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A Look at Some Really Old School Players

As I mentioned in my second installment of an Analysis of the top RBs in NFL history, I found a couple names from very far back that I wanted to research and let you all know more about them. The reason that I became interested in them was the fact that both had such high yards/attempt numbers as well as extremely high yards/reception numbers. Those stats intrigued me enough to want to learn more about them.


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The two players I’m referring to are Marion Motley and Orban "Spec" Sanders.  

Motley played 8 years (1946-1953) for the Cleveland Browns before finishing his career in his final season (1955) with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Both were part of the All American Football Conference in the ‘40s. Motley joined the NFL, with the rest of the Browns, in 1950. Sanders spent his first 3 years (1946-1948) with the AAFC’s New York Yankees, and the final year of his career (1950) in the NFL’s New York Yanks, a separate team.  The two of them did have a connection, in that the Browns beat the Yankees in the AAFC championship game each of the first two years of the league’s existence.

Marion Motley


Marion Motley is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Before Jim Brown, he was the Cleveland Browns’ premier running back. He was also a great linebacker and the best blocking back of his time. While not racking up the total yards that Brown had, he had an amazing 5.7 yards/carry, which is an NFL record. In this great Pro Football Weekly article, we see that Paul Brown agreed with Terry, that Jim Brown is not the greatest ever:

''He is the greatest fullback ever,'' Paul Brown said after a 1946 game in which Motley rushed for 133 yards and three touchdowns.

His opinion didn't change even after coaching Jim Brown.

''If Jim had worked on his blocking,'' Brown later said, ''he would have been as great as Motley.''

If you have a couple minutes, you should read through the whole artice. In it, an argument is made that Motley was the greatest NFL player ever, based on his all around achievements. For example, his linebacker play:

Philadelphia quickly learned of Motley's defensive prowess. In the Browns' first NFL game, the Eagles had first and goal at the 6. On first down, they tried a smash up the middle. Motley stopped them. So the Eagles ran the same play. And Motley stuffed it again. Philadelphia didn't learn. The Eagles ran the play twice more, getting stopped by Motley on both occasions. Four plays gained three yards.

And, his blocking:

Motley did his share of knocking as well, especially against the blitz, which endeared him to Brown, not to mention quarterback Otto Graham. Defenders weren't too thrilled with this ability, since it meant crashing into the 6-foot-1, 238-pound Motley. The Browns often let Motley handle defensive ends by himself.

''Motley really built the passing attack for the Browns because of his blocking,'' receiver Dante Lavelli said.

''You rush Graham,'' San Francisco end Gail Bruce said in Iron Men, ''and put on a move and beat your man and there's Motley waiting for you. Next play, you beat your man with a different move and there's Motley, waiting again. Pretty soon you say, 'The hell with it. I'd rather stand on the line and battle the first guy.' ''

In addition to being a dominant football player, both offensively and defensively, Motley was also a trailblazer in breaking the NFL’s color barrier of the ‘30s and ‘40s. From his Pro Football HOF entry:

In 1946, one year before Jackie Robinson signed with baseball’s Brooklyn Dodgers, four players smashed pro football’s race barrier. The trailblazers were Marion Motley and Bill Willis, who signed with the Cleveland Browns of the new All-America Football Conference, and Kenny Washington and Woody Strode, who signed with the National Football League’s Los Angeles Rams. Injuries ended Washington’s career after three seasons, while Strode played just the 1946 season.

Still, while struggling with the racism that he faced, he was  gentleman and great friend off the field. This article,as well as the Pro Football Weekly article, discusses some of the racism that he faced on the field. It also poignantly describes his reaching out to future great Lenny Moore, among others, during his playing career.

Penn State was in Pittsburgh to play the Panthers at the same time the Browns were there to face the Steelers. Moore found out where the Browns were staying and decided to see who he could see. And did he ever see.

"Marion Motley invited me up to his room," Moore said. "And he sat down and talked to me. He wanted to know about me -- and did I have any thoughts about going into professional football? He talked to me, and I mean really talked to me." That meeting, and a similar talk with Chicago Bears running back Ollie Matson (who finished his career with the Eagles), had as much to do with his success with the Colts as anything else, Moore said. When Moore was summoned to the podium in Canton, Ohio, for a few words when he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1975, he had no speech prepared. Then he looked into the audience and saw Motley and Matson.

His mind filled with memories, and his speech revolved around how Motley and Matson had inspired him. And when he was finished, Motley and Matson were weeping. "You wouldn't know that he was Marion Motley," said Moore, "because he wasn't a guy who talked about himself. He knew who he was, and everybody kind of revered him."

Like I said at the beginning, I was intrigued by Motleys per touch production, because he had such high yards/rush attempt and yards/ reception numbers. However, after reading some of these stories, I’m even more impressed with him a player and a person.

Orban "Spec" Sanders


Photo Credit

Spec Sanders was the first University of Texas player ever drafted in the first round, the sixth overall selection by the Washington Redskins. Unfortunately for them, he chose to play for the AAFC’s New York Yankees. This article from the UT website is a reprint of a newspaper article from 1949, describing a 1942 game between Penn and the Athens Navy Pre-Flight School eleven, a team of players who had joined the Navy during WWII. The game was taken over by Spec Sanders, who had been known as a career backup at Texas. Apparently, it wasn’t because he wasn’t talented. Rather, it was because of the old college tradition of stockpiling talent and making the younger players wait their turn. Once the war ended, Spec turned pro, and became a star for the Yankees.

In 1947, he set the record for single season rushing yards, with 1432 yards in 14 games. That was over 400 yards more than anyone else up to that point, and nearly 300 yards more than anyone else for the next 10 years, until Jim Brown broke his record (see this site). He is also tied for second with the most interceptions in a single season (see here),with 13 in 1950. During the first three years of his career he played tailback, but then in his final season, he was a safety.Toward the bottom of this page, there is a blurb describing Sanders as "For one season, 1947, . . . the best who ever lived." He:

Passed for 1,442 yards, averaged 27 yards on kickoff returns and 27.3 yards returning punts, punted for a 42.1-yard average. And yes, he played defense, too. He was a skilled pass defender, with three interceptions that season. In 1948 he played hurt, with various leg and knee injuries, and by 1949 he was finished. His career in the AAFC had lasted three seasons.

This site says that he never played in the NFL, but according to some of the other sites I saw, he played in the NFL in 1950, when he set the above mentioned interception record.

Finally, at the bottom of this page is a blurb about Sanders being inducted in the Cameron University HOF. He played there when it was a high school and for two years as a JUCO. It says that he holds the Cameron record for longest KO return (110 yards, I’m not sure how they figured that). And, according to this site, ESPN rated him as the greatest Sanders to ever play football, ahead of Barry.

Unfortunately, there was not as much about Spec Sanders, the person, as there was for Marion Motley, but from what I read, he still seemed like a great football player. And, just surmising based on his service in WWII, he must have been a man of some courage. If not for his knee injuries in 1948, he may have been as well known as some of the other early NFL greats, like Curly Lambeau and Slingin’ Sammy Baugh.