The Dirty Dozen Diary: Reflections On Calvin Hill’s Defection
Yet that’s exactly what the notoriously devious defensive lineman for the Washington Redskins did in 1975, telling Bob St. John of the Dallas Morning News that “Calvin Hill is the best running back in football.”
No, Talbert was not blowing smoke in this instance. For once in his life, he had spoken at least a near-truth that often poses as a forgotten fact by modern writers and historians. Yes, Calvin Hill was not only a good running back, but to many in the mid-1970s he was great.
Were you to have asked an NFL player after the 1974 season to compile a list of the top five active running backs, the majority would have penciled O.J. Simpson at No. 1 and – not Lawrence McCutcheon or Franco Harris or Otis Armstrong or Sam Cunningham- the one and only Calvin Hill immediately after.
Consider then Tom Landry’s job to replace Hill in the lineup after the six-year veteran signed a lucrative contract to play for the Hawaiians of the World Football League. Landry not only had to find a franchise runner to replace Hill’s 3,022 combined rushing yards over his previous three seasons, but someone who could handle blocking assignments and duties as a pass receiver out of the backfield. (Hill led the team while catching over 30 passes in each of the 1972 and 1973 seasons.)
Landry didn’t find any help from the draft. Dennis Booker (tenth-round) and Scott Laidlaw (fourteenth-round) were the only tailbacks that Dallas drafted, and both were generally viewed as project players. And when Walt Garrison suffered a knee injury while participating in a rodeo during the off-season, it became almost a certainty that the Cowboys would begin the 1975 season relying on either Robert Newhouse, Charles Young, or Doug Dennison to carry the load. Or maybe all three.
This was big news to a coaching staff spoiled with the abilities of Don Perkins, Duane Thomas, and Hill for more than a decade. To some fans though, what the front-office was choosing to portray as a transitional phase was simply another opportunity for Landry’s revolving door at running back to spin once more. While not in any way demeaning the abilities of Hill or those before him, there was a common feeling around Dallas that any Joe off the street could gain 800-plus yards as a Cowboy, so long as Tom Landry was prowling the sideline.
The inquisitive mind of today voices the question: If the situation at running back was so critical going into the 1975 season, why didn’t the Cowboys make it a point to address this need through the draft?
There are multiple answers to this question, many of which I address in the book, “The Dirty Dozen.”
For starters, their scouting department determined, after countless discussion periods, that Randy White was more valuable at No. 2 overall than Walter Payton. By the time the Cowboys’ number came up later in the first-round, Payton and Don Hardeman (the only two franchise-quality backs in the draft, according to Landry) were off the board. (And remember, the 1975 draft was held in late January, well before the team knew that Garrison would miss the start of the season.)
Another answer is one that involves Calvin Hill himself. On the day of the draft, there was still some hope in the Cowboys camp that the cash-strapped World Football League (WFL) would fold, leaving Tex Schramm free to negotiate a new deal with Hill, and thus solve the Cowboys’ problems at running back. How likely it was that Hill and the Cowboys general manager would have actually come to terms is up for debate.
Let’s not forget that Tex was a man who could hold a grudge, and nothing provoked his ire more than disloyalty. To find Hill shaking hands and blowing kisses to a rival league was, from the perspective of Schramm, akin to a Southern Baptist minister being caught handing out Jehovah’s Witnesses pamphlets on a street corner. It probably wouldn’t have taken very much for Schramm to work out a sign-and-trade deal, allowing Hill to play for a struggling AFC franchise.
But when new management declared the 1975 WFL season a go, all hopes of a reunion vanished instantly. In the case of Hill, there was certainly no chance of there ever being a hello after goodbye. Once he joined forces with the World Football League, there was an unspoken understanding that Hill was never coming back to the Cowboys. Such was the toxic situation surrounding the WFL’s invasion.
Next time, we’ll delve into Bob Hayes’ complex departure from the Cowboys.
Thanks for reading along.