Saturday, April 14, 2012

"The Blond Bomber" a bright star, then and now

One of my favorite Sports Illustrated covers:
The No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft, 1970
    A guy I worked with at two newspapers -- one in Florida, one in Texas -- often contended that Terry Bradshaw "was the most overrated quarterback in NFL history."
    Uh, I think I disagreed with him.
    Andy -- let's call him Andy -- based his view on (1) Bradshaw's statistics didn't measure up to some of the game's greats and (2) Bradshaw played on great teams that made him look better than he was.
     OK, fine. Yes, Terry's passing accuracy wasn't always sharp. Yes, the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s were tremendous in almost every way.
     And there is no way -- as our 3-year-old grandson Jacob often says -- no way, the Steelers would have won those four Super Bowls (and lost none) without Terry Bradshaw at quarterback.
      It's no accident Terry was the first Super Bowl QB in history with a 4-0 record. Maybe he was just one of the guys in the Steelers' first Super Bowl win in the 1974 season. But somebody threw those long passes Lynn Swann caught in the next Super Bowl, and Terry was the game MVP in the last two Super Bowls he played in.
       Here's how I feel about him: He's the best athlete I ever covered.
       Plus, he was one of the most fun guys to be around -- from junior high through high school and college. He was always outgoing and upbeat, loose and kind of crazy funny. And not malicious at all.
       Those of us in school with him -- at Oak Terrace, Woodlawn and Louisiana Tech -- could always see the potential. In my case, I was a year ahead of him, but it didn't take long to see that the tall, thin guy with the snow-white flattop could throw a football harder than anyone else.  Much harder. Even harder than our starting quarterback, Trey Prather -- and Trey could throw it.
        I found out real quick not to try to catch balls from Terry in warmups. He didn't ease up, even for 5-foor-2, 115-pound team managers.
        For nine years, it was my great fortune -- mine, and many more people in Shreveport and North Louisiana -- to watch Terry Bradshaw play football. 
      He had a lot of setbacks ... two broken collarbones in junior high, two years of waiting behind Trey Prather -- an All-State quarterback -- to play on the Woodlawn varsity, struggles to run the correct plays sent in by coaches during games, a loss and a tie in games early in his senior season (because the inexperienced junior-laden defense couldn't stop opponents).
     And there was this: The perception, the kids' perception, was that Terry wasn't very bright. That would follow him for a long, long time ... into college, into the NFL. (We know now how very wrong that was.)     
      But, oh, that potential. We saw it first-hand in his junior year, in a varsity game against West Monroe at (then) State Fair Stadium. I can see the pass now, sailing high and arched perfectly 60 yards in the air, right in Tom Hagin's hands on the right sideline headed north (toward Fair Park High, for those who remember the stadium setup). Touchdown.
     It was a pass for the ages. We ran that play back on film over and over the next day and next week, disbelieving.
     His senior year was full of achievements: His 21 TD passes set a state record; the team went 11-2-1 and played for the state championship; he was the QB who finally delivered Woodlawn's long-awaited first win over arch-rival Byrd, and it was 39-0; he found a receiver, his best friend Tommy Spinks, who made All-State and would be his go-to guy for the next five years. 
     As a javelin thrower in the spring of '66, he set the national record ... repeatedly, despite an elbow injury that often limited him to one throw per meet. He made Sports Illustrated's "Faces in the Crowd," and Michael Landon -- then the very popular Little Joe of Bonanza -- came to Woodlawn for a visit with him.         
     Terry signed to play at La. Tech, then signed to play at LSU. He wound up at Tech, and his story was that he purposely tanked the entrance exam to LSU. 
     He struggled, too, at Tech the first two years. Again, that perception (not bright). But once he found himself, in the middle of his junior year, he was unbelievable. Think it wasn't fun to chart his statistics (which was my job)?
      We went from 1-9 and 3-7 in his first two years to 9-2 with him as the starter as a junior. And if you think the "Immaculate Reception" to Franco Harris with the Steelers was a great play, think again. It was a lucky play, a lucky bounce. The greatest play of Bradshaw's career was the 82-yard pass to Ken Liberto -- one of my best friends for all those years in school -- in the last minute of the 1968 State Fair Game with Northwestern State, turning a sure 39-35 loss into a glorious, forever-remembered 42-39 victory.
      It was a perfect pass, a perfect catch-and-run. No way it could happen.
      It was the greatest of dozens of great plays by Terry in his career, at every level.   
      In sports information, we first nicknamed him "The Rifleman" because of the rifle arm and because he resembled Chuck Connors of the TV western. But then he became "The Blond Bomber." Buddy Davis, the Ruston Daily Leader sports editor then and now, and I have received credit for doing that; really, it was Paul Manasseh, then the Tech SID. 
      You know how, after being the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft -- a proud moment for the Bradshaws, for Shreveport, for La. Tech -- Terry struggled, too, at the start of his pro career. Again, that perception, again the difficulties running an offense.
      It changed Terry. He was still the down-home, country jokester, but he'll tell you he became a lot more leery of people, a lot more sensitive about criticism. He wasn't as accessible to the media as he once had been. His personal life, at ti mes, was a mess.
      But once his talents kicked in, once the Steelers built that great team, he was on his way to Super Bowl glory and the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And that dumb perception? Well, he called his own offensive plays for years. How many QBs other than Peyton Manning do that now?
       As he played on, and then after he retired (after a torn ligament in that strong right arm), as he openly talked about battling depression and attention deficit disorder all those years, the world discovered that maybe Terry Bradshaw wasn't dumb.
       He went into television full-time, as an NFL (and sometimes college football analyst). He became a pitchman for all sorts of products, a sought-after speaker ... he became what he'd always sort of been, an entertainer. 
      He's as sharp on Fox Sports' NFL Sunday show as you'll find. He speaks his mind, even if it irritates Archie Manning, who called Terry when Bradshaw said on the air that Archie should stay out of his sons' football careers.
     I haven't seen or talked to Terry in 25 years. We're not close; we never were. He doesn't do Woodlawn reunions, and I can understand why. I don't even know where he lives; I think it's in the Phoenix area. He used to be in Westlake, near Fort Worth, and I know he had places in Oklahoma and a long time ago the ranch in Grand Cane (near Shreveport).
     But I am happy to see him involved with Louisiana Tech athletics and the university -- he wasn't for some years -- and he's back there this weekend for his annual golf tournament/fundraiser/press conference.
       He's as funny and open and friendly as he was all those years ago. He was a helluva football player, and a helluva guy. And if someone wants to criticize him, take it elsewhere. I don't want to hear it.
      We should all be so overrated.



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