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Sometime during the second week of training at most professional football camps, the Turk calls. The Turk is the most dreaded visitor of the year. He calls after dinner, and his victims disappear before breakfast the next morning. The Turk is the epithet pro football uses for the man who informs aspiring players that they are not talented or big or smart enough to make the grade.
Pro football teams replenish ranks thinned by injury, age or ennui by drafting, each year, 30 players apiece from graduating collegiate personnel. The rate of attrition of these 30 is tremendous; some 25 or 26 usually report to training camp, and of these an average of three to six at the most make the 36-man playing squad of the pro club. This ratio varies, of course, with a given situation; a championship team like the Baltimore Colts might keep no more than one or two rookies. A last-place team, on the other hand, may keep as many as a dozen.
Of the 50 or 60 rookies who finally stick in pro ball, only two or three a year in the entire 12-team National Football League are apt to be good enough to play first string. The others—players like the New York Giants' Joe Morrison, a halfback—provide useful relief for proven veterans such as the Giants' Alex Webster while they are learning the lessons that only experience teaches. They put in an apprenticeship of two or three years, playing more and more frequently as their skills increase, and as the stars whom they are understudying grow older they eventually move into the team's starting lineup.
This small admixture of new faces is essential to a team which hopes to stay on top in the tough NFL. Some players—Jim Brown of Cleveland, for example—are good enough to break into the starting lineup immediately. Others such as J. D. Smith of the San Francisco 49ers languish in an unfamiliar position for a year or two until they get a chance to prove their worth in whatever position they are best fitted to play. Smith, a big and very strong running back, played defensive halfback for the 49ers at first and was roundly booed for his naive mistakes several times two seasons ago. Moved to full-time offensive halfback, he is now among the top 10 rushers in the league.
Ordinarily, a team which must depend on more than one or two rookies in its starting lineup has little or no chance to go all the way to a title. An old saying in pro football is that a rookie defensive halfback costs a touchdown a game. This may be a slight exaggeration, but it is nevertheless true that rookies in the very vital defensive secondary are a chancy thing. Once in a long while, a rookie comes up from college who has great speed and good enough reflexes to counteract the mental lapses sure to occur during a game.
The 49ers, the most surprising team of the early campaign, are tied with the Baltimore Colts for first place in the Western Conference because Coach Red Hickey gambled successfully on two such rookies. Dave Baker, the former Oklahoma quarterback, and Eddie Dove, who was a halfback at Colorado, play regularly in the 49er deep defense, and they have learned the intricacies of their positions so quickly that the 49ers have transformed a fairly leaky pass defense into a winningly tight one. This is particularly astounding when you consider that a third member of this secondary—Abe Woodson of Illinois—is a comparative newcomer who played only a few games on defense last season. Woodson has whistling speed and such remarkable reactions that Hickey can give him assignments which would trouble veteran defenders. On successive Sundays at the start of the season, Woodson covered two of the NFL's finest receivers man on man, and the two—Philadelphia's Tommy McDonald and the Rams' Del Shofner—caught a total of two passes.
Last Sunday against the Chicago Bears, Hickey's youngsters intercepted three passes in a 20-17 victory. Against one of the best sets of receivers in the league, they leaked a little on passes but they held down a fine offense well enough to win.
Another factor in the 49er win over the Bears was the performance of Rookie Tommy Davis, who escaped from the Turk by exploiting a specialty. He kicked two field goals and two extra points against the Bears and once boomed a 71-yard punt to take the 49ers out of a hole.
The New York Giants retained sole possession of first place in the Eastern Conference with a rain-washed 21-16 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers. However, Coach Jim Lee Howell, of the Giants, must have regretted his decision to release Rookie End Buddy Dial earlier this year; Dial played spectacularly for the Steelers, catching a long touchdown pass and setting up a field goal with another long reception from Quarterback Bobby Layne. The Giants' first-year halfback, Joe Morrison of the University of Cincinnati, took over from Frank Gifford when the latter suffered a rib injury and played with poise. He seems well along the path to eventual first-team status and possible stardom.
The Baltimore Colts, a sound and veteran team, depended on its sound veterans in drubbing Green Bay 38-21. The Colts, as usual, stuttered through the first half, then finished with a rush. Johnny Unitas, who, by the way, had been released by the Pittsburgh Steelers in his first try at pro football, passed superbly and the big, alert and very active Colt defense set up touchdowns with intercepted passes to accomplish the ruin of the upstart Packers. The Colts and the 49ers have yet to play each other this season; it will be a sore trial for the San Francisco youngsters when they meet the Colts, a team with only one rookie on the starting offensive and defensive lineups.