Missing: The Athlete

Long before I made five Super Bowl appearances with the Dallas Cowboys, and 43 years before I was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, I was just another teenage athlete from Griffin, Ga., sitting on the front porch hoping to catch a break.

I was a basketball player at the time, believe it or not — or at least that’s what the high school yearbook said — and my family had sent me outside to wait on the porch because the grownups had some business to attend to inside.

Coach Stan Lomax had traveled 60 miles north to Griffin from Fort Valley State College to talk with my family about the possibility of me becoming a member his football team. A cousin of mine who played football and basketball at Fort Valley had told Coach Lomax about me, and before long he was calling the house nearly every day. He kept asking me to come check out the school, and the idea of attending college intrigued me — no one in my immediate family had gone to college — but I had been planning to enter the service. As a compromise, I proposed that he drop by and visit our house instead.

Little did he know that when he arrived he’d be met not only by my mom, but also by my grandmother, my minister and my scoutmaster. I’d gathered a group of people who I trusted to talk with Coach Lomax and determine whether what he was proposing would make more sense than joining the military.

And boy did they ever talk.

That conversation seemed like it lasted forever — and the whole time, I’m just sitting on the porch trying to figure out what they could possibly be discussing for so long.

After about three or four hours, the front door swings open and my grandmother comes out with tears streaming down her face. Then my mother comes out, and she’s crying.

Now, I wasn’t gonna let nobody mess with my mother or my grandmother, so at that point I was thinking that I might have to fight somebody.

But before I knew it, I was crying, too. And, it turned out, all of our tears would be joyous ones on that day.

Coach Lomax walked over to me, looked me in the eye, and said that I’d be going to college. Then he told me that I would be receiving an athletic scholarship to Fort Valley State.

That last part is important.

It wasn’t a scholarship to play football. And it wasn’t a scholarship to play basketball. It was called an athletic scholarship. It required that I play two sports during my time in college, not just one.

In retrospect, it’s probably a good thing Coach Lomax didn’t offer me a traditional football scholarship on that day, because a few years earlier when I had tried out for the Fairmont High football team, I got cut.

It wasn’t pretty.

At the time, I felt like I could be a receiver. I was six-foot-four and 200 pounds, and I could move pretty good, so it seemed like a natural fit. I thought I would make a solid tight end.

But, you know what, I wasn’t good enough. So I joined our high school’s basketball team instead.

And, to be honest, at the time it wasn’t that big of a deal that I didn’t make the football team. I loved basketball. And as long as I was able to play a sport, any sport, I was happy.

As someone who earned six trips to the Pro Bowl and was twice recognized as the NFL’s offensive lineman of the year, it’s weird looking back and knowing that I couldn’t even land a benchwarmer spot on my high school football team.

But I’m not ashamed of it. In fact, it’s become a story I’m proud to tell. It says a lot about what Griffin was like during my childhood, and, in some ways, I think it may hint at something unique about how folks thought about sports back in the day as compared to now.

We had some truly incredible athletes in Griffin when I was growing up. And at that time, everyone played sports. Lots of sports. All sports. If it was a sport, we’d play it. The particular sport didn’t even really matter.

People didn’t own TVs. There were no video games. And we were living in the forests of Georgia. What else were we going to do?

So as little kids growing up, we’d get our homework done, and then head outside. If it was football season, we’d go to the park and play football. If it was basketball season, we’d play basketball. Same thing for baseball.

We were just children trying to have fun. But we did it all when it came to sports, and we were just … athletes. When I was young, I wasn’t looking to become a football player, or a basketball player, or a baseball player. I didn’t care what I played. I just wanted to play, period.

I was an athlete.

Everyone I knew in Griffin was the same way. Some kids were better athletes than others, of course, but we were all versatile. Nobody did just one thing.

And the best of the best back then, they could hang with anyone, on any court or field.

So when I heard from Coach Lomax that I’d need to play multiple sports in college, everything about the idea seemed natural to me. It was, I thought, as it should be. It sounded … fun!

I knew basketball was going to be one of the sports I played at Fort Valley State, and, at the urging of Coach Lomax, who I guess never spoke with the high school coaches who had cut me, I selected football as the other one.

Then I went about the process of being an athlete.

On the basketball court, I averaged more than 20 points and 20 rebounds in my college career. The Cincinnati Royals of the NBA contacted me when I was a junior and wanted me to leave Fort Valley State to play professional basketball. I declined because I wanted to fulfill my commitment to the school, but it was clear to me by then that I could compete with just about anyone on the court.

On the football field, I played tight end and defensive end. And, get this: I was the Fort Valley State punter!

I’d never played any of those positions before — especially punter. But I just kind of figured it all out with coach’s help. It was no big thing. Hell, I could’ve played quarterback if I had been asked to.

Punter? Sure, whatever you say, coach.

I have big feet, so that’s probably why he picked me for that role. But I took pride in my kicking. And you know what? I kicked the ball pretty good.

I was an athlete, plain and simple. I wasn’t a power forward, or a tight end, or, for heaven’s sake, a punter. I was an athlete. And my senior year I was All-SIAC in both football and basketball.

When I got to the Cowboys in 1967, I played tight end my first two seasons. Then one day, out of nowhere, Coach Landry called me into his office. He said, “Rayfield, I’m gonna move you from tight end to offensive tackle.”

I thought he was crazy.

I said, “Coach, I’ve never played that position.” And I’ll never forget his response.

“I know it, Rayfield,” he said, “but you would make a great tackle.”

He saw something in me that I didn’t even see in myself. Mainly, though, he saw an athlete. He saw someone with quick feet and good balance, both of which, I’m here to tell you, had been developed through years of playing sports other than football.

At first, the transition was tough. I studied a bunch of top tackles who played the game back then: Bob Brown, Forrest Gregg, all the greats. And I tried to block like those guys. I couldn’t do it. Not even close. I didn’t know what I was doing, and I kept crossing my feet. Bob Lilly and Jethro Pugh, those guys used to just pick me up and throw me down.

But one day something clicked … because I was thinking about the sport of basketball.

I realized that taking on a defensive lineman was like guarding a guy who was dribbling a basketball. When you’re guarding someone on the court, you don’t cross your feet, you shuffle. You shuffle, and you stay in front of him. If you’re dribbling the ball and trying to get by me, I don’t care if you want to go left or right, I’m gonna shuffle my feet, and I’m gonna stay in front of you. That’s what I’d always done playing hoops. And it worked.

So I took that approach over to the football field.

I shuffled like a champ, and before I knew it I’d become an All-Pro. There was more to it, of course, but being able to draw from my understanding of basketball was really what set me on the right path.

If it weren’t for basketball, I would not have become even an adequate offensive tackle. And I certainly would’ve never stood a chance against the likes of Deacon Jones, Bubba Smith, Claude Humphrey, Jack Youngblood, L.C. Greenwood, and all the other talented guys I faced over the years.

I truly believe that it was my all-around athletic ability, not my football skills, that made me a Hall of Famer. And I’ve always been grateful for the times spent as a kid back in Griffin playing every sport under the sun.

Of course, so much has changed since that wonderful time — both for me personally and in the world of sports.

At the moment, I’m struggling with a number of issues resulting from my career as a football player. All the concussions I suffered have contributed to several health problems. I have issues with my hearing, and seizures have been an issue, and my memory isn’t what it used to be. One of the reasons why I wanted to tell all these old stories, to be honest, was so that they’d live on and can be retold by my family and friends forever.

In terms of changes on the playing fields since my days in Griffin, it appears to me that there are fewer and fewer kids participating in multiple sports these days. And I’m truly saddened by that. Even from a young age, it seems that kids are steered toward a single sport, and, in many cases, a single position within a given sport. This kid is a shortstop, this other one is a point guard, someone else is a goalie.

In the professional ranks, it’s striking to me that when I look around at the sports world in 2016, I don’t see too many people you’d classify as multidimensional athletes. I can’t be certain of it, but I get the sense that there just aren’t as many of those athletes around anymore.

In an era of positional specialization and big-money athletics, it’s become the norm to go out and do one thing — or play one position — really, really well. It makes sense, of course. But there’s something a bit sad about the do-it-all athlete becoming the exception, the news story, rather than the norm.

I worry, in fact, that the athlete — the true, versatile, jack-of-all-trades athlete — may soon become extinct.

If that were to happen, what we’d be left with are good players, for sure. But something will have been lost, because there’s a big difference between a good player and an athlete.

A good player is someone who plays a specific position. He or she plays that position at a high level, and clearly has more talent than most.

There’s nothing wrong with that. Good players are important. But those players are not what I’d consider true athletes. An athlete is someone who can play more than one sport, and multiple positions in each sport.

The difference becomes clear when you put a good player at a position he isn’t familiar with, or put him on a different playing field entirely. In that situation, a good player flounders. He’s unable to make the proper adjustments. He’s completely out of place.

The athlete, he rises to the occasion. He relishes the chance to play multiple positions, or to display his skills in a completely different sport.

The athletes are people like Jim Thorpe, Jim Brown, Otto Graham, Dick Groat, Dave Winfield, Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders.

Call me old school if you like, but I say those players are the ones who are the most fun to watch.

They represent the essence of sport. They’re more than simply players of a position. They’re superior athletes. And they’re a sight to behold.

Here’s hoping we haven’t seen the last of them.