My first professional football
experience came in mid-August when the College All Stars played the
Cleveland Browns, the 1964 NFL champions. The game was the unofficial
start of fall for pro fans. But you wouldn't have known it that night.
The air was as thick as warm soup as we took the field to the cheers of
a packed Soldier Field in Chicago. It was alive that night, filled
mostly with Bears fans, some 70,000 in all.
Banks of brilliant light hit us as we came out of the tunnel, and the
smells of hot prairie air and summer grass flooded our senses. The PA
announcers solemnly called for silence and we stood, our helmets on our
hips, as the national anthem welled up into the night. My eyes were
moist, my stomach was flipping, and my heart was racing. Underneath it
all, I was praying that I wouldn't screw it up.
I was in the best of company. Roger Staubach and I had been voted
co-captains of one of the greatest all star squads ever assembled: Lance
Rentzel, Craig Morton, Ralph Neely, Bill Curry, John Huarte, Tucker
Frederickson, Steve DeLong, Bob Hayes, Jack Snow, Marty Schottenheimer,
Fred Biletnikoff, Ken Willard, Roy Jefferson, Jerry Rush, Harry Schuh,
Archie Sutton, and my future teammate, fresh from the corn fields of
Kansas, the one and only Gale Sayers. These were players I would face
again and again in the long seasons ahead.
Gale and I held our own in that game, toiling under that warm, wet
blanket of a night. Of my fourteen tackles, a few were applied to Jim
Brown, and yes, he was tough to bring down, his body harder and stronger
than most. He was the most agile runner I would ever face, capable of
reducing the angle of almost any tackle. During the first half, the heat
was almost overwhelming, but Jim just kept coming. Then, in the third
quarter, a cool, silvery rain fell on us through the lights. Afterward
the air smelled of the coming fall as Gale and I finished out our
There is one thing about that game that I will never for get. It
happened late in the fourth quarter after the night had cooled down. We
had put on a blitz. I shot the gap between the left guard and tackle and
there, standing between me and the quarterback, was Jim Brown, the man
who, according to the sportswriters, never bothered to block. Well, he
was wait ing for me that night. When we made contact, we seemed to
freeze for an instant before I started to make a move to get by him.
Suddenly he had my left arm clamped under his left arm, and when he
began to roll to his left, I realized that if I didn't get my arm out of
that vise Jim had it in, he'd either hyperextend my elbow or break the
arm altogether. I slipped free just in time. Why did he do it? I don't
know. Maybe he didn't like the way I hit him earlier in the game. But
deep down I think it was because he was Jim Brown. He was not going to
let me get by him, even though it was just an all star game. Like all
great athletes, Jim had a hidden reserve that he called up on special
So much for those who said Jim Brown didn't block. Although I would only
play against this man one more time in a Pro Bowl my impression at the
time was that he might be the best back I would ever play against. That
turned out to be true, despite the likes of Jim Taylor, Leroy Kelly, and
all the other notable backs of the era.
That night registers sweet and sad and a little vague in my memory. But
I remember clearly how I felt, and for that I'm grateful. Chances are I
will never know it again, never know a similar honor. Maybe for a
surgeon, it's that first operation when his hands do exactly what
they'd been trained for years to do. For me, it was that all star game,
my first trial against the best players in the land.
Although I've heard it said that in one's last days the glories of a
life are played out on a canvas so bold and brilliant that the memory
lives in startling detail. I hope that's true, for I'd like to see the
high moments of my playing life once more before I go. Certainly that
all star game of 1965 would be high on the list of my special requests.