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Sport: Playing Safety

5 minute read

The job of playing safety in the National Football League requires almost as many athletic skills as winning the decathlon. Ideally, the safety man must have the speed of a sprinter to keep up with whippet-fast backs and ends as they break for passes. He must have the wit to diagnose plays in advance, the instinct to follow them as they unfold. He must have the strength and guts to hurl himself head-on at a 230-lb. fullback. And he must learn to live with the chilling reality that as the last line of defense, every time he makes a mistake the enemy gets six points. In the N.F.L., the safety man who comes closest to achieving the impossible is the New York Giants’ squarejawed, sturdy (5 ft. 10 in., 180 Ibs.) Jimmy Patton.

An all-round star at the University of Mississippi, Patton was drafted by the Giants in 1955 for defensive work. He soon realized that he knew next to nothing about the game of football as it is played by the pros—and he learned the hard way. Pro ball carriers knocked him cold time and again. Not until his third year did he really begin to solve pass patterns and develop into a star. This season, at 28, Jimmy Patton is an articulate, confident craftsman who is recognized throughout the National Football League as the safety man who has mastered every trick of the trade.

Method for Mayhem. “When a fullback like Jimmy Brown of the Cleveland Browns breaks loose up the middle.” says Patton in discussing the science of the safety man, “I don’t watch his head. He can fake me with his head. I watch his belt buckle, and I keep my eye on it, just the way a batter watches a baseball. He can’t wiggle that belt buckle. I get down low enough to get below his shoulder and try to hit him headon. It’s easy enough to get to Brown’s belly. Holding on to him is another matter. A fullback like Brown can spin you right over, but I can usually manage to hold on to something.

“A breakaway runner like Bobby Mitchell of the Browns or Hugh McElhenny of the San Francisco Forty Niners really gives me fits. You’ve got to beat their blockers, and then you’ve got to watch out for their fakes. Mitchell has literally faked me off my feet. It’s too risky to tackle them low. I hit them high and wrestle them down. It’s not the way you’re taught in college, and it’s not pretty—but it’s effective.”

Minuet for Two. Pass defense is the crucial job for a safety man. Although he has run 100 yds. in 9.9 sec., Patton does not consider himself a fast man by pro. standards. For the sake of speed, Patton wears no hip pads, makes do with a piece of sponge rubber over each hipbone. With the rest of the famed Giant defensive unit. Patton has studied his opponents’ attacking habits thoroughly. Patton knows that the fine blocking of the Baltimore Colts will give Quarterback Johnny Unitas four seconds or more to pass; he knows too that the St. Louis Cardinals’ much beset King Hill is lucky to get three seconds. Patton knows that the Colts’ Lenny Moore will tip off the fact that he is going deep for a pass by shuffling through his first few steps, and he knows that the Los Angeles Rams’ Del Shofner starts at top speed when he is the deep man.

But receivers are equally familiar with Patton’s habits. After calling defensive signals for the Giants’ backfield, Patton lines up about 7 yds. away from the man he intends to cover, always shading to one side so that the receiver will have only one clear path. At the snap of the ball, the two men start a routine as formal yet as frantic as a minuet in oldtime flicker films. Running backward all the while, Patton must counter the receiver’s maneuvers without falling for a fake. To avoid head, arm and hip fakes. Patton watches a spot roughly in the vicinity of the receiver’s wishbone, on the sound theory that it will turn when the receiver himself turns and begins to cut. “Then,” says Patton, “you’ve got to react fast. If he gets more than one step on you, you’ll never catch him.”

Moment for Instinct. Patton has developed his peripheral vision to the point where he can often watch the quarterback while also watching a receiver, or. failing that, catch sight of the ball in mid-air as it approaches. With other stars, like the Cardinals’ Bill Stacy and the Colts’ Andy Nelson, Patton has a sixth sense that alerts him when the ball is headed for another receiver. “There is that special moment when it is time to go for the ball and instinct takes over,” says Jack

Christiansen, a defensive coach for San Francisco. “In that moment, great football players are made.”

A game always leaves Patton so taut that he has long given up any thoughts of sleep for that night. With Dick Nolan, the Giants’ other safety man, Patton often stalks the deserted streets of Manhattan until dawn. But he makes a special point not to brood about any opposition receiver who got away for a touchdown. “If I could stop every pass,” says the Giants’ Jimmy Patton, “no one could afford to pay my salary.”

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