(Photos courtesy of Indianapolis Colts)
By Ron Borges
Talk of Fame Network
Buddy Parker once described Gene “Big Daddy” Lipscomb with perfect simplicity.
“He’s the best man I ever saw at knocking people down,” Lipscomb’s coach with the Pittsburgh Steelers said.
It was an apt description of the defensive tackle’s job and Lipscomb’s approach to it. Some feel strongly that Lipscomb did that job as well as anyone who played in the 1950s and early ’60s, when he was a three-time Pro Bowl selection and two time first-team All-Pro for the classic Baltimore Colts’ teams that won NFL titles in 1958 and 1959.
At 6-feet-6, 284 pounds, Lipscomb was not only massive for his time; he was so mobile that Colts’ defensive coach Charley Winner wanted to move him to linebacker but didn’t because he had no lineman who could replace the lateral pursuit Lipscomb provided. In fact, despite Lipscomb’s size and power, pursuit and a lethal forearm were truly his game.
“Sideline to sideline, I don’t think anybody ever did a better job than Big Daddy did,” Hall-of-Fame defensive end Gino Marchetti, his teammate and mentor, once told William Nack of Sports Illustrated. “He was our fourth linebacker. He was big, fast, strong and agile. He was really, really great.”
Certainly he was for the Colts, but Lipscomb began his career with the Rams, whose then general manager was a guy named Pete Rozelle. The future NFL commissioner found Lipscomb playing at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton near San Diego in 1953 and signed him, even though he was raw as an onion.
Lipscomb had come up the hard way, even by the standards of hard ways. His father died when he was 3, and his mother moved with him to Detroit. She was murdered on a street corner when he was 11, stabbed 47 times — something Lipscomb learned when police went to their home and found him cooking an egg for breakfast.
Lipscomb moved in with his maternal grandparents, but this was not the classic story of love and affection. Forced to go to work to pay his room and board, by high school he was working midnight-to-8 at a steel-pickling plant, then going off to Madison High, where he starred in football and basketball.
Unfortunately for him, his grandfather was a stern presence who did not believe in sparing the rod. That domestic violence, coupled with the tragedy he’d seen so much of as a boy, led to emotional issues that would dog Lipscomb his entire life. He was a mercurial personality, one minute effusive and fun loving, the next morose and weeping. But on a football field, he was a rock of violent stability.
Lipscomb did not play his senior year of high school because he was caught playing semi-pro basketball to raise money to pay his grandparents for his upkeep. A friend advised him to drop out of school and join the Marines, and in 1949 he did. As it turned out, neither his life nor football’s future would ever be the same.
After Rozelle discovered him, he played three seasons in L.A. before off-the-field problems led to his release. Colts’ coach Weeb Ewbank claimed Lipscomb for $100, and he would play five glorious seasons in Baltimore’s heyday, winning two NFL titles — including the famous 1958 overtime game against the Giants that brought pro football into America’s living room on prime-time television. He became a star on the field and a legend off it.
Lipscomb would make All-Pro twice in Baltimore (1958, 1959) and in 1957 led the team with 137 tackles, a remarkable total for a defensive tackle that reflected his pursuit ability. Those are the kind of numbers normally reserved for linebackers.
“Big Daddy was in the same category as (Hall-of-Fame defensive linemen) Merlin Olsen and Bob Lilly,” former Cleveland offensive guard John Wooten said. “He could devastate an offense by himself.”
Having received only minimal coaching up to that point, Big Daddy thrived in Baltimore, where he was mentored by Marchetti and Art Donovan, two future Hall-of-Fame defensive linemen, on the fine art of line play. He didn’t need any coaching on the position’s violent requirements. That part he understood.
“He was one of the best tacklers there were was,” Ewbank, a Hall-of-Fame coach with first the Colts and then Joe Namath’s Jets, told Nack. “When Big Daddy wrapped a guy up with those long arms, he stayed wrapped.”
Asked once to describe his approach to tackling, Lipscomb described it in its simplest form: “I just wrap my arms around the whole backfield and peel ’em one by one until I get to the ball carrier. Him I keep.”
A professional wrestler in the off-season, Lipscomb was not the kind of 300-pound linemen so often seen dragging around their girth today. He was an athlete. As Nack described him, “He was widely perceived as a natural wonder, like the Painted Desert or the Devil’s Anvil. He was, in fact, the prototype of the modern lineman, the first 300-pound Bunyan endowed not only with enormous power but also with the two qualities usually denied men of his size: agility and speed. His belly did not roll out of his pants. He was hard and trim, and the fastest interior lineman in the league.”
There were many examples of what that meant, but one that comes to mind happened in the 1959 Championship Game rematch with the Giants. Lipscomb bore in on Giants’ quarterback Charley Conerly, who dumped the ball off to Frank Gifford as Lipscomb leapt up to block a throw downfield. Before Gifford could get to the line of scrimmage, Lipscomb had run him down from behind.
But his off-field woes continued in Baltimore, and the Colts eventually traded him to the Steelers for wide receiver Jimmy Orr, a move that stunned a city where Lipscomb was not only a legend on the field but a presence off it. He was often at the center of nightlife in Baltimore but was also known for buying groceries for people down on their luck — including a boy he stopped to ask why he had no shoes. When the boy said he had none, Lipscomb drove him home, got his mother and took them on a shopping spree.
He would play two more years, reaching his third Pro Bowl in his final season. In his final game, the 1963 Pro Bowl, Lipscomb was the game’s MVP after making 11 tackles, forcing two fumbles and deflecting a pass. Four months later, at the age of 31, he was found dead of a heroin overdose in a dingy Baltimore apartment.
Those who knew him never believed Lipscomb was a drug user, citing his deadly fear of needles and the absence of any signs of prior usage. The medical examiner’s autopsy ruled he had five times the normally lethal level of narcotics in his system at the time of his death, suggesting foul play.
Lipscomb’s off-the-field demons only came to light after his death. Divorced three times, he was a known womanizer and heavy drinker. What was not known was that he suffered with insomnia, wild mood swings and paranoia so deep that when he lived for a time with teammate Sherman Plunkett and Plunkett’s wife, they found him pulling his bed in front of his bedroom door at night and then tying their dog to it.
“He was a troubled guy,” said his teammate Ordell Braase, who often found him walking the halls in the middle of the night at Western Maryland College during training camp. In fact, Lipscomb used to carry black and white photos of his mother’s murder scene taken by a homicide photographer with him, sometimes breaking down in tears.
“I think the haunts of his childhood pursued him to the end of his life,” Braase said.
Yet even in death, Big Daddy Lipscomb was larger than life.
Over 30,000 people lined the streets outside Charlie Law’s Funeral Home in Baltimore to pay their respects. The doors opened at 10 a.m. and stayed that way until nearly midnight before the last person filed through. Soon after, Law reopened to admit a weeping female cabaret singer from Canada, who had traveled all day to see him one last time.
Many, including Marchetti, believe the way Lipscomb died is why he never joined him in the Hall of Fame. If that’s true, it is just one last sad chapter in the sadly triumphant life of “Big Daddy” Lipscomb.