Over the hill, Calvin ain't

He broke in with such long-gone stars as O.J. and Ron Johnson, and he isn't as quick as he was, but Cleveland isn't asking the old campaigner to turn in his cleats
October 19, 1980

Long, long ago, when Calvin Hill was a student at Riverdale Country School in New York City, he learned a line from the school song that went, "It is the spirit that quickeneth." A phrase like that doesn't mean much to a kid in high school, but Hill has been singing it a lot these days. And though the Cleveland Browns' 3-3 record doesn't necessarily reflect it, Hill's teammates are doing their best to sing along.

That's right, Calvin Hill: the ex-Yalie, ex-Cowboy, ex-defector to the World Football League. Why, Hill's such a relic that he even retired from the Washington Redskins back when that was the old-folks home of the NFL. But as of Sunday, he was leading the Browns in touchdown receptions with three, averaging 17.9 yards a catch on seven receptions for 125 yards, all of this while uncomplainingly participating in no more than half a dozen plays a game.

"Calvin's a perfect example of how it's better to have a good head than it is to have good legs," says the Browns' coach, Sam Rutigliano. His quickness? "Gone," Rutigliano says without a moment's hesitation. "But in the intangible areas, Calvin's contribution to the Browns has been immeasurable." In other words, it is his spirit that quickeneth.

Hill is only 33, but for an NFL back—especially one who has run for more than 6,000 yards and 60 touchdowns—that is antediluvian. Consider: among the backs who broke in with Hill in 1969 were Ed Podolak, Altie Taylor, Leroy Keyes, Larry Brown, Ron Johnson, Carl Garrett and a young man who now spends his Sundays flying into rental cars, O.J. Simpson. Hill, who won Rookie of the Year honors in that august company, is the only one still playing pro football.

"I remember looking at Bob Lilly when I first came in the league and thinking he was ancient," Hill says. "He'd only been around eight years. I wonder what these guys think of me."

The Browns think enough of their graybeard to have voted him captain of the offense, despite the fact that he sees extremely limited duty. With Cleveland's first draft choice having been Heisman Trophy winner Charles White; with Mike Pruitt coming off a season in which he ran for 1,294 yards; and with Greg Pruitt healthy again after missing most of the 1979 schedule, it is astounding there is room for a grizzled veteran like Hill in Cleveland's backfield. But there is, and he has been making the most of his chances.

"We use Calvin the way Preston Pearson is used by Dallas, mostly in passing situations," says Rutigliano. "He has super hands and is a big target, and he's good at finding a hole in the zone. Other teams know that, and they're very aware of Calvin when he's in there, which means there's less pressure on our other guys, like Ozzie Newsome and Reggie Rucker. So it's tough to measure by statistics just what he's meant to us."

Quarterback Brian Sipe is so aware of Hill's special skills—he is a fine blocker, too—that Sipe has a signal he flashes to the sidelines when he wants the 227-pound Hill to come in the game. "I like to use him when the other team's in a blitzing situation," Sipe says. Against Tampa Bay three weeks ago, Hill and Sipe read a safety blitz and burned it with a 43-yard TD pass. "I just lobbed it to Calvin in the hole that the safety had vacated," says Sipe. "To be honest with you, when I saw the way they were lined up, I'd have been disappointed with anything less. Calvin one-on-one against a linebacker is no contest."

Hill spent last winter and spring working as special assistant to the director of the Peace Corps in Washington, D.C., focusing his attention on the problems of the world's refugees. He attended Southern Methodist's Perkins School of Theology and served as a deacon at the Yale Chapel under the Rev. William Sloane Coffin Jr., and he was active in the civil rights movement. He is a man of voracious curiosity—rare in the self-centered world of professional sports—and what is as amazing as Hill's longevity is that he has managed to retain his almost childlike appreciation of football.

"I enjoy playing; I enjoy watching film; I enjoy strategy; I even enjoy training camp, except I don't like having to eat three meals a day," he says. "I'm the kind of guy who would probably be playing touch football if I weren't playing football here. I'm a fan as well as a player."

Hill's rejuvenation in Cleveland came as a result of his being a fan. He had started the 1978 training camp with the Redskins, with whom he had signed in 1976 after the Hawaiians said aloha along with the rest of the WFL. George Allen was the coach of the Redskins, and Hill was confined to the role of backup for Running Back Mike Thomas. But in the last two games of the 1977 season, Hill had his chance to play and was awarded a game ball on each occasion.

After the season he talked with Allen about the possibility of starting the next year, and Allen agreed that when Hill came to training camp, he and Thomas would be judged as equals. A week later Allen was fired. "Jack Pardee was named coach," Hill recalls, "and the next year at training camp it was the same old story. I knew if I stayed in Washington I'd be a bitcher. So I retired."

A few weeks later Hill was in the stands as the Baltimore Colts were being trounced 42-0 by Miami. A friend turned to Hill and said those oft-heard words of the disgruntled fan: "You could do better than that." "You know," replied Hill, "that was just going through my mind, too." The next day he began making calls.

The Rams gave him a tryout in Los Angeles, and the Colts talked with him, but, as Hill puts it, "Their estimations of my abilities were not the same as my own." In 1975, when he was in the WFL, he had undergone knee surgery, and the 558 yards he had gained for Washington in two years were not evidence enough that he had fully recovered. Then, in the fourth game of 1978, with Greg Pruitt already injured, the Browns lost Running Back Tom Sullivan to knee surgery, and they signed Hill. Teaming up in the back-field with Mike Pruitt, Hill gained more than 600 yards and scored seven touchdowns in 12 games.

"Calvin made it clear he wouldn't come if there wasn't a need," says Rutigliano. "But he realized his role. He told Greg Pruitt that he wasn't any threat to replace him as starting halfback, but then he added that the position didn't belong to Pruitt, it belonged to the Cleveland Browns. I wish I'd said that."

Hill had been taught the concept of "belonging" to an organization at Dallas, where in six years he gained more than 5,000 yards rushing. Hill went to the Pro Bowl four times and to the Super Bowl twice, but when he tried to get a $100,000 salary, he was politely, but firmly, refused. "If the Cowboys had paid me what I was asking, it would've upset their whole salary structure," Hill says. "They had the greatest promotion department in sports: you could go anywhere and people knew you. But it's the organization that reaps all the benefits, not individual players. It's not the greatest thing in the world to feel that the organization always comes first. It's like being in the CIA. As soon as I left they gave my number [35] to Scott Laidlaw. That rankled me a little bit. But it's not my number, it's their number. Nothing belongs to anybody; we're just here to use it for a while, to take advantage of it and not abuse it. Then to leave it, hopefully better, for someone else."

Hill learned that philosophy from a Hawaiian fisherman, who taught him to take no more from the sea than he could use himself or sell. In that way, man could depend on the sea forever. Hill's year in the WFL was rewarding financially—he made nine times what he did during his last season in Dallas—and it blunted the bitterness Hill felt as an educated and perceptive black athlete living in conservative Dallas. "Before you can turn somebody to your way of thinking, you have to understand where they are coming from," he says. "I was too impatient to understand that before I went to Hawaii."

Hill plans to retire after this season—for good this time. The violence of the sport, the obsessive preoccupation of its participants, have not diminished his love of football. The only time in his career he remembers being intimidated was in the opening game of the 1973 season, when Chicago's Dick Butkus took it upon himself to re-spot the ball after a play.

"He told the referees they didn't know what they were doing and just picked up the ball after a running play and moved it back. I've thought about that a lot since then; sometimes I wonder if I dreamed it. But I remember thinking, 'If the refs are intimidated by this guy, I'd better be.' "

In his fantasy of fantasies, Hill would like to become a general manager, to run his own NFL team. He has already made a pact with Brian Dowling, his old Yale quarterback, that if one or the other gets there first, he will bring the other along. Hill would probably be a good GM. He has played under Tom Landry, who reduces football to logic ("The Cowboys are as syllogistic as possible," says Hill), and also under Allen, who threw away the computer and dealt with men of character, often very old men of character but doddering steps who depended on the spirit to quickeneth. "When I hear that song, I think of Washington," he says. "A lot of it was Allen, sure, but a lot of it was also the kind of guys he got. They all had the willingness to pay the price."

Until a general manager's job comes along, Hill is considering a telecommunications career and resettling in the Sun Belt. Texas, perhaps? "Texans are very optimistic," he says. "I don't always agree with what they're optimistic about, but they're positive down there, and it's nice to be around positive people.

"I remember back when Herb Adderley came to the Cowboys from Green Bay. He was introduced to everyone in the dining room and someone said, 'Show us your Super Bowl rings.' He showed us one, then he paused and said real slow, 'And this is the one we got the same year we beat Dallas.' Everyone went quiet, then Adderley smiled. 'But don't worry, I'll help you guys get one of these, too.' I was blown away. It rubs off, that confidence."

The Cleveland Browns wouldn't mind that at all.

PHOTO PHOTOHill's money in the bank on selected pass plays.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)