- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 27, 2006

With the success of Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates, every NFL team is searching for a tight end with strong rebounding skills. The hoops players drawing the most attention this year are Jai Lewis, hub of George Mason’s glorious run to the Final Four, and UConn’s Ed Nelson, whose Huskies lost to the Patriots in the Elite Eight.

How funny would it be if, the next time Lewis and Nelson faced each other, it was on a football field rather than a basketball court?

The NFL has discovered that many of the prerequisites for being a tight end can also be found in bulky basketballers, guys who might be a touch too short to cut it in the NBA. Or should I say the NFL has rediscovered this? The fact of the matter is, power forwards and undersized centers have always made terrific tight ends. Indeed, when the tight end position was being invented in the late ‘50s, among the first to play it were Ron Kramer of the Packers and Lamar Lundy of the Rams — the former a 20-points-a-game scorer at Michigan, the latter a double-double specialist at Purdue.

(The 6-7, 240-pound Lundy was so versatile he played both ways for the Rams for a few years. Then he settled in at right defensive end and spent the rest of his career as one of the “Fearsome Foursome” — alongside Deacon Jones, Merlin Olsen and Rosey Grier.)

Even before tight ends came along, though, it was well established that basketball players, with their soft hands, springy legs and quick feet, could be dangerous receivers. Jim Benton, the best wideout not named Don Hutson in pro football’s early days, was a former Arkansas hoopster. One of Sammy Baugh’s favorite targets, meanwhile, was 6-4, 194-pound Hugh “Bones” Taylor, who had starred on Oklahoma City’s basketball team.

And no NFL receiver caused as much of a sensation in the ‘50s as R.C. Owens did with his celebrated Alley-Oop play. 49ers quarterback Y.A. Tittle would lob a pass into the end zone, and Owens, a 6-3 jumping jack who had played hoops with Elgin Baylor at the College of Idaho, would invariably come down with it. Owens was such a great leaper he once blocked a field goal try by the Redskins by standing in front of the goal posts and swatting the ball away. (The Human Eraser comes to pro football!)

Then there’s 6-7 Harold Carmichael, who caught a pass in 127 consecutive games for the Eagles, a record at the time. What do think Harold’s other sport was, croquet? The man was Southern University’s leading rebounder for two seasons.

But back to tight ends. It’s no coincidence, in my book, that the first tight end elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Mike Ditka, played two years of college basketball at Pittsburgh. So many of the required skills, after all, are the same. After Iron Mike came Joe Senser (a ‘79 Pro Bowler with the Vikings) and Pete Metzelaars (336 catches from ‘82 to ‘96, most of them with the Bills). Senser led the nation in field goal shooting percentage twice at West Chester State, and Metzelaars took Wabash to the Division III hoops title.

Not every college basketball player could make the transformation to NFL tight end, but that didn’t stop clubs from trying. In the ‘60s, the Chiefs even spent a third-round pick on a hoopster who measured 6-10 — Maurice Stroud of Clark College in Georgia. Stroud looked great in the hotel lobby, as they say; alas, he had more in common with Roberto Duran than John Mackey. Hands of stone.

Pro football’s infatuation with basketball, then, is nothing new. What’s different now, in this age of specialization, is that you don’t have guys playing two sports in college anymore. Instead, you have guys like Gates, who played football in high school but dropped it to concentrate on hoops at Kent State. Mason’s Lewis has a similar background. Can you imagine playing Aberdeen High a few years ago and having to tackle Jai in the open field? Thank God for medical insurance.

Somebody will take a chance on Lewis and/or Nelson this weekend — either in the draft or immediately afterward, during the scramble for unclaimed talent. The same goes for Jeremy Bloom, the Olympic Moguls Man from Colorado.

Heck, Bloom could have the kind of impact on the NFL that all those hoops-playing receivers did way back when. If Jeremy makes it big, general managers will be sitting around on future Draft Days, saying to their scouts, “Look, we all know this kid has good hands, and his 40 time is fine; the big question is: Can he ski?”

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