Ode to the Late, Great Blue-Gray Game
Jerry Rice, Howie Long, Terrell Davis among the alumni
When I was the NFL columnist for the Dallas Morning News, I had two seasons – the NFL season and the draft season.
From May through February, my focus was on the NFL teams, their players and, in the fall, their games. But from February through April, my focus was the college players about to become NFLers. That was a lot of ground to cover. My draft board usually contained the names of 600-plus players, less than half of whom would be drafted.
The start of my draft preparation actually started on Christmas day. That’s when the first of the college all-star games was played – the Blue-Gray game in Montgomery, Ala. Family-time permitting, I watched that game looking for some sleepers for my draft board. There were always gems to be found.
I no longer work the draft on an annual basis … and they no longer stage the Blue-Gray game. It was played for 64 years through 2003, the last 24 of those years on Christmas Day. But when Kelly Springfield Tire pulled the plug on its sponsorship deal, the game became a memory.
The Blue-Gray was one of the oldest and most prestigious all-star games. The East-West Shrine game has been played annually from 1932 and the Blue-Gray game started in 1939. Players flocked to play in those two contests. It was a chance to showcase your potential in competition with the best players in the nation. The Blue-Gray attracted such Hall of Famers as Y.A. Tittle, Bart Starr, Chuck Bednarik, Len Dawson, Don Maynard and Fran Tarkenton.
But the Senior Bowl came along in 1950 and then the Hula Bowl in 1960. The Senior Bowl featured NFL coaching staffs and the Hula Bowl featured that Hawaiian warmth in the dead of winter. Those games started drawing the best players away from the East-West and Blue-Gray contests. The Blue-Gray in particular evolved into a secondary game.
In 1963, the Blue-Gray lost its television deal with NBC because of segregation. The Blue-Gray never invited African-American players to participate. But that changed in 1964 when the Blue-Gray invited four black players and reclaimed its NBC affiliation. But over the years the Blue-Gray had a tougher and tougher time attracting the name collegians.
So it changed focus in player recruitment. The Blue-Gray started investing heavily in small-college players – players traditionally snubbed by the other all-star games – and offering them a national stage.
In 1966, an invite went out to Jackson State cornerback Lem Barney. He now has a bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. So does Mississippi Valley wide receiver Jerry Rice, who was the MVP of the 1984 game. Savannah State tight end Shannon Sharpe was invited to play in 1989. He has since joined Barney and Rice in the Hall of Fame.
In 1980, Northwestern State (La.) halfback Joe Delaney was invited. He went on to become the 1981 NFL Rookie of the Year. In 1995, Kutztown State linebacker John Mobley played and wound up becoming the 14th overall pick of the 1996 draft by the Denver Broncos. In 1996, Akron defensive end Jason Taylor played and went on to collect 140 career NFL sacks on his way to the Hall of Fame.
The Blue-Gray also zeroed in on players who spent their college careers in the shadows.
Terrell Davis was slowed during his senior season at Georgia with a torn hamstring and Curtis Martin missed almost his entire season at Pitt with a sprained ankle. Both were invited to the 1994 Blue-Gray game with Davis suiting up for the Gray and Martin the Blue. That game became a springboard to Hall of Fame careers for both running backs.
The NFL’s all-time sack leader Bruce Smith played in the Blue-Gray game. So did wide receivers Isaac Bruce and Art Monk and centers Dermontti Dawson and Kavin Mawae. All now are in the Hall of Fame. Ottis Anderson, Dorsey Levens and Joe Morris also played. All became starting running backs on Super Bowl teams.
Cornerback Larry Brown was a junior-college transfer who played two non-descript season as TCU. He was invited to play in the Blue-Gray and was named the MVP of the 1990 game. Brown went on to become a Super Bowl MVP for the Dallas Cowboys. The Blue-Gray game also invited undersized Arizona State linebacker Darren Woodson to the 1991 game. He went on to become a five-time Pro Bowl safety for the Cowboys and win three Super Bowl rings.
But the best Blue-Gray success story remains Howie Long. He played his college ball in relative obscurity at Villanova competing against the likes of Delaware, Holy Cross, Penn and Richmond. The Wildcats dropped football after Long’s senior season and he wasn’t even invited to the 1980 Blue-Gray game.
But there was an injury earlier in the week and the Blue needed a body to fill a uniform. Harvard’s Joe Restic, one of the coaches on Jimmy Johnson’s Blue staff, recommend Long, who had been a high-school teammate of his son Joe. And for the few days of practice Long did attend, that’s all he did – fill a uniform.
“I might as well have been in the witness protection program,” Long said. “I was invisible down there. And understandably so. We (Villanova) never played on television. We bussed to most of our games. But going down to that game and having the opportunity to play against players with helmets you only saw on television…”
Long wasn’t invisible on game day, though. He blocked a punt and was named the game’s MVP. Suddenly, Long went from NFL draft suspect to prospect.
“That game changed everything,” Long said. “Back then we didn’t have pro days. I worked out 32 times. I ran in snow, in rain, indoors and outdoors. I ran for any and all comers. That was my lot in life at that point. I wasn’t at a big school. I couldn’t dictate terms.”
Long didn’t know what to expect on draft day – but what he didn’t expect was to be selected by the Super Bowl champion Oakland Raiders in the second round.
“I remember ESPN saying they wasted a draft pick … They could have gotten this guy in the sixth round … We don’t even have film on him,” Long recalled.
But the Blue-Gray game saw something in Long that ESPN didn’t. Or at least Joe Restic did. Long played 13 seasons for the Raiders and won a Super Bowl ring. He collected 84 career sacks, went to eight Pro Bowls and was selected the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 1985. Long also was named to the 1980s all-decade team and was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2000.
The Blue-Gray game gave Christmas Day viewers a chance to see great players from Villanova, Mississippi Valley State, Emporia State and Western Illinois in addition to those from Alabama, Notre Dame and Southern Cal. It became a great place for me to find my draft sleepers.
I miss the Blue-Gray game. Still.