Bambi: The Legend of Lance Alworth
Born in Houston, Texas, Lance Alworth was raised in Hog Chain, Mississippi. He was a 4-sport star in high school and was recruited by colleges for both football and track and field. He earned 15 letters for his athletic achievements at Brookhaven High School. He was scouted by Major League Baseball and offered contracts with the Pittsburgh Pirates and the New York Yankees. But his heart, and his legacy, lay elsewhere.
Lance wanted to play college football at Ole Miss, and even signed a letter of intent to go to Oxford. However, the Rebel’s coach Johnny Vaught had a rule against married players, and Alworth had married Betty Allen when he was 17 and still in high school. Frank Broyles, the University of Arkansas football coach, then stepped in to try to woo Alworth. “If you’re a high school kid and Frank talks to your parents, you’re going to Arkansas. He comes on with that solid, Christian, considerate, engaging manner of his, telling them how he’s going to take care of their boy, and you’re gone.” Alworth signed with the Razorbacks. A legend was born.
At Arkansas, Lance Alworth blossomed at wide reciever. He was an Academic All-American in 1959, 1960, and 1961. He was a football All-American in 1961. He led the Razorbacks to three straight Conference Championships and an overall record of 25-8. He was even selected to the University’s All-Century Team in 1994. He was also a star on the Arkansas Track Team, running the 100 yard dash in 9.6 and the 220 in 21.2. He was the fastest man on the field in just about every game he played.
In 1962, Alworth was drafted by both the NFL San Francisco 49ers and the AFL Oakland Raiders. The Raiders immediately traded his rights to the San Diego Chargers. Due to the influence of Al Davis (yes, that Al Davis, who would later become a NFL icon with the Raiders) Lance signed with the Chargers. It would take him a year, but Lance would grow into the greatest player in AFL history and one of footballs best deep threats.
His run as the best player in the AFL began in 1963, leading the league in touchdowns three years in a row (1964, 1965, 1966). He led in receptions another three times (1966, 1968,1969). He topped the league in yards from scrimmage twice (1965, 1968) and receiving yards another three times (1965, 1966, 1968). He was first team all AFL every year between 1963 and 1969. He was AFL Player of the Year in 1963 when the Chargers won their only AFL Title. He also led them to the Championship Game in 1964 and 1965. He would later be a member of the Super Bowl Champion Dallas Cowboys, catching a touchdown pass in the Cowboys’ 24-3 win in Super Bowl VI.
Charlie Flowers gave him the nickname he would be known to history as.
“You’re Bambi” said Flowers.
“What for?” asked Alworth.
“For your big brown eyes and the way you move.” answered Flowers.
Alworth hated the nickname, but the name stuck. The grace in which Lance played football, running, jumping, and dodging as a young deer was the perfect image.
With the incredible numbers put up in the passing game in the last 20 years, most of Alworth’s numbers seem rather pedestrian. But is that fair to players of his era?
Even with the explosion of passing yardage in the years since his retirement in 1972 he still either holds or shares five NFL records:
Most games with 200 or more receiving yards: 5 ( tied with Calvin Johnson)
Most consecutive seasons with 11 or more TD receptions: 4 (tied with Marvin Harrison, Art Powell)
Most consecutive seasons with 12 or more TD receptions: 3 (tied with four others)
Most consecutive seasons with 13 or more TD receptions: 3 (tied with Jerry Rice, Terrell Owens)
And most impressive of all he holds the record, alone, for most long pass receptions (70+ yards) in a career: 12.
When Alworth was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1978, it was widely reported that he was the greatest wide receiver of all time. What has happened to his legacy since?
Well, the game has changed. The NFL has encouraged the passing game. The bump and run has been outlawed, allowing wide receivers to run free in the secondary. Quarterbacks are protected, allowing them to throw for massive yards. The NFL has expanded to 16 game seasons. This makes Lance’s yearly yard and touchdown numbers seem underwhelming next to modern wide receivers. But, let’s compare him to the greatest wide receiver of all time, Jerry Rice. Rice’s average yards per game for his career is 75.6, his average yards per catch was 14.8, and his average touchdowns per game was 0.69. Alworth in the same three categories was 74.9, 18.9 and 0.62. “Bambi” is clearly in the conversation as the greatest receiver of all time.
Paul Zimmerman (who passed away last year) said when naming Lance as one of his two wide receiver on his All-Time Dream Team “Alworth was, simply, the finest deep threat ever to play the game.” This was the opinion of Paul Zimmerman, “Dr. Z”, Sports Illustrated top pro football writer for three decades. He said this in 1992 when Jerry Rice was in his 8th season.
Lance Alworth, “Bambi”, is now 78 years old. He still lives in the San Diego area with his 3rd wife. He is still a legend in Arkansas, as well as the most prominent name in the history of the AFL. Let’s not let his legend die.