons from 1946-49, but its impact on the professional football landscape was undeniable. Three teams – the Baltimore Colts, Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers – joined the National Football League when the AAFC disbanded following the ‘49 season. That Colts franchise folded after one year in the NFL, leaving the Browns and 49ers as the only current franchises with roots to the defunct league. In all, 15 members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame had an affiliation with the rival AAFC as either a player or a coach.
Two quarterbacks, George Blanda and Y.A. Tittle, found themselves in competition for the same starting job with Baltimore as the franchise transitioned to the NFL. Tittle was the incumbent and had put together two solid seasons with the Colts in the AAFC. He threw for 2,522 yards and 16 touchdowns in 1948 to earn AAFC Rookie of the Year honors. One season later he aired it out for 2,209 yards and 14 TDs. Blanda, a draft pick of the Chicago Bears in 1949, was traded to the Colts on September 5, 1950 along with four other players for guard Dick Barwegan and the rights to retired tackle Dub Garrett (who was lured out of retirement to play three games for Chicago).
When Blanda arrived he joined the quarterback competition with Tittle and rookie Adrian Burk out of Baylor. Rumors swirled throughout the preseason that the Colts were going to release Tittle. But, in somewhat of a surprise move, Colts head coach Clem Crowe announced on September 20, 1950 that he was releasing Blanda instead.
“We can’t afford to keep three offensive quarterbacks,” said Crowe. “It’s a passing game, this professional football and Tittle can throw the ball as well as anybody in the business.”
Blanda wasn’t out of work for long as the Bears jumped in and purchased his rights from Baltimore before he was released. Blanda proceeded to play professional football for 26 seasons and retired just shy of his 49th birthday. In all, Blanda passed for 26,920 yards and 236 touchdowns, and scored a then-record 2,002 points. He was immortalized in the Pro Football Hall of Fame with his induction in 1981.
That’s not to say Tittle was the wrong choice though. Y.A. (short for Yelberton Abraham) played 14 more seasons with the 49ers and the New York Giants after the Baltimore franchise folded. In all, he totaled 33,070 yards and 242 touchdowns during his pro football career. Tittle was also named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player in three straight seasons (1961-63) and was enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971.
A football adage states, “if you think you have two starting quarterbacks on your team then you probably don’t have any.” As history proved, in the Colts’ case this saying didn’t ring true. They not only had two quality starting quarterbacks to choose from on their roster but also unknowingly had two future Hall of Fame passers on their roster.
Bobby Mitchell, as one of the most versatile offensive players ever to step onto a football field, was a head coach’s dream come true. Mitchell’s 11-year professional football career was defined by his 14,078 total net yards. The 6-0, 190-pounder possessed lightning quickness and always ready to strike. Speed, along with his ability to make tacklers miss, made him a scoring threat every time he touched the ball. He had the ability to score from anywhere on the field, which was exemplified by his 91 career touchdowns (65 receiving, 18 rushing, 3 punt returns, and 5 kickoffs returns).
Mitchell’s excellence on the field is what earned him election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But, it was the character he learned from the game and displayed through the turbulent times of the 1960s that truly measured the success of his life.
Mitchell began his pro career as a halfback for the Cleveland Browns in 1958. Sharing the same backfield with Hall of Fame fullback Jim Brown, Mitchell’s elusiveness and speed made him a great change of pace from the bruising running style of Brown. A trade to the Washington Redskins, in 1962, changed Mitchell’s life forever. Sixteen seasons after Hall of Famers Bill Willis and Marion Motley reintegrated pro football with the Browns, in 1946, the Redskins and owner George Preston Marshall, under pressure from the league and the United States government became the last professional football team to integrate their roster. Mitchell was now in the spotlight of nation’s capital during a time of civil and social change. His character was tested daily, and over the next two years, Mitchell not only changed positions (from halfback to flanker), but also changed his lifestyle.
His ability to handle the daunting task of integrating an all-white organization, as well as find his place within a community full of turmoil defined his character. Washington D.C. was the hotbed of the civil rights movement during the 1960s. Mitchell’s high profile status thrust him to the top of the political and social scene. He would never be looked at as just a great athlete again. Mitchell’s courage and integrity showed through and he rose to the occasion. Soon after his arrival, Senator Bobby Kennedy reached out to Washington’s new star and the two became extremely close friends. He and Kennedy became the political one-two punch, that Mitchell and Brown had been on the field in his early years in Cleveland. Kennedy often called upon his friend to speak at political and social events throughout the country. Mitchell became a very important figure to our country during a time of great divide. His commitment, passion, and undeniable mental toughness became a model for the civil rights movement and its cause.
On the field, Mitchell’s move from halfback to flanker proved successful. In 1962, Mitchell led the league in receptions (72), and receiving yards (1,384). The following season Mitchell caught 69 passes for a league-leading 1,436 yards. That year he also tied an NFL-record against his former team when he caught a pass from quarterback George Izo and sprinted 99-yards for a touchdown. The next four seasons saw more of the same from the Redskins’ All-Pro flanker as continued to put up impressive numbers until his retirement in 1969. Mitchell retired from the NFL with an impressive 521 catches for 7,953 receiving yards; 2,735 rushing yards; totaled 3,389 punt and kickoff return yards; and scored 546 points.
Immediately following his retirement from the playing field, Mitchell continued to break barriers as he pursued his dream of becoming the first African American general manager. Washington hired him in 1970 as a personnel scout under first-year head coach Vince Lombardi. While there were many times Mitchell thought about walking away, it was Lombardi who encouraged him to persevere. After 34 years in the Redskins’ front office, Mitchell retired in 2003 with the title of assistant general manager. Although Mitchell never reached his end goal, like Coach Lombardi always said, “perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.” I’d say Mitchell was certainly excellent on and off the field.
Professional football is a game that represents many great values such as commitment, integrity, courage, respect and excellence that transcend the playing field and apply to everyone in life.
These lessons are taught through the rigors of athletic competition. I, undoubtedly, believe that the game of football is the best metaphor for life than any other sport. That’s because of its unique nature of needing so many different players relying on one another on each and every play. Certainly, all sports teach us great lessons that can make us stronger.
This story begins with basketball since the season is kicking into high gear. “March Madness” is upon us and the National Basketball Association’s postseason is quickly approaching.
Members of the media have openly wondered for years whether Cleveland Cavaliers small forward LeBron James, or any other NBA star for that matter, could play professional football at the highest level, the National Football League. Such discussion conjures memories of former Boston Celtics great John Havlicek.
After playing basketball, baseball and football at Bridgeport (Ohio) High School, the All-American enrolled at The Ohio State University. He focused solely on playing basketball following the completion of his freshman year. By the time he left Columbus, Ohio, he had helped lead the Buckeyes to a national championship in 1960 and a four-year record of 78 wins againts a mere six losses. The Celtics selected him in the first round of the NBA draft following graduation.
That marked the second time he had been drafted by a professional sports franchise. The prior December, during his senior season on the court, Havlicek was informed that he had been picked by the Cleveland Browns in the seventh round, 95th player overall, of the 1962 NFL Draft. Hall of Fame Coach Paul Brown saw great potential in him as an NFL receiver, even though he had not played a down of football since he quarterbacked his high school team.
Even more surprising than Havlicek being drafted by the Browns was the fact that he decided to go to training camp with hopes of earning a roster spot. He appeared in only one exhibition game and did not catch a pass. However, the game account pulled from the Hall’s vast archives revealed he laid a key block that sprung Hall of Fame fullback Jim Brown for a 45-yard run against the rival Pittsburgh Steelers on Aug. 18, 1962 in the NFL’s first double header.
In the end, it was Havlicek’s lack of experience, not his talent that was the problem. On August 22, when it became apparent that he was not going to make the squad, Coach Brown released him early so that he could concentrate on a pro basketball career. Havlicek quickly signed with the Celtics and embarked on a 16-season Hall of Fame career, one that included eight NBA championships and selection to 13 NBA All-Star Games. However, Havlicek’s flirtation with the NFL didn’t stop with his release from the Browns.
In 1966, the NFL knocked on his door one more time. Again, it was the Browns and owner Art Modell with an offer of a $40,000 contract to give football another try. Cleveland was not the only team with a deal on the table. It was speculated that three other NFL clubs including the Washington Redskins made offers to the NBA star. The football inquiries prompted legendary Celtics Coach Red Auerbach and NBA Commissioner Walter Kennedy to complain to NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle about tampering. The NFL teams backed off and Havlicek continued to build his Hall of Fame resume on the parquet floor of the Boston Garden.
Today, articles and photos of Havlicek from his “football career” have a permanent home inside the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Ralph Wilson, Jr. Pro Football Research & Preservation Center.