(Photos courtesy of the Oakland Raiders)
Talk of Fame Network
As a defensive lineman at Villanova University, Howie Long had never been west of West Virginia. So going to California to join the Oakland Raiders as a second-round draft pick was, as Long put it on last weekend’s Talk of Fame broadcast, “a shock” for the then-21-year old.
“It was a brave new world,” he said. “Going from Villanova to that Oakland locker room was (he paused) … There’s a priest on every floor at Villanova. There’s not a priest anywhere near that locker room — particularly at that time.”
Nevertheless, Long not only succeeded; he played so well that he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in only his second year of eligibility.
Long can take credit for much of that. A five-time All-Pro, he had great ability and was a relentless force wherever the Raiders placed him on the defensive line. But he needed help along the way – especially early in his career — and he gained it from former defensive line coach Earl Leggett.
“I don’t know if my career would like — I doubt it would’ve been as successful on a personal level as it was without Earl Leggett,” said Long, who spoke at Leggett’s funeral in 2008. “Coaching is a remarkable vocation. If you have a great coach you can fully maximize a player’s ability, and he took me places physically and mentally that I didn’t know I could get to.
“(At that time) we were still playing with forearms at Villanova. The technique was terrible. I didn’t know formations. We never looked at film. I wasn’t a weightlifter. To go there one week (when you’re) playing Delaware, and the next week you’re lined up on Art Shell … it’s a quantum leap.
“Earl was moving me around early on, and all I could think to myself was …’They’re moving me around because they can’t find a place for me.’ So I’m thinking I’m going to get cut because throughout my career nothing was guaranteed. I played 13 years and could’ve been cut any time.
“I called home, and my Uncle Mike was kind of the patriarch of the family and someone who was the first member of the family to get a job in the projects, and then subsequently got other members of the family jobs in the projects. I called my grandmother to say,, ‘Hey, I’m not sure this is going to work out. And if it doesn’t, can Uncle Mike get me a job? And that’s a true story.
“But Earl Leggett, as it turns out, was moving me around with a plan. His plan was I’m going to be the first guy that plays from tackle to tackle in any sequence of plays. I could be a nose guard on one play, left tackle the next, right tackle the next, left end, right end. I could play anywhere. I didn’t know that at the time, but he was building me to do that specifically.”