The retired Lynn Swann, the recycled Charlie Smith and a third wide receiver, Frank Lockett, were leisurely comparing notes on the New Orleans Breakers' practice field in Kenner, La. one recent afternoon. Swann, ABC's color commentator, and Smith, New Orleans' control receiver, were discussing the predilections of defensive backs. Lockett was a bit awed, realizing such would be his company from now on. He was all eyes and ears.
Suddenly a derisive voice rose from the Breakers' practice huddle: "Hey, Animal, break up that wide-receiver convention! We got work to do." Lockett, 26, was startled out of his reverie. "I really think I take more abuse than anybody on this team," he said before trotting off. But for Lockett, that abuse is rarely physical these days and never comes from defensive backs. Three years ago he was starring—for $50 a game and a part-time job at a winery—for the Napa Valley (Calif.) Bears, and before joining the Breakers last season he had been cut by three NFL teams. Today he's one of the finest receivers in the USFL, with 26 catches for 596 yards, a 22.9-yard average and five touchdowns in seven games. He may be a step behind Arizona's Trumaine Johnson and Michigan's Anthony Carter (Lockett runs a 4.5 40 to their 4.4s), but who isn't? The offense Lockett sparks is second to none.
On successive March weekends the Breakers, who are 6-1 and tied with Birmingham for the lead in the USFL's Southern Division, set league records for total yards, against Jacksonville (546) and Chicago (591). Lockett accounted for 380 of those, a record 225 on nine catches against the Bulls. Not bad work for a receiver who had made his mark as a blocker. "I do block well," says Lockett, a 6-foot 200-pounder. "I'm either knocking the guy down or going by him."
Commenting on Lockett's size and blocking skill, Breakers coach Dick Coury says, "Frank's definitely not a normal wide receiver, but he can play for any team. In either league." The Breakers have only three wide receivers on the active roster, but a locker-room joke goes: "Actually we dress four. Two of them happen to be Animal Lockett." When Marcus Dupree, the celebrated teenaged running back, joined New Orleans, he said the most impressive items he saw were "Frank Lockett's arms. They're as big as mine."
But then hands—not arms—catch footballs, and there's more to playing wide receiver than running by people. The great receiver adjusts. In previous tries with the NFL Packers ('79), 49ers ('80) and Dolphins ('82), Lockett hadn't adjusted well enough to stick. "Even we were getting ready to let him go," says Coury. Last year when the Breakers were based in Boston, Lockett spent four games on the developmental squad. "He wasn't concentrating," says Coury. "But my son [Breakers' receivers coach Steve Coury] wouldn't let me cut him." Says Steve, "I had an advantage. I could go home with the coach and say, 'Aw, c'mon, Dad.' We couldn't afford to let the kind of athletic ability Frank has get away."
"For a long time," says Lockett, "my brother, Mike, was the only one who believed in me. He'd say, 'Don't give up. You're a great receiver. You can play.' And Mike was pretty realistic. Steve Coury believed in me that way. I consider him a good friend."
Lockett, as in rocket, grew up "barefoot in the woods" in Independence, La., 90 miles from New Orleans. "I go back and look at those woods and wonder how I ever ran through there," Lockett says. "I couldn't again, after running on these perfect AstroTurf fields." Lockett, his brother and mother, Mamie Eubanks, moved to Richmond, Calif., in the Bay Area, when Frank was a high school freshman. He was a star wrestler at 177 pounds at DeAnza High. As a wide receiver on a team with a run-oriented offense he caught "14 or so" passes in three seasons, and no major scholarships were forthcoming. "I was ready to get a job, maybe try to become a regular human being, like Mike," says Lockett. Mike Lockett, a year younger than Frank, was not nearly as good an athlete and after graduation became a clerk typist. But Frank went off to Contra Costa J.C. to give football one more shot. In his second year there he led the nation in punt returns with a 20-yard average and five touchdowns.
Nebraska recruited him. "They said I'd play wingback and be another Johnny Rodgers," he says. "They" didn't include coach Tom Osborne, who played Lockett at split end in '77 and '78. "I blocked," says Lockett, "and came out on passing plays." He caught all of 12 passes for the Cornhuskers. He also lifted weights vigorously and persistently, until he was able to bench-press 340, squat-lift 475 and make the football players' All-America Strength Team.
Green Bay drafted Lockett in the 10th round in 1979, but football brought him little except disappointment until the '83 USFL season, when he caught 37 passes for 535 yards in the last 14 Breaker games.
The Breakers were 11-7 in '83 and had exceptional offensive firepower in 36-year-old quarterback Johnnie Walton; Smith, Walton's ex-Eagle teammate; and Richard Crump, who rushed for 990 yards. For '84 the Breakers added an NFL All-Pro, the former Bengal tight end Dan Ross; a skilled 222-pound rookie runner from McNeese State, Buford Jordan; and 225-pound fullback Mark Schellen from Nebraska. Then along came Dupree. The New Jersey Generals, who traded Dupree's rights to New Orleans, asked for Lockett as partial payment. The Breakers said no way.
Dupree was given a five-year, $6 million deal. In the off-season Lockett had signed a bargain-basement contract: three years at $55,000 per season. "It beat 50 bucks," says Lockett. "Mike and I rented a house in Richmond. My time was coming." But last December, Mike Lockett began to have violent headaches and spells of vomiting. In January a brain tumor was discovered. Frank Lockett was distraught. "They operated at San Francisco's LLC. Moffett Hospital," he says. "The last time we talked Mike said, 'I'll be at the Oakland game.' But I knew. He had lost 40 pounds already. He was so weak. How could he survive a brain operation?" Mike Lockett didn't regain consciousness. He died Feb. 15.
"I dedicated this season to him," says Lockett. Against Oakland on March 4, Walton and Lockett salvaged a scoring drive with a 34-yard completion on a second-and-37 situation. In that game Lockett also caught a slant and was hit hard in midair by Invaders' rookie cornerback Darryl Hart. Lockett shucked Hart off, leaving him in a heap. "I want them to feel that small," says Lockett, palm at his knee, "because that's what they're trying to do to me." Against Memphis on March 11, he caught the final touchdown pass, a 40-yarder in the third quarter as New Orleans won 37-14. Against Jacksonville on March 19, he had touchdown receptions of 69 and 70 yards.
The Blitz double-teamed him on March 25, but Lockett had four catches for 111 yards as the game went into overtime tied 35-35. New Orleans marched to the Blitz 44. Dick Coury wanted safe plays, for once, but son Steve suggested the long ball to Lockett: X stop-and-go. Lockett paused while Walton pumped, then blazed around cornerback Charles Armstead, arriving under the bomb to score as a crowd of 43,692 rocked the Superdome. A stadium guard bear-hugged Lockett. Then the team's unofficial mascot, a sort of glittery Captain Marvel known as Captain Breaker, bear-hugged Lockett. Then the Breakers arrived, burying No. 80 in the end zone and piling on. It took two minutes for the sea of padded humanity to part, revealing a smiling wide receiver who'll take that kind of abuse anytime.