Football 101: No. 46, Lance Alworth
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The very best nicknames are the ones that need no explanation. It’s fine to nickname a person “Hollywood” because of how much they crave the spotlight or “Spaceman” because of their flakiness or “The Say Hey Kid” because they have a habit of saying “Say Hey” when they see you. Great nicknames are still great nicknames even if they require a backstory.
But the nicknames that transcend are the ones that reveal themselves without any explanation at all.
You only had to watch Lance Alworth run one pass pattern to know why they called him “Bambi.”
“Bambi” was in every part of Lance Alworth. His body shape. His demeanor. His brown eyes. His voice. And mostly in the way he ran — Alworth was the fastest guy on pretty much every field he played, and yet he always looked as if he was running unsteadily, like a deer first learning to walk. Charlie Flowers, a one-time All-America fullback at Ole Miss (where Alworth had wanted to play), saw Alworth run during a summer practice with the Chargers and immediately announced, “You’re Bambi.”
Flowers was cut from the Chargers shortly after that, but he had left his mark on professional football history.
Alworth did not care at all for the nickname at first. He tried some things to separate himself from it — he dyed his hair red, went weeks without shaving, tried to give himself a tough and hard look that would dissuade anyone of the notion that he was a fawn just trying to make his way in the world. But none of it mattered. He was Bambi, then and forever, and after a while, he simply accepted it. What did a nickname mean, after all, as long as he could continue to race past defensive backs?
He grew up in a small area of Mississippi called Hog Chain, just South of the small town of Brookhaven where he went to high school. Alworth grew up playing football on gravel fields with players much older than himself. “Our faces would be scraped to shreds,” he said. “But it was fun.” I wonder if it was playing on the gravel fields, with the pebbles and stones shifting underneath his feet, that inspired Bambi’s unique running style.*
*Boston Patriots defensive back Ron Hall once said, “I think he trains on a trampoline.”
Alworth was always blazing fast. He came from a blazing fast family — his sister Ann qualified for the U.S. Olympic trials as a sprinter. Lance famously earned 15 letters in high school — football, track, baseball, basketball. He was offered a baseball contract by the Yankees, but football was his first love, so he signed instead to play football at Ole Miss, the dream of every kid he knew. But there was a problem: Alworth was married — at age 17 he had wed 15-year-old Betty Allen — and Ole Miss had a strict policy about not signing married players.
Frank Broyles, the new coach at Arkansas, had no such policy. Broyles raced into Mississippi. entirely charmed the Alworth family — “If you’re a high school kid, and Frank talks to your parents, you’re going to Arkansas,” Alworth would say — and got himself one of the best players he would ever sign. Alworth became a Razorbacks running back and kick returner. He never played receiver in college because Frank Broyles ran an offense that didn’t have much need for, you know, throwing the ball.
Bambi was drafted in the first round twice — once by the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers and once by the AFL’s Los Angeles Chargers. This was 1962, so the AFL was still very much a struggling league with an uncertain future. There seemed no possibility that the Chargers could outbid the Niners for Alworth.
But the Chargers had a secret weapon: Their general manager was a guy you might have heard of named Al Davis. And if Alworth thought Frank Broyles had hypnotizing charm, well, he was about to meet someone who made Broyles look like an amateur. Davis came at Alworth in waves. Come to the Chargers, he said, and you’re guaranteed to play right away. Come to the Chargers, and we’ll give you a no-cut contract. Come to the Chargers and we’ll build an entire offense around you. Come to the Chargers and — have you heard of Sid Gillman? The guy’s a genius, he’ll make you a star.
Alworth was swept away. When the 49ers came with their offer, Alworth asked if they would give him a no-cut contract.
“We don’t really do that,” the 49ers said.
“I didn’t like the attitude,” Alworth would say, and by the time the 49ers figured out what was happening, it was too late. Alworth signed with the Chargers and Al Davis.
Davis would not get to enjoy his victory, though — he left to be head coach of the Oakland Raiders at the end of Alworth’s rookie season. This is the wonderful irony of it all: Davis had used his hypnotic powers to sign the AFL’s first big college star and he would spend the rest of the decade watching Alworth run through his Raiders’ defense, again and again and again.
“Lance was one of maybe three athletes in my lifetime who had what I would call ‘It,’ ” Davis said 25 years later.