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.”
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.
With the NHL playoffs just around the corner — and the Concussion Issue continuing to hover over the NFL — I thought I’d write a quick post about the time, long before it was fashionable, Red Wings legend Gordie Howe wore a leather helmet.
This was during the 1950-51 season. In the playoffs the previous spring, Howe had gone head-first into the boards — the Maple Leafs’ Ted Kennedy was his intended target — and suffered a fractured skull and serious facial injuries. Doctors had to perform emergency surgery to stop a brain hemorrhage.
When Howe returned to action in the fall, he experienced headaches and, once, a dizzy spell. So his bosses convinced him to put on a leather headgear (plastic helmets not yet being in vogue).
“We just don’t want to take chances,” general manager Jack Adams said. “I’ve wanted Gordie to wear a headgear for a long time and finally talked him into it on the train coming back from Toronto.”
Here’s the best photo I could find of it (from the Dec. 15, 1950, Lowell Sun in Massachusetts). The contrast is poor and the figures a little faint, but you can make out Howe’s helmet.
Howe eventually discarded the thing, tough guy that he was. The league made helmets mandatory for incoming players in 1979, his 32nd and final pro season, but veterans had the option of going without them — and Gordie did. Here he is, late in his career, mixing it up with Quebec’s (better-protected) Curt Brackenbury.
Sometime soon the NFL is expected to do something about the extra point. What that something is will be decided by the Competition Committee, the owners and possibly the ASPCK (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Kickers). It’s beginning to bother me, though, that I haven’t heard Two Little Words very much, words that should be a big part of this discussion:
By point value, I’m talking mainly about the relationship between the touchdown (six points) and the field goal (three). Since the league was founded in 1920, a TD has almost always been worth more than two field goals because the PAT has been virtually automatic. This, to my mind, is as it should be. Driving the length of the field and punching the ball across is more of an accomplishment than, say, getting stopped twice at the 30 and booting a pair of 48-yard field goals.
The Warriors’ Stephen Curry: 91.6%. NFL kickers: 84%.
That’s especially true nowadays, when a field-goal try has about the same success rate as a Stephen Curry free throw. Last season kickers made 84 percent of their three-pointers (61 percent from 50 yards and beyond). The year before they were even more accurate (86.5).
One of the arguments for dickering with the PAT is to reduce the impact of these specialists, which is far out of proportion to the time they spend on the field. So why, I ask, would you want to change the rule so that there would be more unsuccessful point-afters, as the league is reportedly considering? Because if there are more of those — by either run, pass or kick — then you have more instances of a touchdown being worth only six points . . . the same as two field goals.
I’d rather have a TD worth seven points — as it’s essentially been for decades — and give the scoring team a chance for a bonus point from the 2-yard line – or wherever the odds would be closest to 50/50. No kicks allowed. (There are more than enough of those.)
Then you’d have an Exciting Play after every touchdown and games would sometimes decided by the proficiency of a team’s extra-point offense (or defense). Wouldn’t that be preferable to what we have now? If you wanted to add some spice to it, you could give the D the opportunity to score a point by returning a fumble or interception the length of the field (something the league is also said to be weighing). Seems only fair.
This, of course, would involve burying the two-point conversion. Let’s face it, there’s always been a certain illogic to it. For moving the ball two yards, the offense scores as many points as the defense does for tackling the ball carrier in the end zone for a safety — and almost as many as a kicker does for booting a 64-yard field goal. Again, it all goes back to point value.
Pro football doesn’t the need a gimmick like that. Scoring is at historic levels; in each of the last three seasons it’s topped 45 points a game, equaling the previous best three-year stretch from 1948 to ’50. The Patriots-Seahawks Super Bowl, meanwhile, drew 114.4 million viewers, a record for the game. The NFL’s customers are clearly satisfied, whether the PAT is reimagined or not.
It would do the league no harm, that I can see, to leave the point-after exactly as is. (Would it make one dollar less?) But it could do it some harm if four or five goal-line plays were added to each game. All we’d need is a star player or two to suffer a season-ending injury — for the sake of a measly additional point — and we’d have sports-talk-show hosts shrieking, “What the #%&@! were they thinking?”
(Note: The short-lived World Football League adopted, in 1974, a rule like the one I’m proposing. After a touchdown, which was worth seven points, the ball was marked at the 2 ½-yard line, and the scoring team could add another point via a run or pass. The “action point,” it was called.)
There are reasons the extra point has, over the decades, fought off attempt after attempt to eliminate it. Its history, in fact, is infinitely more interesting than the play itself. The play itself is a metronomic bore: snap, hold, kick. (Or as I like to think of it: We interrupt this game to bring you the World Cup.) It also has never seemed like much of a football play, even if it does involve the foot.
At least as early as 1933, there were folks in the NFL lobbying to get rid of the point-after. That was the year the Giants’ Tim Mara sought to “abolish” it and replace it with “a 10-minute overtime period in the event that the regulation game ends in a tie,” The New York Times reported.
Mara pointed out that of 58 league games played during the past season only one was decided by the extra point and that  . . . resulted in ties.
“In every sport but football authorities have sought to avoid a tie score,” Mara declared. “No matter whom you are rooting for you don’t want to see a game end in a tie. The game has reached such a stage now that few field goals are attempted. The one desire seems to be a touchdown.”
So that, maybe, was the first grenade lobbed in the PAT’s direction. The league was choking on tie games, and the point-after wasn’t helping to break those ties (which is one of the things it was supposed to do).
Bert Bell, as owner of the Eagles and later as NFL commissioner, made the quashing of the extra point a personal crusade. He did everything he could to get it stricken from the rulebook. One of his main arguments was that the change would “do away with the one-point spread in which gamblers are so much interested,” he said in 1951. This, he predicted, would cut down “gambling by 60 percent.”
Not long afterward he pushed for touchdowns to be revalued at seven points — thereby making the PAT superfluous. The Times referred to it as his “perennial suggestion.” It was voted down, 7-5.
Lloyd Larsen, the Milwaukee Sentinel columnist, joked that Bell might have had an ulterior motive. “Could it be,” he wondered, “that his real concern is the cost of footballs [$17 per] kicked into the crowd?”
Actually, there might have been some truth to this — in the early years, anyway. One Sunday in 1935, Bell nearly ran out of footballs during a blowout loss to the Bears in Philadelphia. Chicago’s Jack Manders kept booting extra points into the stands, and the fans kept keeping them as consolation prizes. By the third quarter, only one usable ball was left. So after their last two touchdowns, the Bears waived their right to a PAT and just lined up for the kickoff. That explained the unusual final score: 39-0.
But while the provisional rule jazzed up some otherwise dreary exhibition games, it never gained much traction with the owners — and was deposited, along with all the other brainstorms whose time had not yet come, in the dustbin of history.
And now here we are, almost half a century later, wrestling with the PAT question again. I just wish, while we were mulling the issue, the words “point value” were being thrown around more often. Two field goals should never equal a touchdown. They just shouldn’t.
Nobody hated the PAT more than NFL commissioner Bert Bell (shown here working on the schedule — with dominoes).
The 1959 NFL draft was full of Famous Lasts. It was last draft that was 30 rounds long. (It was reduced to 20 the next year.) It was the last draft of Bert Bell’s commissionership. (He dropped dead at an Eagles-Steelers game the following October.) It was the last draft — for a decade, anyway — that didn’t have the shadow of the rival AFL hanging over it. (Though the CFL siphoned off some talent in the ’50s.) And it was the last, first and only draft in which one team — the Los Angeles Rams — picked 12 players before another team — the Pittsburgh Steelers — picked any.
Think about the Rams/Steelers thing for a moment. It would be almost impossible, after all, for it to happen today. A general manager would have to pull a (modified) Mike Ditka and trade away his entire draft, while another accumulated — through deals, compensatory picks, what have you — five extra selections. Good luck with that.
It was unusual enough for 1959, even with each club getting 30 picks. Everything just came together, perfect-storm-like. You had a Rams team, with a GM named Pete Rozelle, taking the stockpiling of selections to a new level; and you had a a Steelers team, with wheeler-dealer coach Buddy Parker pulling the strings, trading picks for veterans at an unprecedented rate (one that wouldn’t be duplicated until George Allen and his Over the Hill Gang invaded Washington).
When the pre-draft dust settled, the Rams had a dozen selections in the first seven rounds — all in the first 80 picks. (There were only 12 franchises then, remember.) The Steelers, meanwhile, had traded their first seven choices and didn’t pick until midway through Round 8, when they took Purdue running back Tom Barnett.
This, as you can imagine, caused something of a stir. Chicago Cardinals GM Walter Wolfner, not a big fan of swapping the Future for the Present to begin with, compared what the Steelers did to “borrowing money from a loan shark to pay somebody else.
“I am bitterly opposed to trading away draft choices because it defeats the purpose of the draft, which is supposed to equalize strength in the league,” he said. “By trading [for additional] draft choices, strong teams can afford to draft ‘redshirts,’ and in that way the strong get stronger and the weak weaker.”
(FYI: Redshirts were players who had been in college for four years (which made them eligible for the draft) but still had some eligibility left. They also were called “futures” because, even after being selected, they usually returned to school for their final season before turning pro. The better NFL clubs — clubs that might not be as desperate for immediate help — could use more of their picks on these players . . . and perhaps steal a guy or two they might never have had a shot at.)
Not everyone agreed with Wolfner, though. To other GMs, an asset — be it a player or a draft choice — was an asset, to be used as a team saw fit. As Rozelle put it, the swapping of veterans for picks “has helped us and we believe has been helpful to other clubs. No one can say the Eagles didn’t help themselves by getting [quarterback Norm] Van Brocklin [for, among other things, a No. 1]. Some of the clubs who do not have the budgets for scouting and cannot utilize their choices to the extent others can, through astute trading oft times help themselves.”
The Rams invested heavily in their player-personnel department. In fact, they were trailblazers in that area. Art Rooney’s Steelers, on the other hand, were more of a mom-and-pop operation, though Parker was trying to change that. Buddy, who merely wanted to turn around a habitually losing franchise as quickly as possible, had no misgivings about the extreme lengths he was going to. “There is no adverse effect on the public,” he said, “– as long as we win.”
And the thing is, Parker was making progress. His second Steelers team, in 1958, had gone 7-4-1 — the second-best record in franchise history. As for the Rams, their draft-driven rebuild was nearly complete. Or so they thought. They’d finished a game out of first in the Western Conference in ’58 and, with all the high picks in ’59, were determined to overtake the title-winning Colts.
Anyway, here’s how it all unfolded, how the Rams wound up with 12 selections in the first seven rounds and the Steelers with none:
● 1 (2nd overall) — From the Eagles for QB Norm Van Brocklin. Drafted: RB Dick Bass. Bass still had a year of eligibility at Pacific and didn’t join the Rams until 1960.
7 (79) — To the Redskins for LB Ralph Felton. Redskins drafted: QB Mitch Ogiego.
(Note: If a player doesn’t have any stats to click on, it’s because he never played in the NFL or AFL.)
Layne, Orr and Tracy were terrific additions to the Steelers offense. The Rams’ biggest “hits” in the draft were Bass, a two-time 1,000-yard rusher (and three-time Pro Bowler), and Meador, who intercepted 46 passes (and went to six Pro Bowls). What’s more, two months later, Rozelle had enough of a surplus to swap nine players for Ollie Matson, the Cardinals’ Hall of Fame back. Brown (20th pick), Hickman (31) and Tracey (44) were included in the deal.
But the Steelers and Rams both went backward in ’59 — Pittsburgh to 6-5-1, L.A. to a ghastly 2-10 (which cost coach Sid Gillman his job). Not long after that, Rozelle was running the league from the commissioner’s office in New York, and Parker was busily trading away even more draft picks. In 1960 he had only two selections in the first six rounds.
It’s one of the more fascinating aspects of the early NFL: the extremes. There simply wasn’t the parity that exists today — not nearly. Some franchises had money to spend, some had a lot less money to spend. The difference between the best teams and the worst teams was often much greater. And, of course, one club could make 12 draft picks before another club could make even one. Strange, but true.
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?
They went bonkers in Golf Land Thursday over Aaron Baddeley’s miracle shot in the Valero Texas Open. It came at the par-4 17th hole, which was playing 336 yards and slightly downwind. The play by play:
1. Baddeley goes for the green and pulls his tee shot into the woods.
2. Baddeley takes an unplayable tie, trudges back to the tee and tries again.
3. Baddeley lets ’er rip a second time and holes out for a birdie.
“I hit it and started walking,” he said, “and then heard the crowd going nuts.”
This reminds me of a shot John Brodie, the erstwhile 49ers quarterback, once pulled off in a PGA Tour event. Brodie dabbled on the Tour during the offseason — he later won on the Champions Tour — and on this day in 1959 he was playing in the second round of the Bing Crosby Pro-Am at Pebble Beach.
At the 110-yard seventh hole, he plunked his tee ball into the Pacific (which isn’t that hard to do, especially if the wind kicks up). Here’s a visual:
The 110-yard seventh hole at Pebble Beach.
So Brodie got another ball out of his bag, teed it up, and this one proved much more obedient. It went right in the cup – for a par 3. Or as The Associated Press put it:
John Brodie, San Francisco 49er[s] quarterback, aced the 110-yard seventh hole at Pebble Beach but had to settle for a par 3. He had knocked his first tee shot over the green and into the ocean.
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.”
● “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.
More than a few NFLers have played college basketball — especially in the two- and three-sport eras – but only a handful have made much of a mark in the NCAA Tournament. Here are the five most notable ones (and a handful of others who also took part in March Madness):
Antonio Gates: Once a hoopster, always a hoopster.
high scorer with 22 when Golden Flashes knocked off third-seed Pittsburgh in the Sweet 16. Alas, he was a tweener by NBA standards, a muscular 6-4, so he opted for a pro football career. San Diego signed him as an undrafted free agent and, 788 catches and 99 touchdowns later, he’s on his way to the Hall of Fame.
● Tony Gonzalez, TE, Chiefs/Falcons, 1997-2013 — Gonzalez joined California’s 1996-97 basketball squad late because the football team played in a bowl game. By the time the tournament rolled around, though, he was starting at power forward — and making a major impact. In Cal’s first-round game, he scored the Bears’ final 5 points (and 13 in all) to help the Bears edge Princeton. In Round 2, he had a team-high 23 in a victory over Villanova. His future was clearly in the NFL, though, and the following month the Chiefs drafted him 13th overall. He went on to break virtually all the records for tight ends and figures to be voted into the Hall as soon as he’s eligible.
● Sam Clancy, DE, Seahawks/Browns/Colts, 1983, ’85-93 — Clancy was an even bigger bruiser than the first two guys, measuring 6-7 and bulking up to 288 in the NFL. He was the star of Pittsburgh’s 1981 NCAA tourney team, posting a double-double (22/13) in the opener against Idaho and racking up 16 points and 6 rebounds in the Panthers’ second-round loss to North Carolina (the eventual runner-up). The NBA’s Phoenix Suns selected him in the third round, but after a year in the Continental Basketball Association he turned to football and spent the next decade as a pass-rushing specialist. In 1991, his best season, he had 7.5 sacks for Indianapolis.
● Ron Widby, P, Cowboys/Packers, 1968-73 — Widby was a fabulous all-around athlete at Tennessee, good enough to lead the nation in punting (1966), win SEC Player of the Year honors in basketball (1967) and earn letters in baseball and golf. In his one NCAA tournament (’67), he totaled 43 points and 13 rebounds in the Vols’ two games. Following a brief stint in the American Basketball Association with the New Orleans Buccaneers, he punted for Dallas and Green Bay for six seasons. He was voted first team all-pro by the AP in 1969, when he led the NFC with a 43.3-yard average, and went to the Pro Bowl in ’71, the year the Cowboys won their first Super Bowl.
● Sixth man: Cornell Green, CB/SS, Cowboys, 1962-74 — Like Gates and Clancy, Green didn’t play college football. But Dallas was intrigued enough by his size (6-3, 208) and agility to offer him a contract — and understandably so. His senior season at Utah State, the Aggies made it to the Sweet 16, and he scored 27, 26 and 20 points in their three tournament games. That got him drafted in the fifth round by the NBA’s Chicago Zephyrs, but he decided to give pro football a shot instead. He wound up going to five Pro Bowls (three as a cornerback, two as a strong safety) and appearing in four NFL title games. He also gets bonus points for being the brother of Pumpsie Green, one of the great nicknames in baseball history and the first black player for the Red Sox.
Other bench players:
● Jack Dugger, T, Lions/Bears, 1947-49 — Dugger was a 6-3, 230-pound lineman who had a nondescript pro career. But near as I can tell, he’s the only NFL player to play in two Final Fours — with Ohio State in 1944 and ’45. Of course, the Final Four was different then. The semifinals were held in separate locations, the sites of the East and West regionals, after which the winners convened for the championship game (at Madison Square Garden in those years). In the ’44 semis, Dugger scored 8 points in a loss to Dartmouth, and in the ’45 semis he scored 4 in a loss to NYU (featuring the great Dolph Schayes).
● K.C. Jones, DB, Rams (training camp), 1955 — Ah, what might have been. The Rams drafted Jones out of curiosity in the last round in ’55 — the year he and Bill Russell helped San Francisco win the first of back-to-back NCAA titles. During his brief time in camp, he pretty much invented the bump-and-run style of pass defense, frustrating receivers with what can only be described as a full-court press. (And while his teammates constantly complained about his hand-checking, there was nothing in the rules preventing it.) Jones had the size (6-1, 200), athleticism, toughness and smarts to be another Night Train Lane, but basketball was his true calling, and he went on to glory with the Boston Celtics as — what else? — a defensive stopper.
Clarification: Yes, Vikings legend Joe Kappplayed hoops at California in the late ’50s — the Bears’ glory years under Pete Newell. But no, he never got into a Final Four game. While he did appear in three tournament games in 1957 and ’58, going scoreless, he wasn’t on the team in ’59, when Cal won the NCAA title. Why? “I couldn’t play basketball [that season] because of the Rose Bowl,” he once said. (The Bears lost in Pasadena to second-ranked Iowa, 38-12.)
Sources: Encyclopedia of College Basketball by Mike Douchant, The Encyclopedia of the NCAA Basketball Tournament by Jim Savage, pro-football-reference.com, sports-reference.com.
In the second round of the 1997 NCAA Tournament, Tony Gonzalez led Cal with 23 points in a win over Villanova.