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You see what we're up against?" says Johnnie Johnson, the Los Angeles Rams' strong safety. "I came across the field just to see if it was true. And it was. Lofton not only caught the ball with one hand, he even celebrated with one hand."
Johnson was speaking of a touchdown catch Green Bay Wide Receiver James Lofton had made earlier in the day against the Rams' secondary. It had been a spectacular reception, the kind featured in highlight films: Lofton at full lean, reaching out with his right hand, snaring the ball impossibly and raising it in victorious salute—without ever touching it with his left hand.
Johnson's lament was the usual one from defensive backs: What can you expect from us working stiffs when we have to cover these circus performers, these super-athletes? Certainly NFL fans are aware of the multiple skills of the best receivers: Lynn Swann, the 25'2" long-jumper; Lofton, the 27' long-jumper; Cliff Branch and Mel Gray, the 9.3 hundred men; the just-retired Russ Francis, who once held the national high school record in the javelin (259'9").
But is the matchup between catchers and defenders all that unfair? Are all receivers gods and all defensive backs mere mortals running around trying to maintain control—little guys with frying pans for hands, failed receivers fated to be run over on sweeps and beaten on bombs?
Roll that camera again. But this time keep it on Nolan Cromwell, L.A.'s 6'1", 200-pound All-Pro free safety. It's the Rams vs. the Giants in Giants Stadium, Sept. 28, 1980, and here comes the right-handed Cromwell sailing out of nowhere to intercept a deep sideline pass with—check it out—just one hand, his left.
Cut to Rams vs. Falcons in Atlanta on Dec. 9, 1979. Atlanta Wide Receiver Alfred Jackson has his man beaten for a sure touchdown. The ball is nearly there, but here comes Cromwell, again seemingly from nowhere, leaping high, hands higher than the goalpost crossbar, to make a shocking interception. Though he lands with a crash on his head and left shoulder, Cromwell leaps up, dodges tacklers and returns the ball 28 yards.
Clearly, if in the war of the airways the receivers have all the big guns, Cromwell is an equalizer—an MX missile—for the defense. He is such a remarkable athlete that opposing coaches hate to describe him for fear of upsetting their own premier athletes. "Maybe we can agree on this," says Atlanta's Leeman Bennett of the Atlanta Falcons. "I don't know of a better athlete than Nolan. You can't draw up a game plan against the Rams without thinking of him." "He's the kind of free safety who takes away your basic patterns," says San Francisco's Bill Walsh. "A perennial Pro Bowl player for the 1980s," says Gil Brandt, the Cowboys' director of player personnel.
The Rams' staff is less restrained. "He's great," says Coach Ray Malavasi. "He's in a class by himself, the best free safety ever," says Defensive Coordinator Bud Carson.
"Nolan is one of the most incredible football players I've ever seen," says Ram Vice-President and General Manager Don Klosterman, who has seen a few. "When I try to compare him to somebody, the only person who comes to mind is Bobby Bell, the former linebacker for Kansas City. Bell could play corner, safety, throw the ball 85 yards, center the ball either short or long, kick off, play wide receiver, quarterback. Nolan is like that, a guy who can do anything. And he can do it with such grace. I'm afraid people will think I'm Nolan's P.R. man, but I honestly can't think of anything negative to say about him."
Last season, which was only Cromwell's fourth in the NFL, his second as a starter, one of the wire services agreed with Klosterman and named Cromwell the NFC Defensive Player of the Year. For the season Cromwell had eight interceptions, the most in the conference, and 101 tackles, more than any other Ram defensive back.