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Long, long ago, when Calvin Hill was a student at Riverdale Country School in New York City, he learned a line from the school song that went, "It is the spirit that quickeneth." A phrase like that doesn't mean much to a kid in high school, but Hill has been singing it a lot these days. And though the Cleveland Browns' 3-3 record doesn't necessarily reflect it, Hill's teammates are doing their best to sing along.
That's right, Calvin Hill: the ex-Yalie, ex-Cowboy, ex-defector to the World Football League. Why, Hill's such a relic that he even retired from the Washington Redskins back when that was the old-folks home of the NFL. But as of Sunday, he was leading the Browns in touchdown receptions with three, averaging 17.9 yards a catch on seven receptions for 125 yards, all of this while uncomplainingly participating in no more than half a dozen plays a game.
"Calvin's a perfect example of how it's better to have a good head than it is to have good legs," says the Browns' coach, Sam Rutigliano. His quickness? "Gone," Rutigliano says without a moment's hesitation. "But in the intangible areas, Calvin's contribution to the Browns has been immeasurable." In other words, it is his spirit that quickeneth.
Hill is only 33, but for an NFL back—especially one who has run for more than 6,000 yards and 60 touchdowns—that is antediluvian. Consider: among the backs who broke in with Hill in 1969 were Ed Podolak, Altie Taylor, Leroy Keyes, Larry Brown, Ron Johnson, Carl Garrett and a young man who now spends his Sundays flying into rental cars, O.J. Simpson. Hill, who won Rookie of the Year honors in that august company, is the only one still playing pro football.
"I remember looking at Bob Lilly when I first came in the league and thinking he was ancient," Hill says. "He'd only been around eight years. I wonder what these guys think of me."
The Browns think enough of their graybeard to have voted him captain of the offense, despite the fact that he sees extremely limited duty. With Cleveland's first draft choice having been Heisman Trophy winner Charles White; with Mike Pruitt coming off a season in which he ran for 1,294 yards; and with Greg Pruitt healthy again after missing most of the 1979 schedule, it is astounding there is room for a grizzled veteran like Hill in Cleveland's backfield. But there is, and he has been making the most of his chances.
"We use Calvin the way Preston Pearson is used by Dallas, mostly in passing situations," says Rutigliano. "He has super hands and is a big target, and he's good at finding a hole in the zone. Other teams know that, and they're very aware of Calvin when he's in there, which means there's less pressure on our other guys, like Ozzie Newsome and Reggie Rucker. So it's tough to measure by statistics just what he's meant to us."
Quarterback Brian Sipe is so aware of Hill's special skills—he is a fine blocker, too—that Sipe has a signal he flashes to the sidelines when he wants the 227-pound Hill to come in the game. "I like to use him when the other team's in a blitzing situation," Sipe says. Against Tampa Bay three weeks ago, Hill and Sipe read a safety blitz and burned it with a 43-yard TD pass. "I just lobbed it to Calvin in the hole that the safety had vacated," says Sipe. "To be honest with you, when I saw the way they were lined up, I'd have been disappointed with anything less. Calvin one-on-one against a linebacker is no contest."
Hill spent last winter and spring working as special assistant to the director of the Peace Corps in Washington, D.C., focusing his attention on the problems of the world's refugees. He attended Southern Methodist's Perkins School of Theology and served as a deacon at the Yale Chapel under the Rev. William Sloane Coffin Jr., and he was active in the civil rights movement. He is a man of voracious curiosity—rare in the self-centered world of professional sports—and what is as amazing as Hill's longevity is that he has managed to retain his almost childlike appreciation of football.
"I enjoy playing; I enjoy watching film; I enjoy strategy; I even enjoy training camp, except I don't like having to eat three meals a day," he says. "I'm the kind of guy who would probably be playing touch football if I weren't playing football here. I'm a fan as well as a player."