Only a masochist would claim that being a pro football running back is fun. On the contrary, it is proving to be the toughest and most painful of all positions. The duties are numerous, the risks exceptional. Whether carrying the ball, blocking or catching a pass, the running back is getting hit—often and hard.
By last Sunday night—barely past the midpoint of what may be the most hazardous year in NFL history—26 rushers had suffered injuries that run the length of the body, from Les Josephson's broken jaw to Woody Campbell's dislocated toe. The game's best running back, Gale Sayers, was out for the season; O.J. Simpson was in a Buffalo hospital with a sprained left knee; Leroy Kelly, hampered by ankle trouble, was subpar.
In part because of its perils, the running game has its own fascination, its own mystique, and fans long accustomed to expecting their thrills from the forward pass are now intently—and nervously—watching the graceful, stern work of the game's best backs, some of whom are shown in action on the next four pages. What the runners feel and how they think emerges in detail in the story that follows, one that focuses on the Cardinals' MacArthur Lane, the NFL's second-leading rusher and a man who says: "I don't really know what I'm doing during a run."
'YOU LEARN THE ART OF INVISIBILITY'
November 16, 1970
Pictures," says MacArthur Lane. He is seated at a kitchen table, cutting his fingernails with the rapt attention of a neurosurgeon excising madness, and as he says the word...snick! The half-moon of nail disappears. "The running game is a series of pictures." Snick! "You snap the first one just as you take the handoff: the shape of the blocking; the beginnings of the hole, or the clutter that shows you there ain't gonna be no hole; behind, all that movement of the linebackers. That's the first picture."
Snick! "Then somehow you're through the hole—or maybe you're not. But if you are, you click the second picture. It shows you where the bodies are: your own boys setting up to block downfield for you; their deep backs and linebackers revving up to mow you down; the angles—I mean, the angles, man, is very important to you just then. You gotta know where everybody is, and which way they're coming. That tells you where the field is gonna run out when you and that man collide.
"But the last picture, if you're lucky enough to take it, is outasight. All those faces, those civilian faces back of the end zone, cheering your feet!"
MacArthur Lane has been lucky—and talented—enough to take that last, outasight mind-picture 12 times this season, including three Sunday when St. Louis beat Boston 31-0. These touchdowns comprise 30% of the Cardinals' total output to date, and account in large measure for the Big Red's resurgence. Thus far Lane has run for 662 yards in 123 carries, a rate that could well produce a 1,200-yard season and the NFL rushing title. Only the Washington Redskins' Larry Brown is off to as good a start, and the two men have been swapping the rushing lead most of the season. On a team that lacks consistent passing, Lane's long gainers (he has runs from scrimmage of 75 and 74 yards) and grunt-it-out first downs have helped the Cards to a 6-2 record and first place in the NFC East. Teamed alternately with Cid Edwards and Johnny Roland, MacArthur Lane gives St. Louis the most powerful ground attack since his namesake relieved Seoul.
Lane endures military word plays on his name with wry good humor. After all, he says, he was born in March 1942, when General MacArthur was in retreat. A popular gag around the league when the Cards roll into town is to suggest that MacArthur Lane is a country road where a lot of Birchers live. Says Mac: "My first two seasons here, when they didn't play me or else I was hurt, I told everyone: 'I shall return.' Sure enough, I did." Indeed, his meteoric rise points up some interesting truths about running backs and the nature of contemporary pro running.
Through most of the 1960s, the NFL ground game was dominated, in the public eye at least, by two exceedingly durable rushers—Cleveland's Jim Brown and Green Bay's Jim Taylor, who between them played 19 seasons, gained nearly 21,000 yards and scored 189 touchdowns. They have a lock on both longevity and most of the rushing records. In fact, Brown says his only injury in nine seasons was a sprained ankle, which caused him to sit out one half of a Giant game. Since their retirement the running game has entered a more normal period—one in which knees crackle and Achilles tendons pop like so much Sunday breakfast cereal.
For example, early this season Chicago's Gale Sayers and Houston's Hoyle Granger required surgery on their left knees and were lost for the year. Now Sayers will have matching scars; his right knee was operated on in 1968. The Jets' Matt Snell, who also had a knee injury in 1967, was leading the American Conference in rushing when he tore an Achilles tendon—an injury football players fear even more than damaged knee ligaments. Only three top athletes—Dick Barnett of the New York Knickerbockers, Les Josephson of the Rams and Tom Keating of the Raiders—have returned to peak form after an Achilles operation. Snell, a strong man in every sense of the word, wept on the sidelines after the tendon parted. "I put my hand down there," he said, "and it wasn't there. It was all mushy where the tendon should have been."
Snell's running mate, Emerson Boozer, lasted only three games more before his ribs were injured and he was lost. Craig Baynham, Tom Matte, Leroy Keyes, Willis Crenshaw, Les Josephson (once again), Steve Owens—the roster of the partially disabled and the downright done reads like a casualty list from the front. When pros discuss injuries they do so with the kind of stiff-upper-lip curtness one might have heard around headquarters after any battle from Troy to the Rockpile. "Yeah, he got a Knee." Or: "He ain't around anymore. Achilles."
"I figure a running back has maybe three, 3½ years to do his number," says Lane. "Where else do you have so much contact on every play? I'm not complaining. I love to hit, and so does any good back. But if you're not running into The Pit, you're blocking on those great big linemen, or else you're catching a pass right out there where the linebackers have a bite at you. Here's the thing: anyone who hits you is moving when he hits you—moving fast. And you're moving fast yourself. I'd like to see some computer figure out what position takes the most foot-pounds of energy on impact per play. Gotta be the set-back."
Dallas' Dan Reeves, now a player-coach, sees the problem in a slightly wider dimension, one that explains it in true physical terms: F = MV¬≤ or Crunch equals Weight times Speed squared. "You're getting hit by all-sized people," he says. "By huge defensive linemen, by fast-moving but only slightly smaller linebackers, and then you're creamed by the speed merchants, the defensive backs. You take a receiver—he is getting his from guys his size, the cornerbacks and safeties. Offensive and defensive linemen are pretty evenly matched in size and they don't get up much momentum. But the running back, he gets it from everywhere."
Reeves' six seasons underscore the point. Each of his knees has been operated on twice. "They're perfect now," he says. "Nothing left in there that can go wrong."
As Reeves' case suggests, a lot of medical patchwork can be done these days and Mac Lane's estimate of 3½ years as the "life expectancy" of a running back may be a bit pessimistic. Cleveland's Leroy Kelly agrees that the expectancy is getting less, but not that much less. "I think a running back, if he's lucky, should average about eight years," says Kelly. "If he's lucky. This is my seventh year, fifth as a regular. Next year will be the final one on my contract. Then I'll probably sign for two more. I hope to make it to 10."
Prior to last Sunday's games, the Cowboys' Calvin Hill and the Bills' O.J. Simpson put their expectancy at five seasons. "One of the things that makes it a short career," said Simpson, prophetically, "is the type of defensive players you meet—bigger and more aggressive each year. They know how to hit runners around the knees, not high. Consequently, there are more knee injuries." O.J. was gang-tackled returning a kickoff against Cincinnati on Sunday, suffering a moderate sprain of the outer left knee. Although he won't have to be operated on, Bills' officials fear O.J. may be out for the rest of the season.
"You've got to keep moving to avoid injury," says Larry Brown, who gained 888 yards last year as a rookie. The 5'11", 195-pound Kansas Stater was drafted in the eighth round, and has had four 100-yard games so far this season. "You can't hesitate," amplifies George Dickson, the Redskins' offensive backfield coach. "It's when you're standing flat-footed that injuries come. Keep those legs driving and you eliminate most of the risk."
One of the NFL's most durable and consistent drivers is San Francisco's Ken Willard, now in his sixth season and apt to be running six more. "I start fast and finish fast," says Willard, "but in the middle I'm slow." Willard disagrees with the terminologists who two years ago erased the distinction between fullbacks and halfbacks. All running backs may now wear the same designation, Willard allows, but there is considerable difference in duty as related to size. "You can't compare me with Sayers, Kelly or that type," the 6'2" 230-pounder says. "I'm with the heavy brigade. I was lucky to be a part of the Big Back era. It was popular around the league to copy the Hornung-Taylor offense. A lot of fellows, including myself, might not have been given as much of a chance except for Vince Lombardi's idea of offense. My type of player lasts longer. The fast back makes the radical cuts, and is used so often on the trap plays that he's bound to be blind-sided disastrously sooner or later. He may even be built differently. It isn't just luck that I'm playing right now. Doc Milburn, our team physician, says I have the strongest knee ligaments he's seen in a long time."
So, what are the attributes of the optimum running back? "Great eyes," says Redskin Coach Bill Austin, "the ability to read the blocks on the move." Beyond that, speed and strength, but not necessarily size: witness 1969's Kansas City mini-backs, Warren McVea, Mike Garrett and Robert Holmes, all 5'9"—although Holmes, it must be admitted, resembles a small tank. And even beyond that, the "reckless abandon" that coaches and fans alike applaud. Add to these ingredients the aggressiveness needed to block well, the eye-hand coordination to catch passes in heavy traffic and finally the savvy of a Jim Brown. "The philosophy of going for every yard is a false one," says Brown. "It's a cliché that you must put out 100% on every play. No one is capable of doing it. The running back must learn to pick his spots. There are times you have to take a chance on breaking a long gain, and you do it." The operative phrase is "take a chance."
As of the moment this total definition fits MacArthur Lane well. Why, how and where does he run? Is he a detour or a freeway? "Mac the Truck" is the nickname his teammates have given him from high school through the pros, but the man has something of the sports car circuit about him. Perhaps a Porsche, like the tan 911T he tools around St. Louis, startling the wrinkled cops and scaring the henna-haired old ladies into conniptions. He is a cool, together, ominously large and languid black man with a wraparound mustache, a great beak of a nose and steady, almond eyes. Born in Alabama and raised in California, he comes on like an ad for Coastal Soul: velvet bells, fringed buckskin jacket, a wet-look Lennon hat and Isaac Hayes buttering it up on the stereo in the background while Mac clips his nails. For a newcomer to professional celebrity, Lane is a shade long in the tooth: 28 years old, to be precise. Back in Oakland, Calif. he has a wife and three kids—one his own, two adopted. "If you can afford it, you gotta help out," he says. "I earn $30,000 a year—having asked, of course, for $50,000—and the kids are first-rate."
Actually, the children Lane adopted are the step-sibs of his wife, Edna. "Six days after we got married, my mother-in-law died," he says. "It was rough, and the best place for the kids was with us. I guess you got to be a pretty tough guy to be a football player, but where do you leave your commitments? Living is commitment, I suppose. Look at my old man—how many years has he been working at tough jobs, construction, making it for a batch of kids? When the hurts catch up with me, I've already got a plan. I'm gonna buy a farm for the folks up in Oregon or Northern California—they grew up on farms in Alabama, and they probably still would like it. Or maybe not. But for me, I like to hunt and fish. I knock them stripers dead in San Francisco Bay. Up to 35 pounds, I've taken them. Old Otis Redding, what was he doing there, sitting on the dock of the Bay? Could have been fishing. What I'd like to do is get me a pet store, maybe a chain of them. You can sell them mollies for $2.50 a pair, and if you get a good breeding pair, man, you're set for life. Or maybe a worm farm. Shoot, they charge you 90¢ a dozen for good night crawlers out along the Bay. Get yourself a piece of swamp somewhere and raise worms! That's gonna help folks and make you a living, too."
The Cardinals are a bit vague about Lane's history. Between high school and college, they point out, he worked as a machinist's apprentice in Oakland. Then he may have been in the Army. ("Nope," says Lane with the mystery appropriate to an emerging star, "no Army. Just a-working.") Anyway, he was at Utah State when the Cards drafted him No. 1 in 1968. That selection derived from Lane's superlative performance at a school that has given the game Lionel Aldridge, Merlin Olsen, Jim Turner and Earsell Mackbee. In 1967, his senior year at Utah State, Lane was running second only to O.J. Simpson when a torn thigh muscle forced him to miss the last four games. Still, he gained 627 yards in 96 carries for a 6.5-yard average. Lane saw little action in his rookie season and last year ruptured an artery in his left hand when he tried to brace himself against the ground while being tackled. "I couldn't handle the ball too good after that," he says, "nor could I clobber too well with that forearm."
Thus, except to the scouts, his arrival this season as a top runner came as a surprise. "I'd always run well," says Lane. "Growing up in Alameda, we played all those agility games that kids love but grownups seem to forget. Walking the railroad tracks, diving off bridges, climbing up the sides of new buildings, dodging traffic. When we played tackle in the parks and vacant lots, none of the kids could take me down. Then I also had the advantage of size—quick maturity. In the 12th grade, I was 5'11" and 195 pounds, sometimes 200. Shucks, I've only grown an inch and gained 20 pounds since then. I went the track route, too. In high school I pole-vaulted 12 feet and slang that shot 57'3"—which is still a record at Fremont High."
So the physical thing is important to the running back. But other qualities are just as necessary. Mac Lane learned a lot about shiftiness as a linebacker at Utah State. "Everyone says hitting is the name of the game," he says, "but it's only the first name. The full name of the game is: Hitting Avoiding. I dearly, truly love to hit people, and as a linebacker at Utah State I tried to punish people physically. Then in my junior year they moved me primarily to running back, and when I tried to punish people physically I got tackled. You learn the art of invisibility. As a runner I still try to punish people, but I punish them mentally. By not being there when they try to hit me."
There has to be some quality of magic in the elusiveness of the best running backs. Mere physics can no more explain the missed or broken tackles that mark every long run from scrimmage than mere chemistry can explain the excitement such a performance arouses in the spectator. "I don't really know what I'm doing during a run," admits Lane. "Technically, I should be looking straight ahead and carefully computing where I'm going to step next. Actually, I seem to be looking down, not ahead. When you're running through the line, you gotta know where the bodies are. In my little flashes of memory after a run, like the 74-yard TD against the Saints, I see myself stepping on people. 'Well, hello there, Richard Absher, what you doing down there?' Sometimes I think that the mind is just going along for the ride on a run like that. You know, the foot is finding its own way and the mind is just minding its own business, watching what's going on and saying, like, 'Gee whiz!' Maybe that's what they mean by reckless abandon."
Lane's detachment from the route his legs are pursuing may very well end when the inevitable punishment of his profession catches up with his flight path. "It could be tomorrow, any tomorrow," says Green Bay's Donny Anderson, who is finally living up to his billing. "Doesn't matter if you're a $600,000 back or a $30,000 back." Right now, Lane is the first to admit that the baddies have not caught up with him, at least not in earnest. "Nitschke hit me once with a forearm and knocked me dead," he recalls with a slow, cool grin. "Butkus bit me once, and then tried to break my ankle another time. He tried to break it like it was a piece of kindling—just sort of picked up the lower end of the leg and cracked it over his knee. Didn't work—too green, I guess."
For the moment Mac the Truck is content to roll along his personal highway. "I don't have to psych myself up just yet," he says. "I can't see sitting in a locker room, growling like some damned dog. I get up for the game the first time I'm hit, and when you're a running back, you get hit on the first play. And I don't even try to psych out the opposition very much. Taylor had that bad mouth, and Brown did it by getting up real slow, as if he was hurt bad, and then he'd run at them just as tough the next time. Me, I just get up and trot back to the huddle. If a guy puts some extra effort into hurting me, I might tell him: 'Shucks, my little girl can hit harder than that and she's only 5." Next time, maybe he'll overshoot."
This season 26 running backs have been sidelined for at least one game because of injury. Numerals indicate number of games missed and/or likely to be missed.
Owens, Lions, shoulder (season)
Crenshaw, Broncos, shoulder (2)
Bankston, Steelers, shoulder, (6)
Boozer, Jets, ribs (8)
Hull, Bears, thigh (1)
Smith, Rams, hamstring (1)
Keyes, Eagles, Achilles (season)
Snell, Jets, Achilles (11)
Baynham, Bears, ankle (4)
Kelly, Browns, ankle (2)
T. Williams, Packers, ankle (2)
Nance, Patriots, ankle (1)
Campbell, Oilers, toe (2)
Josephson, Rams, jaw (2)
Hill, Colts, back (3)
Simpson, Bills, knee (6)
Bulaich, Colts, knee (1)
Farr, Lions, knee (1)
Sayers, Bears, knee (12)
Granger, Oilers, knee (10)
Matte, Colts, knee (9)
Post, Chargers, knee (5)
Jones, Eagles, knee (10)
Garrison, Cowboys, knee (4)
Hubbert, Chargers, knee (5)
Stegent, Cardinals, knee (season)