In the 1950s and 1960s, in the era of 35-player rosters, NFL special teams did not exist.
That’s because kicking “specialists” did not exist. With so few bodies available on game day, position players needed to double up and handle the kicking chores.
Lou “The Toe” Groza was an offensive tackle, George Blanda a quarterback, Paul Hornung a halfback, Bobby Joe Conrad and Gino Cappelletti offensive ends, Jerry Kramer a guard, Lou Michaels and Pat Summerall defensive ends and Wayne Walker a linebacker — players who ran, passed, caught, blocked or tackled on Sunday afternoons in addition to kicking.
Which tells you just how special Tommy Davis was.
The San Francisco 49ers drafted him as a pure kicker as a future selection in the 1957 draft – with two years of eligibility remaining at LSU. The 49ers were willing to wait on Davis and then guarantee him one of those coveted roster spots just to kick the football.
San Francisco would only have to wait one year.
Davis won two games with his foot, beating Florida with a late field goal and Mississippi State with a conversion kick, to ensure LSU a perfect season that delivered the Tigers a national championship in 1958. Davis then opted to skip his senior season and sign with the 49ers.
Davis began his NFL career by converting 234 consecutive extra points, which at the time was a league record. He handled the placekicking chores for the 49ers for 10 seasons, scoring 738 points. He led the NFL with 19 field goals in 1960 and with 52 conversion kicks in 1965 when he scored a career-best 102 points. He kicked a 53-yard field goal against the Bears in 1964 and another 53 against the Rams in 1965.
Davis also handled the punting chores for his first eight seasons with the 49ers and led the NFL with his 45.6-yard average in 1962, the first of his two Pro Bowl seasons. He retired after the 1969 season with a career average of 44.7 yards, which ranked second all-time to Sammy Baugh (45.1). His mark stood for 45 years before someone (Mat McBriar) finally passed him. Davis now ranks 23rd – and everyone ahead of him and Baugh began their punting careers in the 2000 decade or later.
Davis built a career when special teams were anything but special. There were no special-teams coaches, no designated deep snappers to deliver him perfect snaps and no coverage aces to chase his punts. In today’s NFL, every team has a player who handles placement kicks and another who handles punts. But Davis was a one-man special-teams unit for the 49ers.
Davis also was a pioneer, one of the first pure kickers ever drafted. His success … and that of Don Chandler, a fifth round pick of the New York Giants in 1956 … encouraged other NFL teams to draft kickers. Fred Cox came along in 1961, Jim Bakken in 1962 and Jim Turner in 1963. All would go on to have extensive careers. But all were straight-on kickers.
The game-changer came in 1964 when the Buffalo Bills drafted Pete Gogolak out of Cornell. He was a soccer-style kicker whose kicks generated greater distance and loft than the straight-on kickers. The Jan Steneruds, Garo Yepremians, Roy Gerelas and Chester Marcols would follow, and the NFL kicking game would change forevermore.
But that shouldn’t close the book on that first generation of kickers. Football historian Paul Zimmerman, the long-time NFL writer for Sports Illustrated, was an advocate of Davis for a bust in Canton. He considered Davis special:
Special enough to be drafted as a kicker when NFL teams were not drafting kickers.
Special enough to be drafted as a future performer. An NFL team was willing to wait on his talents.
Special enough to kick for 11 seasons, all for the same franchise.
Special enough to handle both placements and punts.
Special enough to lead the NFL in punting and score 100 points kicking in separate seasons. Davis hasn’t played in 47 years but still ranks third all-time in 49ers’ history in scoring behind only Jerry Rice and Ray Wersching.
Special enough to be inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame and the American Football Kicking Hall of Fame. Davis passed away in 1987 at the age of 52.
Isn’t special what the Pro Football Hall of Fame is all about?