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Oregon Football Number Ones, A History

Originally posted on oregonsportsnews.com

The greatest achievement of a professional football player’s career shows him standing on the Super Bowl podium raising the Lombardi Trophy in one hand, the MVP trophy in the other, and shouting “I’m going to Disneyland – World,” into a Mouseketeer microphone.

Anything less is a huge drop-off until you review your own athletic career.

From an astute fan’s perspective, anyone making an NFL roster is a borderline Superman. They are who you call in an emergency if you know one. You don’t get to the league without taking a few hits along the way, NFL sized hits.

If that’s the pro ultimate, what is the college equivalent? Is it standing on the BCS platform raising the crystal football in one hand, the MVP in the other after winning the Heisman, then going #1 overall in the NFL draft? That hasn’t happened in Oregon, yet.

How close to the dream have Beavers or Ducks come? Starting with Oregon, one player in the history of the program has risen to the top of the professional draft.

Quarterback George Shaw hit the big time in 1955 with the Baltimore Colts. This is the same year the brain trust running the Pittsburgh Steelers selected a quarterback named Johnny Unitas in the ninth round and cut him before the season began. Why? They thought he wasn’t smart enough.

George Shaw ran the Colts’ offense until a broken leg ended his second season. His replacement? Johnny U. The rest is history. Shaw was a Baltimore back-up for two years, then traded to the New York Giants. He witnessed the Unitas legend from the beginning.

In an unusual twist of fate, the #1 pick watched the 102nd pick guide the Colts over the Giants for an NFL title in 1958. The next year Shaw watched the same game as a Giants’ reserve while the Colts went back to back. The player in front of him in New York was thirty eight year old Charlie Conerly, the 127th pick of 1945.

Being chosen at the top of the NFL draft does not always add up to gridiron greatness. Take Oregon State’s Terry Baker, for example.

In 1962, Baker made the sort of sweep Hollywood writers avoid dreaming up. All this Beaver did was win the Heisman Trophy for most outstanding player, the Maxwell Trophy for best player in the land, and a handful of other awards before being named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year.

Along with the pressure of being chosen first in the ’63 draft, Baker was on the last college All-Star team to defeat the reigning NFL champs. Imagine a group of current college players gathered on short notice to play Super Bowl Champ Green Bay.

Baker’s team beat the Packers in 1963.

Mr. Baker might be the best example of what top picks need to look for. Although the Rams chose him number one overall, a year earlier they chose another quarterback, Roman Gabriel, with the second pick in the first round. They had the quarterback their coach wanted and couldn’t figure out what to do with Baker.

The Oregon State Beaver with a mechanical engineering degree did the figuring himself and went to law school during his football years.

If sports try to teach anything, the first lesson is to prepare for the unexpected. George Shaw went to Baltimore to whip the Colts into championship form; he found himself playing behind a man the Steelers dumped for being too dull to run their offense. The Steelers had the same doubts years later with Terry Bradshaw, but didn’t repeat their Unitas mistake.

Shaw’s broken leg during his second NFL season changed Johnny Unitas’ career the way the New York Yankees’ Wally Pip changed Lou Gehrig’s; great players need a chance to be great.

Terry Baker went to the Los Angeles Rams, a team that didn’t know what to do with an athlete so gifted beyond football that he also played point guard in college. He’s the only Heisman winner to play in an NCAA Final Four. While that and a bus pass gets you a ride on Tri-Met, it’s not enough to degrade Baker’s accomplishments.

Sports sections are littered with the names of players who shined brightly on big stages, then seemed to dim too soon. It’s up to the athletes to give their best effort, but sports fans need to understand the context of their careers.

Before calling someone a bust, look a little deeper. Compare their life after sports with yours. If you’re not a bust, then neither are they.

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2 responses »

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