Talk about your classic tale of perseverance. Gene Hickerson was a true overachiever on his path to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Hickerson grew up in tiny Trezevant, Tenn. - a town of less than 1,000 people - and he did not play football until his brother, Wily, convinced him to try it as a senior in high school. He had an outstanding season playing fullback, but that wasn't enough experience to get recruited for college football.
Fortunately for Hickerson, he had caught the eye of an alumnus of the University of Mississippi, who tipped off his alma mater to the small-town talent. It wasn't until March of his senior year that Hickerson was visited by an Ole Miss recruiter - but the recruiter saw enough to give him a scholarship.
Hickerson was moved to offensive tackle as a freshman at Mississippi, though he was redshirted and did not play. By the time he finished college, however, he was regarded as one of the best offensive linemen in Southeastern Conference history.
The Rebels had a coach named Wobble Davidson on their staff. Davidson later worked for the Cowboys as a scout, and I heard plenty of stories about Hickerson from him. Hickerson was extraordinarily fast for a lineman, and Davidson explained that Hickerson would run wind sprints in practice with the backs and ends -- because he was so much faster than the rest of the linemen.
That speed was never more evident than in the 1958 college all-star game against the Detroit Lions. The all-stars had a field day running the screen pass to future Hall of Famer Bobby Mitchell. With Hickerson leading the way every time, Mitchell could not be stopped and the all-stars defeated Detroit, 35-19.
Unlike today's NFL, it was more important during Hickerson's playing days to have speed at the guard position than offensive tackle. So when he joined the Cleveland Browns in 1958, head coach Paul Brown made him a guard. The move paid immediate dividends.
Before Hickerson got to Cleveland, there had only been seven running backs in NFL history that rushed for more than 1,000 yards in a seasson. With Hickerson in the lineup, Cleveland boasted a 1,000-yard rusher nine of next 10 years, and a Browns player led the league in rushing in seven of those years. It didn't hurt that the Browns had Hall of Famers Jim Brown and Leroy Kelly carrying the ball, but Hickerson was not just in the right place at the right time. He was selected to six Pro Bowls and was voted to the team of the decade in the '60s.
Hickerson is being presented into the Hall by his former Cleveland roommate, Bobby Franklin, who was on the Dallas staff for a time after his playing days. According to Franklin, a little-known fact about Hickerson is that he was an accomplished chef - but he didn't like to do the dishes, so even when he cooked a gourmet meal, it was always served on paper plates and with plastic forks.
Franklin also recalled that Hickerson used to say, "Someday I'm going to the Hall of Fame." Franklin or someone else would say, "Really?" and Hickerson would reply, "Yeah, I'm going to drive down there." Cleveland, you see, is about an hour north of Canton.
In 1961, Hickerson hurt his leg in the first preseason game. While rehabbing, he was standing on the sidelines later in the season and got run over on a play that spilled out of bounds, and fractured that same leg. He missed the rest of '61 season and the first two games of 1962 -- those were the only games he missed in his entire 15-year career.