The Baltimore Colts' star end, whom many consider the best pass receiver in football, tells what it takes to succeed in the most exacting football company
October 04, 1959

When I was a skinny kid just out of high school in an east Texas town called Paris, I went to see a movie named Crazylegs five times. It was about Elroy Hirsch, who played end at the time for the Los Angeles Rams, and I decided then that the thing I wanted to do most in the world was to catch passes for a professional football team the way Hirsch did. I guess I haven't reached that goal completely. I play end for the Baltimore Colts, but I don't catch passes the way Elroy did. I've spent hours a day studying game movies of Hirsch and the other great offensive ends who have played in the league. But there are things you can't do—I should say I can't do—because I don't have the physical equipment necessary. Some of the moves they make I can copy to a T—all the fakes and feints, just the way I see them on the screen—but there are others I can't do at all for a number of reasons. I'm not as fast as some of these guys and not as big or as tall as others, and there's nothing I can do about that. You can't grow and you can't run faster than your physical equipment lets you. All you can do is squeeze the very most out of what you have.

The other thing you can do is study. And practice. When I played college ball for Southern Methodist, I had maybe three or four passes a game thrown toward me, most of the time not that many. You can't learn to use your hands that way. You are born with whatever it takes to have sure hands, but you've got to catch hundreds of passes to learn how to use them. With the Colts we use a screen like a batter's cage at practice so we don't have to waste time chasing the balls we miss. That way you get in lots more catches in the same amount of time. I work on every conceivable kind of catch—high, low, to either side and combinations (low and outside, high and outside, and so on). You have to practice so much that the mechanics of catching the ball—the position of your hands and body and feet—become instinctive so that you can do all your thinking about how to get loose.

I'm lucky in having a quarterback like Johnny Unitas to work with, too. Johnny'll stay out there and throw the ball as long as there's someone to catch it. He's an accommodating quarterback in other ways, too. It's important for an end and a quarterback to speak the same language. It's almost like a marriage. You got to make allowances and understand each other and get to where you know each other so well that you know instinctively what to expect in any situation. That's the way it is with Johnny and his offensive ends. One reason is because he's easy to talk to. Some quarterbacks are real cement heads, but not Johnny. We spend hours talking over the defenses of the team we're going to play each week. When I came up the first year to pro ball, I was pretty confused. When Johnny talked about defenses, I didn't know what he was saying. So I studied movies of the other teams' defenses all during the off season and I'm still studying them. Now when Johnny and I discuss a defense, I'm on the same page with him. I know what he's talking about.

Of course, that helped me in other ways, too. Now when I come up to the line of scrimmage and look over the defense, I recognize the pattern. I can tell pretty well if they're rotating to put two men on me, or if they are going to cover me with one man. You hear a lot about studying one defensive halfback or a linebacker to find out his habits and how you can beat him, but that never worked for me. I mean you can't depend on a guy like, say, Jim David, of Detroit, coming up fast all the time. Sure, he likes to. But when you start counting on him doing it, he lays back. So I play it by ear and by the way I know the team's defense as a whole reacts to a situation. It took a lot of hours of looking at movies to work it out, but it helps.

It's good to work out with Johnny in another way, too. He's a strong-arm passer. You work with a guy can't stick the ball out there for you, and you develop bad habits. You have to work with a passer who can overthrow you all the time, no matter how deep you go. You work with a weak-arm passer and you get in the habit of loafing after you've made your final break in your pattern. Since I'm not exceptionally fast, I've got to work at 100% of my speed all the time. Guys like Willie Galimore of the Bears or Del Shofner of the Rams got enough speed so that they can go at maybe 75% and do all right, but not me. The biggest bugaboo for a receiver is to have a pass overshoot him a couple of feet. All the way back to the huddle you're thinking about the little things you could have done to make up that couple of feet. Working out with Johnny, you're always stretching after that long one and you get the habit and you get the details down that help you get the extra feet. There's some guys, like Lenny Moore, got enough buzz in their feet they can outrun the ball if they're overthrown. I got to use every bit of speed I've got to stay even.

The details are important in pro ball. Things like wearing a strip of towel around your wrist on a hot day so the sweat won't run down into your hands and make them slippery. Or, when you catch a pass and run over the sideline, keep running so some eager beaver on defense won't make his letter on you when you slow down. I wear contact lenses when I play, but they're extra-big ones so that when I have to look over my shoulder and turn my eyes to the side as far as possible to see the ball, it stays in focus. I even have a safety belt in my car. I'm not a fast driver, but I fasten it every time I go anywhere. If I had to stop in a hurry, I'd hate to bang my knees on the dashboard and miss a game. You got to think about those things. You got to think and study and work all the time. I do, anyway.

You see, there's some answer to every good defensive move. Johnny and I have talked about it. We try to figure out the answer, and then we try to burn the defense a few times and then they come up with something else and we start all over again. A lot of things you learn by watching other guys. For instance, Billy Wilson of the 49ers is the best end in the league at getting away from a linebacker playing head-up on him. He's real good at a head-and-step fake, and the maneuvers shown here on evading a linebacker are Wilson's. Bill Howton of Cleveland is wonderful on faking a halfback, and these are some of his fakes, drawn on these pages. When you do everything right and the ball is on target, you get what I think is the biggest thrill in football: you get to run with the ball.

Getting away from the line of scrimmage

I feel I can start from scrimmage quicker if I use a three-point stance. The only variations come in the weight I put on my hand, and that's governed by whether I'm going straight ahead, cutting to the left or right or blocking.

The upright stance is good because you can see the defense better. I usually drop to three points with the set signal; if I do start upright, I use a jab step—dropping the right foot back a little to get extra drive in the first step.

When I came up to pro ball, the working-over I got from the linebackers was a surprise. In college they paid no attention to me. This fake right, followed by a complete spin to the left, is one of Billy Wilson's favorite ways to avoid linebackers. The spin helps because the linebacker can't grab you as easily when you spin.

On the left is a rear view of a standard defense setup by the white jerseys. I am in a dark jersey (82), on the line of scrimmage. In this one, the linebacker (84) is playing head up on me, with a defensive wing (80) playing me deep. Within three and a half or four seconds I'll have to evade the backer, run my pattern, evade the wingback and reach the spot where Unitas will expect to throw. The diagram shows other linebacker positions.

This may be the most important lesson of all. Put the ball in the bank the second you get it. I practice doing this—tucking it away to avoid a fumble—every time I catch a ball in practice, just kidding around, or just picking up a ball.

Here's the reward for all the work—catching the ball and running with it. I guess running with the ball is the biggest thrill in the game. I try to remember to explode as soon as I've caught the ball and put it in the bank. That extra burst of speed gets you the first down or the touchdown.

Eluding a defensive back in the secondary

Here's the first-down special, a quick hook. You run right at the defensive back (80) until he gives ground, then spin, crouch, catch and spin on away.

A sideline pass. You fake to the center of the field, then break to the sideline. You can stop the clock by stepping out of bounds after the catch.

Stop and go, good to burn an eager beaver with. You come up hard on the defender, stop as if to turn, then run past him when he steps toward you.

This one links with the sideline pass above. Same maneuver, except that you fake the sideliner, then break out to your left toward the center of the field.

The end's biggest job: catching the football

Here's the ideal sideline pass, thrown just at shoulder height so that you can take it in full stride, ready to turn and take off up-field without losing your balance or speed.

Since all passes aren't perfect, I practice all of these catches. Important thing is to keep your eye on the ball, watch it all the way into your hands and disregard the consequences.

More on catching the ball

This shows me just after I have made my final fake to get clear of the halfback. The thing to remember here is not to slow down at all. If you're out ahead of the ball you can usually slow down and wait for it. The ball won't slow down and wait for you.

This is my own personal road map of pass patterns. Each route shown above is an integral part of a larger team pattern designed to get me or another Baltimore receiver a step or two ahead of a defender at the split second when the ball arrives.

This is part of the same idea. On a long pass you have a tendency to turn your whole body to look for the ball (left). If you do, you break the rhythm of your stride and slow down. You must learn to turn your head and eyes. I wear extra-big contact lenses so they keep the ball in focus even in the corner of my eyes.

I'm a chest catcher by preference. I like to take the ball against my chest, crouched so I can go up, down or to either side. But you have to learn to field the ball where it's thrown. If it's low, keep hands and elbows close together so it can't get through. I never noticed before, but my little fingers are spread wide and nearly touching on hand catches.

This is the head-and-step fake Wilson is so good at. The backer (84) is playing on my inside shoulder. At the snap of the ball I take a quick step to my right to make him shift weight in that direction. The moment he does, I break fast and hard to the left.

Here I'm breaking inside a head-on linebacker. I'd probably be out eight or 10 yards from the tackle, to clear the inside route. It works best after a couple of plays where you fake in and break out; the backer expects you to go outside when you hesitate, but you go on inside him.