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Fullbacks: Unsung Heroes

While I am a big fan of today’s spread offenses, I am still a big-time believer in employing a fullback in run and pass formations. Therefore, in the spring of 2013 when I heard that Bruce Arians and Steve Keim had traded FB and ST stud Anthony Sherman to the Chiefs for CB Javier Arenas, I was greatly dismayed.

What I didn’t know then is that with Anthony Sherman’s departure , the Cardinals have not invested in a bona fide NFL FB ever since.

I had a personal connection to Andy Sherman in that he played RB/LB for the North Attleboro High School (MA) Red Rocketeers—-which were arch-rivals of my Foxborough High School Warriors. Not only was I awed every time I saw this young man play —- I once saw him rush for over over 200 yards versus the best defense in the league and on another occasion I saw him make 24 tackles in a league championship game.

Anthony played for head coach Don Johnson and offensive coordinator Jack Johnson. Jack and I had coached football and basketball together in the 1980s for as few years at Avon Old Farms School, a private boys boarding school in Avon, CT. I knew Anthony was in great hands because the Johnson brothers are outstanding coaches.

In fact, Jack and I had both become English department chairs around the time when the Cardinals traded Anthony. I knew of the trade two days earlier than when it was announced because when Jack called me to ask for a recommendation on a teaching prospect, he informed me that Anthony was heading to the Chiefs —- a fateful move of course because while with the Chiefs, in his second year in KC Anthony was named the 2nd team All-Pro FB, in 2018 he was the AFC’s special team’s ace at the Pro Bowl and of course, in 2020, he was elated to hoist the Lombardi Trophy along side Patrick Mahomes and his fellow teammates.

Interestingly, the two players Jack coached (that I know of) who made it to the NFL were both fullbacks. At Avon Old Farms, we coached Chris Hetherington (Bengals, Colts, Panthers, Rams, 49ers, Raiders) who went on to become a captain and record setting QB at Yale. In 1996 Chris was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Bengals and was subsequently switched over to FB.

Thus, from an coaching standpoint that fullback position has always had a special appeal to me.

The Iso Play

To this day, I do not believe there is a more effective way of trying to run up A, B or C gaps than having a fullback run an isolation block on the LB assigned to the designated gap.

I still have a clear picture of Dexter Morse (Trinity-Pawling School, NY), the first head coach I assisted, teaching a young freshman named Mo Vaughn (American League MVP in 1995 with the Boston Red Sox) the technique of how to deliver a snot-bursting iso block.

The first key is to get a quick jump off the snap into the designated gap (the worst thing a FB can do is stop in the hole—-they have to beat the LB to the hole), the second is to keep the pad level as low as possible while cocking the right arm behind the hip with hand in a tight fist and the third, and most important part of the technique, is while keeping the facemask square to the LB’s numbers is upon arrival, to swing the cocked arm directly underneath the linebacker’s groin, thereby splitting the gap between his legs. This technique ensures a good, square, drive-through block.

If we were to ask Bill Belichick whose blocks were instrumental in helping the Patriots win their last two Super Bowls over the Falcons and Rams, he would eagerly tell us it was FB James Develin’s isolation blocks, particularly in the 4th quarters where he helped to pave the way for both wins.

My coaching experience in appreciating good FB play is an easy carry-over to my supreme admiration for a host of excellent fullbacks. You see, not only did I have an instant affinity for Anthony Sherman when he donned the red and white —- three of my all-time favorite Cardinals were fullbacks:

John David Crow #44

John David Crow was the Chicago Cardinals 1st round pick in the 1958 NFL Draft, coming off winning the Heisman Trophy at Texas A&M (with Bear Bryant as HC) in 1957. When the Cardinals moved to St. Louis in 1960, Crow was emerging as one of the most explosive, rugged and versatile (HB, FB, TE, QB) players in the NFL. His versatility was so appealing to the Cardinals that they turned down an offer from the Cleveland Browns who wanted to swap Jim Brown for John David Crow. Wow. That’s saying something.

Ron Wolfley #24

If there ever was an NFL fullback and special teams slobberknocker, Ron Wolfley was that guy. Drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in the 4th round of the 1985 NFL Draft, Wolf himself documents how he immediately endeared himself to head coach Jim Hannifan:

Not only was Wolf a spirted and rugged lead blocker and short yardage fireball, for four straight years in the NFL he was arguably the best, most aggressive special team’s player on planet earth. Wolf earned 4 straight Pro Bowl berths from 1986-1989.

Ron Wolfley ibrought such a stunning romance to special teams that the Cardinals made it a team policy to use a Day 3 (R4-7) draft pick on a player they believed was the best STs player on the board —- as they did in subsequent years with Stevie Breaston, Justin Bethel and Anthony Sherman.

Larry Centers #37

The Cardinals hit a home run when they drafted Larry Centers in the 5th round of the 1990 NFL Draft. He helped to popularize what some pundit have termed “the modern day fullback” who poses as a triple-threat (rushing, blocking and receiving). In Larry Centers’ case he was considered one of the very best receivers at fullback the NFL has ever seen and helped earn him three Pro Bowl berths and an All-Pro award in 1996.

Pro Bowl bids and stats aside, I will always cherish the fact that during the sweltering dog days at Sun Devil Stadium during the roughest patch of years, I can still picture Larry Centers running like a man possessed with the Cardinals down by 2-3 TDs as if he were playing in the Super Bowl. If there was a Mount Rushmore for “never-quit” Cardinals, I would nominate Larry Centers in a New York minute for that distinction.

Larry Centers’ never-quit approach to how he played also was a factor in how he elected to re-sign with the Cardinals when he was a highly coveted free agent in 1996. Larry received lucrative offers from the Giants and Redskins, but after switching agents, he chose to accept a 3 year $7.M deal to remain in Arizona.

As was the case for other star Cardinals like Adrian Wilson and Larry Fitzgerald who elected to stick things out in Arizona, Larry Centers tenure with the Cardinals culminated in the joy of the Cardinals’ 1998 season when the Cardinals qualified for the playoffs and beat the Cowboys in Dallas in the Wild Card round before losing in the divisional round to the Vikings in Minnesota.

This, it gives me great joy to know that after of all the hard work and never-quit games that Larry Centers played in during his 9 years with the Cardinals, the icing on the cake was this:

While the fullbacks might be gone these days in Arizona, for many Cardinals’ fans, they will never be forgotten.