Even before the season began, it was apparent that the pros had an extraordinary array of rookies. To be sure, there have been other great rookie years (notably 1956, when Jim Brown, Paul Hornung, Jon Arnett and Sonny Jurgensen broke in), but 1969, with Calvin Hill, Greg Cook, Jerry Levias, O.J., Rufus Mayes, Bill Stanfill and sundry others shown on the following eight pages, probably has the best rookie crop in memory.
For Hill, the Yalie now with Dallas, last Sunday was another opportunity to enhance his NFL rushing lead. In the Cowboys' 24-17 win over Atlanta, Hill picked up 50 yards in 13 carries. Cook, the Bengals' brilliant quarterback, had an off day as the world champion Jets beat Cincinnati 21-7, but he's still the AFL's leading passer.
More than three dozen rookies are starting in both leagues, and where statistics are most significant first-year men are more than measuring up. For instance, Tom Dempsey of the Saints has kicked a 55-yard field goal, a yard short of the NFL record, and Steve O'Neal of the Jets, a 13th-round draft choice, has punted one 98 yards—a pro record. O'Neal is averaging 48.1 yards a kick, and has a chance to break Sammy Baugh's season record average of 51.3. Baugh, it should be noted, got extra yardage because he often quick-kicked.
Rookies are everywhere this year. The world champion Jets kept seven. Buffalo opened the season with four in the offensive backfield, and Atlanta starts seven on offense and defense. Even the Rams, coached by veteran-oriented George Allen, have four rookies. Says Allen, "Everything should be judged in context, but players are simply bigger, faster and smarter today."
The fact is, pro football is beginning to ride a new wave, and no one knows it better than the coaches. "Rookies are better prepared for the pros," says Johnny Rauch of Buffalo. "College football is getting more like the pro type of play." According to Hank Stram of the Chiefs, "Since the colleges went to the free substitution rule again, they are playing a much more wide-open brand of football, similar to what you are required to play in the pro ranks. Quarterbacks and pass receivers are now far better prepared for our type of game. At the same time the increase in passing has forced college coaches to spend more time on the pass rush and defense against screens. So what we have is an increase in specialization at the college level in exactly the aspects of the game at which it is important for a pro player to be proficient. This is beginning to be reflected in the rookie crop." Bill Bergey, the Bengals' linebacker, is a case in point, as is Jim Marsalis, a starting cornerback and the first defensive back ever drafted No. 1 by Kansas City. "Marsalis had four years of college experience as a defensive specialist," says Stram.
Making still another point, Stram continues, "The main difference between the rookies of this year and those who came to us in the early days of the AFL is that the new crop has a much greater awareness of what is involved in being a pro football player. I think this stems from the tremendous increase in the number of hours of televised pro football. They get to see all the great pros, and, of course, they try to emulate them. They may even pick up little aspects of technique, just as a golfer like me tries to do when he watches an Arnold Palmer on television."
As outstanding as this season's pro rookies are, they're merely the visible portion of an immense iceberg. Given the exposure, acclaim and rewards of pro ball, football has undergone a popularity explosion up and down the line. Phenomena like this have occurred before in sports (for example, the horde of milers who followed Roger Bannister through the four-minute barrier), but never on so great a scale. Instead of playing catch in the backyard, armies of 12-year-olds practice down-and-outs and flies. There is a plethora of kid leagues and rather than taking the collegiate names of yesteryear (Tigers, Bulldogs, Fighting Irish), they call themselves Jets, Packers and Colts. In turn, high school football has become increasingly sophisticated, and college ball this year is blessed with an abundance of polished sophomores, especially quarterbacks (SI, Oct. 6). Without question, the pro rookies of 1969 are a bumper crop, but there will be a succession of vintage years, beginning with the class of 1972.
DON HERRMANN, GIANTS
Sleeper of the year so far, Herrmann played for Waynesburg (Pa.) College and was a lowly 15th draft pick. A very shifty wide receiver, he has scored four touchdowns, one in a last-minute win over the Vikings.
RUFUS MAYES, BEARS
A first-round choice from Ohio State, Mayes is light (255) for offensive tackle but is extremely fast. He can block quickly to spring Gale Sayers off tackle or go laterally to protect roll-out passer Jack Concannon.
GREG COOK, BENGALS
A home-town hero at the University of Cincinnati, Quarterback Cook is, says Paul Brown, "strong like a Gabriel, maybe a little faster. His strength is his quick release and accuracy. He's everything we thought."
JERRY LEVIAS, OILERS
Only 5'10" and 175—small even by college standards—Levias was a No. 2 pick. But he has shown all the zip he had at SMU, is a fine receiver and is among the league leaders in both kickoff and punt returns.
BILL THOMPSON, BRONCOS
A third-round pick from Maryland State, Cornerback Thompson also leads Denver in kickoff and punt returns. A great favorite of the fans, he says, "Football is football, and there is only one way to play it—rough."
RON JOHNSON, BROWNS
Second in rushing in the NFL, the 205-pound Johnson, a No. 1 selection from Michigan, has the moves and the smarts. Most of his long gains have been carried out exactly as diagramed in the Cleveland playbook.
O. J. SIMPSON, BILLS
Although sidelined last weekend with recurring headaches, O.J. is Buffalo's top rusher. Says John Rauch, "We're losing, but he pitches right in and doesn't complain. The players certainly respect his skills."
BILL STANFILL, DOLPHINS
A No. 1 draft choice from Georgia, the 6'5", 250-pound Stanfill has been converted from defensive tackle to end. Notoriously weak on the pass rush, Miami now at least has one stud who can harass the passer.
DAVE HAMPTON, PACKERS
A ninth-round selection from Wyoming, Hampton is one of the NFL's best kickoff returners. "Most people stop to change direction," says Coach Phil Bengtson. "Hampton stops but his feet are going 100 mph."
CALVIN HILL, COWBOYS
Briefly considered for the tight end or linebacker positions, Hill has been simply magnificent as a running back. He leads the NFL in rushing with 349 yards in 64 carries, and he can catch and pass on the option, too.