From long shot to ‘two arm lengths away’ from his idol
12th-round draft pick went from college hoops to NFL
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