Tag Archives: Hall of Fame

The Hall of Fame case for Terrell Davis

When Terrell Davis retired from the Broncos 12 years ago, I wrote a column saying that, abbreviated career or not, he absolutely belonged in the Hall of Fame. Nothing that’s happened since has changed my mind one iota. If anything, I’m even more convinced Davis is Canton quality, a rare running back who simply caught a bad break — much as Gale Sayers did three decades earlier.

Saturday we’ll find out if the selection committee agrees with me. Davis is a finalist for the first time, and he has the usual formidable competition. Here’s my case for him, then and now:

 “I have mixed feelings [about retirement]. It’s tough. My mind tells me one thing, my knees say something else. I know I still have a lot of football in me. But I know that my body is not going to allow me to perform at the level I want to play.”

— Terrell Davis, August 2002

In the late ’90s, Terrell Davis was as good a story as there was in the NFL. Here was an all-pro running back who played blocking back and nose tackle in high school.  Who was told “basically my whole college career [at Georgia] that I was no good,” he once said. Who was a sixth-round afterthought in the ’95 draft, taken between Dino Philyaw and Craig Whelihan.

Then he magically rushed for 2,000 yards in a season and led the Denver Broncos, perennial Super Bowl patsies, to two championships. If it could happen to him, it could happen to anyone, right?

But now, almost as suddenly as he appeared, Davis is gone — retired at 29 because of bad knees. Yes, there are limits to medical science, as Mr. Chunky Soup has reminded us. Even with the miracle of arthroscopy, not every torn ligament heals as good as new. Terrell spent the last three seasons trying to recapture his old form, but one injury just seemed to lead to another.

Terrell Davis in the open field in Super Bowl 32.

Terrell Davis in the open field in Super Bowl 32.

The other night he gave his final Mile High Salute in Denver, and already the debate has begun about whether he merits residency in Canton. The easy answer is: No, Davis simply didn’t play long enough. Four stellar seasons — followed by three crippled ones — do not a Hall of Fame career make. And it’s a persuasive argument. Football, after all, is a battle of attrition, and durability is held in the highest regard. A guy I know at the Hall says the first question old-timers ask one another at get-togethers is: “How long did you play?”

Redskins icon Larry Brown has been kept out of Canton for the same ostensible reason.  Terrific as he was at his peak, he lasted just eight years in the league, rushing for a modest — by today’s standards — 5,875 yards. Quite a few fine running backs, in fact, have had their careers cut short by injury or accumulated wear and tear: Gale SayersEarl Campbell, Chuck ForemanBilly SimsWilliam AndrewsJohn Brockington. It’s a depressingly long list, especially since only Sayers and Campbell have been elected to the Hall.

You’d be hard-pressed to find another position in any sport that has been so ravaged by injury. Running backs in recent times have become the stunt men of pro football. Put the ball in their belly — or sling them a swing pass — and watch them leap linebackers in a single bound. Or try to. Everybody in the pro game gets beat up, sure, but does anybody take more of a pounding than running backs?

I was just glancing at a list of the NFL’s leading rushers in 2000. Are you ready for this? Six of the top seven didn’t even break 1,000 yards last season [2001]. Edgerrin James blew out his knee. Robert Smith retired. Eddie George, slowed by a painful toe injury, slipped from 1,509 to 939. Mike Anderson wound up splitting time with Davis and Olandis Gary. Fred Taylor got hurt. And Jamal Lewis went down in training camp and missed the entire year.

What other position has that kind of volatility? What other position, for that matter, has had two Pro Bowl players in the past few years — Smith and Barry Sanders — call it quits while still in their primes? The prevailing philosophy among coaches seems to be: give running backs the ball until they drop. Davis carried 481 and 470 times in the Broncos’ two Super Bowl-winning years (postseason included), two of the three highest totals in NFL history. George had 485 touches (428 carries, 57 receptions) in ’99 when Tennessee went to the Super Bowl (again, counting the postseason). Heck, coal miners are treated better than that.

So maybe we need to start looking at running backs a little differently than we do other players. Maybe we need to put more emphasis on how well they played and less on how long they endured. Particularly when you have backs like Davis rushing for 2,008 yards — and then suffering a career-altering injury. Or Jamal Anderson rushing for 1,846 — and doing likewise. Or Garrison Hearst rushing for 1,570 — and missing the next two years. This sort of thing is happening all the time to running backs nowadays, and it would be a shame if Hall voters didn’t begin to take it into account.

That’s not to say Davis should be admitted in his first year of eligibility, just that he’s deserving of the honor somewhere down the line. The yardstick for me isn’t Sayers, a human highlight reel in his brief time in the league, it’s John Henry Johnson. Johnson, whose career ended around the same time as Gale’s, rushed for 6,803 yards and 48 touchdowns over 13 seasons. Davis rushed for 6,413 yards and 56 TDs in his first four years. And you’re going to put John Henry in the Hall but not Terrell?

Explain that one to me.

From The Washington Times, Aug. 22, 2002

Source: pro-football-reference.com

Joe Theismann beating Jim Taylor in “The Superstars” tennis finals, 1979

Tennis doesn’t get any better than this, folks. I’m talking about tennis, of course, between a 29-year-old active NFL quarterback and a 43-year-old retired NFL fullback. Kudos to Packers Hall of Famer Jim Taylor for upsetting high-jumper Dwight Stones in the semis and reaching the finals of the 1979 “Superstars” against the Redskins’ Joe Theismann, who junked his way to . . . well, you’ll find out.

Speaking of junk, sports programming didn’t get much trashier in those days than “The Superstars,” an ABC production in which (mostly) athletes from a wide variety of sports competed in 10 events for money and vanity. (I say “(mostly) athletes” because actor Robert Duvall placed sixth in 1976 — and first in bowling. Who knew Tom Hagen was the Dick Weber of the Corleone household?)

Frank Gifford provides the tennis play-by-play in this clip and, being Frank, tries to breathe life into a match that, as anyone can see, was dead on arrival. What a pro. FYI: Theismann finished third in the standings that year and fourth the next before “retiring” from the “Superstars” grind to devote his full attention to winning the Super Bowl (though he did take part, victoriously, in a “Superteams” competition in 1983 with some other Redskins).

Helmetless in 1927

The clip below should be seen in its entirety. First because precious little game footage survives from the ’20s, and second because it’s only 2 minutes long. You got something better to do?

The teams are the Providence Steam Roller (dark jerseys) and the semipro Framingham (Mass.) Lion Tamers (light jerseys with stripes on the arms). The year is 1927 — the year before the Steam Roller won the NFL title and five years before they dropped out of the league, a victim of the Depression. It looks like the game is being played in Framingham, because Providence’s stadium, the Cycledrome, was built for bicycle racing and had a banked track running around the field.

One of the first things you notice (:03) is that the left end and right guard for Providence are bareheaded. I’m guessing the end, No. 12, is Ed Lynch. Not sure about the right guard, but it could be Jim Laird. Later on (:53) you’ll see Nos. 12 and 26, both helmetless, in the same frame, and later still (1:29), if you look hard, you’ll see three Steam Roller linemen without headgear — the left end, right guard and right end. The right end might be John Spellman, who was renowned as a wrestler and won a gold medal in the 1924 Paris Games — the Chariots of Fire Olympics — in the light-heavyweight class.

Also worthy of note:

● The officials are wearing white — like hospital attendants, which was probably fitting. It was a rough game back then, what with minimal padding, no facemasks (except to protect an injury) and, for some guys, no helmets.

● On the extra point (:26), the kicker uses a holder. It’s a good reminder that not everybody dropkicked in 1927. Indeed, by the end of the decade, the practice was becoming obsolete.

The Steam Roller’s coach was Hall of Famer Jimmy Conzelman, who also played quarterback for them. (The QB was essentially the blocking back in the single wing, though he often called the plays and, in Conzelman’s case, contributed as a receiver.) Jimmy was a legendary storyteller, and one of his best tales was about Lynch. It went something like this:

You hear a lot about Cal Hubbard and George Trafton from those early years, but you never hear about a lad named Ed Lynch. Lynch was a bricklayer before he went to college, and from what I’ve been able to learn, he was a very good man on the corners. Now, there are bricklayers and there are bricklayers. Some are good on a straightaway wall, but only a master craftsman can handle the delicate job of laying the corners. As I said, Lynch was very good on the corners.

When he’d gathered together enough money, he matriculated at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. He’s a legend down there now. He was a grand basketball player and a magnificent man on a football field. Six feet tall, about 205 pounds, wide shoulders, tremendous arms – an eye-filling sight from head to toe.

He played end for me in Detroit and Providence, and he was one of the finest ends I ever saw. He thought that only sissies wore pads, so he played without any protective equipment except the muscles he was born with. Brother, that was plenty.

One day we were playing the Frankford Yellow Jackets, and we returned the opening kickoff to about our 20. The Yellow Jackets had just signed a hotshot college tackle, and Lynch looked him over as we lined up for the first play.

“What’s your name, sonny?” asked Lynch, calm as you please.

The kid was taken aback by such a question at such a time. “Weir,” he said. “Ed Weir.”

“Oh,” answered Lynch, “you’re that All-America tackle from Nebraska. Gosh, it must be great to be famous. Take me, for instance. Nobody ever heard of me. I went to a little school, Catholic U., but I’m just as big as you and just as tough. I probably know more about football than you do, too. Give me a minute and I’ll show you.”

He turned back to me and said, “Jimmy, run a play around my end. I want to demonstrate something to this young fellow.” Nobody ever said that Conzelman was anything but obliging. So I carried the ball myself, and Lynch practically drove Weir into the next lot. A defensive back made the tackle about 20 yards downfield. As I walked back, there was Lynch helping Weir to his feet.

He was very nice about it, too. “See what I mean, sonny?” he remarked in kindly fashion. “Now let me show you again. Jimmy, run one this way once more.” And he pinned Weir in that same deadly fashion. What I wouldn’t have given to have a Lynch or two on my Chicago Cardinals teams in the ’40s. A great player. And a great bricklayer. Very good on the corners.