Football 101: Nos. 75-69

Beginning this week, we will have a Friday roundup of players in the Football 101 — there’s simply too much else going on here at Joe Blogs for me to continue writing extensive essays on each player. I’ve also heard from many of you that you don’t like getting two or three or more essays every day. Plus, this feels like a more direct way to unveil the list.

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No. 75: Jim Otto

Jim Otto had 39 surgeries in his professional career — 28 of them knee surgeries. By the end of his career, both of his knees were completely artificial. “We beat the hell out of each other,” he would say. “And we had a great time doing it.”

Yeah, Jim Otto was the essence of what a 1960s football player was supposed to be.

He was barely 200 pounds when he came out of the University of Miami in 1960 — and even in those days when players were much lighter, that was TOO light for professional football. No NFL team drafted him. But an imaginary American Football League team in Minnesota took him. I say “imaginary team” because at the time of the draft, there was a group of people who wanted to bring a football team to Minneapolis but they didn’t really have any concrete or practical plans. Even so, the AFL was so desperate for teams, they let the Minnesota team draft players anyway.

Soon after the Minnesota group pulled out of the AFL, a group from Oakland took their place … and the Oakland Raiders had the rights to this undersized center named Jim Otto.

Undersized, yes, but Otto was absurdly tough, plenty mean and he played to win.

Five-time Pro Bowl linebacker Bill Bergey tells a great story about Otto — early in the game, Bergey beat Otto on the block and pulled down the running back. “He’s not fast enough to keep up!” Bergey crowed to Raiders coach John Madden.

A few plays later, Otto came around on a block and knocked Bergey unconscious.

“Is he fast enough now, Bergey?” Madden asked as Bergey came to.

“A demon with a killer’s instinct,” is how Bergey later described Otto.

He was also indestructible: He played in 208 straight games for the Raiders from 1960 to 1974. He played one season with a broken nose all year long. He played more than one season on one leg. But he was such a master of the position, he still was named first-team All-Pro in the AFL and NFL 10 times.

“I’ve never been afraid of anything,” Otto said. “I could play against King Kong, I think. I know we’d have a battle.”

No 74: Bruce Matthews

I don’t know that we truly appreciate how different each of the offensive line positions really are. Some years ago, I asked the Hall of Famer Will Shields if he could describe the difference between playing left guard and left tackle — it seemed to me from the outside that it only meant moving over one spot.

And he said it was basically the difference between writing a newspaper article and a literary novel.

I bring this up because Bruce Matthews is unquestionably the most versatile offensive lineman in NFL history. Over his career he started at least 15 games at each of the five positions on the line — 17 at left tackle, 22 at right tackle, 67 at right guard, 87 at center and 99 at left guard. He was so versatile that it’s not entirely clear what position he was best at — he was basically a Pro Bowler at each of the five.

And I suspect that we underrate that versatility.

There has never been a more versatile offensive lineman in the NFL than Matthews, who was basically a Pro Bowler at all five positions. (Damian Strohmeyer/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

The Matthews family is something else, right? The original Clay Matthews, Bruce’s father, grew up in South Carolina, played college ball at Georgia Tech in the late 1940s, and played for the San Francisco 49ers as an offensive and defensive lineman in the 1950s. Clay Sr. was legendarily tough — he would say that in one 24-hour period in college, he won Georgia’s Golden Gloves boxing championship and won the SEC heavyweight wrestling title — and he inspired similar toughness in his boys.

“Dad was very adamant,” Bruce would say. “Once you commit to something, you finish it.”

Clay Jr. came first, and he was a ferocious linebacker at USC, a first-round pick in the NFL, and then he played 19 years for the Cleveland Browns and Atlanta Falcons. He made four Pro Bowls, and was annually one of the league leaders in tackles. Clay’s sons Clay III and Casey both played in the NFL.

Bruce was five years younger; he also was a star at USC, a first-round pick in the NFL, and he played 19 years for the same organization (though the Houston Oilers did become the Tennessee Titans during his time). Bruce’s sons, Jake, Kevin and Mike, all played, at least for a short time, in the NFL.

There isn’t another football family like that.

Bruce represented everything that makes the Matthews family so special and unique. I already mentioned his versatility — in addition to playing every offensive line spot, he also was his team’s long snapper on kicks and punts. He played in 293 games, more than any lineman in NFL history — in fact, only Brett Favre and Tom Brady have played in more. He played for so long that his old college teammate, Jeff Fischer, eventually became his head coach.

Bruce Matthews was a deceptively great athlete. At 6-foot-4, 300-plus pounds, he did not always look especially graceful out there, and when you watch film of him you don’t see the destructive pancake blocks that mark some of the other great linemen. But he was, in fact, incredibly mobile — that allowed him to make any kind of block, which helps explain why he was able to play guard as well at tackle as well as center — and he had a sixth sense for the game.

No. 73: O.J. Simpson

I remain convinced that if Bo Jackson had stayed healthy — and dedicated his career to professional football — he would have been the greatest running back in the history of the NFL.

As for No. 73 in the Football 101, let me just say that I remain convinced that if Bo Jackson had stayed healthy — and dedicated his career to professional football — he would have been the greatest running back in the history of the NFL.

No. 72: Dutch Clark
No. 71: Mel Hein

In Pre-Modern football — which is generally considered to be football before World War II or so — the game really came down to two things: Running and blocking.

Dutch Clark was the NFL’s first truly great runner.

And Mel Hein was such an extraordinary blocker that in 1938, he won the league MVP over legendary offensive players such Don Hutson, Sammy Baugh, Whizzer White. He did this AS A CENTER.

Well, he played both ways — everybody did in those days. But we’ll get back to that.

First, Dutch Clark: He is one of just seven players to be elected in the inaugural class of the Pro Football Hall of Fame AND the inaugural class of the College Football Hall of Fame. He was a runner ahead of his time, fast, shifty, a million moves, sort of a Barry Sanders for the 1930s. “His change of pace fools the best tacklers,” Red Grange said of Clark.

At Colorado College, he averaged 10 yards per carry in 1928. In pro football, playing for Portsmouth and Detroit, he averaged 4.6 yards per carry at a time when the league averaged barely more than three yards.

Clark was more than a great runner. He called the plays (and as such was usually called the team’s quarterback — which meant something different then). He was a triple threat who was one of the league’s best passers (though passing rules were really restrictive then). He was, perhaps, the best kicker and punter in the league. He was a good receiver on the rare occasions that they threw to him. He was a fine defensive back. And he was a beloved player-coach.

“His main asset is his ability to gain the confidence of the players,” Lions coach Potsy Clark would say. “He makes them absolutely believe in him.”

In an indirect way, Dutch Clark changed the way you and I watch pro football. He was such a seminal figure that he inspired a young running back to leave New Jersey and go halfway across the country to play at Clark’s alma mater, Colorado College. And while he wasn’t a great player (though he did have a large story written about him in Sports Illustrated), Steve Sabol and his father Ed did start NFL Films, and I would argue that Steve is a singular figure in what the NFL has become.

They called Mel Hein “Old Indestructible,” and in that time when players were as disposable as razorblades, he played center and defensive line and linebacker for 15 years without ever missing a game. He was mostly known for his offense — Hein as a center really changed the way blockers did their jobs. He was one of the first to lead a running play downfield, and one of the first to drop back on pass plays.

And he was the best shotgun snapper in the NFL; there’s film of him snapping footballs through metal rings, displaying his incredible accuracy. “He could center a ball from 50 yards and hit a needle in its eye,” George Halas would say.

“The perfect center,” Curly Lambeau called him.

As sports historian Steve Hirdt says, the Giants really built their offenses entirely around Hein … and in his career they played in seven NFL Championship Games, winning two of them.

And Hein might have been even better on defense, although defense was much less celebrated in his time. He began his career playing a defensive position called center, but by the end of his career he was more of a traditional linebacker — and at 6-foot-2, 225 pounds, a sizable one for his time. The NFL didn’t start keeping track of interceptions until 1940, when Hein was already 31 years old, but even so he is credited with 10 of them. He probably had 25 or 30 in his full career and was a return threat every time.

Bronko Nagurski, among many others, called him the greatest linebacker in the league.

Hein loved being out there every play. “I don’t think I would have liked to play just half the time as they do today,” he would say later in his life. He had chased after professional football — sending out letters to three different clubs after college, asking for a job — and enjoyed every minute. He was elected in the first class of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

“I’ve knocked heads against most of these fellows,” he said in his enshrinement speech while being surrounded by players such as Dutch Clark, Sammy Baugh and Bronko Nagurski. “And you should have heard some of the stories that were told last night. And if any of you doubt that we’re not great, you should have been there.

“That’s the way with football … the longer you’re away from the sport, the greater you become. It thrills me to death to think how great I’ll be when I’m 100 years old.”

No. 70: Michael Strahan

Michael Strahan grew up in Germany as part of a military family, so he didn’t play much football growing up. But he loved the game — he and his father, Gene, used to wake up at 3 a.m. every week to catch Monday Night Football. As Michael grew bigger and stronger (he was an obsessive weightlifter thanks, in part, to his father’s insistence), Gene* had this idea that Michael might be able to play college football the way Gene’s brother Art had in the 1960s.

*Gene was an impressive athlete too — he was a boxer in the Army and once beat future heavyweight champ Ken Norton.

So Michael came to the U.S. in 1988 and moved in with Art and his family for a year. Michael told Sports Illustrated’s Peter King a funny story about how on the way in from the airport, he saw a lit-up sign that said, “DRUGS.”

“My God,” he thought, “it’s worse than my friends in Germany told me. They sell drugs right out in the open in the United States.”

Strahan did not wow anybody in his senior year in high school, but he was 6-foot-5, and he played with energy — Gene Strahan had raised all of his kids to play on until they heard the whistle — and Texas Southern, where Art had played, took a chance on him. He had 19 sacks his senior year in college, and the Giants took him in the second round in 1993, the only player in that round who would end up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Let’s go back for a moment to Gene Strahan’s victory over Ken Norton in an Army boxing match. “He outweighed me by 20 pounds,” Gene would tell writer Ian O’Connor. “And it was all muscle. ... I know the joker could hit, so I had to outmaneuver him.”

Look at that quote ... and you can begin to understand what made Strahan such an exceptional defensive lineman for the Giants. He was never the biggest guy out there — some offensive linemen outweighed him by 75 or more pounds — and he was not the fastest guy either. It’s striking to compare him to some of the great defensive line sackers of the last 30 years — Julius Peppers, Dwight Freeney, Jason Taylor, Jared Allen and so on. These players were breathtakingly athletic, blazing fast, absurdly powerful, and many of their sacks were highlight-reel exciting.

It was different with Strahan. He wore teams down with his constant pressure and unyielding effort and refusal to give up on a play. “My whole game is power and leverage,” he used to say. That takes time and isn’t the most exciting thing in the world to watch. I doubt there was a player in NFL history who tackled more quarterbacks only to have the announcer call it a “coverage sack.” I like what historian Brad Oremland writes about him: “The sacks almost looked like accidents — 141 and a half accidents.”

Strahan, as a player, is probably most famous for setting the sack record with 22 1/2 in 2001 ... and realistically that achievement is probably best remembered for the way Brett Favre just gave himself up on the record-breaker.

But the truth is that sacks do not define Strahan’s excellence any more than home runs define Henry Aaron’s greatness. Strahan was superb against the run, he led the league in tackles for loss three times, he could drop back in coverage, he could make the big play (he returned two interceptions and one fumble for touchdowns) and he lifted his play for the biggest games.

He had 9 1/2 sacks in 10 postseason games. He was virtually unblockable during the 2000 postseason as he basically carried the Giants to the Super Bowl. And then he led one of the greatest defensive line performances in championship history when the Giants upset the undefeated Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. The Giants sacked Tom Brady five times that day — Strahan had one of the five sacks — and held one of the most dominant offenses in NFL history to 14 points.

Strahan has become one of the biggest personalities in television since his playing career ended, co-hosting “Good Morning America” and, of course, Fox’s NFL pregame show. One thing that’s interesting about athletes who become pop-culture superstars — George Foreman, Howie Long, Shaquille O’Neal, Charles Barkley and others — is that it’s easy to lose sight of how great they were. This is particularly true of someone like Strahan, whose greatness was something that could only be fully appreciated over time.

No. 69: Chuck Bednarik

Concrete Charlie essentially followed the path of Mel Hein as a great center and linebacker … but he did so at a time when two-way players were no longer in vogue. Bednarik, all his life, felt like he was from another time. “I was not one of the 60-minute men,” he used to bark, “I was the LAST of the 60-minute men.”

He began not in the NFL but in the Army — he flew 30 missions over Germany in World War II when he was 18 years old. In one of those missions, his plane, after taking too much enemy gunfire, skidded off the runway. He escaped only by jumping out the window.

“Then,” John Schulian wrote in his classic Sports Illustrated story, “he did what he did after every mission, good or bad. He lit a cigarette and headed for the briefing room, where there was always a bottle on the table. ‘I was 18, 19 years old,’ he says, ‘and I was drinking that damn whiskey straight.’”

Unlike Hein, Bednarik was more celebrated as a linebacker than a center … even though he was of Hall of Fame quality at both positions. He became a famous linebacker for two hits he made during the 1960 season. The first might be the most famous in the history of professional football — he absolutely took out Frank Gifford on a pass over the middle.

Gifford laid motionless on the ground for a long while; it is often wrongly remembered that the hit was a cheap shot and took Gifford out of professional football (Howard Cosell on Monday Night Football would often suggest both of those things). It wasn’t a cheap shot at all — Bednarik tackled him chest to chest — and Gifford did sit out the 1961 season after suffering a concussion but he returned to play for three more years after that.

“He didn’t hurt me,” Gifford would say. “When he hit me, I landed on my ass and then my head snapped back. That was what put me out — the whiplash, not Bednarik.”

That’s not an especially convincing argument, but so it goes.

The second tackle came in the 1960 NFL Championship Game, Philadelphia vs. Green Bay, and Bednarik dragged the Packers’ Jim Taylor to the ground on the final play and then pinned him like a defeated wrestler until after the clock had expired. “OK,” he famously said, “you can get up now.”

Jim Brown called Bednarik the best linebacker he ever faced.

But others who played at the time insist that Bednarik was an even better center who, at 6-foot-3, 233 pounds, could both maul defensive linemen and beat linebackers and defensive backs to the spot.

He played the role of Concrete Charlie the rest of his life, always speaking up for those days when players played for the love of the game. “I wanted to regurgitate,” he said when he read that first pick in the draft Drew Bledsoe signed for $14.5 million. He recalled a time when someone asked him if he could play in today’s NFL.

“I wasn’t rude or anything,” he told Schulian. “But inside, I was thinking: ‘I’d like to punch this guy in the mouth.’”