Life was no easier at home. Gene had a close if turbulent relationship with Hoskins, who once tied him to his bed, stripped him and beat him for stealing a bottle of his whiskey. "My grandfather loved me, all right, and did the best that he knew how," Lipscomb said. "But for some reason it was always hard for us to talk together. Instead of telling me what I was doing wrong and how to correct it, my grandfather would holler and whip me."
Gene's only triumphs were on the athletic fields of Miller High, where he learned to play football and basketball. But even those experiences ended badly when a rival coach caught him playing semipro basketball and softball, and he was declared ineligible for sports his senior year. On the advice of his football coach, Will Robinson, he dropped out of school and joined the Marines in 1949. He was awkward and blubbery and psychologically soft, but the rigors of Marine Corps life soon changed that. At Camp Pendleton he won the shot put championship of the Second Marine Division. By the fall of 1952 The Pendleton Scout, the base newspaper, was feting him as the "stellar end" on the camp's football team and, at 6'6" and 267 pounds, "one of the fastest men on the squad."
"The Marines turned his life around," Bailey says. "He shed all that fat and got in shape and became a real man." In 1953, when the Rams' young public relations director, Pete Rozelle, spotted Lipscomb at Pendleton and signed him up—the NFL commissioner-to-be scouted the Marines in those days—not a soul in Black Bottom could fathom the news. "All of us could have stood on our heads," Bailey says. "Pro ball. Damn! We couldn't believe it!"
Nor could all those offensive tackles when they found themselves facing the huge Lipscomb across the line. When Lou Creekmur, the Detroit Lions' future Hall of Famer, first beheld him in a game in 1954, he thought, I've got to block this"? Still, Lipscomb fell prey to traps and tricks in those early years. Because he had never played football in college, where players are drilled endlessly on the fundamentals of the game, he entered the NFL with nothing to sustain him but his size and talent. He stood up straight at the line of scrimmage, making what Creekmur calls a "beautiful target" to hit low.
"He was as raw as liver with the Rams," Creekmur recalls. "In the service he could get away with standing up straight and muscling people around, but he couldn't do that in the pros. All you had to do was get under his arms and hands, and his body was so huge that once you got it moving in one direction, it was going over."
Lipscomb was most vulnerable, however, to the taunts hurled at him by opposing linemen. Creekmur, known as the Smiling Assassin, baited him all the time. The Rams called Lipscomb Big Daddy, and Creekmur would tell him, "So you're Big Daddy, huh? I'm comin' atcha! Let's see how big you are."
"I used to get him so pissed off that he wanted to kill me," Creekmur recalls. "You could see the steam coming out of his ears."
There was something almost comic about Lipscomb's early adventures on the field. Stan Jones, the Chicago Bears' Hall of Fame offensive guard, remembers a game in Los Angeles in which the Bears' placekicker, George Blanda, lined up to kick a field goal. Suddenly, behind the Rams' defensive line, loomed Lipscomb with safety Don Burroughs sitting on his shoulders like a boy astride his father. The 6'4" Burroughs had his hands above his head to block the field goal.
"They must have been 10 feet in the air," says Jones. "Then Blanda hooked the kick short, and everybody started chasing it. Big Daddy was unaware that Burroughs was still on his shoulders, and he was running down the field after the ball." It resembled a circus act, with Lipscomb lumbering along and Burroughs riding him, until Chicago guard Herman Clark slanted by and cut them down.
The Bears' owner and coach, George Halas, stomped along the sideline screaming, "Next thing you know, they'll be thro win' helmets at the ball!" The Lipscomb-Burroughs field goal defense was soon declared illegal.