It happened 56 years ago Friday night. Robert Khayat remembers going face-to-chest with his own mortality.
The date was August 12, 1960. The site was Soldier Field. The event was the now-defunct Chicago College All-Star Football Game, which annually pitted the defending champions of the National Football League against a team of college all-stars.
Khayat will never forget his first play. Lined up at guard, he took his three-point stance. He stared ahead, expecting to see the eyes of his opponent. Instead, he stared right into a huge blue jersey, number 76. Khayat glanced up. And then he looked up and then up some more. Finally, he saw Eugene “Big Daddy” Lipscomb’s piercing dark eyes and his thick, full beard.
“Boy,” Big Daddy said, “does your mama know where you are tonight?”
Nothing at Ole Miss had prepared Khayat for that moment. Khayat was 22 years young, a recent honors graduate, polite, blonde-haired, and needing to shave maybe once a week. He weighed about 220.
Lipscomb, born in Uniontown, Ala., and raised in Detroit slums, was 29 years old and already an NFL legend. Big Daddy was 6 feet, 8 inches tall and weighed in at about 300. He had a seven-foot wingspan and his arms were nearly as thick as Khayat’s legs. He had never graduated from high school, but was a four-year Marine veteran. He was a professional wrestler on the side.
Khayat probably gulped. Polite young gentleman that he was, he did answer Lipscomb’s question. “Yes sir,” he said. “She does.”
This was the second play of the game, Khayat’s first. On the game’s first play, Lipscomb manhandled the all-stars’ starting left guard so harshly the guy took himself out of the game and never returned. That left Khayat — and Lipscomb.
Said Khayat, “I thought he might kill me.”
On Khayat’s first play, quarterback Don Meredith — yes, the late Dandy Don of Dallas Cowboys and Monday Night Football fame — took the snap and handed the ball to a running back. Big Daddy literally flung Khayat aside like a rag doll and tackled the runner for a loss.
Said Khayat, “For Big Daddy Lipscomb, I was like swatting a fly.”
Khayat’s mama, if she was watching, probably said a prayer.
Funny thing was, Lipscomb was as polite as could be.
Almost every time, Big Daddy knocked Khayat down, he would reach down and pick him up.
“Nice try, Sweet Pea,” Big Daddy would say.
Sweet Pea couldn’t block Big Daddy, so he tried to hold him.
“I held him every way a man can hold,” Khayat said.
To no avail.
Intelligent, younger readers might wonder about the wisdom pitting recent college graduates against seasoned pros. But that’s what happened every summer from 1934 until 1976. Most of the games went about like the one in 1960. Hall of Famer Johnny Unitas completed passes at will for the Colts. The Baltimore defense, led by Big Daddy, dominated in a 32-7 Colts’ victory. (Khayat, an accomplished placekicker, did boot the All-Stars’ extra point.)
To his everlasting credit, Khayat played every offensive play after the first one and lived to tell the tale. Khayat said Lipscomb hugged him afterward, presumably to congratulate him on his survival.
Most readers know that Khayat, after a three-year NFL career, went on to become a lawyer, then a law professor and then highly progressive chancellor at Ole Miss.
Big Daddy Lipscomb was once described in Sports Illustrated as “… the prototype of the modern lineman, the first 300-pound Bunyan endowed not only with enormous power but also with the two qualities usually denied men of his size: agility and speed. His belly did not roll out of his pants. He was hard and trim, and the fastest interior lineman in the league.”
But he was not invincible. Lipscomb died in 1963 of a heroin overdose. He was 31. An autopsy showed he had enough heroin in him to kill five normal men. He remains an NFL legend, never to be forgotten, especially by Robert Khayat.
Said Khayat, “That’s the night I started thinking seriously about law school.”
Rick Cleveland writes a weekly sports column running Fridays at Mississippitoday.org