NFL's cult heroes
Are you ready for some more Tim Tebow? The former Gators quarterback has become the story in the NFL. Heck, he is the story in sports. As his detractors and supporters try to out-yell one another, Tebow continues to go out and add chapters to his legend. He has become pro football's cult hero. But he isn't the sport’s first. Though we really don't think any player has ever grabbed the attention of the NFL quite like Tebow, we look back at some of our favorite cult heroes in NFL history, from a little-known kicker to a pair of Hall of Fame linebackers.
He is known as the "Grand Old Man'' because he spent 26 years in the NFL, playing through the 1975 season at age 48. The last part of his career was spent as a kicker, but he was a longtime quarterback, too. He became something of a legend in 1970 with the Raiders at age 43 when he won five consecutive games either with his kicking or his arm coming off the bench. NFL Films junkies will remember the call of Raiders announcer Bill King, who said after one such Blanda victory, "George Blanda has just been elected king of the world!''
This cornerback out of Nebraska was listed at 5 feet 9. We have a feeling the media guide added a couple of inches. But Fischer was one of the meanest, most tenacious, hardest-hitting, intimidating players of the 1960s and '70s. One story goes that normally mild-mannered Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach once took a swing at Fischer because of one of Fischer's borderline hits. Fischer spent seven seasons with the old St. Louis Cardinals and then 10 with the Redskins. His one-on-one battles with 6-foot-8 Eagles receiver Harold Carmichael are the stuff of NFL legend.
Gerela was a kicker for the Steelers in the 1970s. He wasn't the greatest kicker of all time, but he was solid and good enough to stick around for eight seasons in Pittsburgh and be a part of three Super Bowl champions. His most famous kick was one he missed in Super Bowl X. Dallas' Cliff Harris taunted him after the miss, and Harris ended up being slammed to the ground by Pittsburgh's Jack Lambert. Still, Gerela was wildly popular in the Steel City and inspired the fan club "Gerela’s Gorillas.'' The leader of the club wore a gorilla suit for each game at Three Rivers Stadium. Those great Steelers teams had a slew of good players and several notable fan clubs. But no fan club was more famous than Gerela's Gorillas. There's another kicker you could throw on this list: former Dolphin Garo Yepremian.
There's a great old NFL Films clip in which players are talking about former quarterback LeBaron and former Eagles tough guy Chuck Bednarik said, "Eddie LeBaron is the best little football player I've ever seen.'' LeBaron sure was little. He was listed at 5-9 but was more like 5-7. He played with the Redskins and in the Canadian Football League, then was the starting quarterback for the Cowboys for most of their first three years. The "Little General'' played 12 NFL seasons, throwing for 104 touchdowns and making four Pro Bowls.
Dick Butkus and Ray Nitschke
Not all players with a cult following are underdogs. Butkus and Nitschke weren't. In their primes in the late 1960s, Butkus and Nitschke were on the short list of the greatest players ever. So why are they, now Hall of Famers, on this list of cult figures? Because there was something special about them, starting with their names. "Dick Butkus'' just sounds like a mean, intimidating football player, doesn't it? The same with Nich-kee, as it was pronounced. They looked scary behind their face masks, too. They epitomized the professional football player. And it was appropriate that they played for two of the most famous teams in NFL history, the Bears (Butkus) and Packers (Nitschke).
What is the best touchdown celebration in football? We would have to say the spike. It's simple and, really, the seminal moment of all touchdown celebrations. And Jones was the guy who invented it in a 1965 game while playing for the Giants. Jones caught a touchdown pass and then violently threw the ball into the ground. The spike -- and a cult hero -- was born.
Fans of the original Tampa Bay Bucs will tell you they had a special place in their hearts for defensive tackle Dave Pear. He was here when the Bucs were awful. He was on the team that lost 26 in a row to start the organization. The Bucs' record during his three seasons was 7-37. Yet, Pear always seemed to make a splash play, celebrating with his fists raised. And even though he was on the 1978 team that went 5-11, his peers voted him to the Pro Bowl. He left after that season and won a Super Bowl with the Raiders before injuries cut his career short. For those not around when Pear played in Tampa Bay, fans felt about him the way they later felt about Mike Alstott, who also could have made this list.
Who cares that he played only six seasons (1969-74, all with the Browns). Who cares that he caught only 129 passes. Who cares that he scored only eight touchdowns. Fair Hooker is here because he has the best name in NFL history.
We have to have a few coaches on the list, right? When we think of cult figures, the first thought is of Packers legend Vince Lombardi. There seems to be something magical about him, but then again, he's almost too well known. Again, we go back to NFL Films. Remember seeing former Redskins coach George Allen with his bad habit of licking a finger and dancing with his Over the Hill Gang? Can't you still picture Bum Phillips in his 10-gallon cowboy hat? Can’t you see the Chiefs' Hank Stram in his too-tight collar talking about "matriculating'' the ball down the field?