In 1968 I was a First Lieutenant in the U.S. Army stationed in Ft. Riley, Kansas. That fall I attended all the home football games for Kansas State. At the time Kansas State was a member of the Big 8 Conference that had four powerhouse teams: Oklahoma, Nebraska, Colorado, and Kansas. Kansas State’s record that year was four wins and six losses. Despite their losing record, eleven of the players on that team went on to play professional football.
One of the halfbacks on that team was a college “superstar.” He held eight school records, was honorable mention All-American, All Big 8, and played in the North- South game, the Senior Bowl, and the All-American Bowl.
The “other halfback” on that team was used primarily as a blocking back and only had a slight mention in the Kansas State media guide. I was not even aware he was on the team.
The “superstar” was drafted by the Atlanta Falcons but played for the New England Patriots. Halfway through his third year he was released and soon after dropped out of football.
Much to my surprise, the “other halfback” was also drafted, but the team that drafted him had not had a winning season in 15 years! But he had a career that lasted nine years. He scored 35 touchdowns, caught 20 touchdown passes, and had 19 games in which he rushed for over 100 yards. He rushed for over 1,000 yards for five consecutive seasons. He was the NFL’s leading rusher one year, a unanimous All-Pro selection, and played in the Pro Bowl four times.
What happened to these two men? Why did their lives take such different directions? I decided to find out.
The New England Patriots heard the “superstar” was in the Indiana State prison on a drug charge. Upon investigation, I learned he had been released but was now imprisoned in the state of Georgia.
The “other halfback” was an executive for Xerox Corporation when I decided to go meet him. He didn’t understand why I wanted to talk with him, but after I explained he relaxed, and we started to talk. He said there was only one team he didn’t want to get drafted by because he was afraid of the coach, and that was the team that drafted him. Thirty running backs were invited to the training camp that fall. He was so fearful of his coach that he decided he would practice as if each time he touched the ball it would be his last moment on earth. He did get the coach’s attention. The coach drove him unmercifully, attacked his lack of effort, and drove him to be better. The coach also noticed he was late off the snap count, and it was discovered he had a hearing problem.
By the second game in the season the “other halfback” was in the staring backfield. He told me when he came off the field, the coach, eyes blazing, would challenge him to do better. Soon the “other halfback” was sharing his coach’s drive to win and excel.
At the end of his rookie season, “other halfback” was fourth place in rushers in the NFL, his team had their first winning season in 16 years, he was selected to the Pro Bowl, and was runner up for Rookie of the Year to Calvin Hill of the Dallas Cowboys.
The “other halfback” was Larry Brown. The team he played for was the Washington Redskins, and his coach in 1969 was Vince Lombardi. I asked Larry Brown how he felt about Lombardi. He thought for a second, looked way from me, and stared out the window. When he turned back toward me he struggled to say his words, “I wish—I wish I hadn’t been a rookie. I wish I hadn’t been so afraid of him. I wish I could have known him better…like the Packers. I wish I could have been his friend.”
Vince Lombardi said, “All the rings, all the money, all the color, all the display, they linger only in the memory. But the spirit, the will to win, the will to excel, these are the things that endure.”
Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “You’ve all been to the stadium and seen the athletes race. Everyone runs; one wins. Run to win. All good athletes train hard. They do it for a gold medal that tarnishes and fades. You’re after one that’s gold eternally.” 1 Corinthians 9:24-25 (MSG)