Larry Grantham: ‘Toughest football player I ever saw’

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New York Jets

Ole Miss great Larry Grantham is part of the New York Jets Ring of Honor.

 

Bobby Ray Franklin played on SEC Championship football teams for John Vaught at Ole Miss and on NFL championship teams with Jim Brown in Cleveland. He coached national championship teams at Northwest Community College.

In football, Franklin has seen plenty. But, says Franklin, “I never saw anyone on a football field as tough as Larry Grantham. He was the toughest football player I ever saw.”

Grantham, a Crystal Springs native and a member of both the Ole Miss Team of the Century and the New York Jets Ring of Honor, died Saturday. He was 78. Grantham was inducted into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame in 1980.

Grantham played end offensively and defensively at Ole Miss and linebacker in New York. He and Franklin were roommates their sophomore year at Ole Miss.

“I think Larry came to Ole Miss as a walk-on,” Franklin says. “He didn’t look like you expect a football star to look. He never trained much and he smoked more cigarettes than anyone. But you just couldn’t block him. Nobody could in college or in the pros.”

Grantham, who served as a team manager for the South in the Mississippi High School All-Star Game, actually was recruited to Ole Miss as a baseball catcher by Hall of Famer Tom Swayze. He did try out for the football team and instantly became standout on the Ole Miss freshman team.

Grantham was part of Ole Miss varsity teams (1957-59) that won 28 games, lost 4 and tied 1. Those Rebels won two Sugar Bowls and one Gator Bowl. Tackle statistics weren’t kept in those days, but if you go by word of mouth, Grantham led the league, if not the nation.

Melanie Thortis

Rick Cleveland

The late, great Charlie Flowers, a College Football Hall of Famer, once told this writer: “I played linebacker on Larry Grantham’s side, so I never got a chance to make any tackles. Grantham always got there first. All I got to do was jump on a few piles.”

Said Warner Alford, who played on those same teams and was later the Ole Miss athletic director, “Larry was never as big as the guy trying to block him, but he always whipped his man. Always. And while people remember how good he was defensively, people forget how good a receiving end he was. He could really catch the football.”

Indeed. Says Franklin, “When we beat Florida 7-3 in the Gator Bowl, Larry caught a pass that led to our only touchdown. I threw it, and he had to go up and make a great catch. When we beat LSU 21-0 in the Sugar Bowl, Larry caught one of the touchdowns.”

Franklin was voted the MVP in that 1960 Sugar Bowl but says, “It just as easily could have been Larry. I think our defense held them to minus yards.”

Actually, LSU had a negative 15 yards rushing and threw for 89 yards for 74 yards total offense on 57 plays. Heisman Trophy winner Billy Cannon was held to eight yards on six carries. Ole Miss, which had lost 7-3 to LSU on Cannon’s famous punt return during the regular season, dominated from start to finish.

His Ole Miss teammates love to tell stories about Grantham’s on-the-field greatness and of his off-the-field antics.

Grantham’s Jets jersey No. 60 is on display in the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame’s Wall of Memories.

Once, Ole Miss shutout Kentucky in a road game with Grantham making tackle after tackle in a dominating performance. On Sunday, back at Oxford, Grantham received treatment for a badly sprained ankle. “You didn’t play like you were hurt,” Doc Knight, the Rebels’ trainer said.

“That’s because I’m tough,” Grantham reportedly answered.

Says Franklin, laughing, “I was his roommate, I knew the story. He sprained his ankle climbing down from the third story of our hotel, breaking curfew after the game. But he never missed a beat. He played the next week and was just as good as ever.”

Once, Franklin says, an assistant coach caught Grantham smoking the Friday night before a Saturday game. There was a strict team rule against smoking, so the assistant called head coach Johnny Vaught and told him one of the star players had been caught smoking.

“Who was it?” Vaught asked.

“Grantham,” came the answer.

Said Vaught, “Tell him not to smoke too many.”

Grantham, considered under-sized for pro football, was drafted by the Baltimore Colts in 15th round of the NFL draft and by the old New York Titans in the second round of the first American Football League (AFL) draft.

He chose the Titans, he later said, “because everyone else would be as green as I was.”

He was listed at 210 pounds for much of his career, but once told this writer he never weighed as much as 200 pounds in the pros and was often under 190 by season’s end. But he made All-AFL five times. He was the defensive captain of the Jets team that stunned the Baltimore Colts, the NFL team that had drafted him, 16-7, in the 1969 Super Bowl.

Joe Namath was the MVP of the game. Many observers thought Grantham just as easily could have won the honor. He called every Jets defensive formation in the game and famously often called out to teammates where the next play would be coming.

Weeb Ewbank, the Jets’ Hall of Fame coach, spoke to Grantham’s football intuitiveness in a 1966 interview with Arthur Daley of The New York Times.

“If Larry Grantham were judged only on his size, no coach in his right mind would pick anyone so small as a linebacker,” Ewbank said. “But once that coach saw Larry in a game, he’d grab him in a hurry because he has such quickness, such instinctive reactions and such an acutely developed sense of anticipation that he ranks with the very best.”

Larry Grantham, for certain, did that.

•••

Services for Larry Grantham will be held at 11 a.m. Wednesday at First Baptist Church in Crystal Springs. A visitation will take place at Stringer Funeral Home from 5-8 p.m. Tuesday.

  • Charles Pearce

    Another walk-on with a five-star career — well done, Larry.