HOF Profile: Gene Hickerson

Who was Gene Hickerson, the man inside the orange helmet that banged out what electors finally agreed was a Pro Football Hall of Fame career?   Opinions are as scattered as the loose-leaf pages of an open playbook left in a Cleveland winter wind.   “Gene was a loner,” said Gary Collins, who was as good a receiver as Hickerson was a guard on four Browns teams that reached NFL title games in the 1960s. “Some say he was a strange guy. But he was a good guy.”   Cleveland reporter Dan Coughlin says Hickerson was “different.”   “One time he didn’t like something I wrote and said he wasn’t talking to me after games anymore,” Coughlin said. “True to his word, he stopped talking to me after games.   “Yet I’d see him in a bar. We’d have a drink, and Gene would talk on and on.”   Gib Shanley, the radio “voice of the Browns” for 12 of Hickerson’s 16 seasons, recalls an “ornery streak.”   “Every week I’d do a pregame show with a player,” Shanley said. “Every week, Gene would say, ‘Not today.’ He was never nasty, but he wouldn’t say yes until the last game.”   Paul Brown picked Hickerson in the seventh round of the 1957 draft, which was different than being a seventh-rounder now. When Hickerson replaced Chuck Noll as Cleveland’s starting right guard in 1959, the NFL consisted of the Browns, Giants, Steelers, Redskins, Eagles and (Chicago) Cardinals in the Eastern Conference, and the Lions, 49ers, (Baltimore) Colts, (Los Angeles) Rams, Bears and Packers in the Western Conference.   Dick Schafrath came aboard as a Round 2 pick in 1959. He and Hickerson became Pro Bowl regulars on excellent Cleveland lines, including one that paved the way to a 1964 NFL championship.   They were roommates almost as long as “Gunsmoke” was on TV. Sometimes Hickerson drove Schafrath crazy staying up late to watch Johnny Carson and putzing through crossword puzzles.   “It was tough to get Gene to open up to you,” Schafrath said. “He was a pretty quiet individual who liked to have a good time.   “He was smart, and he could take care of himself. He did very well as a manufacturer’s rep in the auto industry. He was always entertaining clients.   “He played football because he loved it. He did better for himself financially off the field.”   ‘A BIG HEART’   Hickerson’s blocking prowess can be quantified in two four-year stretches in the heart of his career.   From 1962-65, he helped Jim Brown average 103.9 rushing yards a game and 5.4 yards per carry. From 1966-69, he helped Brown’s replacement, Leroy Kelly, average 1,100.5 rushing yards a season, in a time teams played just 14 games. Kelly scored 58 touchdowns in that stretch and, like Brown, is in the Hall of Fame.   Early on, Brown, a black superstar, was wary of Hickerson, who had played at Mississippi when blacks were unwelcome. Drafted the same year, they were never close, but Brown says they came to like each other.   Kelly, a black star who joined the Browns when Hickerson was established, had a different view.   “Gene was always doing little stunts and tricks on guys,” Kelly said. “He was a beautiful guy, always good natured, always smiling. He always had something up.”   Hickerson was born a month later than Elvis Presley in 1935. Hickerson grew up in Tresmont, Tenn., near Memphis; Presley died in Memphis. They knew each other, partly because Hickerson was friendly with a couple of Elvis’ bodyguards.   Hickerson introduced his roommate to Presley. Schafrath recalls thinking Elvis’ eyes were electric blue, but his legs were shorter than they seemed on TV.   Presley was a huge Jim Brown fan. Hickerson persuaded Browns owner Art Modell to send film clips to Presley.   Elvis had his mystique. Hickerson had his.   “Nobody disliked Gene,” said Vince Costello, a linebacker from Magnolia who was Hickerson’s teammate for nine years. “But he was a loner in a lot of ways. Bobby Franklin was closest to him.”   Franklin, a defensive back, had been Hickerson’s college teammate at Mississippi.   “Gene was very likable, a little different, a little cantankerous,” said Franklin, an overachieving defensive back. “I always told everybody, ‘Gene likes to jack you around a little it.’   “He was always opinionated. Kind of salty. He always had a big heart. He was married for just a short while and he’s been single most of his life.   “My son was born when we were teammates. He was very good to my son. There was a swimming pool at our team hotel, the Commodore. You’d see Gene interacting with kids. He liked children.”   DEMENTIA’S TOLL   Hickerson’s son Bob spoke for his father at a press conference called by the Browns after this year’s Hall of Fame election. Gene Hickerson was present but not all there.   “He is very healthy physically, but his memory is not what it used to be,” the son said. “I’ll leave it at that.   “It’s a tremendous honor. I wish it had been a few years earlier.”   Hickerson has suffered from symptoms associated with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. His former teammates speak sadly and in some cases angrily about his Hall of Fame election coming after he could appreciate it.   He became eligible for election in 1979.   “He should have gone in the year he became eligible,” Schafrath said.   “He’s better than some guys who have been in the Hall of Fame for years,” Costello said.   Those inclined to anger were further chafed over Hickerson’s plane trip to Hawaii shortly after the Hall of Fame election. Each year, arrangements are made to fly the new Hall of Fame class to the Pro Bowl.   Sources with knowledge of Hickerson’s flight talk privately about problems with the trip, opining he shouldn’t have gone. Hickerson is not expected to speak at the Aug. 4 enshrinement, where Franklin will be his presenter. “He’s a little bitter,” Franklin said.   ONE OF THE BEST GUARDS   It’s not exactly clear whether anyone was better than Hickerson on Cleveland’s outstanding lines of the 1960s.   Collins says John Wooten, who played left guard opposite Hickerson’s right guard through the meat of the ‘60s, was “equal to Gene.”   Jim Ray Smith, an All-Pro left guard on Paul Brown’s final Cleveland teams in the early ‘60s, was in that class, according to Schafrath, who in some minds was a Hall of Fame left tackle.   Hickerson had a much longer career than either Wooten or Smith.   He remained effective into his late 30s, according to Doug Dieken, who replaced Schafrath at left tackle and learned the ropes for two years after an aging Hickerson was moved to left guard.   “Gene was the best guard I ever played with,” said Dieken, who later lined up beside left guard Joe DeLamielleure, elected to the Hall of Fame in 2003. Hickerson was fast. He was the perfect pulling guard.   “No running back ever had to slow down and wait for Gene,” Dieken said.   Later in his career, he helped protect a quarterback with wobbly knees; yet Bill Nelsen was sacked just 14.5 times a year from 1968-71. Browns quarterback Charlie Frye has been sacked 66 times in 20 games over the past two years.   “Gene was the best of his day,” Clark said. “He was a superb athlete who could run like heck. He was an exceptional pass blocker. Not many people could go a whole season and not get beat. Gene could.”   KNEW HOW TO WIN   Who was Gene Hickerson, the player? He was an Elvis song. He did it his way.   Assorted teammates laugh about his signature warmup technique: leaning on a goalpost, watching teammates work up a sweat.   Everyone remembers him being in good shape. No one remembers him lifting weights.   “Gene’s idea of an offseason workout,” Clark said, “was taking a steam.”   At 6-foot-3, 255 pounds, he had good size relative to guards of the era. The way he moved that weight was alarming.   “He had extreme speed,” Costello said.   “One of the first things I noticed,” Shanley said, “was how fast he was on kickoff teams. He’d be one of the first guys down the field.”   “He had natural strength,” said Clark. “When he pulled and led a play, his man invariably ended up on the ground.”   The Browns have been in the basement lately. They were almost always close to the stratosphere during Hickerson’s career.   They went 7-5 and 8-3-1 in his first two years as a starter, before he missed the 1961 season with a broken leg. He played 12 of 14 games in 1962, and from 1963-73 never missed a start. In those 12 years, the Browns went 7-6-1, 10-4, 10-3-1, 11-3, 9-5, 9-5, 10-4, 10-3-1, 7-7, 9-5, 10-4 and 7-5-2.   Hickerson’s tally sheet, thus, includes 12 winning seasons within a 14-year span. In the 30 seasons Cleveland has fielded an NFL team since Hickerson’s retirement, the Browns have had 10 winning seasons.   The Browns have been to the playoffs twice since 1989. Over the last 10 years of Hickerson’s career, they went seven times -- five times after Jim Brown retired.   Therein must lie some clue about who Gene Hickerson was.   Reach Repository sports writer Steve Doerschuk at (330) 580-8347 or steve.doerschuk@cantonrep.com.