Some of the NFL Draft’s best moments don’t become Best Moments until much later, after it’s established how good/bad the players are and how well/poorly teams evaluated them. That’s what this post is about: those instances when two guys at the same position are picked back to back, and it turns out there’s a gigantic gap between them. Basically, the first guy has a forgettable career (if he has one at all), and the second goes on to the Hall of Fame (or close to it).
Here are a dozen examples I dug up, just for the sake of conversation. Call them . . .
(Note: Shaw signed with the Bills of the rival AFL.)
The Vikes drafted this guy a spot ahead of Andre Reed.
Talk about screwing the pooch. After deciding to draft a particular player at a particular position, the teams on the left took The Wrong Guy — a mistake which became infinitely worse when the next club on the clock took The Right Guy. You can click on the names to look at their stats . . . and see how huge a gap there was in each case. It ain’t pretty. Cheshire, Jones and Pfeifer never played in the league, and Rogers, for one, was a drug-plagued disaster (36 catches and 4 touchdowns, compared to Reed’s 1,012 and 64 — and counting).
Would the first decade of the expansion Browns have been a little less miserable if they’d opted for McNabb over Couch? You’d think so. You’ve also gotta believe the ’70s (pre-Coryell) Chargers would have won a lot more games if they’d had Stallworth catching passes and Page chasing down quarterbacks — or am I underestimating how lousy the Bolts were in those days?
This kind of puts it all in perspective, though: Spurrier wound up quarterbacking the only 0-14 team in NFL history (the ’76 Bucs), and Griese wound up quarterbacking the only 17-0 team (the ’72 Dolphins).
They weigh them, time them, test them, give them chest X-rays, knee exams, electrocardiograms. They work them out and wear them out, do background checks that are more like body-cavity searches. Heck, for all we know, NFL teams delve into the DNA of draft prospects — on the off-chance one of them might be secretly related to Jim Thorpe.
Then they gather up all this information, feed it into a computer and . . . draft Tom Brady in the sixth round — or James Harrison not at all.
Does anyone else feel this NFL Draft business has gotten to be a bit much? Sure, you want to be thorough, especially with so much money at stake, but as we’ve seen time and again, overanalysis can lead to paralysis — or worse, to Tim Couch.
Or to put it another way, what’s so wonderful about the Wonderlic test? Couldn’t you learn just as much about a guy by playing a quick game of rock-paper-scissors with him?
In olden times, the league did just fine without this microscopic evaluation of talent. Back then – I’m talking before World War II — clubs scouted the old-fashioned way, working their contacts in the college game and counting on recommendations from former players. Oh, they might get to see a prospect in action once or twice, but beyond that . . . .
Poring over game films, such a big part of the process today, didn’t come into fashion into later. (In the late ’30s, most teams were just beginning to pore over their own game films.) No, a club was much more likely to learn about a player by perusing the sports section of the newspaper. Some clubs even enlisted sports writers to do the bird-dogging for them.
One of them, a columnist for The Ogden Standard-Examiner named Al Warden, informed his readers in 1940 that he was “one of the far western football scouts for the Lions.” In fact, he went on, he’d just received a letter from Detroit coach Potsy Clark that said: “Let us have a list of prospective players from your section of the country as soon as possible. We are on the lookout for new finds.”
In those days, the NFL Draft went something like this: Every year, the league compiled a master list of eligible players – with the help of submissions from each team. The 300-odd names were then put on three large blackboards in the hotel meeting room where the draft was held.
Sometimes, if a club felt it had stumbled across a hidden gem, it would “forget” to put him on the master list. The Giants did this in 1939 with Walt Nielsen, a back from the hinterlands of Arizona — then surprised everybody by drafting him in the first round.
Wellington Mara, the 20-something son of owner Tim Mara, served as New York’s player personnel director during the leather helmet era. It’s astounding where the kid found players — and without, I’ll just point out, having any idea what their vertical jump was. Take the Giants’ 1938 championship team, for instance. Among the alma maters listed on the roster were Central Oklahoma, West Virginia Wesleyan, Emporia State (Kansas), Trinity University (Texas), Santa Clara, St. Bonaventure, George Washington, Simpson College (Iowa) and Oklahoma City.
Of course, the Giants took scouting more seriously than many other teams. At the other end of the spectrum were the Steelers of the late ’40s and early ’50s. Their player personnel man “was a full-time mortician named Ray Byrne,” NFL Hall of Famer Jim Finks once recalled. “So, on the side, he subscribed to all the college football magazines and put himself on the mailing lists of all the different colleges . . . [and] collected their press releases. That was the information the Steelers had when they went into the draft every year.”
By the time the American Football League came along in 1960, though, moonlighting morticians had been replaced by full-time scouts who crisscrossed the country in search of the next Bronko Nagurski. Eddie Kotal, Jack Lavelle, Pappy Lewis, Peahead Walker, Fido Murphy — nobody remembers them now, but they helped turn the NFL Draft into the extravaganza it is today.
The 19th-round pick from now-defunct Arnold College.
Kotal liked to joke about his “14-month year” cataloguing prospects for the Los Angeles Rams, right down to the little-known defensive end from Arnold College in Milford, Conn. (the great Andy Robustelli, L.A.’s 19th-round pick in 1951). Let’s face it, you have to be a little nutty to spend all that time on the road — just you and your binoculars — and Eddie certainly qualified. As a back with the Packers in the ’20s, he was one of the handful of players in the league who played without a helmet.
For a while, the Rams had an edge on other teams because they budgeted more for scouting, but that soon changed. So much so that Kotal griped in 1957:
“Even five years ago I could stumble across a sleeper at some small college that no other club knew about. But nowadays, everybody’s scouting system is so exhaustive, there’s no such thing as one.
“I don’t care if the kid is a third-string halfback at Tiddle-de-Wink Tech. By the time I get there to see him, he’ll tell me:
“‘You’re from the Rams, huh? I just got a letter the other day from the Lions and the Bears, too.’”
And so it began, the inexorable march toward five-hour first rounds, the self-celebratory NFL combine . . . and Mel Kiper. The draft, once confined to smoke-filled rooms, has become the Super Bowl of the offseason, and scouting has been elevated to the status of a science — an inexact science perhaps, but a science nonetheless.
Fido Murphy, long dead, would snort at that. To Fido, who shared his bush-beating brilliance over the years with the Bears and Steelers, modern scouts were just “a bunch of office boys with fancy titles! A lot of fakers and phonies! You ask them what do they think of such-and-such a player, and they tell you, ‘Wait till I see the films.’ I don’t need no lousy films.”
Speaking of films, Fido was married to an Actual Hollywood Actress, Iris Adrian. Iris was no star, but she appeared in hundreds of movies and TV shows opposite the likes of the Marx Brothers, Bob Hope and Jerry Lewis. The reason their relationship lasted, she’d tell people, was that he wasn’t an actor — unlike her first two husbands. “If an actor gets a pimple on his butt,” she’d say, “he thinks he’s ruined for life. . . . [It’s] like dating another dame.”
Iris’ glamorous career, meanwhile, enabled Fido, a walking lounge act, to crack jokes like this: “The best field-goal kicker I’ve ever seen is a mule called Gus who kicks a field goal in the last minute of a Walt Disney film starring my wife. . . . Gus plays for a team called the Atoms, and he wears a red blanket.”
Fido had total faith in his ability to distinguish the player from the poser. As he put it, “It isn’t that I’m smarter than everyone else in football. It’s just that I know more. . . . Sam Cohen, the Bridgeport [Conn.] columnist, wanted to call me a genius, but I wouldn’t let him.” Indeed, when Sports Illustrated ran a story about him in 1963, he suggested it be titled “Football’s Greatest Scout” (which it was).
Note: I’d hoped to link to that marvelous piece by Myron Cope, but for some reason it’s no longer available in SI’s archives. It can, however, be found in Cope’s collection, Broken Cigars. A used copy shouldn’t be too hard to find if you’re so inclined. Here’s a brief excerpt to whet your appetite:
Without having to be prodded, Fido takes credit for the fact that Mike Ditka, the magnificent Chicago offensive end, signed with the Bears rather than with the wealthy Houston Oilers [of the rival AFL]. As Fido tells it, Ditka was flying home to Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, from the Hula Bowl game in Hawaii and stopped in San Francisco to change planes. “I had him bumped off his plane,” says Fido. “Then I got him a first-class window seat on another flight, and he thought I was a big man. The flight had a 90-minute layover in Chicago, and I had [George] Halas wait for him at the airport with a contract.”
Fido would gladly pit his old-school eyeballs against any team’s computer, any scouting department’s rating system, any cockamamie intelligence test. It was he, after all, who said of the first pick in the 1963 draft, Heisman-winning quarterback Terry Baker, “For carrying around a trophy, he’s got a great arm. For throwing a football, no.”
Once again the NFL Draft World is abuzz about two quarterbacks. Who’s better, Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota? More importantly, who’s going to have the better career? The Bucs, for one, are convinced the fate of the franchise hinges on it. (Until the next time they have the first pick, that is.)
Jameis Winston: A future NFL great . . . or something else?
But there’s another question that’s worth asking here: Does it really matter as much as everybody seems to think it does? By that I mean: If there’s a Hall of Fame quarterback in this draft, what are the odds Tampa Bay — or any other team in the market for a QB — knows for sure who the Future Legend is? You’d be surprised at the league’s sorry track record in this area.
By my count, there have been 24 Hall of Fame quarterbacks who have been available in the draft. This doesn’t include Steve Young, who originally cast his lot with USFL (and came to the NFL via a supplemental draft), or George Blanda (who made the Hall as much for his kicking as his throwing). Our QBs date all the way back to 1937, the second of the league’s 79 drafts, when the Redskins took Sammy Baugh sixth overall.
Want to guess how many of these Quarterbacks For The Ages were the first QB selected in their draft? Answer: four. One out of every six. Heck, Warren Moon didn’t even get drafted in 1978 — and there were 12 rounds that year. And again, we’re talking about Canton-quality players, not Pro Bowlers (whatever that means anymore) or long-term starters. Seems like those types — Hall types — should be more obvious.
When I started researching this the other day, I never imagined the number — four out of 24 — would be so low. It’s not like the inexact science of evaluating talent is getting any more exact, either. In my mind, there are seven active or recently active quarterbacks who are likely headed to the Hall: Brett Favre, Kurt Warner, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers. Only one of them was the first QB picked in his draft (Manning, who went first overall). One in seven. That’s worse than one in six.
Consider: In 1944 there were two Hall of Fame quarterbacks up for grabs — Otto Graham and Bob Waterfield. Neither was the first QB selected. (That distinction went to Heisman Trophy winner Angelo Bertelli.) It was the same story in ’57, the draft that gave us Len Dawson and Sonny Jurgensen. The first passer off the board? John Brodie.
In ’83, meanwhile, John Elway was the No. 1 pick (and went on to Canton), but two other Hall-bound quarterbacks in that draft, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino, were the third and sixth QBs chosen.
Even if a quarterback has Hall of Fame ability, in other words, it may not be easily identifiable in his early 20s. So why, given this history, are teams always falling over one another to move up in the first round and draft a QB, often at inflated prices? A better strategy might be to stay put and take whichever one falls to you. Granted, it doesn’t look as good public-relations-wise; you’re not being “aggressive” and “proactive,” merely patient and calculating. But if you end up with a better QB than the one you might have gotten (and as an added bonus, didn’t trade a truckload of picks for him), who cares?
Here are the details on the 24 Hall of Fame quarterbacks in the Draft Era (1936 to present):
● 1937 — Sammy Baugh, Redskins (6th pick) and Ace Parker, Dodgers (13th). Two QBs/tailbacks (the single wing was still in vogue, remember) were taken ahead of Baugh : Ed Goddard (Dodgers, 2nd) and Ray Buivid (Bears, 3rd). Three QBs/TBs, including Sammy, were taken ahead of Parker. (FYI: Goddard lasted exactly four games with Brooklyn. When he didn’t play heroically enough to justify his high salary, coach Potsy Clark released him in the middle of the season. So it went in those days.)
● 1939 — Sid Luckman, Bears (2nd). The first QB/TB picked.
● 1944 — Otto Graham, Lions (4th) and Bob Waterfield, Rams (42nd). One QB/TB was selected before Graham: Heisman Trophy winner Angelo Bertelli (Boston Yanks, 1st). Otto wound up signing with the Browns of the rival All-America Conference. Three QBs/TBs, including Otto, were selected before Waterfield, TB Dick Evans (Bears, 9th) being the other.
● 1948 — Bobby Layne, Bears (3rd) and Y.A. Tittle, Lions (6th). One QB went before Layne: Harry Gilmer (Redskins, 1st). Two, including Bobby, went before Tittle. Just think: Detroit drafted two Hall of Fame passers in five years (Graham and Y.A., who opted for the AAC’s Baltimore Colts) and lost both to The Other League.
● 1949 — Norm Van Brocklin, Rams (37th). Six QBs/TBs came off the board before him: John Rauch (Lions 2nd), Stan Heath (Packers, 5th), Bobby Thomason (Rams, 7th), Frank Tripucka (Eagles, 9th), Bob DeMoss (New York Bulldogs, 13th) and Joe Geri (Steelers, 36th). That’s right, Van Brocklin, who won two NFL championships, wasn’t even the first QB drafted by his own team in ’49. (Geri, by the way, was a tailback. Pittsburgh was the last club to run the single wing, stubbornly sticking with it until the ’50s.)
● 1955 — Johnny Unitas, Steelers (102nd). Three QBs were taken ahead of him: George Shaw (Colts, 1st), Ralph Guglielmi (Redskins, 4th) and Dave Leggett (Cardinals, 74th).
Bart Starr: The 200th player picked in 1956.
● 1956 — Bart Starr, Packers (200th). Eight QBs were selected before him, a mostly motley crew featuring Earl Morrall (49ers, 2nd), John Roach (Cardinals, 31st) and Fred Wyant (Redskins, 36th).
● 1957 — Len Dawson, Steelers (5th) and Sonny Jurgensen, Eagles (43rd). One QB went before Dawson: John Brodie (49ers, third). Five went before Jurgensen, the others being Milt Plum (Browns, 17th), Ronnie Knox (Bears, 37th) and Bobby Cox (Rams, 38th). Knox chose the CFL over the NFL.
● 1961 — Fran Tarkenton, Vikings (29th). Two QBs came off the board before him: Norm Snead (Redskins, 2nd) and Billy Kilmer (49ers, 11th).
● 1964 — Roger Staubach, Cowboys (129th). Eight QBs were taken ahead of him, Pete Beathard (Lions, 5th), Bill Munson (Rams, 7th), George Mira (49ers, 15th) and Jack Concannon (Eagles, 16th), most notably. Of course, Staubach would have gone higher if he hadn’t had to serve a 4-year military commitment after graduating from the Naval Academy.
● 1965 — Joe Namath, Cardinals (12th). Namath was the top pick in the AFL draft but only the second QB selected by the NFL. Craig Morton (Cowboys, 5th) was the first.
● 1967 — Bob Griese, Dolphins (4th). One QB went before him: Heisman winner Steve Spurrier (49ers, 3rd).
● 1970 — Terry Bradshaw, Steelers (1st). Obviously, he was the first QB picked.
● 1973 — Dan Fouts, Chargers (64th). Five QBs came off the board before him: Bert Jones (Colts, 2nd), Gary Huff (Bears, 33rd), Ron Jaworski (Rams, 37th), Gary Keithley (Cardinals, 45th) and Joe Ferguson (57th).
Warren Moon: Not even Mr. Irrelevant-worthy.
● 1978 — Warren Moon was passed over on Draft Day despite quarterbacking Washington to the Rose Bowl (and winning game MVP honors). So he starred in Canada for six years before the Houston Oilers threw a big contract at him. Fourteen quarterbacks were taken in the ’78 draft, but only one in the first round: Doug Williams (Bucs, 17th).
● 1979 — Joe Montana, 49ers (82nd). Three QBs were selected before him: Jack Thompson (Bengals, 3rd), Phil Simms (Giants, 7th) and Steve Fuller (Chiefs, 23rd).
● 1983 — John Elway (Broncos, 1st), Jim Kelly (Bills, 14th) and Dan Marino (Dolphins, 27th). Elway was the first QB off the board, Kelly the third and Marino the sixth. The others who went in the first round: Todd Blackledge (Chiefs, 7th), Tony Eason (Patriots, 15th) and Ken O’Brien (Jets, 24th).
1989 — Troy Aikman (Cowboys, 1st). The first QB picked. But . . . if the University of Miami’s Steve Walsh had been available in the regular draft, would Dallas’ Jimmy Johnson have chosen him over Aikman? Johnson liked him enough to grab him in the first round of the supplemental draft (and let the two young passers compete for the starting job).
Now for the seven quarterbacks who are locks – or semi-locks – for the Hall of Fame:
● 1991 — Brett Favre (Falcons, 33rd). Two QBs were taken ahead of him: Dan McGwire (Seahawks, 15th) and Todd Marinovich (Raiders, 24th).
● 1994 — Kurt Warner (Packers, undrafted free agent). Nine QBs were selected that year — the regrettable Heath Shuler (Redskins, 3rd) for starters — but Warner, who played in obscurity at Northern Iowa, wasn’t among them. After stints in the Arena League and NFL Europe, he improbably led the Rams and Cardinals to a total of three Super Bowls.
● 1998 — Peyton Manning (Colts, 1st). Numero uno.
● 2000 — Tom Brady (Patriots, 199th). Six QBs went before him, a pedestrian group consisting of Chad Pennington (Jets, 18th), Giovanni Carmozzi (49ers, 68th), Chris Redman (Ravens, 75th), Tee Martin (Steelers, 163rd), Marc Bulger (Rams, 168th) and Spurgon Wynn (Browns 183rd).
● 2001 — Drew Brees (Chargers, 32nd). The second QB off the board, 31 picks after Michael Vick (Falcons, 1st).
● 2004 — Ben Roethlisberger (Steelers, 11th). Two QBs were taken ahead of him: Eli Manning (Chargers, 1st) and Philip Rivers (Giants, 4th). Manning and Rivers, who were swapped on Draft Day when Eli balked at signing with San Diego, have had good-to-very good careers, but Big Ben is the only one in the bunch who has been to three Super Bowls (winning two).
● 2005 — Aaron Rodgers (Packers, 24th). The second QB selected, several long hours (in Green Room Time) after Alex Smith (49ers, 1st) led off the draft.
You also could break it down like this:
● 4 were the first QB taken: Luckman, Bradshaw, Elway, Aikman
● 5 were the second QB taken: Graham, Layne, Dawson, Namath, Griese
● 4 were the third QB taken: Baugh, Tittle, Tarkenton, Kelly
● 4 were the fourth QB taken: Parker, Waterfield, Unitas, Montana
● 4 were the sixth QB taken: Van Brocklin, Jurgensen, Fouts, Marino
● 2 were the ninth QB taken: Starr, Staubach
● 1 wasn’t taken at all: Moon (and Warner would make it two)
Maybe you’ll draw other conclusions after digesting all this. At the very least, it makes moving up to draft a quarterback seem a lot less “bold” and a lot more second-guessable. After all, many times, the great QB is the guy who goes 42nd, 37th, 102nd, 200th, 43rd, 129th, 64th, 82nd, 33rd or 199th – or is being overlooked entirely.
It’s great to have the first pick in the NFL draft — as the Bucs have on five occasions, including this year. But it’s almost as great to have the sixth pick, believe it or not. And you’d be amazed at how much mileage teams have gotten out of the 34th pick.
Walter Jones, the last of the 11 No. 6 picks voted to the Hall.
Let me explain myself. I’m talking about the number of Hall of Famers each pick has yielded — its Canton Factor, if you will. That’s what everybody is trying to do at the top of the draft, right? Hit a home run. Find a player for the ages. And there’s no pick like the first pick for that. An even dozen players taken No. 1 are in the Hall, 12 in 79 drafts (with more, such as Peyton Manning, to come).
This, of course, is hardly surprising. Drafting may be an inexact science, but general managers and scouts aren’t complete dullards. Give them first crack at the available college talent, and they can usually find a guy who can walk and chew gum, sometimes all the way to Canton.
What is surprising is some of the other stuff my research turned up. For instance, the second-best pick for Hall of Famers is the sixth (11). The 34th pick (4), meanwhile, has produced more HOFers than the seventh (1!) and ninth (3)* picks and as many as the 10th. Here are the selections with the highest Canton Factor:
PICKS THAT HAVE YIELDED THE MOST HALL OF FAMERS
● 1st (12) — QB Troy Aikman (Cowboys, 1989), DE Bruce Smith (Bills, ’85), QB John Elway (Broncos, ’83), RB Earl Campbell (Houston Oilers, ’78), DE Lee Roy Selmon (Bucs, ’76), QB Terry Bradshaw (Steelers, ’70), RB O.J. Simpson (Bills, ’69), OT Ron Yary (Vikings, ’68), RB Paul Hornung (Packers, ’57), C-LB Chuck Bednarik (Eagles, ’49), RB Charley Trippi (Cardinals, ’45), RB Bill Dudley (Steelers, ’42).
● 6th (11) — OT Walter Jones (Seahawks, ’97), WR Tim Brown (Raiders, ’88), WR James Lofton (Packers, ’78), RB John Riggins (Jets, ’71), DE Carl Eller (Vikings, ’64), CB Jimmy Johnson (49ers, ’61), RB Jim Brown (Browns, ’57), QB Y.A. Tittle (Lions, ’48), C-LB Alex Wojciechowicz (Lions, ’38), QB Sammy Baugh (Redskins, ’37), T Joe Stydahar (Bears, ’36).
● 2nd (10) — RB Marshall Faulk (Colts, ’94), RB Eric Dickerson (Rams, ’83), LB Lawrence Taylor (Giants, ’81), RB Tony Dorsett (Cowboys, ’77), DT Randy White (Cowboys, ’75), OG Tom Mack (Rams, ’66), OT Bob Brown (Eagles, ’64), LB Les Richter (Dallas Texans, ’52), RB George McAfee (Eagles, ’40), QB Sid Luckman (Bears, ’39).
● 3rd (10) — DT Cortez Kennedy (Seahawks, ’90), RB Barry Sanders (Lions, ’89), OT Anthony Munoz (Bengals, ’80), LB Dick Butkus (Bears, ’65), WR Charley Taylor (Redskins, ’64), DT Merlin Olsen (Rams, ’62), RB Ollie Matson (Cardinals, ’52), RB Doak Walker (N.Y. Bulldogs, ’49), QB Bobby Layne (Bears, ’48), DE Claude Humphrey (Falcons, ’68).
● 4th (9) — OT Jonathan Ogden (Ravens, ’96), LB Derrick Thomas (Chiefs, ’89), DE Chris Doleman (Vikings, ’85), DE Dan Hampton (Bears, ’79), RB Walter Payton (Bears, ’75), OG John Hannah (Patriots ’73), DT Joe Greene (Steelers, ’69), RB Gale Sayers (Bears, ’65), QB Otto Graham (Lions, ’44).
● 5th (8) — LB Junior Seau (Chargers, ’90), CB Deion Sanders (Falcons, ’89), CB Mike Haynes (Patriots, ’76), TE Mike Ditka (Bears, ’61), QB Len Dawson (Steelers, ’57), T George Connor (Giants, ’46), WR Elroy Hirsch (Rams, ’45), RB Steve Van Buren (Eagles, ’44).
● 8th (6) — OT Willie Roaf (Saints, ’93), OG Mike Munchak (Oilers, ’82), DB Ronnie Lott (49ers, ’81), RB Larry Csonka (Dolphins, ’68), WR Lance Alworth (49ers, ’62), OL Jim Parker (Colts, ’57).
● 11th (5) — WR Michael Irvin (Cowboys, ’88), WR Paul Warfield (Browns, ’64), DE Doug Atkins (Browns, ’53), RB Frank Gifford (Giants, ’52), DT Leo Nomellini (49ers, ’50).
● 18th (5) — WR Art Monk (Redskins, ’80), FS Paul Krause (Redskins, ’64), RB John Henry Johnson (Steelers, ’53), T Bruiser Kinard (Brooklyn Dodgers, ’38), RB Tuffy Leemans (Giants, ’36).
● 10th (4) — DB Rod Woodson (Steelers, ’87), RB Marcus Allen (Raiders, ’82), OT Ron Mix (Colts, ’60), RB Jerome Bettis (Rams, ’93).
Jack Ham: One of four 34th picks who are in Canton.
● 34th (4) — LB Jack Ham (Steelers, ’71), CB Lem Barney (Lions, ’67), DB Yale Lary (Lions, ’52), OT Mike McCormack (New York Yanks, ’51).
*The only Hall of Famer drafted seventh is C Bulldog Turner (Bears, ’40). The only HOFers who went ninth are OG Bruce Matthews (Oilers, ’83), RB Lenny Moore (Colts, ’56) and RB Hugh McElhenny (49ers, ’52).
Some other discoveries:
● The 24th and 25th picks haven’t given us any Canton-quality players — yet. In the case of the 24th, that figures to change whenever Ed Reed (Ravens, 2002) and Aaron Rodgers (Packers, 2005) come up for consideration, but nobody taken at 25 seems very Hall-worthy . . . or is even likely to get endorsed by the Veterans Committee. In fact, 25 has been a virtual black hole. The best selections at that spot: NT Ted Washington (49ers, ’91) and WRs Stanley Morgan (Patriots, ’76) and Boyd Dowler (Packers, ’59).
● Second-round picks might be good values salary-cap-wise, but they don’t produce nearly as many Hall of Famers as first-round picks. The breakdown:
HOFers drafted from 1 through 32: 121
HOFers drafted from 33 through 64: 32
● That said, the 48th pick yielded a Hall of Famer two years in a row in the 1980s: C Dwight Stephenson (Dolphins, ’80) and DE Howie Long (Raiders, ’81). The second round of that ’81 draft, by the way, had three players who wound up in Canton: LB Mike Singletary (38th, Bears), Long and LB Rickey Jackson (51st, Saints). By that measure, it’s the best second round ever.
● I love this: The third pick in the ’48 draft was QB Bobby Layne (by the Bears). The third pick in ’49 was RB Doak Walker (by the New York Bulldogs, though he ended up with the Lions). Both are in Canton, but even better, they were high school teammates at Highland Park in Dallas. (Another high selection who played at Highland Park: Lions QB Matt Stafford, who went No. 1 in 2009.)
FYI: The Jets are sitting with the sixth pick (good karma), the Bears with the seventh (bad karma, though they did get Turner there), the Panthers with the 25th (really bad karma) and the Bucs with the 34th (really good karma, especially since it’s a second-rounder).
Yup, Tampa Bay has the first selection and the 34th. Pretty sweet.
Now we just have to wait for Roger Goodell to say, “Gentlemen, start your draft boards.”
While sports fans continue to debate, with no little fervor, whether the Redskins should change their name, I thought I’d post this piece about the Native American chief who played for them in the early years — and holds an interesting place in football history. There’s a tendency to lump the Redskins’ refusal to integrate until the ’60s with the whole Name Thing and say, “It’s all of a piece. From the very beginning, this has been a racist organization.” But it’s not that neat and tidy, as you shall see.
● ● ●
In the NFL’s early decades, there were two main sources of Native American football talent: Carlisle (in the Pennsylvania town of the same name) and Haskell (in Lawrence, Kan.). They weren’t really colleges, though they played many of their games against college teams. They were more like vocational high schools, the U.S. government’s attempt to assimilate the young tribal population into the American mainstream.
Along with farmers, carpenters and mechanics, the schools turned out some really good football players. Carlisle is more famous, thanks to the exploits of Jim Thorpe, one of the country’s greatest athletes, and Joe Guyon, both of whom are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But according to the database at pro-football-reference.com, Haskell sent as many players to the NFL as Carlisle did (19 each, with some attending both schools).
One of the Haskell alums was Larry Johnson, a 6-foot-3, 223-pound rock of a center. (Sportswriters often called him “Chief Johnson” because he was a leader of the Menominee tribe in Wisconsin.) Johnson was the last player from either school to play in the NFL; in fact, he was the last player by a mile. The next to last, Haskell teammate Orien Crow, suited up for the final time in 1934. Larry’s farewell came a decade later, when he returned to the league after a four-year absence — along with a number of other retirees (e.g. the Bears’ Bronko Nagurski) — because of the manpower shortage during World War II.
The club that brought him back for five games at the age of 35? The Redskins.
Not that this surprised anybody. Johnson, after all, had begun his pro career with them in 1933, when they were still in Boston. That was the year the team changed its name from the Braves to the Redskins. It also happened to be the year Larry’s coach at Haskell, Lone Star Dietz, left the school to take the Redskins job. Dietz brought four players with him (the others being Crow, end David Ward and wingback Rabbit Weller).
A headline in the Oct. 12, 1936 Boston Globe.
The Redskins weren’t any better than average those first few seasons. It wasn’t until Ray Flaherty became the coach (1936) and Sammy Baugh the quarterback (’37) that they began going to title games. But owner George Preston Marshall had a flair for promotion — and was always coming up with some kind of stunt to draw attention to his team. When Johnson was a rookie, Marshall had the players put on war paint for a game against the Bears so they’d look like “ferocious Indians,” end Steve Hokuf once recalled. There was only one problem. On the train afterward, “we found out that 10 of our players weren’t able to remove their war paint and had to leave it on until the next morning. That was the last time the Redskins used war paint.”
There was much fascination in that era about Native Americans. Thorpe’s feats as a football star, decathlete and major-league baseball player were part of it, of course. But another part was the culture he sprang from. To whites, it was just so was darn mysterious.
In 1922, the season Thorpe organized the NFL’s Oorang Indians — an all-Native American team sponsored by a Marion, Ohio, dog kennel — newspapers ran a story about the death, at 130, of a Chippewa named Wrinkle Meat. It contained this passage:
Several years ago, when he was struck by a railroad engine, he was taken to a hospital but refused a bed, seeking instead a “comfortable place” on the floor. He rolled into a blanket and remained on the floor for three weeks until he recovered. . . . For 109 years of his life he had been married, having had eight wives.
Indian customs, closely followed, he considered the big factor in extending his life so long. His oldest acquaintances never recall having seen him sit in a chair or lie in a bed. He was just as much opposed to many other customs of whites, for he contended they were contrary to the laws of nature.
This is the world Larry Johnson grew up in. Native American athletes simply weren’t like other athletes, newspapers were always reminding their readers. In September 1922 the Chicago Tribune reported: “The [Oorang] Indians begin training today, and besides their daily football practice will take long runs nightly behind packs of hounds.”
How long, you ask? Well, another source tells us, “It means nothing to the Indians to make a jaunt on foot into Marion [from their clubhouse at the kennel], a distance of 28 miles. The warriors eat but twice a day. Practice begins at noon and continues until evening, and it’s then that the redskins have their second meal.”
(Note: These “packs of hounds” aren’t to be confused with the Indians’ mascot – a pet coyote that belonged lineman Nick Lassa, otherwise known as Long Time Sleep.)
Pop Warner, the coach who put Carlisle on the map, was convinced Native American players were easily discouraged. That’s why, it’s said, he tried to score first in every game (not that this isn’t advisable under any circumstances).
“As long as an Indian is winning,” he told Dr. Harry March, the Giants’ first general manager, “he is the greatest player on earth. When he begins to lose, he is among the worst. It is this trait which let the whites win all of the territory of the Western Continent.”
Thorpe, Warner found, was “sulky and hard to handle, and that may ruin him.” Whether Jim was any sulkier or harder to handle than other superstars is an open question, but this was sometimes how Native American players were portrayed — and perceived.
(Decades later, there was a quarterback for the Packers, a Creek nicknamed “Indian Jack” Jacobs, who routinely ignored plays sent in from the sideline. Jacobs was such a freelancer, the tale goes, that he wound up in the CFL, where he twice led Winnipeg to the Grey Cup game. But he doesn’t appear to have gotten any better at following instructions. One day his Canadian coach got so frustrated that he put in two QBs, one to call the desired play and the other — Jacobs — to execute it.)
But let’s get back to Larry Johnson, the last product of The Two Big Native American Schools to play in the NFL. From all accounts, the guy was a physical specimen. One sportswriter wrote that Johnson had “the physique of a heavyweight boxing champion. [But] . . . his early ambitions in fistic work were halted at Haskell when he was flattened by another Indian.”
Still, Larry could take care of himself. In 1938, when he was with the Giants, he “got in a fistfight” with Pittsburgh tackle Armand Niccolai, according to The New York Times. “Unlike most gridiron battles,” the paper said, “this one produced some punching. Niccolai was knocked colder than the weather — which was pretty cold itself. So the Indian was chased from the game and the Giants penalized half the distance to the goal line [the punishment for slugging in those days], some 20 yards.”
The Giants won the title that year (which also makes Johnson the last product of the Two Big Native American schools to win the championship). He’d joined the team in 1936 after three seasons with the Redskins and a stint with the minor-league New York Yankees. Injuries had left New York thin at center, and coach Steve Owen signed him as a backup for Hall of Famer Mel Hein.
“If the experiment of bringing in an Indian turns out to be . . . successful,” Times columnist John Kieran wrote, “Owen may come up with a Chinaman or an Eskimo the next time danger threatens.”
Johnson wasn’t a great player by any means. Indeed, he was a second-stringer for most of his NFL career. But he did have one special skill: He was the best snapper for field goals and extra points Owen had ever seen. As the Hall of Fame coach put it in 1947 piece for Football Digest:
Our captain, Mel Hein, was an artist at it. But once we had a center even better than Mel for the placement try. I know some of you won’t believe this, but I vouch for it on my word of honor. When Chief Johnson, a big Indian from Haskell, was our reserve snapper-back, he had the pass for placements down to such an art that the ball always came back to the holder so that it was caught with the laces uppermost.
(Coming from Owen, who placed a huge importance on the kicking game, this was high praise. The Giants in those days spent most of the first hour of practice on special teams stuff, primarily field goals and PATs.)
After winning the ’38 title, Johnson spent some time in his native Wisconsin — and was a big enough deal to have his visit noted by the Shawano County Journal. He was in town, the paper said, to attend “the tribal council of the Menominees held in Keshena on Monday” and planned to “vacation in and around this section until August 10, when he will report [to] Superior [Wis.] for practice with the Giants until the [College] All-Star Game on September 1. Johnson is an enrolled member of the tribe and came down from Powell, where his mother lives, to attend the council with his brother, Joe Walkechon, of Keshena.”
The Giants went back to the title game in ’39, facing Green Bay for the second straight year. As the club prepared to leave for Milwaukee — where the game was held because the city had a bigger stadium — Johnson was filled with “fear and trepidation,” the Times reported. It wasn’t the Packers he was worried about, though. What concerned him was that “‘Every Indian in Wisconsin will be after me to get him tickets,’ he declared with a wry grin.”
Other than that, details of Johnson’s life are sketchy. In January 1939 the Nevada State Journal said he was living in Fallon Nev., and had returned home briefly to see his wife and children “at the Indian sub-agency” before heading to Los Angeles to play in the Pro Bowl (a game that pitted the champion Giants against the league all-stars). “Mrs. Johnson is the teacher at the Fallon Indian day school near Stillwater.”
The following year found him in Ogden, Utah, working for the U.S. Postal Service. And in 1944, according to the State Journal, he was “in the market for a western Nevada high school [coaching] job — football, basketball or baseball. Two seasons ago he turned out a championship grid club [in] Ogden . . . and has since moved to Reno.”
But then the Redskins, desperate for players in the late stages of the war, came calling, and he couldn’t resist the opportunity to play the last half of the ’44 season for them. The NFL wasn’t much to look at that year. The talent level was almost semipro quality, and a few recent high school graduates even got into games. Washington was in contention, though, until the final two weeks, when the Giants beat them back-to-back.
After that, Johnson fell off the grid — so completely that none of the football encyclopedias list a death date for him. (Good luck finding an obituary. Lord knows I’ve tried.) That’s pretty much the end of the story except for one last nugget: It seems Larry had a sense of humor.
We know this because of something Owen said years later, at the weekly Football Writers’ brunch in New York. The conversation had turned, as it often did, to officials — in this case, an official who’d thrown his hat to the ground to mark where a Steelers receiver had gone out of bounds . . . and hadn’t bothered to notice the player had dropped the pass.
“Don’t get me started on officials,” said Owen, whose Giants were on the wrong end of the call — initially, at least. “When the other official straightened him out, I hollered, ‘And don’t forget your hat!’”
That sparked a memory in Stout Steve’s mind. “Remember Larry (Chief) Johnson, our Indian center?” he said. “He used to take great delight in moving an official’s hat a couple of yards.”
With women making all these inroads in pro football, I figured it might be a good time to post a story I wrote in 2000 about their oft-forgotten impact on the game — in ways large and small. I’ve brought the piece up to date in a few places, but most of it remains unchanged. As you’ll see, the role they’ve played is hardly inconsequential.
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The NFL couldn’t agree on how to realign after merging with the American Football League in 1970. Owners spent eight months batting around various ideas without reaching a compromise. Some of the possibilities were downright scary. Two of the plans broke up the age-old Bears-Packers rivalry. Another put Philadelphia and Detroit in the NFC West.
Commissioner Pete Rozelle finally stepped in and settled the issue. He put the five most popular plans in a cut-glass vase and asked his secretary, Thelma Elkjer, to reach in and pick one. Thelma pulled out plan No. 3, the only one, it turned out, that kept the black-and-blue division (Chicago, Green Bay, Detroit, Minnesota) intact. Had she selected any of the other four, the Vikings would have been in the NFC East.
We tend to think of the NFL as a man’s world, and it is to a great degree. But that doesn’t mean women haven’t, from time to time, played important roles in its history. Women have had a much bigger impact on pro football — in all sorts of ways — than most fans realize. (And not just by giving birth to, say, the Manning brothers.) For instance, did you know that the wife of the Pittsburgh ticket manager came up with the name Steelers? If it hadn’t been for Mrs. Joe Carr, we might be calling them the Iron Men or something. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. . . .
Corinne Griffith, wife of Redskins founder George Preston Marshall, made all kinds of contributions to the cause in the ’30s and ’40s. She designed the team’s uniforms (as well as the costumes for the marching band). She planned elaborate halftime shows that became the model for the rest of the league. She even wrote the lyrics to Hail to the Redskins.
(The latter might seem like a small thing, but it became very big indeed when Clint Murchison was trying to get a franchise for Dallas in 1960. Murchison knew the Redskins were opposed to another southern team joining the NFL — they considered the South their territory — so a buddy of his acquired the rights to the Redskins’ fight song and threatened to deny Marshall the use of it unless he supported Dallas’ bid. George capitulated, of course.)
There was nothing Corinne wouldn’t do for her beloved Redskins. One year, The New York Times reported, the Brooklyn Dodgers sent “Dean McAdams and Merlyn Condit to [Washington] for Bob Masterson, Ray Hare, George Smith, Tony Leon, Leo Stasica, $2,000 and a boxer dog, Toby. Referring to that one-sided transaction — McAdams and Condit never played with the Redskins — Mrs. George Preston Marshall, whose husband made the deal, averred she didn’t mind losing the players, but hated to give up Toby.”
Which brings us to Lizette Mara, wife of New York Giants founder Tim Mara. Lizette wasn’t nearly as active in team affairs as Corinne Griffith, but she did wield a certain influence. How so? Well, after the Giants played their first game at the Polo Grounds in 1925, her young son Wellington, who had stood on the sideline all afternoon, came down with a cold. Mom was none too pleased.
“She immediately came up with a novel solution,” Barry Gottehrer wrote in The Giants of New York. “The Giant[s] bench, placed on the south side of the field, was in the chilling shade from the second quarter on while the visiting team’s bench remained bathed in sun.”
“She told Pop to switch the benches,” Wellington, who followed his father into the Hall of Fame, told Gottehrer. “It was either that or leave me home, so Pop switched benches. And they’ve stayed switched ever since.”
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The 1999 NFL champions, the St. Louis Rams, were owned by a woman: former actress/chorus girl/nightclub singer/TV weather person Georgia Frontiere. Frontiere inherited the franchise, then located in Los Angeles, from her husband, Carroll Rosenbloom, and made no friends by (a.) letting the club go to pot and (b.) bolting to St. Louis in 1995. Fans saw her as too bottom-line conscious — and totally over her head. They’d bring signs to games begging her to sell the team.
Unfortunately for them, she liked being an owner.
“It’s too much a part of my life,” she said in a rare interview with the Los Angeles Times in 1993. “What would I do on Sunday? There is still a certain kid in me. When I first met Carroll [who originally owned the Baltimore Colts], he used to take me to practice, and I played catch with Johnny Unitas. That was the greatest thing to ever happen.”
Many were skeptical when the Rams went to St. Louis, even though the team negotiated a sweet financial deal that included a new stadium. The city simply hadn’t supported pro football that strongly in the past. But Frontiere seemed to learn from her mistakes in L.A. First, she loosened the purse strings, giving huge contracts to Marshall Faulk, Orlando Pace and Isaac Bruce. Then she got incredibly lucky when her backup quarterback, Kurt Warner, turned into the NFL’s MVP (and was rewarded with a lucrative contract himself).
The ’99 season was pure magic — and ended with commissioner Paul Tagliabue handing Georgia the Super Bowl trophy. “[This] proves that we did the right thing in going to St. Louis,” she said in her acceptance speech. Tagliabue, who had opposed the move, didn’t argue. After all, the Rams were champs, and the city they left behind had been passed over for an expansion franchise in favor of Houston.
Violet Bidwill with Cardinals coach Pop Ivy at the 1961 draft.
Frontiere, it might surprise you to learn, wasn’t the first woman to own an NFL championship team. More than a half-century earlier, in 1947, Violet Bidwill presided over the title-winning Chicago Cardinals — quite unexpectedly, I might add. Her husband, pro football pioneer Charley Bidwill, had died of a heart attack the previous spring, and poor Violet was left to run the club.
These were the glory years for the Cardinals franchise, the years of Jimmy Conzelman, their ever-quotable coach, and the “Dream Backfield” of Charley Trippi, Paul Christman, Pat Harder and Elmer Angsman. The team played for the championship again in ’48, losing in a snowstorm to the Eagles in Philadelphia, but won only one playoff game in the next six decades. Which is really all you need to know about Violet Bidwill, NFL owner.
Vi — adoptive mother of current Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill — was a nice woman, by all accounts. She was just . . . well, why don’t I let Bob Nussbaumer tell you about her?
“I was helping the Cardinals out with the draft — gathering information on players and stuff like that,” he told me. “And in those days [the ’50s] they used to hold the draft in Chicago all the time, in a hotel. So we’re sitting at the Cardinals’ table, waiting for the draft to start, and here comes Vi Bidwill with a bunch of college football magazines. True story. Honest to God. And she’s flipping through them [at the table] and saying, ‘What about this guy? He sounds pretty good.’”
Vi was approached about selling the club in 1958 — and this is where she left perhaps her biggest mark on pro football. The man who approached her was millionaire oilman Lamar Hunt, who was anxious to buy a team. When Vi turned him down, Hunt went off and organized the AFL — which gave us Joe Namath, 2-point conversions, skyrocketing salaries and a decade of highly entertaining interleague strife.
So look at it this way: If it hadn’t been for Vi Bidwill, there might have been no AFL (or at the very least, a much different AFL).
There certainly would have been no St. Louis Cardinals, which is where she took the team in 1960 after years of playing second fiddle to the Bears in Chicago. (Son Bill continued the tradition of itinerancy by packing the club off to Arizona.)
You could even argue that, without Vi Bidwill, there would have been no Detroit Lions dynasty in the ’50s. Buddy Parker, who coached the Lions to championships in 1952 and ’53 (and laid the groundwork for their title in ’57), had previously coached the Cardinals. But he left the team after a winning season in ’49 because Vi wasn’t sure if she wanted to renew his contract.
“I wanted my status established,” Parker said at the time. “Mrs. Bidwill wouldn’t give me a direct answer. She said she wanted to wait and see. I’ve decided not to wait and see.”
Instead, he joined the Lions as Bo McMillin’s top assistant and moved up to the head job the next year when Bo was forced out. Soon enough, Detroit was an NFL powerhouse
You have to admit, Vi Bidwill cuts a wide swath through NFL history, even if she didn’t always mean to.
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Moving along . . . other women besides the aforementioned helped make pro football what it is today. Frances Upton, for instance. She was the Ziegfeld Follies girl who married Bert Bell — and gave him the $2,500 he needed to acquire the Philadelphia franchise in 1933. (Bell wasn’t much of an owner, but he made a fine commissioner from 1946 to ’59.)
Women, in fact, bankrolled several owners in the early days. The mother of Bears center George Trafton loaned George Halas $20,000 so that he could buy out Dutch Sternaman and become sole owner of the Bears in 1932. Without that timely infusion of capital, Halas might well have lost the team (or so the story goes). In the depths of the Depression, it was a significant sum.
Then there’s Kate Smith, the famous singer from the ’40s. She was the main source of Boston Yanks owner Ted Collins’ wealth — Ted being her manager. “It was a standing joke on the team,” one of Collins’ players once said, “that if Kate ever got a sore throat, nobody would get paid.”
Collins always claimed Smith didn’t invest in the club, but she was, at the very least, a loyal supporter. She sang the national anthem before the Yanks’ inaugural game in 1944 and often could be seen rooting for them at Fenway Park. The Boston Globe offered this press box glimpse of her during a Yanks-Bears game in 1947:
“When the Bears sent McAfee, Turner, Holovak, Keane and Kavanaugh into the game for their final spurt, songstress Kate Smith — seated on the 50-yard line — almost jumped into the game to stop them. . . . She rooted violently for Boston throughout the game.”
Having a celebrity like Kate connected to the league was great for its image. Pro football in the pre-television era wasn’t thought of as very glamorous and didn’t have nearly as many followers as college ball. But, hey, if Kate Smith went to the games, they must be the place to be, right?
Another high-profile female who lent her fame to the fledgling NFL was figure skater/film star Sonja Henie, wife of Brooklyn owner Dan Topping. (Sonja might even have owned a piece of the club, though there’s some dispute about that.) In 1940, when the Dodgers opened the season against the Redskins in Washington, the Norwegian ice princess was prevailed upon to throw out the first ball. The United Press reviewed her performance thusly: “Until you have seen Sonja Henie throw a forward pass, you cannot possibly realize the truth in the statement concerning the weaker sex.”
Lovebirds Glenn Davis and Liz Taylor at the beach.
And let’s not forget the Hollywood starlets who consorted with an assortment of Los Angeles Rams in the ’40s and ’50s. Elizabeth Taylor — Liz Taylor! — was once engaged to running back Glenn Davis (and Terry Moore actually walked down the aisle with him). Jane Russell, meanwhile, was married to quarterback Bob Waterfield. The stands at the L.A. Coliseum always seemed to be adorned by a Marilyn Monroe or a Lana Turner.
“Jane [Russell] would come with Bob [Waterfield] to the games in Philadelphia,” former Eagle Ernie Steele told me. “She was just a regular person. Everybody loved her. We were in the Washington Club one time after a ballgame — it used to be on Market Street — and she was just sitting at the table with us, drinking a couple of beers. One of the gals wrote on the wall of the ladies room: ‘Jane Russell peed here.’”
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More on Corinne Griffith, George Preston Marshall’s wife-of-all-trades: In addition to her aforementioned talents, Corinne also was an author. In 1946 she wrote (with the L.A. Times’ Bill Henry) My Life With the Redskins, one of the earliest — and best — books on pro football. It’s funny, informative and full of great stories.
Example: For the Lions’ first game at Briggs Stadium in 1938, owner Dick Richards had 6,000 yellow chrysanthemums flown in from California and gave one to each of the first 6,000 women to arrive. “Soon,” Corinne says, “6,000 chrysanthemums yellow-dotted the packed the stadium, lending their clean, tangy odor to the cool, crisp autumn air.”
(Corinne never dreamed up a promotion like that for the Redskins, but she did have Santa Claus flown into Griffith Stadium in a helicopter in 1946.)
Elsewhere in the book, she says it was she who convinced Marshall to move the club to Washington from Boston. “You see,” her logic went, “there are so many displaced citizens in Washington. . . . As a matter of fact, the D.C. after Washington means: Displaced Citizen. Most of these D.C.’s are alone in Washington with nothing to do on Sunday afternoon other than sit in parks and feed the squirrels and pigeons. . . . I have a definite feeling that Washington’s D.C.’s would welcome a little more action on Sunday afternoon.”
After Corinne came Perian Conerly. In the late ’50s, Perian, who was married to Giants quarterback Charlie Conerly, began writing a weekly column for her hometown newspaper in Clarksdale, Miss., about being a football wife in the big city (and including, naturally, behind-the-scenes information about the team and her own observations about the games). The column proved so popular that it was syndicated; one of the newspapers that carried it was The New York Times. Here she is trying to stump the panel of celebrities — movie star David Niven (!) among them — on the famed TV show, What’s My Line?
In one of Perrian’s columns, on players’ “sideline occupations,” she informed her readers that “a Chicago Bear[s] end, Dr. Bill McColl, specializes in surgery and recently performed an offseason knee operation on one of his in-season opponents.” Another time, writing about game day and its attendant anxieties, she revealed: “[Giants punter] Don Chandler’s first move [after waking on Sunday] is to race to the window of his apartment, which overlooks Yankee Stadium, and check the flags displayed there. Thus he gets an immediate indication of how the wind will affect his punting.”
Then there was this gem that ended a column about the growth of pro football and the “enlightened attitude of the general public toward the game”: “I have still another criterion for measuring this evolution of attitude. It concerns tone of voice. ‘Your husband plays professional football?’ has been the stock opening line of new acquaintances since our marriage in 1949. It remains so in 1960. But the exclamation today bears not a trace of pity.”
Perian hung up her typewriter at the end of the ’61 season, when Charlie retired. Three years later, though, Joan Ryan, wife of Browns QB Frank Ryan, picked up where Perian left off in the Cleveland Plain Dealer (and later, after Frank signed with the Redskins, in The Washington Star). “Backseat Brown,” her original column was called.
Joan Ryan, pen and notebook at the ready.
Joan’s writing had a little more of an edge to it than Perian’s. She made cracks about other teams’ uniforms. (“The psychological letdown of having to go into a locker room on a bleak day and don [the Redskins’] mustard-gold pants with a maroon-and-gold jersey would make me want to forfeit.”) She ripped the offensive line her husband played behind when he was with the Rams. (“The first time I saw [Frank] throw four consecutive passes standing up was the first time I saw him play for the Browns.”) She told a story about Frank accidentally cleating coach Paul Brown during warmups (and how, after the game, his teammates were “jovially patting Frank on the back . . . [and] were hopeful that Paul might miss the next game because of the injury.”)
But that was nothing compared to what she said about Don Meredith in 1966. Five days before the Browns were to host Dallas in a huge game, she called the Cowboys quarterback “a loser.” (Think that might have caused some tension in the Ryan household?) When the teams met, though, Joan came off looking pretty good. Dandy Don threw four interceptions as Cleveland coasted to an easy victory.
Do Corinne Griffith, Perian Conerly and Joan Ryan have anything to do with this?
It’s hard to believe they don’t.
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No discussion of women and their impact on pro football would be complete without Heidi. Granted, Heidi was a girl — and a fictional one at that — but she’s the reason 60 Minutes gets delayed, if need be, so an NFL game can be shown in its entirety.
That policy wasn’t quite set in stone in 1968, when the Jets played at Oakland in a preview of the AFL championship game. With New York leading by a field goal in the final minute and the game running late, NBC switched away from Joe Namath and Ben Davidson so it could air the children’s movie Heidi, which was supposed to begin at 7 p.m.
Talk about a bonehead move. So many angry fans called the NBC switchboard in New York that it broke down. The network tried to placate them by returning to the game, but by then the Raiders had scored the go-ahead touchdown. It was, in every respect, a disaster, but something good did come of it: No network ever messed with a football game again.
So there you have it, folks, the never-before-told story of how women — yes, women — helped shape pro football. With Sarah Thomas about to join the ranks of NFL zebras, there’s no telling what the future holds. Someday, a female might grab a grease pencil and design a defense that will confound the next Tom Brady. In the mind’s eye, it’s the daughter of a football coach, a Condoleezza Rice-type, only she decides she’d rather be a defensive coordinator than Secretary of State.
This story originally appeared, in slightly different form, in The Washington Times, Nov. 19, 2000.
There are not many footprints on the path Chris Borland has chosen to walk. His approach to the NFL, and life after it, represents a way of thinking that is very different from the thinking of most of his football forefathers.
Fifty years ago, or even 10 years ago, promising players considered the NFL a destination — not a rest stop on life’s highway. They did all they could to extend their shelf life. They didn’t consider shortening it, as Borland has, retiring after a standout rookie season with the 49ers.
But as time — and eras — have passed, so too have perspectives on the role football should play in a player’s life.
Actually, in the league’s first 40 years, many of Borland’s “football forefathers” thought like he did, considered the NFL a short-term gig. Unlike today, the game didn’t lend itself to a long, lucrative career. In the single-platoon era (1920-49), players often played the entire game, or close to it. The travel, too — on trains, buses and even in private cars — was more onerous. Some teams would be on the road for a month or more.
You also could make the case that competition for jobs was greater because there were fewer of them. In 1941, the last season before the war, there were 330 roster spots in the league and just 11 players who were 30 or older (oldest: 33). Last year there were 1,696 roster spots and 331 thirtysomethings (oldest: 42). Nobody ever talks about that when they talk about the early days: that it was harder to break into the league and harder to stay there — which, naturally, led to shorter careers.
Let me throw a few more numbers at you so you’ll get the complete picture. This is how many players in each decade played in all 10 seasons of that decade:
2010s: TBD (but likely more than 163, Chris Borland or no Chris Borland)
From the ’20s through the ’50s, the prevailing philosophy seemed to be: play four or five years if you can, burn off any testosterone left over from college, sock away some dough (provided there’s some dough to sock away) and, in the offseasons — which were quite a bit longer then — try to prepare for your Next Life (in coaching, business, teaching, whatever).
George Halas’ Bears teams weren’t just successful on the field, they were successful off it. Several players, for instance, found the time during the season to go to medical and dental school. According to a 2011 story about John Siegal, an end in the ’30s and ’40s, his “typical day would spin the heads of today’s multimillionaire athletes. He attended Bears practice from 9 a.m. to noon, then headed to Northwestern University for dentistry classes from 1 p.m. until 5. One teammate, fullback Bill Osmanski, attended school with him; Halas had agreed to pay the pair’s tuition in addition to their salary.”
(Of course, clubs were more concerned for the players’ welfare in those days. As the Bears’ 1937 media guide noted: “A form of cod-liver oil is taken daily by the players when cold weather sets in.”)
Time and again, Halas would tell his team, “Football is a means to an end.” And in those leaner times, it was the soundest of advice. No player was so well paid that he could retire on his NFL earnings; he’d better have a Plan B (if not a Plan C).
Tom Harmon during his Rams days.
But beyond that, there was more of an understanding that the human body wasn’t built for such punishment — not over the long haul, at least. Doak Walker, the Lions’ Hall of Fame back, quit in 1955 after just six seasons. Tom Harmon, the first pick in the ’41 draft, played a mere two years (after a lengthy stint in the military) before going into sportscasting. The “indestructible” Bronko Nagurski took the knocks for eight seasons, then decided professional wrestling was a safer — and better-paying — alternative (though he came out of retirement in ’43 when the Bears were shorthanded). None of this was unusual.
But as you can see in the decade-by-decade figures, things began to change in the ’60s. The money got better, the medicine improved, the jobs multiplied — and suddenly you had players staying in the game until they were literally wheeled out on a gurney.
It also could be argued that modern players are more dependent on the game than they used to be — because the job has become so time-consuming, in-season and out. Who today could squeeze in med school classes around all the practices, meetings, weight-room sessions, public-relations appearances and everything else on the football calendar? It’s increasingly hard to lay almost any kind of groundwork for Life After Football. (We won’t even get into the dubious college “education” some of these guys receive, “learning” that sometimes doesn’t equip you to do much more than retain your eligibility.)
In recent years, a time bomb has gone off — the Concussion Issue — and people have begun to wonder whether the game has gotten too hazardous to the players’ health, whether this is the beginning of the end for Pro Football As We Know It. First of all, the game has always been too hazardous to the players’ health. No league has left a longer trail of broken bodies than NFL. It’s more a question of: How much are the players — and the fans who cheer them — willing to put up with? Will the risk of CTE cause young athletes to turn to other sports, or will the fame and fortune of football be too much of a lure? And even if a kid does opt to play the game, will he, as he grows older, try to limit the damage, as Borland did (and as players in the early decades did, though their retirements weren’t always of their own volition).
Then there’s the matter of whether the NFL will continue to be as popular if it takes such a toll on its participants — or whether it will remain as profitable if concussion settlements spiral out of control. You even have folks like Malcolm Gladwell suggesting football will become “a ghettoized sport, not a mainstream American sport” — that it will draw most of its players from the lower economic classes, those who have fewer “options” and “for whom the risks are acceptable. . . . It’s going to become the Army.” (Except, perhaps, in such places as Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania, where it’s engrained in the culture.)
Here’s the thing, though: David Robinson made over $116 million in his 14 seasons in the NBA – and that doesn’t include endorsements. Yet his son, Corey, is a wide receiver at Notre Dame and may well be headed for an NFL career. In this instance, in other words, you have an extremely wealthy family — and a very intelligent dad, from my experience — who have spawned, of all things, a football player.
I could make the same point about Denzel Washington’s son, J.D., who was a running back at Morehouse College and spent a year on the St. Louis Rams’ practice squad. I ask you: How many NFL players come from more well-to-do backgrounds than Corey Robinson or J.D. Washington?
As long as a sport offers the chance for glory — never mind an eye-popping paycheck — it will attract players across the economic spectrum, I’m convinced. These players might, in the years to come, spend more time weighing the risk vs. the reward, and that’s a healthy thing. But the idea that vast numbers of them will simply stop playing, like Borland, is a bit farfetched. What it figures to come down to, ultimately, is the fans — and whether they, knowing the game’s consequences (loss of motor and cognitive function, etc.), stop watching. That’s when the league will really be in trouble.
But that, too, seems a bit of a stretch. This, after all, is America, the world’s biggest reality show. Pro football can almost be thought of as a spinoff of Fear Factor. Or is it the other way around?
It’s at the spring meetings that the NFL attends to its rule book — and reminds fans that “We’ll decide what is and isn’t a catch.” What’s far more interesting, though — to me, anyway — are some of the rules that have been rejected over the decades, especially in the formative years. Let me run down a handful of them, just for fun. You’ll be amazed at some of the proposals.
● 1938 — Some in the league were concerned about the increasing proficiency of punters. Their ability, “from inside midfield,” to knock the ball out of bounds inside the 10 was too often putting the opponent “strictly on the defensive with no chance to open up offensively,” The New York Times reported. “. . . The coaches . . . do not consider this a matter of skill and feel it restricts the offensive aspects of the game until a score is made [by the defense] or the half ends.”
The proposed solution: declare such a punt a touchback, “just as if it had gone over the goal line,” which would enable the offense to start from the 20 instead of being pinned deep in its own territory.
Every attempt was being made in those days to unshackle offenses. The previous season, after all, fewer than 26 points had been scored in the average game. But this particular rule change never got off the drawing board.
● 1941 — The NFL still had limited substitution in the early ’40s, and it was up to the umpire to make sure teams didn’t sneak more players into the game than they were allowed. The rules committee actually considered the “installation of an honor system among coaches in regard to the number of substitutions so as to lighten the duties of the umpire,” The Associated Press said.
● 1944 — AP: “Earl Cavanaugh, veteran league head linesman, is sponsoring the proposal for awarding a point for a ‘field goal’ on a kickoff. Among other things, he says, this would discourage out-of-bounds kickoffs, which slow up the game.”
Let’s not forget, you kicked off from the 40 then, and the goal posts were on the goal line. With a little wind at your back, especially, you had a decent chance to score an extra point.
● 1945 — Steelers owner Bert Bell and Eagles coach Greasy Neale pushed for the adoption of sudden-death overtime to cut down on the number of tie games. The New York Times: “The rules committee said in rejecting the proposal . . . that the league hardly had enough players now for 60 minutes of competition.”
That’s right, the NFL considered regular-season overtime at least 29 years before it was voted in. The league was rightly concerned, though, about having “enough players” to get through games. Rosters were only 33 that season, and many guys didn’t get discharged from the military until the fall.
● 1953 — International News Service: “National Football League club owners . . . voted last night against a boost from six to seven points for a touchdown and elimination of the extra point.”
By the mid-‘50s, of course, almost all players were wearing a mask — and with good reason: They wanted their driver’s-license photo to look as good as possible. When the wire service took an informal poll of the Washington roster, it found that 32 of 33 players disagreed with their boss.
“If they took my facemask away,” tackle Don Boll said, “I’d quit football. I broke my nose seven times in college when I didn’t have a mask. The University of Nebraska spent $1,250 on me for plastic surgery.”
Defensive back Norb Hecker added: “With the Rams I lost six teeth, which were accidentally kicked out. I also fractured my left cheekbone. For a mask? Yes, sir.
● 1958 — This was the year college football added the two-point conversion. “The rule,” Time magazine said, “was designed to cut down tie games, give leading teams a chance to exert extra pressure and trailing teams a better chance to catch up.” NFL owners turned thumbs down on the proposal initially (though the AFL embraced it when it started up in 1960).
Cardinals general manager Walter Wolfner looked at it this way: “The ball has to be moved an awful long distance for six points, so why only three yards for two points?”
The league eventually changed its mind, but it wasn’t until 1994 — 36 years later. Some things take time.
At any rate, this year’s rule discussions were pretty mundane compared to other meetings. Maybe the owners should have reconsidered “awarding a point for a ‘field goal’ on a kickoff.”
One more link — long forgotten — between pro football and March Madness:
In March 1947, when the NCAA Tournament was just nine years old, Holy Cross, a small Jesuit school in Worcester, Mass., won the championship by beating Oklahoma in the final, 58-47. The Crusaders were first Eastern team to take the title, prompting one New England coach to say they were “the greatest thing that has happened to New England basketball since its inception as a sport 50 years ago in Springfield.” He was probably right.
NBA legend Bob Cousy was a freshman guard on that HC team. But the guy I want to talk about is the Crusaders’ coach, Alvin “Doggie” Julian. Why? Because less than two months after winning the NCAA tourney, he joined the coaching staff of the NFL’s Boston Yanks — while still hanging on to his college job, of course. You could do stuff like that back then.
Here’s the headline that ran in the May 8, 1947, Boston Globe:
According to the story, Julian had been serving as a football assistant at Holy Cross under Ox DaGrosa, but a “clash of temperaments” caused him to look for other fall employment. When the Yanks’ Clipper Smith offered him the position of backfield coach, he jumped at it — with the understanding it wouldn’t interfere with his college basketball duties. The seasons overlapped a bit, though, and it’s possible Doggie missed the Yanks’ last two games (on the road against the Steelers and Redskins) to devote his full attention to his hoopsters, who returned their entire starting lineup and stood a good chance to repeat as champs.
● “Backing up the line, that’s where a fellow can get plenty of action. There’s always something to do — make a tackle, intercept a pass. Sure, it’s nice to carry the ball, but there’s no thrill like backing up the line.” (1948)
● “I have played 14 years, and I’m counting the games that are left this season. Four, three, two, one, and then I’m hanging up my shoes. I’ve had it. I know I’ve said this for several years, but I’ve never been more sincere in my life. I told my wife the other day, I’ve played one year too long as it is. The pay has been good, though. There are two ways I never wanted to go out. One was with an injury. The other was with a poor team. I hate to quit on such a poor season.” (1962)
● “Joe Namath is a hell of a ballplayer. But as a human being he’s a hell of a creep. If he thinks he can break rules . . . then who does he think he is? . . . I don’t think long hair and athletics mix. Take Joe Pepitone, who used to play for the Yankees. Boy, would I like to be the catcher on a close play at the plate with him coming down the third-base line.” (1970)
● “The NFL had 12 teams when I played. Brother, you separated the men from the boys. You either had it or you were gone. Today, with 40-man squads and 26 teams, it’s too thin. Take quarterbacks, for example. Each team has two quarterbacks. That’s 52 quarterbacks. I want anybody to pick me out 10 outstanding quarterbacks now and six really good ones. They’re not there. There just aren’t that many good ones.” (1971)
The Hit: Bednarik lays out the Giants’ Frank Gifford. Note ball to right.
● “Every now and then people come up to me and say, ‘Oh, you’re the guy who put it to Frank Gifford.’ [Sportscaster] Howard Cosell keeps saying I blind-sided Gifford, but that isn’t true at all. He was running a down-and-in and, coming from my left linebacker position, I caught him head-on but cleanly. It was like a Mack truck hitting a Volkswagen. Frank had caught a pass, and when I tackled him the ball flew out of his hands and we recovered. I was so ecstatic over that that I jumped up and down in the air with my fist clenched. I didn’t know Frank was unconscious. Later, when his wife came to see him in the hospital, he said to her, ‘Honey, it was a clean tackle.’ We’re very good friends. He has even had me as a guest in his home. No sir, I was not a dirty player. Nobody ever accused me of that.” (1977)
● “Steve Van Buren of the Philadelphia Eagles was the best running back of his time, 1944-51. You can’t match yesterday’s apples with today’s oranges. But you can enjoy both.” (1984)
● “[The NFL champion 1960 Eagles] were the kind of team that you wondered how you kept winning. There were no superstars. I hate that, anyway — ‘superstars.’ To me, nobody is super except God.” (1986)
● “No question I could still go both ways [in today’s game], but I wouldn’t. I’d specialize, and I would last longer. I would be worth millions. It would be Lawrence Taylor’s salary plus 10 percent. And you know they try to compare me with linebackers like Dick Butkus, Willie Lanier and Sam Huff. There’s no comparison. They were mostly interior linebackers. I was a roving linebacker — protecting the middle and the sweeps. Plus, I centered the ball, I punted, I sometimes kicked off. My game called for so much more versatility.” (1992)
● “The positions I played [as a two-way player], every play, I was making contact [with an opponent], not like that . . . Deion Sanders. He couldn’t tackle my wife. He’s back there dancing out there instead of hitting.” (2005)
● “I’ll be 80 on May 1, and I know if they offered me $5 million, I could come back and snap the ball on punts and kicks. I know I could. I’d play one year and then retire.” (2005)
Quarterback Norm Van Brocklin (11), Coach Buck Shaw and Bednarik (60) after winning the ’60 title.