Putting a nickname on an athlete is a trickier business than one might suppose. The idea is to pick out some distinction of appearance or behavior and symbolize it. Often the best and simplest symbols are animals, since animals have qualities that are universal. A fox wherever encountered is a fox, and when a receiver like Bill Howton is called The Red Fox one knows at once not only the color of his hair but something of how Howton used to run pass patterns. In professional football there are a badger, a hog, a snake, a skunk, an alligator, a weasel, a tiger, a bull, a hare—a menagerie of symbols. What makes symbol-selecting difficult is that the nickname must be precise and easily recognizable, whether it is an animal symbol or not, and it must be comfortable on the tongue. One could hardly walk up to Red Grange and say, "Hah yew, Galloping Ghost?" Nor could one approach Vince Lombardi, who played on a Fordham line called the Seven Blocks of Granite, and inquire, "What's new, Block?" However, one could address Clyde Turner as Bulldog or Alan Ameche as Horse or, in the quasi-amateur aspect of the game, Paul Bryant as Bear and not feel awkward about it. And in all of sports there has never been a more apt or more accurate nickname than the one borne by Lance Alworth of the San Diego Chargers (see cover). It does not please him, as is frequently the case with nicknames, but the image it evokes is of Lance Alworth running, jumping, dodging, all with incredible grace, and that style is Lance Alworth.
They call him Bambi.
Bambi was a deer pursued by wicked hunters with guns that went bang! in a child's tale written by Felix Salten. Maybe children no longer read Bambi but, as it is a cruel and sentimental story, it was perfect material for a Walt Disney movie of 15 or 20 years ago and everybody knew Bambi then, when the current pro football players were of an age to appreciate him. In 1962, when Lance Alworth—a pretty evocative name in itself—was a rookie with the Chargers, he came off the field one afternoon to find Charlie Flowers, a former Mississippi All-America, staring at him with the expression Bob Kane must have had when he woke up with the inspiration for Batman.
"You're Bambi," said Flowers.
"What for?" Alworth asked.
"For your big brown eyes and the way you move," said Flowers.
And he was Bambi. Alworth has tried growing his hair long and dyeing it red to change the impression. He has neglected shaving and gone about scowling, but that merely made him look like Bambi at a masquerade. The only time he escaped the symbol was when a few of the Chargers began calling him Governor Faubus after an Arkansas political campaign in which Lance made speeches in behalf of his friend Orval Faubus. That nickname, besides being a joke, was artificial and could not endure. Nobody can say exactly what class is but everybody is aware of it when in its presence, and Lance has too much class to be called Governor Faubus for long. He is the best spread receiver in professional football and is the classiest-looking at his job. If Alworth played for the New York Giants or Jets—in that city where all a second-string quarterback named Earl Morrall had to do was show up to get a network radio program—he would earn $100,000 a year in salaries and endorsements. Alworth is not on relief in San Diego, a sunny, palm-rustling town in a pocket between the Pacific to the west, the Cuyamaca Mountains to the east, Los Angeles to the north and the Mexican border outpost of Tijuana to the south but, being from the provinces and the generally underestimated American Football League, Alworth does not have the star status he deserves.
An exception is the state of Arkansas, where Alworth was an All-America halfback at the university in Fayetteville. It would not be enough to say that the people of Arkansas have affection for Alworth. They have passion for him. At one pro exhibition game in Little Rock the stands were jammed with people who had come to see Lance. On the second play of the game Alworth was knocked out. He was carried off the field by Ernie Ladd and Ernie Wright, which made an interesting photograph in the Little Rock papers the next day, since Ladd and Wright are Negroes. Lance returned at the half to wave at the crowd and assure them that he was all right, and he appeared twice on television, but his coach, Sid Gillman, did not put him back into the game. The people were not there to see the Chargers or their opponents, the Houston Oilers, but to see Alworth, and club officials expected a noisy protest from the stands. There was none. The people simply loved Bambi too much to want him to risk getting hurt.
At the College All-Star Game in the summer of 1962, Alworth was trying to explain to a Big Ten tackle the emotion Arkansas has for its football players. "When I go home they don't recognize me," said the tackle. The All-Stars were on a bus driving through Evanston, a Chicago suburb, and the tackle pointed out the window to a car with Arkansas plates. "See if they recognize you," the tackle said. As the bus passed the car Lance leaned out the window and did what they refer to in Arkansas as calling the pig—yelling, "Whoooo, pig, sooey!" the Arkansas battle cry. From the car came shouts of "Whoooo, pig, sooey!" and "Hey, Lance!" The tackle was convinced. The tackle did not know that the people in the car were University of Arkansas Publicist Bob Cheyne and his family, but it is not likely that it would have made any difference who was in the car. Anybody in a vehicle with Arkansas plates would have known Lance Alworth.
Alworth led the nation in punt returns at Arkansas in 1960 and 1961 and the Razorbacks won 25 of 31 games during his career, but his ground-gaining was unimpressive. Arkansas played the wing T, and Lance was used as an outside running threat. Forced to cover Alworth, the opposition allowed the Arkansas quarterbacks to cut back against the flow of pursuit for good yardage. Alworth was seldom employed as a pass receiver, although he did score on a 67-yard pass against SMU in 1961. He was a run-pass-kick athlete who could do anything better than anybody else, and by merely stepping onto the field he helped Arkansas win or tie three straight Southwest Conference championships when the Razorbacks were not that strong.