If you’re not a New York Jets’ fan, you probably don’t remember linebacker Larry Grantham. Too bad. Because Larry Grantham was one of the best players on the team that put the AFL on the map.
That would be the Jets with their 16-7 upset of Baltimore in Super Bowl III.
Grantham was a critical component of a defense that unraveled, first, Earl Morrall and, later, John Unitas. Surprising? No. Earth-rattling is more like it. The Colts had won 15 of their 16 games (including the playoffs) in 1968, were 18-point favorites and Morrall was the NFL MVP.
The game was supposed to be a mismatch. And it was.
With five takeaways, the Jets held the Colts scoreless until the last three minutes, and Grantham -- the team’s defensive captain -- had plenty to do with it. He called all the Jets’ defensive formations on the field, frazzling the Colts at every turn.
“Larry knew what everybody on defense was supposed to do on every play,” said Jets' defensive tackle Paul Rochester.
He was smart. He was tough. He was tenacious. And he was everywhere.
An undersized outside linebacker (6-0, 200 pounds), he could blanket the field – rushing the quarterback, dropping into coverage, neutralizing the sweep, stacking the short-yardage run. You name it, he did it.
In Super Bowl III he had three tackles and two pass deflections. In his 13-year career, he produced 43 career takeaways – still a franchise record – and 31 sacks.
Plus, he was always available, missing only seven games during his career.
“Larry Grantham,” wrote NFL historian John Turney of Pro Football Journal, “has a great Hall-of-Fame case.”
He was a five-time AFL All-Star and 10-time All-AFL pick, including five first-team selections, and a second-team all-time AFL choice. What’s more, Grantham was one of 20 players to play in the league for its entire existence (1960-69) and one of only seven AFL players to play his entire career in one city.
He was also the team’s 1971 MVP, the only time a Jets’ linebacker won the award, and was chosen to the Jets’ second Ring of Honor class in 2011. In 2014 the Pro Football Researchers Association named Grantham to its Hall of Very Good.
“I always saw Larry as the captain and the leader,” former teammate Gerry Philbin told the Jets’ website. “His football knowledge, the way he skirted around blockers and made tackles … he just surprised a lot of people. Pound for pound he was the best player on the Jets.”
He didn’t say the best defensive player. He said “the best player.”
Keep in mind that includes luminaries like quarterback Joe Namath, wide receiver Don Maynard and tackle Winston Hill – all Hall of Famers. It also includes Philbin, named to the first-team of the all-time AFL squad, and offensive stars Matt Snell, Emerson Boozer and George Sauer Jr.
A star at the University of Mississippi, Grantham was drafted in the 15th round in 1960 by the Colts. But he chose the then-New York Titans of the newly formed AFL because, as he put it, “everyone in it would be as green as I was.” He began his pro career as a wide receiver but, after only two days of training camp, moved to linebacker where, he said, “I found out I loved to hit people.”
The rest you know.
“Larry Grantham is one of those guys that kind of flies under the radar,” said AFL historian Todd Tobias of Talesfromtheamericanfootballleague.com. “There isn’t much he didn’t do. He just didn’t make a lot of noise doing it.”
Grantham, who died in 2017, has never been a Hall-of-Fame finalist, and, frankly, probably never will be. He’s not on the short list of the Hall’s senior committee. But that doesn’t mean he’s not worthy of Canton … because he is.
What he isn’t is remembered by all but the most loyal Jets’ fans. And that’s a shame.