NFL loses a true pioneer -- the charismatic Stram

Updated: July 16, 2005, 5:26 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

When it was brought before the Hall of Fame board of selectors in 2003, even in a year when the roster of possibilities was regarded as a relatively weak one, the candidacy of Hank Stram for entry into the hallowed shrine was the subject of considerable discussion.

Hank Stram
Stram

In a pantheon that includes five head coaches with more than 200 victories each, after all, Stram's 136 career wins seemed a little on the light side to some of the voting members.

But what was never debated, and the element which ultimately swung several selectors toward Stram, was his inarguable role as an innovator.

That word, innovator, was clearly the most oft-used description of Stram in all of the early reaction pieces authored Monday evening following his death earlier in the day at age 82. It is, when discussing football, an easy term (much in the manner my kids resort with far too much facility to the word great to describe anything remotely beyond the ordinary) to toss around. In Hank Stram's case, though, it fit even better than the finely-tailored blazers with which he once graced the sideline.

In truth, the history of professional football includes but a handful of innovators, at most. Sid Gillman. Paul Brown. Clark Shaughnessy. Tom Landry. Maybe Stram doesn't quite belong in the same pew as those guys, way up front and close to the gridiron altar, but he does merit membership in the same elite congregation.

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Because the little man -- perhaps his stockiness added some gravitas to the Stram persona but, truth be told, he was short of stature -- contributed to the game in a big way. It might have been, ironically enough, because Stram was so preoccupied with size. And about all of its possible implications when applied to his beloved sport.

Think, for just a minute or two, about the principle nuances Stram is most credited with introducing to the game. The moving pocket. The stacked defensive front. The penchant for bigger, beefier offensive linemen. All of them dealt with either size or, in some cases, with an ingenious way to overcome a lack of it.

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The moving pocket was incorporated by Stram because he needed to find a way for his quarterback, Len Dawson, to locate passing lanes amid the swarm of arms in front of him. Stram wanted behemoth linemen because he actually felt that diminutive tailbacks such as Mike Garrett would get lost behind them on misdirection runs and screen-passes, creating a human camouflage that led to big plays. He stacked his linebackers behind the down lineman to disrupt age-old offensive blocking schemes, and to allow them to flow to the football without having to cut through a lot of trash.

Given his own stature, Stram had a soft spot for vertically-challenged players, no doubt. At the same time, though, he was fascinated by raw size. He brought the tallest player in NFL history, 6-feet-10 tight end Morris Stroud, into the league in 1970. Not only did he design red zone plays specifically to create size mismatches for Stroud, but Stram also positioned him under the goal posts, where he was instructed to try to swat away long field goal attempts.

Little known is that Stram once spent several hours attempting to convince the splendid seven-footer Wilt Chamberlain to give the NFL a try.

It's often said that there is nothing new under the football sun. But the fertile football imagination that resided in Hank Stram's cranium was the fecund breeding ground for a universe full of inventive chalk-board doodlings. Yep, beneath one of the worst and most ill-fitting toupees ever witnessed in the NFL was a football mind matched by very few.

Make no mistake, the faux-erudite Stram could be creative with language, too. His entreaty to his Kansas City Chiefs players during their victory over Minnesota in Super Bowl IV, to keep "matriculating" the ball up the field, boys, is certainly one of the most unforgettable moments in the NFL Films archive. In truth, it is just a masterful bit of malapropism, since "matriculate" means to enroll at a school of higher education, not to advance a football.

Funny thing is, for a man who loved language the way Stram did, and who relished the verbal badinage with the media, he employed precious few words to articulate his own football philosophy. "Simplicity plus variety," Stram once announced, with little pause for consideration, when asked about his designs.

One of his contemporaries, George Allen, who entered the Hall of Fame one year ahead of Stram, was noted for his love of ice cream. But it was Stram who actually mastered the Baskin-Robbins approach to the game, figuring a way to cram all those varieties into one game plan. And, in a manner that endeared him to the many media members with whom he was so generous with his time. Stram wasn't particularly shy about reminding we ink-stained wretches of his imaginative flair.

Too weak of flesh to even deliver his Hall of Fame induction address in 2003, Stram had previously used up millions of words talking football with anyone who called him during those years spent in retirement. Just say "hello," and you guaranteed yourself a minimum of 20 minutes on the phone. They were typically, until the last few years, an insightful 20 or so minutes.

There is a phrase too frequently employed during the course of the annual Hall of Fame deliberations, usually by someone presenting the case for a candidate, and the hyperbole generally goes something like this: "You can't write the history of pro football without including [fill in the name of the particular candidate]."

In truth, maybe someone really could author the history of professional football with only scant reference to Hank Stram. But if they did, it would be missing a few colorful chapters, for sure.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here Insider.

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