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SMALL BUT NOT WITH THE BALL
Alexander Wolff
September 01, 1983
Hail the "impact player," NFL lingo for the little speedster who can amass big yardage running, catching passes and returning kicks
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September 01, 1983

Small But Not With The Ball

Hail the "impact player," NFL lingo for the little speedster who can amass big yardage running, catching passes and returning kicks

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Nelson was the first, and he did it three times (1977, '78 and '81) during his career at Stanford. It was precisely for that versatility that the Vikings drafted him No. 1 in 1982. The major flaw in Minnesota's three-wide-receiver, long-yardage offense had been the grand entrance of the third pass catcher. "The defense would see that and send in a nickel back," says Viking Offensive Coordinator Jerry Burns. But Nelson can be left in under any circumstances, thus concealing the Vikes' intent. He's a rare impact player who's actually less valuable coming off the bench.

Nelson got off on the wrong foot with the Vikings. He first asked them not to draft him. Then, after they did, Nelson, who grew up in Los Angeles and majored in urban development, complained that Minnesota didn't have any discos. But as Twin Cities deejays playfully dedicated country songs to him, he became an instant hit. He is the only Viking rookie running back ever to "begin his career as a starter.

When San Diego drafted Brooks out of Auburn in 1981, Coach Don Coryell figured the kid they called Bye-Bye could be an F-14 jet in Air Coryell, doing extra duty as yet another Charger receiver. But Brooks's hands—he bob-bled two straight kickoffs in San Diego's playoff game with Pittsburgh last winter—haven't impressed the Chargers nearly as much as his durability. He has been grounded for only one practice in two seasons. "He's tough as a boot," says Coryell.

Yet, at 183 pounds, the 5'9½" Brooks is light, even for an impact player. He weighed just 50 pounds at the age of seven, when his mother let him play on his first recreation-league team in-Warner Robins, Ga. "There wasn't anything to him, but even then he was star of the team," says Eura Lee Brooks. "Other boys, they called him Short Neck when he was little. Poor little ol' thing. Even now he doesn't have a neck. His head just kind of sits down in those pads." No more than 12 feet of space separated one house from another in Brooks's neighborhood, but that never stopped him or his friends. "It really hurt when you got run up against a house or a clothesline," Brooks remembers. "House didn't give an inch."

As a sophomore at Auburn Brooks was third in the nation in rushing, when he broke his foot in the fourth game, against Miami. With Brooks sidelined for the season, his road roommate—one Joe Cribbs—rumbled for 1,205 yards. In San Diego Brooks has been sharing time with an impact player of a larger sort, Chuck Muncie, who's nearly six inches taller and 35 pounds heavier.

As main man in the Buffalo backfield, Cribbs is an ex-Tiger of a different stripe. Auburn's run-oriented veer attack would hardly seem to be the proving ground for impact players, but Cribbs has helped define the term because of his superior pass-catching ability. In 1981 he averaged 15.1 yards on 40 receptions, phenomenal for a back, often by putting juke moves on linebackers after catching short passes. "He has a wiggle in his wobble," says Chuck Knox, his former Buffalo coach, who's now in Seattle.

The Bills chose Cribbs on the second round of the 1980 draft with a pick acquired from the 49ers in the O.J. Simpson trade. Still unsure about Cribbs's hands, they brought him to a minicamp to find out if he could catch. Knox was so encouraged by what he saw that he promptly retooled the Bills' offense to suit Cribbs. That year Cribbs not only was the Bills' second-leading receiver (52 catches for 415 yards), but he also amassed the fifth-largest first-year rushing total ever in the NFL (1,185 yards) and earned a starting Pro Bowl spot.

Cribbs missed the two-game, pre-strike NFL season in 1982 because of a contract squabble, but once play resumed in November he had the league's best rushing average per game (90.4). His yards per catch fell off from 15.1 to 7.6, but blame that on Knox's conservative approach, something new Coach Kay Stephenson has hinted he'll do away with. Stephenson will have only one year to make use of Cribbs's diversified talents, however; in July, Cribbs put an end to his contract dispute with the Bills by signing to play with the USFL's Birmingham Stallions in 1984.

Unlike Cribbs, Miami's Vigorito is strictly a bit player, appearing in long-yardage situations in the slot or in the back-field alongside Tony Nathan. "Because we call him a halfback everybody thinks he's a running back," says Carl Taseff, an assistant coach for the Dolphins. "But he's just like another wide receiver. It'd be silly to have a guy like [5'10", 228-pound Fullback] Andra Franklin in there on third and eight. If he couldn't come out of the back-field and catch the ball, the other team would say to heck with him." Says Vigorito, "I feel like a 12th starter, but I enjoy it. This is my way to establish a long career in the NFL"

Playing halfback at Virginia, Vigorito led the Cavs in receiving his final two seasons and picked up a yen for chewing tobacco. Miami chose him on the fifth round in 1981, then courted him like a No. 1 pick because of the wooings of the Montreal Alouettes. His dad, Ralph, played briefly with the New York Titans, the AFL forerunner of the Jets, and Tom grew up a Joe Namath fan. "I guess I was taken by [Namath's] charisma and confidence," he says. "He was a guy I wanted to be like." But Vigorito was not a cocky Dolphin rookie. After his second pro game, a nationally televised one against Pittsburgh in which he returned a punt 87 yards for a touchdown, he told the press, "How can I run from them when I want to run up and get their autographs?"

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