Only a masochist would claim that being a pro football running back is fun. On the contrary, it is proving to be the toughest and most painful of all positions. The duties are numerous, the risks exceptional. Whether carrying the ball, blocking or catching a pass, the running back is getting hit—often and hard.
By last Sunday night—barely past the midpoint of what may be the most hazardous year in NFL history—26 rushers had suffered injuries that run the length of the body, from Les Josephson's broken jaw to Woody Campbell's dislocated toe. The game's best running back, Gale Sayers, was out for the season; O.J. Simpson was in a Buffalo hospital with a sprained left knee; Leroy Kelly, hampered by ankle trouble, was subpar.
In part because of its perils, the running game has its own fascination, its own mystique, and fans long accustomed to expecting their thrills from the forward pass are now intently—and nervously—watching the graceful, stern work of the game's best backs, some of whom are shown in action on the next four pages. What the runners feel and how they think emerges in detail in the story that follows, one that focuses on the Cardinals' MacArthur Lane, the NFL's second-leading rusher and a man who says: "I don't really know what I'm doing during a run."
'YOU LEARN THE ART OF INVISIBILITY'
Pictures," says MacArthur Lane. He is seated at a kitchen table, cutting his fingernails with the rapt attention of a neurosurgeon excising madness, and as he says the word...snick! The half-moon of nail disappears. "The running game is a series of pictures." Snick! "You snap the first one just as you take the handoff: the shape of the blocking; the beginnings of the hole, or the clutter that shows you there ain't gonna be no hole; behind, all that movement of the linebackers. That's the first picture."
Snick! "Then somehow you're through the hole—or maybe you're not. But if you are, you click the second picture. It shows you where the bodies are: your own boys setting up to block downfield for you; their deep backs and linebackers revving up to mow you down; the angles—I mean, the angles, man, is very important to you just then. You gotta know where everybody is, and which way they're coming. That tells you where the field is gonna run out when you and that man collide.
"But the last picture, if you're lucky enough to take it, is outasight. All those faces, those civilian faces back of the end zone, cheering your feet!"
MacArthur Lane has been lucky—and talented—enough to take that last, outasight mind-picture 12 times this season, including three Sunday when St. Louis beat Boston 31-0. These touchdowns comprise 30% of the Cardinals' total output to date, and account in large measure for the Big Red's resurgence. Thus far Lane has run for 662 yards in 123 carries, a rate that could well produce a 1,200-yard season and the NFL rushing title. Only the Washington Redskins' Larry Brown is off to as good a start, and the two men have been swapping the rushing lead most of the season. On a team that lacks consistent passing, Lane's long gainers (he has runs from scrimmage of 75 and 74 yards) and grunt-it-out first downs have helped the Cards to a 6-2 record and first place in the NFC East. Teamed alternately with Cid Edwards and Johnny Roland, MacArthur Lane gives St. Louis the most powerful ground attack since his namesake relieved Seoul.
Lane endures military word plays on his name with wry good humor. After all, he says, he was born in March 1942, when General MacArthur was in retreat. A popular gag around the league when the Cards roll into town is to suggest that MacArthur Lane is a country road where a lot of Birchers live. Says Mac: "My first two seasons here, when they didn't play me or else I was hurt, I told everyone: 'I shall return.' Sure enough, I did." Indeed, his meteoric rise points up some interesting truths about running backs and the nature of contemporary pro running.
Through most of the 1960s, the NFL ground game was dominated, in the public eye at least, by two exceedingly durable rushers—Cleveland's Jim Brown and Green Bay's Jim Taylor, who between them played 19 seasons, gained nearly 21,000 yards and scored 189 touchdowns. They have a lock on both longevity and most of the rushing records. In fact, Brown says his only injury in nine seasons was a sprained ankle, which caused him to sit out one half of a Giant game. Since their retirement the running game has entered a more normal period—one in which knees crackle and Achilles tendons pop like so much Sunday breakfast cereal.