Football: Fifty Years Later

When I pick up cards to add to my sets, I always read the backs of the cards before putting them away. Occasionally, I find that a previous owner has even left his name on the back of the card for me, as was the practice of hobby pioneer Buck Barker, who would pencil his name on the back of his cards. But most of the time I find things I never knew about the player pictured.

Some card backs are filled with statistics and others have biographical information. Sometimes it is pretty obvious that the person writing the card bio didn’t have much information to use. For example, football linemen don’t get to touch the ball very often and therefore it is hard to gas on and on about their stats, although in recent years sacks, batted balls, hurries, and other forms of quarterback harassment have been tracked. Still, linemen are hard to write about other than to acknowledge that they are “big.”

1961 Fleer Football
Recently I attended an old-fashioned card show run by legendary collector Mark Macrae called the 26th Annual St. Leander’s Sports Collectors Show, in San Leandro, Calif., near Oakland. I enjoyed talking with the dealers and collectors and picked up 24 Fleer football cards from 1961 to chip away at that set. While early 1960’s baseball is relatively easy to find, the football cards from the 1960’s are not plentiful. My own collection of cards from my youth consisted of about 95 percent baseball to 5 percent football.

In 1961, Fleer bravely featured 220 AFL and NFL players on their football cards. Fleer produced cards of AFL players in 1960, 1962 and 1963. However, by 1964 Fleer was back on the sidelines, having been legally scooted off the football and baseball card playing fields by Topps’ lawyers. The fronts of the 1961 Fleer at least look like the player is on a football field someplace, an improvement over the solid-color backgrounds on the 1960 Topps and Fleer and the parking lot backgrounds on the 1964 Philadelphia Gum cards of the Cleveland Browns. The player photos were all posed shots, nothing in much action. There was no one flying though the air as depicted on a 1957 Bill Sherman or 1956 Norm Willey card, but the helmet-less player photos enabled you to see what they looked like.

Turning to the player bios on the 1961 Fleer, I found them filled with amusing sports clichés but also recording how much has changed in football over the past 50 years. Players who were described as “huge” in 1961 would probably be described as “undersized” by today’s football scouts. Linemen seemed to top out at about 250 pounds in 1961, whereas today they seem to start at 300 pounds. I thought I’d take a closer look at the players and the card bios.

Football Clichés
The Fleer writers had a knack for stringing together gridiron jargon. Some phrases employed a military analogy; others didn’t really add much other than filling up space on the back of the cards. Excerpts included:

– Joined the receiving corps
– Constant threat
– Speed and deception
– Strong and powerful
– Sure-fingered Iowa native
– Fast with all the moves and sure hands (used at least twice)
– Sure-handed fleet flanker who is a threat to go all the way anytime the ball is pumped his way
– Excellent recovery instincts
– Bouncy, jolting runner
– Slashing halfback
– Heavy duty carrier
– Stalwart lineman
– A student of line play
– Versatile star
– Magician at picking apart enemy defenses
– One of the great field generals of football history
– Ferocity marks his line plunging
– He’ll do a job wherever they put him (Apparently he never went home in a snit.)

You could string a number of these together for an offensive player as in: “He showed an affinity for a thrown ball each time the Vols went into the air.” On defense, you could say: “He’s a rugged type, known as a sure tackler and a tenacious tracker of potential receivers.” It all reminded of me of an assignment I had in high school. The athletic director grabbed another lineman and me to write bios for a printed program featuring the captains of basketball teams from other schools. The information provided was sparse, but we were instructed to write a 2-inch paragraph – and we did. If the player wasn’t going to tell us about his hobbies, we added some for him, as in “Bert is a noted stamp collector and enjoys gardening in his spare time.”

Size Matters
Gene Cronin of the 1961 Cowboys was 6 foot 2 and 230 pounds. He was described on his 1961 Fleer card No. 47 as having “the size and the lateral mobility to perform well at either end or linebacker.” Jack Stroud, a guard-tackle for the Giants, was 6-1 and 235 pounds. His bio (1961 Fleer No. 70) noted that “he came out of Tennessee as a 200-lb. tackle in 1951. He literally built himself into an All-Pro stature. A barbell addict, he has tacked on more than 35 pounds.” The 2010 Chicago Bears have Tommy Harris, a 6-3, 295-lb. defensive tackle who has been described as “undersized” at times. They also have 6-7, 283-lb. defensive end Julius Peppers. Obviously the players have packed it on over the years.
I pictured 6-5, 230-lb. quarterback Peyton Manning towering over his father, Archie Manning, who quarterbacked in the 1970’s. My initial impression was that the players at every position were bigger, faster, and stronger.

Height and Weight Study
To confirm my non-controversial position that football players had grown over the past 50 years, I thought I could keep reading the backs of the cards and then compare them to cards from 2010. I read about 6-1, 180-lb. end Don Norton (1961 Fleer No. 158) being “tall, wiry and whipcord strong” and 6-2, 225-lb. linebacker Joe Young (1961 Fleer No. 153) having “good speed for his (large) size.” Fullback Doug Cline at 210 lbs. (1961 Fleer No. 169) was reported to be “carrying his poundage solidly but lithely on his 6-2 frame.”

However, football card issuers are interested in selling cards and star players are easier to sell than the “rugged, stalwart” linemen. If I used just football cards for my analysis, I would be missing many players, including virtually all of the special-team players. A better source for comparisons was going to the complete rosters of players. Fifty years seemed like a nice, round number. I decided to look at the size of players in 1960 and compare them to the size of players in 2010. Thanks to the natural tendency of sports fans to keep track of sports statistics, fantasy football, and perhaps a few people interested in gambling, there are a number of sources available to get height and weight information on football teams.

One source I used was   www.pro-football-reference.com/teams/. Rather than looking at every team and every player, I took the easy way out and compared three teams from 1960 and the same three teams in 2010. I picked the Chicago Bears, since I live in Chicago, the Green Bay Packers, since SCD’s editorial offices are in Wisconsin, and the New York Jets (formerly the Titans) because “if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere” and we needed some AFL/AFC representation. Readers are welcome to expand the study to see if they can uncover any significant differences from my findings.

Football in 1960
 In looking at players by position, I found you have to make some adjustments because of the changes in the game. When I played high school football in the early 1960s, they didn’t allow platooning. You were expected to play both ways. Defenses were frequently patterned after the Oklahoma 5-4, with five guys on the line and four linebackers. They kept our quarterback out of the fray on defense by positioning him at safety.  There was no “special team” for kicking; the same 11 stayed out there. One of the halfbacks did all the kicking.

On offense, we had two halfbacks, a fullback and a quarterback. One end sometimes played split away from the rest of the gang and the quarterback would throw a few passes in (almost) every game. Using a shotgun formation would be a sign of pure desperation. We wore high-topped shoes and one or two bars on our face masks (the freshmen got varsity equipment hand-me-downs and therefore no face masks). No one had pads on their arms, gloves on their hands, a mouth piece, or a protective cup. Blockers kept their hands pinned to their chests. Tacklers were coached to spear with their heads. I played in steel-toed shoes that weighed a ton. We used longer cleats for muddy fields, which were more the norm than the exception. We never played on anything artificial. This brand of plodding along football was so exciting that 91,328 people showed up in Soldier Field, Chicago, to see our last game of the season. Seriously, I’m not making this up, except that the shoes didn’t really weigh a ton.

The pro players had about the same equipment we had. They had gone to full platooning in the 1950’s; however, veteran Chuck Bednarik of the Eagles still played both ways. His 1961 Fleer card mentioned that he was “hepped up by the title (1960 NFL Championship) and has forgotten about quitting football.” Kickers were expected to play some other position as well. “Ends” were still just “ends” and it was a little hard to decipher who was really a wide receiver, a tight end, or even a defensive end. Safeties, cornerbacks, nickel backs, long-snappers, wide receivers, blocking fullbacks, and running backs were also a little hard to compare between 1960 and 2010, but I did my best to line up the players by position. I was surprised by some of the results.

Linemen Keep Growing
The biggest lineman I found from the 1960 sample was Joe Katchik of the Titans at 6-9 and 290 lbs. Rosey Grier’s football card described him as a giant at 6-5 and 284 lbs. Les Bingaman of the 1950’s Detroit Lions was remembered as a behemoth at 272 lbs. Big Daddy Lipscomb was 6-6 and 284 lbs. Lipscomb’s 1961 Fleer card stated that he “rushes in, scoops up every opponent in sight, sorts them out and when he comes to the ball carrier, keeps him.”

However, the average height and weight for an offensive tackle in 1960 (based on my three-team study) was 6-1  and 250 lbs. The table at right shows the results for each of the positions. The smallest current offensive lineman I found was Olin Kreutz at 292 pounds; 22 percent of the players on the three 2010 rosters were more than 300 pounds.  Packer linemen pictured on my old football cards and representative of the league in 1960 were guards Ron Kramer (6-3, 234 lbs.), Fuzzy Thurston (6 foot, 247 lbs.), center Jim Ringo ( 6-1, 232 lbs.), and tackle Forrest Gregg (6-4, 249 lbs.).

On defense, the story is a little different. The guys today who are expected to stop the run are really huge: e.g. the Ravens have a 354-lb. rookie defensive tackle, Terrence Cody. The guys expected to get to the passer are big but quick: e.g. the No. 2 overall pick in 2010, Lion pass rusher Ndamukong Suh, is a mere 307 lbs. and played soccer. The size increase on the defensive line was lower than on the offensive line as shown in my table. I began to see the effect of the need for speed as well as size at some positions today.

Tight Ends and Fullbacks
Tight end Ron Kramer of the 1960 Packers was 6-3 and 234 lbs. Greg Olsen of the 2010 Bears is 6-5 and 255 pounds. Fullbacks have changed considerably since 1960, with memorable “crushing ball carriers” like Rick Casares (6-2, 226 lbs.), Jim Taylor (6-foot, 214 lbs.) and “opera fan and hamburger spots” owner Alan Ameche (6-1, 217 lbs.) giving way to obscure blocking fullbacks today. If I gave you their names, it still wouldn’t help you picture them. Fullbacks and tight ends have only grown a lousy 15 percent in 50 years.

Quarterbacks
While the prototypical pro quarterback has been thought of as a towering “stalwart” peering over the pocket and “rifling” missiles to receivers, we are seeing more mobile and lighter quarterbacks. This is certainly the case at the college level with the shotgun spread formations.

In the pros, you have tall guys like the Mannings, but also smaller scramblers like Drew Brees and Michael Vick. Quarterbacks in my study grew just 11 percent, from 202 lbs. and 6-1 to 224 lbs. and 6-2. Bart Starr was 6-1 and 197 lbs. Ed Brown of the Bears was 6-2 and 200 lbs.. “Little magician” Eddie Le Baron was only 5-7 and 160 lbs.

My hunch is that some of the heights listed from players today, especially quarterbacks, have been inflated to help their marketability. This probably went on in 1960 as well though, and I have chosen to assume that players and teams lie about their heights and weights like they always have and to the same extent statistically. A recent study of this concluded that NFL starting quarterbacks average 6-3. Archie Manning was listed at 6-3” as well; consequently Peyton and Eli don’t really tower over the elusive Archie.

Linebackers and Running Backs
The need for speed at linebacker and running back seems to have dampened the increase in size. Linebackers and running backs have only increased in weight by about 8 percent over the 50 years. Linebackers of yesteryear’s cards included Ray Nitschke (6-3, 235 lbs.) and Bill George (6-2, 237 lbs.). Today, we think of Ray Lewis at (6-1, 250 lbs.) and Brian Urlacher (6-4, 258 lbs.). All of these numbers seem a little larger than life to me.

Running backs in 1960 included Paul Horning at 6-2 and 215 lbs., but also runners like Willie Galimore at 6-1 and 187 lbs. Jump back 80 years and you find “giant” Bronko Nagurski was 6-2 and 226 lbs., but Red Grange was more typical at 6 feet and 180 lbs.. Today we have stars like Adrian Peterson (6-1, 217 lbs.) and LaDainian Tomlinson (5-10, 215lbs.)  The running backs are a little bigger, and my wild hunch is that they are a lot faster.

Wide Receivers and Defensive Backs
Nowhere is my initial impression about size escalation more off than at the skill positions of wide receiver and defensive back. There are not only faster players at these positions today, but there are a lot more of them. In 1960, four defensive backs would do the trick most of the time. Today you see five, six and even seven backs line up to defend the pass.

Speed is also important on special teams and some of these same players serve double duty on special teams. Defensive backs were all lumped together in my study because of the difficulty of sorting out safeties from cornerbacks. Defensive backs only added 3 percent in weight over 50 years. Defenders of 1960 included Emlen Tunnel at 6-1 and 187 lbs.. Today you see Peanut Tillman and Charles Woodson at around 6-1 and 200 lbs. 

While teams today would like the tall, fast receiver, they’ll take fast with good vertical leaping over just plain tall, if need be. Randy Moss is 6-4 and 210 lbs., Braylon Edwards is 6-3 and 214 lbs., but there are also a lot of guys like Devin Hester, Johnny Knox, and Santonio Holmes out there at around 5-11 and 185 lbs., maybe. Receivers in 1960 included little guys like Don Maynard (6 foot) and Johnny Morris (5-10) but also “ranging ball chasers” like Harlan Hill (6-3, 199 lbs.), Max McGee (6-3, 205lbs.) and Boyd Dowler (6-5, 224 lbs..) When you add them all together, I found wide receivers decreased in weight by 2 percent.

Team Averages
As a result of modest increase in players’ weights at the skill positions, an increase in the size of rosters, and the increase in the number of backs and special-team players, I found that the average weight of all the players had only increased 11 percent (222 lbs. to 247 lbs.) between 1960 and 2010.

2010 Cards
Before wrapping up this weighty exercise, I read some of the backs of the 2010 Topps Football cards. The cards are the same size as they were 50 years ago, but the players aren’t. Terrence Cody was known “for his great size and strength.” Matthew Stafford “showed toughness, comeback-engineering poise and an unlimited ceiling. His brightest moment in the sun was etc., etc.” Marcus Easley was a “tall, fluid wide receiver prospect.”
I guess some things don’t change and that is the business of writing football clichés on the backs of trading cards.

George Vrechek is a freelance contributor to Sports Collectors Digest and can be contacted at vrechek@ameritech.net.

One thought on “Football: Fifty Years Later

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