Every few years an athlete grabs the attention because of their all-around athletic skills. Think Michael Jordan, Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders.
Then came Tim Tebow and now New Orleans Saints player Taysom Hill, who plays quarterback, running back and wide receiver. Hill is a superb athlete, but I am leaning Jim Thorpe as maybe the best athlete ever. Those are arguments that go on forever.
In my youth, I recall a number of fine athletes that played a variety of positions in the NFL. Many college quarterbacks had to switch positions to land jobs in professional football. They had great skills, but did not fit the mold of professional quarterbacks. In those days, college teams ran the football more than passed, including the quarterbacks. And if you were an African-American quarterback, you did not have a choice. The NFL and AFL were populated with former quarterbacks as wide receivers, running backs and defensive backs.
Let’s look at a few.
Marlin Briscoe played quarterback at the University of Omaha. Drafted by the Denver Broncos in 1968, he was determined to play quarterback and after an injury to the starter, became the first African-American starting quarterback. Even though he threw 14 touchdown passes in five games, he did not figure into Denver’s future plans. He turned into a wide receiver and had a fine career, helping the Miami Dolphins to an undefeated season. He never played quarterback again, but was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
Freddie Solomon was a quarterback at the University of Tampa. It was a running offense where he accumulated nearly 6,000 yards of offense. Miami selected him in the second round of the 1976 draft. He played for a number of teams in his 11 year career including winning two Super Bowls. Miami never gave him a chance to be a quarterback, turning him into a wide receiver and kick return man. A couple of years later, he did get a chance to play quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers in a game when their quarterbacks were injured.
Jim Kearney played quarterback for Prairie View A&M. Drafted in 1965 by Detroit, he spent most of his career with the Kansas City Chiefs where he played in Super Bowl IV. He played 12 professional seasons as a defensive back. In 1972, he tied an NFL record by returning four interceptions for touchdowns, including two in one game.
Jack Mildren was an All-American quarterback for Oklahoma and engineered the wishbone offense where the team averaged more than 400 yards per game on the ground. Mildren was drafted by the Baltimore Colts as a defensive back where he played for two years, then a final year for the New England Patriots.
Brad Smith set a lot of records at Missouri. He was the first division 1 player to pass for 8,000 yards and run for 4,000 yards in a career. Drafted by the New York Jets, he played mainly as a wide receiver and return man, although on occasion he moved behind center to run the Wildcat Offense as a run-option quarterback. He also played for Buffalo and Philadelphia in a nine-year NFL career.
Rex Kern was an All-American and two-time national champion (1968, 1970) for Ohio State. Kern led a mostly running offense and was later inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. Like Mildren, Kern was drafted by the Baltimore Colts, and became a starting cornerback as a rookie. He played three season in Baltimore and one for Buffalo before back issues forced him to retire.
Jim Hudson played a variety of positions for the University of Texas, including starting quarterback. Signed by the New York Jets, he was a starting safety for their Super Bowl III winning team.
Bobby Boyd played numerous positions at the University of Oklahoma in the late 1950s including both the starting quarterback and defensive back. He was drafted by the Colts where he played nine seasons and was All-Pro five times. He also played for the Colts in Super Bowl III.
Tom Matte was a reluctant quarterback for Woody Hayes at Ohio State. Hayes moved him to quarterback and Matte became an All-American, although he did not throw the ball much. Drafted by the Colts in 1961, Matte played halfback. In 1965, both quarterbacks were injured and head coach Don Shula turned to Matte. The offense was changed to fit a mostly running quarterback. Matte played two regular season games and one playoff game at quarterback. The next season he gladly returned to running back until he retired after the 1972 season. Matte called himself a Jack of all trades but a master of none. He wasn’t particularly big or fast, but he had soft hands, blocked well and was very effective running the sweep.
Joe Morrison also fit the Jack of all trades description. He played running back, quarterback and defensive back in the late 1950s for the University of Cincinnati. Drafted by the New York Giants in 1959, he would play until after 1972 season.
Not particularly big or fast, Morrison lined up at halfback, fullback, tight end, wide receiver and returned kicks. The Giants were not very good in this era. In his career, Morrison gained almost 5,000 yards in offense, not bad for a part-time player who filled a lot of roles.