• U.S.

Sport: A Child Shall Lead Them

5 minute read

“I want to look in my locker room and see bald old men, guys who have been through it—winners.” That was the demand made by George Allen when he took over as coach of the Washington Redskins last year. After 19 trades involving 33 players, Allen got what he wanted: the oldest* and most experienced team in the National Football League—plus one. For all his attention to aging veterans, Allen wisely held on to Running Back Larry Brown, a Redskin holdover who in size (5 ft. 11 in., 195 Ibs.) and years (25) is a comparative toddler. The combination paid off. This season, with eight wins and only one loss, the Redskins are not only leading their division but they even have plans to go all the way to the Super Bowl. If Allen’s over-the-hill gang does make it to that post-season promised land, a child named Brown shall lead them.

Three weeks ago, busting through the middle like a Brahman bull, he scored two touchdowns and ran for 191 yds. as Washington downed the New York Giants 23-16. The following week the New York Jets had everyone but the ticket takers ganging up on Brown’s line plunges. So late in the game he slipped outside, gathered in a screen pass and romped 89 yds. down the sidelines to score the touchdown that broke the Jets’ back in the Redskins’ 35-17 victory. Last week in Washington the Giants came back for more, and Brown saved his best for last. With the score tied 13-13 late in the fourth quarter, he carried the ball six times and scored two touchdowns in 63 seconds to bury the Giants 27-13. Bettering 100 yds. in rushing for the sixth time this year, Brown boosted his season total to 995 yds. and widened his runaway lead as the N.F.L.’s top ground gainer.

Eighth Round. The No. 1 honors, which automatically make Brown the No. 1 target on any given Sunday, have not come easily. “I spend all day Monday in bed,” he says, “because every Sunday I take such a beating.” The pain is familiar. Brown was raised in Pittsburgh in a black ghetto known as “the Hill.” It was so rough, he says, that “you wouldn’t go there and stand on the corner. You’d be afraid. But that’s where I played. I played tackle on concrete.”

College scouts were not overly impressed. The best deal Brown could manage was a scholarship to Dodge City Junior College in Kansas. And that came with a specific condition: he had to make the team (he did). Two years later, he transferred to Kansas State, where he was used primarily as a blocking back. In the 1969 pro draft he was overlooked—probably because of his size—until the eighth round, when the Redskins finally picked him. Brown bristles at the memory of that slight. “Everybody’s got a big-back theory,” he says, “but it’s not size that counts. It’s heart and determination.”

Vince Lombardi could not have said it better. Brown, in fact, still relates more to Lombardi, the late Redskin coach, than to Allen. “I owe that man everything,” Brown says of Lombardi, who coached him in his first season in the big league. “He was a great coach. George Allen is great too, but he’s much more defense oriented. Lombardi taught me to believe in myself, to believe I could make it.” When Brown first arrived at training camp, even Lombardi admitted to having some doubts. Noticing that the rookie was slow at responding to signals, the coach shouted: “What’s wrong with you, Brown? Are you deaf?” Replied Brown, passively: “Yes, sir. I can’t hear out of my left ear.” Lombardi immediately ordered a $400 helmet rigged with a hearing aid, and, as Brown says, “it made all the difference.” To rectify Brown’s habit of dropping passes, Lombardi had another straightforward solution: he ordered the rookie to carry a football wherever he went.

The strategy paid off handsomely. In his freshman season Brown rushed for 888 yds. to become the league’s fourth leading ground gainer. As a bonus, he also caught 34 passes for an additional 302 yds. After 3½ years in the N.F.L., Brown has piled up more yardage—2 miles 1,436 yds. to be exact—than anyone else in the league. As the boy hero of Allen’s antiquarians, there seems to be no stopping him. “You don’t tackle Brown,” says St. Louis Defensive Tackle Bob Rowe, “you just hit him and hope help comes along.” How long can Larry Brown hold out as the No. 1 target? “The key for me,” he says, “is being quick, changing direction on a dime.” Brown plans to remain quick: “Who’s to say that I won’t still have my legs at 30?” By that time, in fact, he will also have something that he now lacks: the requisite years of service to qualify as a bona fide member of the over-the-hill gang.

*Some of Allen’s more notable veteran acquisitions are Defensive End Ron McDole, 33; Quarterback Billy Kilmer, 33; Linebacker Myron Pottios, 33; Safety Roosevelt Taylor, 35; and Linebacker Jack Pardee, 36.

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