They were born four months apart in 1940, and they played their high school football within 100 miles of each other in Mississippi, Lance Alworth in Brookhaven, Willie Brown in Yazoo City. A decade later they were defining an era of professional football.
Alworth, with his burst of speed and his leaping catches, as explosive as the lightning bolt on the side of his San Diego Charger helmet, was the American Football League's showpiece, its deep threat. With his baby face and sandy crew cut—Bambi, they nicknamed him—he looked 16 years old, but the All-America out of Arkansas was instant box office for a new league that was establishing itself through the pass. He put together seven straight 1,000-yard receiving seasons (1963-69), a feat that has never been duplicated in pro football. In 1965 he gained 1,602 yards, second-best of all time, and averaged 23.2 yards a catch.
Brown, a linebacker for a Grambling team that sent nine players into the pros, struggled after signing as a free agent with the Houston Oilers, who converted him to defensive back and then cut him before the 1963 season began. But he was picked up by the Denver Broncos, became a starter and then was traded to the Oakland Raiders four seasons later. Brown became the premier cornerback at a time when AFL secondaries were trying desperately to equalize the offense-defense mismatch. Oversized at 215 pounds, gifted with a burst of speed almost as explosive as Alworth's, he lasted 16 years and made the Hall of Fame as soon as he was eligible. So did Alworth, whose career was five seasons shorter.
They faced each other 24 times, counting preseason games. Their battles became classics. Brown was the master of the bump-and-run, Alworth the ultimate escape artist. In July they met again at Long Beach State, where Brown has taught in the phys-ed department since the school's football team, which he coached, was scrapped for budgetary reasons after last season. Alworth, a partner in a company that builds and sells mini-storage facilities nationwide, made the hour-and-a-half drive north from his home in Del Mar, Calif.
They were brought together to talk football, to trade old war stories and to take a look at what their slice of the game had become. "How many passes would you catch today," I asked Alworth, "in this era of no bumping downfield and of quarterbacks throwing 30 to 40 passes a game?"
"As many as they would throw to me," he said, flashing the little boy's grin that had earned him his nickname. And I remembered a conversation of 25 years ago, when I told Alworth something that New York Jet wideout George Sauer had said, that he could catch the little Joe Namath square-outs all day, 20 of them maybe, except that his body couldn't take it, the cornerbacks would tear his ribs apart. "Gee," Alworth had said, wistfully, "I wish they'd throw me 20 passes a game."
"Hunger, he always had that great hunger for the ball," Brown said. "Shoot, in today's system, with all those zone coverages, Lance would have over 100 catches a year easy."
"Yeah, this era would be fun," Alworth said. "Of course it might not be fun for the defensive backs. One thing I do notice is that the interference rules are so much tighter now. They seem to call it every time a guy turns around. I remember I was always yelling at the officials, 'Pass interference! Pass interference! Call it!' And the official would tell me, 'If I call it on him I've got to call it on you, too.' "
"You were known to occasionally push off," Brown said.
"Hell, I had to do something," Alworth said. "The problem was, you'd get away from the first bump and then the guy would hold you. The best thing that ever happened to me was when the Chargers got tear-away jerseys. Seems I was always running through a forest of hands. I felt like yelling, 'Hey, let me out of here!' But even with that, I can't remember our guys dropping as many balls as they do now.