For example, early this season Chicago's Gale Sayers and Houston's Hoyle Granger required surgery on their left knees and were lost for the year. Now Sayers will have matching scars; his right knee was operated on in 1968. The Jets' Matt Snell, who also had a knee injury in 1967, was leading the American Conference in rushing when he tore an Achilles tendon—an injury football players fear even more than damaged knee ligaments. Only three top athletes—Dick Barnett of the New York Knickerbockers, Les Josephson of the Rams and Tom Keating of the Raiders—have returned to peak form after an Achilles operation. Snell, a strong man in every sense of the word, wept on the sidelines after the tendon parted. "I put my hand down there," he said, "and it wasn't there. It was all mushy where the tendon should have been."
Snell's running mate, Emerson Boozer, lasted only three games more before his ribs were injured and he was lost. Craig Baynham, Tom Matte, Leroy Keyes, Willis Crenshaw, Les Josephson (once again), Steve Owens—the roster of the partially disabled and the downright done reads like a casualty list from the front. When pros discuss injuries they do so with the kind of stiff-upper-lip curtness one might have heard around headquarters after any battle from Troy to the Rockpile. "Yeah, he got a Knee." Or: "He ain't around anymore. Achilles."
"I figure a running back has maybe three, 3½ years to do his number," says Lane. "Where else do you have so much contact on every play? I'm not complaining. I love to hit, and so does any good back. But if you're not running into The Pit, you're blocking on those great big linemen, or else you're catching a pass right out there where the linebackers have a bite at you. Here's the thing: anyone who hits you is moving when he hits you—moving fast. And you're moving fast yourself. I'd like to see some computer figure out what position takes the most foot-pounds of energy on impact per play. Gotta be the set-back."
Dallas' Dan Reeves, now a player-coach, sees the problem in a slightly wider dimension, one that explains it in true physical terms: F = MV² or Crunch equals Weight times Speed squared. "You're getting hit by all-sized people," he says. "By huge defensive linemen, by fast-moving but only slightly smaller linebackers, and then you're creamed by the speed merchants, the defensive backs. You take a receiver—he is getting his from guys his size, the cornerbacks and safeties. Offensive and defensive linemen are pretty evenly matched in size and they don't get up much momentum. But the running back, he gets it from everywhere."
Reeves' six seasons underscore the point. Each of his knees has been operated on twice. "They're perfect now," he says. "Nothing left in there that can go wrong."
As Reeves' case suggests, a lot of medical patchwork can be done these days and Mac Lane's estimate of 3½ years as the "life expectancy" of a running back may be a bit pessimistic. Cleveland's Leroy Kelly agrees that the expectancy is getting less, but not that much less. "I think a running back, if he's lucky, should average about eight years," says Kelly. "If he's lucky. This is my seventh year, fifth as a regular. Next year will be the final one on my contract. Then I'll probably sign for two more. I hope to make it to 10."
Prior to last Sunday's games, the Cowboys' Calvin Hill and the Bills' O.J. Simpson put their expectancy at five seasons. "One of the things that makes it a short career," said Simpson, prophetically, "is the type of defensive players you meet—bigger and more aggressive each year. They know how to hit runners around the knees, not high. Consequently, there are more knee injuries." O.J. was gang-tackled returning a kickoff against Cincinnati on Sunday, suffering a moderate sprain of the outer left knee. Although he won't have to be operated on, Bills' officials fear O.J. may be out for the rest of the season.
"You've got to keep moving to avoid injury," says Larry Brown, who gained 888 yards last year as a rookie. The 5'11", 195-pound Kansas Stater was drafted in the eighth round, and has had four 100-yard games so far this season. "You can't hesitate," amplifies George Dickson, the Redskins' offensive backfield coach. "It's when you're standing flat-footed that injuries come. Keep those legs driving and you eliminate most of the risk."
One of the NFL's most durable and consistent drivers is San Francisco's Ken Willard, now in his sixth season and apt to be running six more. "I start fast and finish fast," says Willard, "but in the middle I'm slow." Willard disagrees with the terminologists who two years ago erased the distinction between fullbacks and halfbacks. All running backs may now wear the same designation, Willard allows, but there is considerable difference in duty as related to size. "You can't compare me with Sayers, Kelly or that type," the 6'2" 230-pounder says. "I'm with the heavy brigade. I was lucky to be a part of the Big Back era. It was popular around the league to copy the Hornung-Taylor offense. A lot of fellows, including myself, might not have been given as much of a chance except for Vince Lombardi's idea of offense. My type of player lasts longer. The fast back makes the radical cuts, and is used so often on the trap plays that he's bound to be blind-sided disastrously sooner or later. He may even be built differently. It isn't just luck that I'm playing right now. Doc Milburn, our team physician, says I have the strongest knee ligaments he's seen in a long time."
So, what are the attributes of the optimum running back? "Great eyes," says Redskin Coach Bill Austin, "the ability to read the blocks on the move." Beyond that, speed and strength, but not necessarily size: witness 1969's Kansas City mini-backs, Warren McVea, Mike Garrett and Robert Holmes, all 5'9"—although Holmes, it must be admitted, resembles a small tank. And even beyond that, the "reckless abandon" that coaches and fans alike applaud. Add to these ingredients the aggressiveness needed to block well, the eye-hand coordination to catch passes in heavy traffic and finally the savvy of a Jim Brown. "The philosophy of going for every yard is a false one," says Brown. "It's a cliché that you must put out 100% on every play. No one is capable of doing it. The running back must learn to pick his spots. There are times you have to take a chance on breaking a long gain, and you do it." The operative phrase is "take a chance."