From long shot to ‘two arm lengths away’ from his idol

12th-round draft pick went from col­lege hoops to NFL

Baltimore Sun - - RAVENS WEEKEND - By Mike Klinga­man mike.klinga­man@balt­sun.com twit­ter.com/MikeKlinga­man

He was drafted on a whim, a raw rookie who’d never played col­lege foot­ball but who looked as if he might help the Colts. The gam­ble paid off. Pre­ston Pear­son spent 14 years in the NFL, played in five Su­per Bowls and earned two cham­pi­onship rings.

“I was blessed to play on some very, very good teams,” said Pear­son, 71.

An all-pur­pose back, he played six po­si­tions and gained 9,545 yards in a ca­reer that be­gan with­out fan­fare in 1967.

“Not bad, huh?” he said from his home in Dallas. “That’s what I tell my [two] sons.”

The Colts picked Pear­son, a bas­ket­ball player at Illi­nois, in the 12th of 17 rounds. A long shot, he re­ceived a $1,000 bonus, made the club and starred on spe­cial teams that sea­son.

He re­mem­bers feel­ing “a lit­tle in­tim­i­dated” on his first day in train­ing camp.

“To be hon­est, when we put on the pads, I wasn’t sure I should be there,” he said. “The way those hel­mets sounded, hit­ting each other, scared the [ex­ple­tive] out of me.”

Pear­son was ter­ri­fied upon en­ter­ing the Colts’ locker room for the first time.

“My num­ber was 26, so my locker was pretty damn close to No. 19,” he said. “That threw me into a tail­spin be­cause about two arm lengths away was this guy [Johnny Uni­tas] that I idol­ized, lac­ing up these ugly black high-top shoes. I was awestruck. Talk to him? I kept my head down, afraid even to make eye con­tact.”

A year later (1968), as the Colts drove to­ward the NFL cham­pi­onship, Pear­son caught a touch­down pass from Uni­tas in a 28-24 vic­tory over the Rams in Los An­ge­les. It was his sec­ond score of the game; he had con­nected with the Colts’ other quar­ter­back, Earl Mor­rall, on a 61-yard touch­down. Pear­son, who­played full­back that day, earned the game ball, which now sits on his man­tel.

That same year, he starred in a 42-14 win over the San Fran­cisco 49ers, rac­ing 96 yards with the open­ing kick­off for his first NFL touch­down.

“Tim Brown was our re­turn guy and I was sup­posed to block for him, but the ball came right at me,” Pear­son said. “I got so ex­cited that Ididn’t back­away, andTim­mylet­mecatchit. I wasn’t touched un­til the 10-yard line, when some­one caught my foot from be­hind and knocked me into the end zone.”

Soon after­ward, rac­ing down­field on a kick­off, he re­cov­ered a 49ers fum­ble to set up an­other Colts touch­down. And one month later, in a vic­tory over the Detroit Lions, Pear­son re­turned a kick­off 102 yards for a score.

His ag­gres­sive, heads-up play drew raves from the Colts brass. Coach Don Shula said Pear­son “can beat any­one, one-on-one, in the open field.” To as­sis­tant Don McCaf­ferty, Pear­son had “as many moves as Lenny Moore.”

In hind­sight, Pear­son said, bas­ket­ball pre­pared him for foot­ball.

“I had some speed and didn’t mind mix­ing it up with guys 6 inches taller,” he said.

Big plays aside, Pear­son never be­came a Colts reg­u­lar. In 1969, he asked to be traded and was sent to the Pitts­burgh Steel­ers in a deal that landed Bal­ti­more a star line­backer in Ray May. In five years with the Steel­ers, Pear­son rushed for 2,243 yards and helped them win Su­per Bowl IX. He then signed with the Dallas Cow­boys, with whom, in1975, he scored three touch­downs in the NFC cham­pi­onship game. Two years later, the Cow­boys won it all.

Pear­son re­tired in 1980, hav­ing played for three coaches, all Hall of Famers: Shula, Chuck Noll and Tom Landry.

“I was never a star, but it is what it is and I was able to move on,” he said.

A wid­ower, he has for 32 years run a firm that books ath­letes for cor­po­rate or com­mu­nity events. Clients have in­cluded foot­ball Hall of Famers Jim Brown, Roger Staubach and Tony Dorsett.

Look­ing back, Pear­son wishes he’d won a Su­per Bowl with the Colts, who were up­set by the New York Jets, 16-7, af­ter the 1968 sea­son.

The Jets “got the last laugh,” he said. “But I re­ally think if we were to play that game 10 times, we’d have won nine. No, make that 91⁄ Pear­son

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