I tell you something true as life,
And, Big Daddy, you better be believin';
You lay that needle down right now,
Or your friends will all be grievin';
You lay that needle down, boy,
Or your women will be grievin'.
--Unattributed verse as quoted in
"THE SAD END OF BIG DADDY LIPSCOMB"
The Saturday Evening Post, July 27, 1963
This is an article from the Jan. 11, 1999 issue
All day long, from 10 in the morning until 10 at night, the line
of mourners stood four abreast along Madison Avenue in
Baltimore. They had come from all over, thousands of them--black
and white, young and old, men and women and children--and at
times they reached such numbers that the line from the mean
streets to the open steel-gray coffin extended more than two
blocks. So many people, so many mournful faces. Cheek by jowl,
for 12 hours, they filed into old Charlie Law's funeral home. In
one door and out another. In one mood and out another. In one
era and out another.
In all his years Lenny Moore had never witnessed a spectacle
quite like it. "It was overwhelming," recalls the Baltimore
Colts' Hall of Fame running back. "You'd have thought it was a
big movie star in there. Or a head of state. Biggest thing I
ever saw like that in this town."
It was more than 35 years ago, on Sunday, May 12, 1963, and
Eugene (Big Daddy) Lipscomb, dressed in a white silk tie and
midnight-blue suit, was lying handsomely in state, in an outsize
casket rimmed in pillowy white. He looked larger in death than
he had in life, all 6'6" and 306 pounds of him: larger than the
legend he had spawned, with his size 56 suits and custom-made
jockstraps; larger than the memories of his exploits on the
football field, on which he nailed 225-pound fullbacks with
one-arm tackles and chased down halfbacks; larger even than his
ravenous appetites for women and whiskey.
Two days earlier, after a Thursday night of drinking and
cavorting with two ladies of the night, Lipscomb had collapsed
in the kitchen of a house on North Brice Street in southwestern
Baltimore, the victim of an overdose of heroin. He was 31 years
old, and the city's assistant medical examiner, Dr. Rudiger
Breitenecker, found enough dope inside him to have killed five
men. Lipscomb died in the ambulance bearing him to Lutheran
He had lived his life in all the suburbs of chaos. He was
survived by a 1963 yellow Cadillac convertible, at least one
fiancee and three ex-wives, the second of whom he had married in
Tijuana, Mexico, while he was still wed to the first. All over
Pittsburgh, where he had played the previous two years, the
Steelers and their followers cried out the same lament. "The
best man I ever saw at knocking people down," Pittsburgh coach
Buddy Parker said.
Lipscomb, a three-time All-Pro defensive tackle, played 10 years
in the NFL, including five memorable seasons with the Colts,
from 1956 through '60. In his final game, the Pro Bowl in
January '63, he was voted lineman of the game. He was widely
perceived as a natural wonder, like the Painted Desert or the
Devil's Anvil. He was, in fact, the prototype of the modern
lineman, the first 300-pound Bunyan endowed not only with
enormous power but also with the two qualities usually denied
men of his size: agility and speed. His belly did not roll out
of his pants. He was hard and trim, and the fastest interior
lineman in the league.
Gino Marchetti, the Colts' Hall of Fame defensive end, says he
and his teammates used to call Lipscomb "our fourth linebacker.
He was big, fast, strong and agile. Really, really great." In
fact, Baltimore's defensive coach in Lipscomb's day, Charley
Winner, considered changing Lipscomb's position. "I remember one
game against Green Bay," Winner says. "They had a fast back
named Tom Moore, and Big Daddy dropped off the line to cover a
pass. He chased Moore for 40 yards and then knocked down the
pass in the end zone. I wanted to make him a linebacker, but we
couldn't replace him on the line."
He had huge arms and hands--when he was first spotted by the
track coach at Camp Pendleton, where Lipscomb served in the
Marine Corps from 1949 to '53, he was lifting a 41-pound piece
of a cannon with his fingertips--and the wingspan of a
pterodactyl, seven feet, which made him a fearsome pass and
field goal blocker and a constricting tackler from sideline to
sideline. "One of the best tacklers there ever was," Weeb
Ewbank, the Colts' coach in the late '50s and early '60s,
recalled shortly before he died in November. "When Big Daddy
wrapped a guy up with those long arms, he stayed wrapped."
Raymond Berry, Baltimore's All-Pro receiver in those days,
cherishes one memory of Lipscomb on the field. The Colts were
playing the Philadelphia Eagles, and Berry was standing on the
sideline when the Eagles' fullback, 225-pound Clarence Peaks,
took a handoff, started to his right and cut back toward the
middle. "Then I see Big Daddy Lipscomb. He was flowing down the
line of scrimmage in pursuit, and he sticks out his arm," Berry
says. "Peaks hit Big Daddy's arm, and it knocked him backwards.
Backwards! He arm-tackled Clarence Peaks! That was the kind of
play he brought to the game."
He also brought it to a working-class city in which Moore, Berry
and quarterback Johnny Unitas--along with a defensive line that
included Marchetti, Art Donovan and Don Joyce--were the patron
saints of the common folk. The Colts won the NFL championship
two years in a row, in 1958 and '59. Berry remembers the
relationship between town and team as a unifying force that cut
across racial, social and economic lines: "It was a marriage,
practically a honeymoon, between a team and a city."
Big Daddy, a man of the streets, was among the most beloved of
all Colts. He was the quintessential "gentle giant" who picked
up opposing players after knocking them down. "Are you all
right, Sweet Pea?" he asked Los Angeles Rams quarterback Billy
Wade, extending him a hand after crushing him in a pile-on. Big
Daddy gave his bed to a derelict man who had passed out drunk in
a driving Baltimore snow, and he bore ghetto children on his
mammoth shoulders through the city's streets. More than once he
stopped his car when he saw a kid running barefoot in the
winter. "Why don't you have shoes on?" he asked one boy.
"I don't have any shoes," the boy said. Lipscomb drove him home,
and minutes later he was escorting the boy and his mother through
a clothing store, buying shoes and jackets and pants for the kid.
"I saw him do that three or four times," says Johnny Sample, a
Colts defensive back at the time. "A heart of gold."
No wonder, then, that a crowd upward of 20,000 came to see him
off at Charlie Law's. At 10 p.m., the hour of closing, Law
called Geraldine Young, the wife of former Baltimore running
back Buddy Young, and asked what he should do. Geraldine had
made all the funeral arrangements, picking out the coffin and
suggesting how the body should be prepared for viewing. ("Don't
put too much makeup on him, Charlie," she had said. "Don't make
him look ashen.") His remains were to be shipped to Detroit that
night for the funeral and burial, and Law was running out of
time. "There's still a line two blocks long," he said. "What
should I do?"
Geraldine thought for a moment. She had been at the funeral home
earlier in the day and had stared in disbelief at the lines of
people filing by to pay their last respects. "If the people are
there, Charlie, let them see him," she finally told Law. "This is
a great testimony to Big Daddy."
In another kind of testimony, women arrived from all points, at
all hours. "He always had three or four ladies," Geraldine says.
One of them, a singer who had flown in from Canada, where
Lipscomb had wrestled professionally in the off-season, arrived
not long after Law had closed his place at midnight, and she
lighted like a lost starling on the Youngs' porch. Touched by
her story, Buddy called Law at home, and a mortuary attendant
working late let her in for a private viewing. "Thank you!" she
cried after Buddy made the call. "I've just got to see him one
Big Daddy, who found football easy enough, life hard enough
To--after his last night cruising Baltimore
In his yellow Cadillac--to die of heroin;
Big Daddy, who was scared, he said: "I've been scared
Most of my life. You wouldn't think so to look at me.
It gets so bad I cry myself to sleep--"
Say Good-bye to Big Daddy
At night before he went to sleep, when he was living in Baltimore
with Colts tackle Sherman Plunkett, Lipscomb would slide his bed
against the door so no one could get in. He kept a gun under his
pillow. He would tie Plunkett's giant dog to the end of the bed
to keep at bay the flitting ghosts that went bump in his night.
"I don't know what the hell he was scared of," says Donovan, "but
he was scared to death of something."
Lipscomb was never sure himself. One day he might play the
ebullient, knee-slapping comic and raconteur, the Colts' most
irrepressible cutup; the next day an altogether different
incarnation might appear in one of his tailored suits: a sullen,
unapproachable ogre who wore a scowl for a mask, the phantom of
his own dark opera. More than once, says Moore, Lipscomb
inexplicably burst into tears. One night when Moore and Lipscomb
were roistering through Baltimore in the back of a cab, Moore
says, "he just broke down and started crying, and I said,
'What's wrong with you, man?' He said, 'Ah, the Daddy ain't
right. The Daddy ain't right.'"
"He cried periodically," Luke Owens, a Colts teammate, says.
"You'd walk up, and his mind would be somewhere else, and you'd
look, and he was crying. 'Just a sad day,' he'd say."
Given to bouts of insomnia, Lipscomb paced the nights away. In
the hot and airless dormitory at Western Maryland College, where
the Colts set up training camp each summer, the players kept the
doors and windows open in their rooms. Baltimore defensive end
Ordell Braase recalls seeing Lipscomb, like a sentry on duty,
walking the narrow hallways at night.
"He was a troubled guy," says Braase. "I remember waking up at
four in the morning, and he'd be pacing those halls. I think the
haunts of his childhood pursued him to the end of his life."
Lipscomb was born in Uniontown, Ala., to a family of cotton
pickers, on Aug. 9, 1931. He never knew his father, who fell ill
and died in a federal Civilian Conservation Corps camp, and he
was only three when his mother, Carrie, took him, her only
child, north to Detroit. They lived in a rooming house in the
Black Bottom ghetto on the East Side. "His mother was a fast
lady, and she was tough," recalls Charles Bailey, one of
Lipscomb's boyhood friends. When Gene, as his childhood pals
knew him, was 11, Carrie's boyfriend stabbed her 47 times at a
bus stop on Lafayette Street. Gene was fixing himself breakfast
when a policeman came by to tell him what had happened, his hand
on the boy's shoulder. She had died on the street.
Owens still wonders where Lipscomb got those gruesome photos he
used to carry with him. Owens was visiting Lipscomb one day in
Pittsburgh in the early '60s, and they were having lunch at a
hot-dog place downtown when Lipscomb pulled out a sheaf of
photos: black-and-white highlights from his early years as a
Ram, from '53 to '55; photos from his glory days as a Colt. In
this group was a gallery of pictures taken in a grainy winter
dusk in Yankee Stadium on Dec. 28, 1958, showing scenes from the
Greatest Football Game Ever Played, in which Baltimore beat the
New York Giants 23-17 to win the NFL championship in the first
sudden-death overtime in league history. Lipscomb also told
Owens about his childhood, about growing up in Detroit, about
the day his mother was killed. Owens didn't know if he had heard
right. "Your mother was killed?" he asked. Here Lipscomb pulled
out another passel of photos, taken by a homicide photographer.
"This is my mother," he said. "She was murdered."
Owens suspected this was Lipscomb's idea of macabre humor. He
says, "I asked him, 'Are you serious?' I waited for him to tell
me it was a joke, but he was very serious. They were pictures of
his mother's murder scene ... a horrible death. I looked at her,
and I looked at him, and he had the strangest look on his face. I
finally said, 'Let me see some more football pictures.'"
After he was orphaned, Gene moved in with his maternal
grandfather, Charles Hoskins, in the old man's Detroit apartment
building. The boy had already worked for years, setting pins in
a bowling alley when Carrie was still alive, and he did even
harder time after she died. "I had to buy my own clothes and pay
room and board to my grandfather," he told The Saturday Evening
Post in 1960. "I washed dishes in a cafe, loaded trucks for a
construction gang and helped around a junkyard. One year I ran a
lift in a steel mill from midnight until seven in the morning.
Then I changed clothes and went to school."
At 6'4" and 220 pounds, he was a sixth-grade Sasquatch, and
schoolmates teased him about his clothes, which he was forever
outgrowing, and about the special desk he needed in class. "I
was a freak," he would tell his Colts teammate Joyce. When he
struggled to spell simple words such as apple, the other kids
giggled and called him Dumbo. All through his life, nothing
could arouse the fury in him faster than the old taunts of dummy
and big stupe that he had heard as a boy.
Life was no easier at home. Gene had a close if turbulent
relationship with Hoskins, who once tied him to his bed,
stripped him and beat him for stealing a bottle of his whiskey.
"My grandfather loved me, all right, and did the best that he
knew how," Lipscomb said. "But for some reason it was always
hard for us to talk together. Instead of telling me what I was
doing wrong and how to correct it, my grandfather would holler
and whip me."
Gene's only triumphs were on the athletic fields of Miller High,
where he learned to play football and basketball. But even those
experiences ended badly when a rival coach caught him playing
semipro basketball and softball, and he was declared ineligible
for sports his senior year. On the advice of his football coach,
Will Robinson, he dropped out of school and joined the Marines
in 1949. He was awkward and blubbery and psychologically soft,
but the rigors of Marine Corps life soon changed that. At Camp
Pendleton he won the shot put championship of the Second Marine
Division. By the fall of 1952 The Pendleton Scout, the base
newspaper, was feting him as the "stellar end" on the camp's
football team and, at 6'6" and 267 pounds, "one of the fastest
men on the squad."
"The Marines turned his life around," Bailey says. "He shed all
that fat and got in shape and became a real man." In 1953, when
the Rams' young public relations director, Pete Rozelle, spotted
Lipscomb at Pendleton and signed him up--the NFL
commissioner-to-be scouted the Marines in those days--not a soul
in Black Bottom could fathom the news. "All of us could have
stood on our heads," Bailey says. "Pro ball. Damn! We couldn't
Nor could all those offensive tackles when they found themselves
facing the huge Lipscomb across the line. When Lou Creekmur, the
Detroit Lions' future Hall of Famer, first beheld him in a game
in 1954, he thought, I've got to block this? Still, Lipscomb
fell prey to traps and tricks in those early years. Because he
had never played football in college, where players are drilled
endlessly on the fundamentals of the game, he entered the NFL
with nothing to sustain him but his size and talent. He stood up
straight at the line of scrimmage, making what Creekmur calls a
"beautiful target" to hit low.
"He was as raw as liver with the Rams," Creekmur recalls. "In the
service he could get away with standing up straight and muscling
people around, but he couldn't do that in the pros. All you had
to do was get under his arms and hands, and his body was so huge
that once you got it moving in one direction, it was going over."
Lipscomb was most vulnerable, however, to the taunts hurled at
him by opposing linemen. Creekmur, known as the Smiling
Assassin, baited him all the time. The Rams called Lipscomb Big
Daddy, and Creekmur would tell him, "So you're Big Daddy, huh?
I'm comin' atcha! Let's see how big you are."
"I used to get him so pissed off that he wanted to kill me,"
Creekmur recalls. "You could see the steam coming out of his
There was something almost comic about Lipscomb's early
adventures on the field. Stan Jones, the Chicago Bears' Hall of
Fame offensive guard, remembers a game in Los Angeles in which
the Bears' placekicker, George Blanda, lined up to kick a field
goal. Suddenly, behind the Rams' defensive line, loomed Lipscomb
with safety Don Burroughs sitting on his shoulders like a boy
astride his father. The 6'4" Burroughs had his hands above his
head to block the field goal.
"They must have been 10 feet in the air," says Jones. "Then
Blanda hooked the kick short, and everybody started chasing it.
Big Daddy was unaware that Burroughs was still on his shoulders,
and he was running down the field after the ball." It resembled a
circus act, with Lipscomb lumbering along and Burroughs riding
him, until Chicago guard Herman Clark slanted by and cut them
The Bears' owner and coach, George Halas, stomped along the
sideline screaming, "Next thing you know, they'll be throwin'
helmets at the ball!" The Lipscomb-Burroughs field goal defense
was soon declared illegal.
That improbable scene mirrored Lipscomb's life off the field and
on. His two years with the Rams were the most chaotic of his
Don't weep for me, Little Daddy,
Don't bother with no prayer;
I don't want to go to heaven
Unless they swing up there.
Don't take me up to heaven, Please, Lawd,
'Less there's kicks and chicks Up there.
--The Sad End of Big Daddy Lipscomb
For those who knew him well, Lipscomb was a house divided, a
split-level in which two distinct personalities coexisted. In
the home of Rams fullback Deacon Dan Towler and his wife,
Roslyn, Lipscomb was warm and deferential, the same great fuzzy
bear who called everyone Little Daddy and later addressed
Geraldine Young as Sweetie Cakes and swung her children on his
arms. "He had this gentle spirit," Towler says. "He was a
prince." The other, darker Lipscomb drank to excess, partied and
gambled to all hours, and tore up hotel rooms.
One day in California he leaped from lineman Harry Thompson's
car and attacked a motorist who had cut them off. Lipscomb put
his fist through the offending driver's window. Thompson stopped
the bleeding with a tourniquet fashioned from a towel he kept in
his car. "Damn, I wish I hadn't done that," Lipscomb sighed.
"He had no control over himself," Towler says. "He was a paradox.
The way he acted in my house and out of my house, it was like Dr.
Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. His animal nature often was unchecked."
Nowhere did that nature roam more freely than with women. Towler
says Lipscomb regarded them not as human beings but as toys. He
was utterly indiscriminate. "He loved the maids in the hotels,"
says Rams running back Tank Younger, his roommate on the road.
"I remember him saying to me, 'Why don't you disappear? I want
to take care of this maid.' Every time he heard a vacuum cleaner
crank up, his d--- got hard."
He also had an unsettling tendency to run with unsavory
sycophants from the ghetto world in which he was raised. "These
were the people he identified with," says Younger. "He had never
finished high school, and they didn't have any education either.
He understood them, and they understood him."
His marital life pitched along in a state of rolling turmoil.
Lipscomb married his first wife, a Detroit woman named Ophelia,
on Sept. 23, 1950, when she was 25, he 19. "A friend of mine who
studies psychology tells me I was trying to find another
mother," Lipscomb told The Saturday Evening Post. "I suppose I
was." They separated on March 15, 1954, but were not granted a
divorce, according to court papers, until Dec. 28, 1956. A year
before that, on Dec. 17, 1955, Lipscomb had married a Houston
nurse named Erma Jewel in Tijuana. Five months later, after
learning that her marriage was bigamous, Erma filed for an
annulment. In court papers she also accused Lipscomb of having
physically abused her on three occasions and of having
threatened "that she would not live to enjoy her 1956 Mercury
automobile." The marriage was annulled on Aug. 17, 1956.
Four years later, in that Saturday Evening Post article, Lipscomb
did not own up to the act of bigamy--"I divorced my first wife,
married another girl and divorced her," he said--and he made light
of what happened to Erma's car. Erma had not been harmed, but the
same could not be said of the vehicle.
"I didn't mind losing the second wife as much as losing the 1956
Mercury," Lipscomb said. "After she took possession I poured a
box of sugar down the gas tank. When she told me she had to buy
a new gas line and engine afterward, I just cluck-clucked
sympathetically and acted like I knew nothing about it."
Meanwhile, Ophelia was pursuing her divorce action against him
and seeking alimony and child support for their daughter,
Eugenia. Lipscomb, for his part, was staying out all night and
sleeping in the back of Younger's car on the way to Rams
practices. Hungover, he often nodded off during team meetings;
coaches would awaken him by pounding on a set of metal drawers
with a canister of film. "I wasn't asleep!" he'd say, bolting up
to a roomful of laughter. "I heard every word you said."
It was no wonder that the Rams gave up on him. "The coaches got
fed up with his off-field behavior," Younger says. In September
1956, Los Angeles put Lipscomb on the waiver wire. The Colts
picked him up for the going price: $100.
Big Daddy Lipscomb, who used to help them up
After he'd pulled them down, so that "the children
Won't think Big Daddy's mean"; Big Daddy Lipscomb,
Who stood unmoved among the blockers, like the Rock
Of Gibraltar in a life insurance ad,
Until the ball carrier came, and Daddy got him....
--Say Good-bye to Big Daddy
Lipscomb's arrival in Baltimore, like his coming to Camp
Pendleton, placed him in a structured environment in which he
flourished. For the first time he learned how to play football.
He may have missed college drills, but he ended up studying at
the University of Marchetti, Donovan and Joyce. There was not
much formal coaching on the line in those years, Marchetti says,
so the players would gather on the field and share their tricks
and techniques. "It was like an on-field seminar," Marchetti
says. "What Big Daddy learned, he learned through watching us."
He complemented the other defensive linemen perfectly. As
Donovan and Joyce mixed it up in the trenches, caving in pockets
and warding off traps, and the great Marchetti hounded and
crushed quarterbacks, Lipscomb was left to plug holes and chase
the screens and sweeps. Pursuit, full bore, became his game.
"From sideline to sideline, I don't think anybody ever did a
better job than Big Daddy did," Marchetti says. Lipscomb
blossomed in the '57 season, when he led the team in tackles
with 137, a stat usually belonging to a linebacker.
In 1958, just two years after being waived by the Rams, Lipscomb
was an All-Pro on Baltimore's first championship team, a marked
man who was often double-teamed. John Bridgers, the Colts'
defensive line coach back then, recalls Marchetti's telling him,
"We can't win without Big Daddy. We've got to have him pursuing
and making tackles."
"He just got better and better," said Ewbank. It was in
Baltimore that Lipscomb felt free enough to develop his
signature shtick: picking up all those sweet peas he had
flattened on the field. "What the f--- are you doing?" Donovan
asked after Lipscomb lifted a downed rival. "Let 'em get up
"I don't want people thinking I'm mean," Big Daddy said.
In his lighter mood Lipscomb was among the funniest, most
colorful players in the league. Winner remembers the day
Lipscomb was bent over a table, about to have his prostate
checked by a team doctor, when he looked around and saw that the
doctor was slipping a rubber sheath on his finger. He asked the
doc what that thing was.
"A prophylactic," said the doc.
"Take that thing off," the player deadpanned. "I'm a Catholic."
He was honey for the writers, who quoted him endlessly. On a fine
point of interior line play, Lipscomb said, "If a player starts
holding, I smack my hand flat against the earhole of his helmet.
When he complains about dirty playing, I tell him to stop holding
and I'll stop slapping. That's what I call working out a
problem." On the art of tackling the ballcarrier, Lipscomb said,
"I just reach out and grab an armful of players from the other
team and peel them off until I find the one with the ball. I keep
He knew how to play to an all-white audience in a Southern town.
At a banquet in Baltimore, asked what he was going to do with his
money after he retired, he brought down the house: "I'm gonna go
down to Texas and buy a cotton plantation and have nothing but
white cotton pickers!"
Oh, they loved him on the Chesapeake. He had searched all his
life for acceptance and respect, and in Baltimore he found it.
Buddy Young, the old Illinois All-America, had become his mentor
off the field, importuning him to control his temper, take charge
of his life, stay disciplined and focused. Lipscomb went to
formal dinners now, and the Youngs taught him how to use his
"You should have seen this raw man when he came to Baltimore,"
Geraldine says. "He talked about how raggedy his shoes were when
he went to school and how his pants were always too short. Deep
down, he felt, There's more to life than what I've lived. He was
scared, and he didn't know why. People talked to him as if he
were a child. They all thought he was this big lummox who had no
brains. He saw this, and there was this real hurt. Here he saw
rewards for fulfilling a commitment and following orders."
Lipscomb remained keenly sensitive about his lack of college
schooling--he used to refer to his high school as Miller
Tech--and whenever players started to talk about their alma
maters, he would stop them short. "Cut out all that college
bull----!" he snapped at Moore one day. "I don't want to hear
He seemed to resent especially the college-educated blacks.
Marchetti recalls the time that Lipscomb, who had been drinking,
approached Milt Davis, an erudite black halfback out of UCLA, and
threw a handful of money in front of him, snarling, "'Here, Milt,
this is what you're after. That's all you need is
Then there was the day, Joyce says, when Lipscomb lunged in a
rage at a white teammate, linebacker Bill Pellington. Ewbank used
to have the players take classroom notes, and Pellington got his
hands on Lipscomb's book and opened it. The pages were filled
with meaningless scrawls. Pellington held up the book: "Look
here! Big Daddy can't write!" Players had to step between them.
"You sonofabitch, I'll kill you!" Lipscomb screamed.
Baltimore won its second NFL title in 1959 but failed to make
the championship game in 1960, and in July '61, to the shock of
Colts fans, the 29-year-old Lipscomb was the key player in a
five-man deal that sent him and center Buzz Nutter to the
Steelers for Jimmy Orr, the promising flanker with the gifted
hands, and two warm bodies. Ewbank said Baltimore had to deal
Lipscomb to get Orr, but Winner says Lipscomb was dealt in part
because so much trouble tracked him off the field. "It was
always something," Winner says. "Money problems. Legal and
personal problems." (Lipscomb was often served legal papers for
failing to make child-support payments. His top NFL salary was
$14,000, which he supplemented with his off-season income from
He had intertwined his courtships like a braid. When Lipscomb
joined the Colts in the fall of '56, he began courting Cecelia
Williams, who would become his third wife. But on a California
road trip that October, according to court documents, he sought
a reconciliation with his first wife, Ophelia, to whom he was
still legally married, and he got her pregnant. (Their second
child, a son, Raymond, would be born the next July.) Big Daddy
moved in with Ophelia at the end of that season but left her
almost immediately, in December, the month their divorce went
through. He called Cecelia in Baltimore and asked her, "Is it
all right if I stay with you?"
Cecelia took him in, and they were married on May 19, 1957. She
never knew about his attempt to reconcile with Ophelia, and he
never told her of his bigamy. ("Well, I'll be damned," she said
when SI informed her of it recently.) She divorced him on June
10, 1960, on grounds of abandonment and "misconduct with other
women," but she says he never physically harmed her. On the
contrary, she says, "He was a good provider. He brought all his
money home, and he was very generous. I wasn't denied anything."
What she could not abide, she says, was his chronic infidelity,
the phone calls from women asking for him.
"Who are you?" Cecelia would ask.
"Who are you?" the voice would ask back.
Sleepless in Pittsburgh, he sated his appetites with unbridled
zeal. In quarterback Bobby Layne and other Steelers roughnecks,
Lipscomb had new drinking pals. After practices they would repair
to the South Park Inn, where Layne would buy everyone except
Lipscomb a drink. "He would buy Big Daddy a whole bottle of VO,"
says Pat Livingston, who covered the team for the Pittsburgh
Lipscomb's libidinous adventures in Pittsburgh became the stuff
of lore. When defensive back Brady Keys drove by Big Daddy's
place in the morning to pick him up for work, an orgy was often
in progress. "There would be three or four women, and they would
be half naked," Keys says. "Big Daddy had enough energy for them
all. He was always drunk. And he always had cash lying all over
the place. Big Daddy did three things: He drank, he screwed, and
he dominated football games."
Big Daddy was as popular in Pittsburgh as he had been in
Baltimore. He had two exceptional seasons with the Steelers, at
the end of which, in the '63 Pro Bowl, he turned in one of the
greatest performances of his career: 11 tackles, two forced
fumbles and one blocked pass. Lions guard Harley Sewell faced him
across the line, and for the first time in his career Sewell felt
helpless. "Big Daddy was just running over me, throwing me
around, coming and blowing snot, and anything I tried to do, he
Four months later, still surfing the high of that performance,
Big Daddy told Geraldine Young, "Know what, Sweetie Cakes? I'm
becoming a real football player."
Lipscomb lived his off-seasons in Baltimore, and by May '63 he
had begun to renew his romance with Cecelia. They even talked
about getting married again. On the night of Wednesday, May 8,
they slept together at her place. He left her on Thursday morning
and ran into her at a record shop that afternoon. He told her he
was pitching in a softball game that night. That was the last
time she saw him.
There is only one detailed account of where Lipscomb went and
what he allegedly did from the time the softball game ended
until he died in the ambulance on Friday morning. That story was
told by one Timothy Black, an admitted heroin user with an
extensive criminal record. Black's account, according to his
testimony at the coroner's inquest and various published
reports, is this: Lipscomb had been using heroin three times a
week for about six months, since he first asked Black to buy it
for him. Late on Thursday night Black climbed into Lipscomb's
Cadillac on a street corner in Baltimore, and together they
picked up two women. They partied until 3 a.m. at Black's
apartment on North Brice Street. The women then left. At
Lipscomb's urging, the two men went out and bought a $12 bag of
heroin. They returned to the apartment. Black cooked the heroin
in a whiskey bottle top and drew the solution into an eyedropper
connected to a crude syringe. Lipscomb shot the heroin into his
arm. He started nodding off.
"Then I noted that he was making funny sounds and drooling at
the mouth," Black testified at the inquest. "I slapped him in
the face to try bringing him around, and he fell on the floor. I
put some ice packs around his waist and on his face, but I
couldn't bring him around. I then shot up the rest of the heroin
that was left in the cooker."
A friend joined him, and together they tried to revive Lipscomb,
injecting him with a saline solution. When this failed, they
called the ambulance. Lipscomb never regained consciousness.
Rudiger Breitenecker, who did the autopsy, found four fresh
needle marks on Lipscomb's body, accounting for the deadly heroin
dose and the saline injections, and only one old one, which could
have been left by "an old blood test," Breitenecker says.
What the medical examiner also found surprised no one: a fatty
liver. "If he hadn't died from heroin, he would have died from
liver disease due to chronic alcoholism," Breitenecker says.
Although the Lipscomb case has been closed for more than 35
years, the player's friends and teammates harbor a powerful
skepticism about Black's version of events. While no one has
provided evidence to sustain a plausible alternative to Black's
story, these doubts--based not only on the results of
Breitenecker's autopsy but also on what Lipscomb's friends and
teammates knew of his behavior--linger. The theory most often
advanced by the skeptics holds that Black administered the shot
that killed Lipscomb, either accidentally or in order to steal
his money; they also speculate that the Baltimore police helped
cover up the circumstances of Big Daddy's death because Black
had worked for them as an informant.
Black, who died last month of a cerebral hemorrhage, never said
anything to support any of those theories. But the people who
knew Lipscomb best, off and on the field, still don't believe he
injected himself with heroin--or anything else, for that matter.
Lipscomb lived in morbid fear of needles. The stories
documenting this abound: how he swooned or broke into a sweat at
the very sight of a needle, and how Cecelia had to sit on his
lap to keep him in a dental chair when he took shots of
novocaine for a tooth extraction. "He never acted weird, dopey
or glassy-eyed," Buddy Young says. "There is no way in the world
he used any kind of drug."
Lipscomb drank that last night, though not to excess. The
autopsy revealed his blood alcohol level to be .09, barely high
enough to make him legally drunk in most states today. Black
told The Saturday Evening Post that he and Lipscomb had "bought
a six-pack" of malt liquor before picking up the two women,
though Lipscomb's friends insist that he was strictly a VO
Black did not appear to be the most reliable of witnesses. Not
only was he a drug user and an ex-con, but he also changed the
story he told the police. When first questioned on May 10, Black
said that he and Lipscomb took the two women home about 3 a.m.
after partying with them and then returned to Black's apartment.
Leaving Lipscomb there, Black said, he then went to an all-night
diner, ate some breakfast and returned home at 7 a.m. He said he
found Lipscomb slumped over the kitchen table. By May 11, Black
had added the drug purchase to his account, and his trip to the
diner had disappeared from the story.
Geraldine Young says that Lipscomb had about $700 in cash in his
pocket when he went out that night. Police found $73 on him. For
years, until he was killed in an automobile accident in 1983,
Buddy Young insisted that the missing money held the secret to
Lipscomb's fate. "Find out what happened to that, and you'll know
why Daddy is dead," he said.
Lipscomb's supporters believe that the heroin found in his body
has denied him what they think is rightfully his: a place in the
Hall of Fame. "But I doubt he ever will be," Marchetti says.
"What they said about him with drugs may be held against him."
How good was he? "Big Daddy was in the same category as [Hall of
Famers] Merlin Olsen and Bob Lilly," says John Wooten, the former
guard with the Cleveland Browns and now assistant director of
college and pro football personnel for the Baltimore Ravens. "He
could devastate an offense by himself."
Compared with players today? "Big Daddy was better than Leon
Lett when Lett is at his best," Wooten says, referring to the
6'6", 300-pound Dallas Cowboys tackle. "Lett doesn't have the
lateral movement Big Daddy had. And I don't think he's as mean."
Nor anywhere as earthy or evocative. One thousand people were at
Lipscomb's funeral in Detroit, and symbols of the life he had
led surrounded the gravesite in Lincoln Memorial Cemetery. There
were those eight great football players--Erich Barnes, John
Henry Johnson, Dick (Night Train) Lane, Moore, Owens, Jim
Parker, Plunkett and Sample--carrying the coffin draped in the
U.S. flag, a reminder of Lipscomb's service in the Marine Corps.
There were his friends from Black Bottom. And there were all
those honeys, at least one fiancee wearing a ring and two others
claiming they were engaged to Big Daddy.
"They were around there screaming and hollering, 'What are we
gonna do without him?'" says Geraldine Young.
Big Daddy Lipscomb, being carried down an aisle
Of Women by Night Train Lane, John Henry Johnson,
And Lenny Moore; Big Daddy, his three ex-wives,
His fiancee, and the grandfather who raised him
Going to his grave in five big Cadillacs...
--Say Good-bye to Big Daddy
The preacher said, "He did some good, he did some wrong..."
A spring wind rustled in the trees, whispering, Amen to that.
a game, he thought, I've got to block this?
"He loved the hotel maids," says Younger.
Lipscomb once said. "That's what I call working out a problem."
"They all thought he was a lummox. He saw this and was hurt."
drinking pals, Big Daddy zealously sated his appetites.
"He was better than Leon Lett at his best."
Cakes? I'm becoming a real football player."