PHILADELPHIA — God, imagine it: 3 a.m. inside the living room of a Southwest Philadelphia home in the early 1960s, three men seated there, each of them a famous athlete, each of them a running back in the National Football League. The house belonged to Clarence Peaks, the Eagles’ starting fullback then, and from time to time, he would invite over two of his friends — his teammate Timmy Brown and a fellow named Jim Brown — to play chess.
His son Clarence Jr., no more than 7 or 8 years old at the time, would peek in and listen.
“It was the most fascinating thing I’ve ever witnessed,” Clarence Jr. said by phone Tuesday morning. “I thought they were the most intelligent men I’d heard.”
The games would last deep into the night, and when they ended, the men would laugh and talk about everything. About football. About the burden of being Black in America. About life and the funny way things work out sometimes.
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The greatest what-if
God, imagine it. Imagine the pomp, the pageantry, the speculation, the analysis, the attention — so much freaking attention — that America pays to the NFL draft. You don’t have to imagine it, do you? Of course you don’t. You’re a football fan. You love it. You breathe it. You set aside the last weekend in April and tell your significant other to stay away, that you have work to do, that your favorite team’s future is hanging in the balance come 7:48 p.m. Friday and the 17th pick of the second round.
Now, imagine that hype and hoopla not in 2023 but in 1957. The 1957 NFL draft wasn’t held in prime time. It wasn’t even held in 1957. It was held on a Monday in November 1956, with the regular season still going. It wasn’t an event. It was a near-afterthought, good for a few headlines the next day. Imagine that black-and-white world back then — black-and-white pictures on your television, black-and-white print in your morning newspaper — instead exploding with the same anticipation and expectations that color the coverage of pro football today.
Now, imagine the Eagles drafting Jim Brown. Which they almost did.
Now, imagine being Clarence Peaks. Whom they did draft.
It’s one of the franchise’s greatest what-ifs. The Eagles had the seventh pick in the ‘57 draft. Later, they would take Billy Ray Barnes in the second round, Tommy McDonald in the third, and Sonny Jurgensen in the fourth. Howie Roseman would kill for a draft like that. And with that seventh pick, they took Peaks, who stayed with them for the first seven of his nine NFL seasons. Who finished his Eagles career with 2,927 rushing yards, still the 13th-best total in team history. Who became an Eagles radio analyst on 610-AM and an NFL analyst for ABC before his death, at 71, in 2007.
The problem with the Eagles’ taking Peaks with the seventh pick was that the Cleveland Browns had the sixth pick. And they took Jim Brown, who stayed with them for all nine of his NFL seasons. Who won three Associated Press MVP awards, eight rushing titles, and the Browns’ last league championship, in 1964. Who finished his career with 12,312 rushing yards, which stood as the all-time record for 19 years and still ranks 11th in league history. Who is regarded as arguably the best football player ever. Who became a movie star and a social activist and a magnet for controversy for his history of violence against women. Who died last week at 87.
Missed moments of glory
God, imagine it. The Eagles wanted Brown, who had been a 6-foot-2, 230-pound supernova at Syracuse, averaging 5.8 yards a carry and scoring 14 touchdowns in eight games as a senior. He “was to have been their No. 1 choice,” the Associated Press reported the day after the draft. And as each team ahead of them made its selection, the Eagles’ hopes had to be rising. The Green Bay Packers took Paul Hornung. The Los Angeles Rams took Jon Arnett. Two picks. Two guys who would play halfback in the NFL. The San Francisco 49ers took John Brodie. The Packers had a second shot at Brown but took end Ron Kramer instead. The Pittsburgh Steelers took Len Dawson. Brodie and Dawson — two outstanding quarterbacks. Five players picked. All white. No Brown.
Cleveland, though, couldn’t pass him up, and the Eagles were left to find an alternative to fill the hole in their backfield.
Peaks, who had starred at Michigan State, wasn’t considered a bad consolation prize. In the Spartans’ 17-14 win over UCLA in the 1956 Rose Bowl, he had caught a touchdown pass and thrown another, on an option play, and he had been expected to be a leading candidate for the Heisman Trophy the following year. But his season ended after five weeks when he tore cartilage in his left knee in late October. Nevertheless, Hugh “Duffy” Daugherty, Michigan State’s head coach, had called Peaks the “best back in college football,” though there’s a major big-whoop element to a head coach praising one of his players. It would have been more newsworthy had Daugherty said, Yeah, Peaks is awesome, but he’s no Jim Brown. That’s a bad dude.
That knee issue wasn’t the last time, though, that an injury denied Peaks a moment of glory. In 1960, he was in the midst of his best season with the Eagles — he had rushed for 465 yards, at 5.4 yards an attempt, and three touchdowns in seven games — when he fractured his right fibula in a November victory over Washington. Again, he was sidelined for the rest of the season, including the Eagles’ 17-13 win over the Packers in the NFL championship game.
“It bothered him,” Clarence Jr. said.
One can only imagine.