By Chuck Mindenhall
December 2, 2016
Through the Trenches
The greatest running backs in football history — guys like Jim Brown, Gale Sayers, Earl Campbell, Walter Payton, Marcus Allen and Barry Sanders — saw the game from artistic heights.
Running backs always seemed to me like the true adventurers in the sport of football, these Sisyphean figures that are asked to push the rock, push the rock, push the rock until they reach that glorious patch of earth that we like to call “pay dirt.” More often than not things roll over them and they start again. The difference between futility and glory routinely boils down to a couple of inches. What a crazy gig.
From common television angles the ball carrier seems to disappear into the very belly of the beast, usually right around the line of scrimmage, that vortex area between the hash marks where defensive lineman converge, and linebackers shoot the gaps. Sometimes it’s yards in play. Sometimes centimeters. In any case, the legs are churning while people are shooting at knees, grabbing at arms, rocketing through sides. If he does pop through to the second level, there’s a safety moving in just as assuredly ready to lay a lick. A running back is, for the most part, a human pinball. This is his living.
I can remember watching Denver Broncos safety Steve Atwater blow-up the Kansas City Chiefs’ Christian Okoye on Monday Night Football in one such scenario, and thinking — good god. Even when giving up 100 pounds, a hard-hitter with a head of steam will destroy a downhill runner stepping to daylight. It was a rumbling elephant versus a firing blunderbuss! Yet Okoye — the so-called “Nigerian Nightmare” — brushed himself off and got ready to do it again.
The thing about the running back position is that there’s no one perfect way to play it. There’s only a common objective, and a thousand artistic approaches. Some look to minimize punishment. Some look to dish it out. Some play smash-mouth football, where they bite down on their mouthpiece and get low. Some are fleet-of-foot, using vision and instinct to spring themselves through the density of converging hands. There are “North-South” runners, who attempt to tilt the field. There are improvisational backs, who play off of the unfolding events in front of them. It’s a shared diction of wills, in accordance with the offensive line and the scheme. But the greats find a way to leave their mark. The greats take one of the hardest positions in football and make it into an art form.
Greats like Cleveland’s Jim Brown, iconic No. 32, who between 1957-1965 made himself into the architect of the modern back. Brown ran hard and right at defenders — and sometimes right over — yet he could be elusive, too. His legs were preternaturally spring-loaded, which confounded defenders, and his work ethic — which went back to his high school days in Manhasset, Long Island — was unmatched. He treated the sidelines like they were electric fences, opting to put his head down and gain yards rather voluntarily end a play.
“After watching films of Jim Brown, I noticed that he never ran out of bounds,” the bruising Houston Oilers running back Earl Campbell once said. “He always ran North and South, and that's what I turned my style into. I was a North and South runner.”
Brown is the runner in which all the HOF backs that came after him measured their own greatness, including “The Tyler Rose.” At 5-foot-11 and 250 pounds, Campbell went through arm tackles like a bull would some twigs. He was deceptively fast — his legs would be whipping forward and his upper body would turn into a motion of chugging shoulders. He was the original freight train, and it took an army to take him down (sometimes even that didn’t work — watch that famous run against the Rams again, when he bowled over Isiah Robertson, had his jersey torn from his body, and yet still made the field quake as he lumbered forward).
Brown’s final season in 1965, in which he ran for 1,544 yards, was like a baton passing to the Chicago Bears rookie back out of Kansas, Gale Sayers, who burned brightly with moves that had never yet been seen before. In that same season, Sayers slogged through the mud and scored six touchdowns against the San Francisco 49ers (four rushing, one receiving, one on a return). To this day the record lives on. Sayers had the ability to make something out of nothing, to cut on a dime towards a hole that was only in the beginning stage of opening, and he saw the field better than perhaps any back in the history of the game.
A back that perfected the art of changing the fate of a bad play and willing it into something special was Barry Sanders, who remains the greatest Houdini act the NFL has ever known. Sanders, who played for Detroit from 1989-1998 and in that time rewrote the record books, would have defenders leaping at his vapor trail. He was a mirage wearing No. 20. And in open space, there was never a better freelancer. Sanders juked and deked and tiptoed, he sprang forward and just as suddenly cut sideways against a cornerback’s momentum. He twisted people in knots for a decade, and yet carried a humility to him that was as mystifying as his style of play.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because the late Walter Payton was just that kind of player himself. “Sweetness” was a stiff-arming, leg-pumping workhorse for the Chicago Bears from 1977-1985, who had some of the most memorable runs in NFL history. Quite simply, Payton’s magic was this: He wouldn’t go down. He would get rocked, socked, wobbled, sent off balance and spun around, and yet he’d miraculously correct himself, hop on one foot, arms held out like a tightrope walker, football in one hand, and then keep running.
And he loved to hit the defender first. Jim Brown saw Payton’s prowess early in a game when the Bears hosted the Chiefs at Soldier Field.
“I saw him make this one run [where] he fought for every inch,” he said. “[Walter] must have twisted and knocked three or four guys over, spun around, accelerated…and I said oh my goodness. What kind of animal is this? All those moves and strength and tenacity. That was it. I didn’t need to see anymore, I knew this was a great runner.”
And he could fly. Walter Payton could soar over the pile in a goal line situation with symphonic grace. Much like Marcus Allen.
While Payton was still playing, Allen emerged as the next great back with the Los Angeles Raiders. Still the greatest run in Super Bowl history has to belong to Allen in the game against Washington. Allen started left, saw that it was sealed off and reversed track, headed right, and out-stepped a Redskin right on his heels. He then cut — with long-strided, pure upright elegance — right through a hole towards midfield, turned on the afterburners, and glided to a score. It still comes to mind whenever I think of Allen.
That and being the greatest, most reliable short yardage rusher in league history. If it was 4th and one, Allen was the man. If it was a goal line situation? Allen. If they stacked the line, particularly to stop Marcus Allen? Give it to Allen, because you didn’t stop Marcus Allen. He broke the backs of defenses for the Raiders for a decade, and then for the Chiefs in the mid-1990s. And when the Raiders didn’t hand it to Allen, he was blocking for whomever they did. He got his nose dirty.
There have been some really good running backs over the years, but guys like Allen, Payton, Sanders, Campbell, Sayers and Brown, they are the greats. Each shared an ability to give you a moment of thrilling disbelief — perhaps the single greatest thing that sports can offer. Yet each was uniquely masterful on Sundays, coming at the game from different angles and making sure that their own names would be forever synonymous with it.