I love a good story and one that always amazed me was the story of Preston Pearson. You see, Pearson had a heckuva NFL career and never played a down of college football! Pearson, finished his career with 941 carries for 3,609 yards (3.8 ypc) and 13 touchdowns in 176 games. He added 254 receptions for 3,095 yards and 17 TDs. As a kick returner he gained 2,801 yards on 114 kickoff returns and two touchdowns, both of which came during the 1968 season, his second year in the league. He also saw limited action as a punt returner and finished with 40 yards on seven returns. In his 12 year NFL career he played for 3 Super Bowl winning teams – the Colts, Steelers, and Cowboys. So, what did he do in college? He played 4 years for the University of Illinois basketball team and was a 2 year starter.

 

A multi-sport standout while attending Freeport (Ill.) High School and attracting few college scholarship offers, Pearson wrote a letter to Harry Combs, the basketball coach at the University of Illinois in an effort to convince the legendary Illini coach to give him an opportunity to compete for his home-state team.

Combs answered Pearson’s letter and informed him that no scholarships were available for the upcoming season, but invited the fresh-faced graduate to try out for the freshmen team. The letter also added that if Pearson did make the freshmen team that he could possibly get a partial scholarship. That offer never materialized. But instead of allowing that to derail Pearson’s dream of playing for the Illini he used it as motivation. “When (Coombs) told me that the scholarship would not be forthcoming I kept my cool … and set my focus on becoming the best player that I possibly could.”  Pearson, who developed a reputation of playing tough defense, played in 47 varsity games during his time with the Illini. He ended his career with a 6.7 points per game scoring average. He averaged 8.7 points and six rebounds per game in his final collegiate season.

NFL

Even though Pearson never played a single down of football in college, the multitude of athletic skills he put on display during his time at Illinois did not go unnoticed by National Football League teams. He still had a few credit hours to finish his education his senior year when Don Shula and the Baltimore Colts called him at his fraternity house to tell him he had been drafted in the 12th round. Pearson was shocked, and wavered a bit before deciding to play pro football. “I talked it over with my family and my fiancee and decided to go ahead and give it a try. What the heck did I have to lose?” he said. “I think the speed, power and ability to jump were the things I brought to the table … and were the skills I think the pros saw in me,” So, Im thinkin, How the heck did the Colts find him? Id like to know that story!

Despite not playing football since his prep days in Freeport, he would go on to play 14 seasons in the league. Pearson was a defensive back during his rookie season in 1967 and was elevated to the active roster late in the season and appeared on special teams the rest of season. He was moved to running back in 1968 and led the NFL in kickoff returns that season with an average of 35.1 yards per return, including a 102-yard return against San Francisco, the longest return of the season in the NFL. He also returned a kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown in a 27-10 win over Detroit. That same season he averaged four yards per carry.

Pearson requested to be traded following the 1970 season and was dealt to Pittsburgh. Pearson became a starter at running back in his first season in the Steel City and would rush for 605 yards the following year. Pearson would earn his second Super Bowl ring two years later when Pittsburgh defeated Minnesota 16-6 in Super Bowl IX in New Orleans. He was waived by the Steelers  and picked up by the Cowboys in 1975  and would spend six years with the organization. He led the Cowboys in rushing in 1975 after gaining 509 yards and adding 351 yards on 27 pass receptions. He also added 391 yards on kickoff returns. Pearson played a vital role in Dallas’ march to the Super Bowl. He caught 12 passes for more than 200 yards in the two games of the National Football Conference playoffs. His most significant contribution to not only the NFL but to all of football may have come with his time with the Cowboys. Tom Landry loved his ability to come out of the backfield and catch passes and take on linebackers and safeties. So they started using him as a SLOT receiver, 1st time this position was used and had a name. Very innovative at the time.

His list of teammates also reads like a Who’s Who in league history. He played in the backfield along with Unitas, Bradshaw and Staubach and was a running mate with Moore, Harris and Dorsett during his pro career. All three of those former teammates are also enshrined in the hall of fame.  And oh yeah…Pearson never fumbled during his time as a professional. Are you kidding me? This guy was a valuable member of 3 great pro teams. Pearson, who is now 76 years old, makes his home in Dallas and says to young football players, “If you get a chance, take it,” he said. “But it is important to remember that you have to put in the work because nothing worth having is going to be given to you.”

What I want to know is…How in the heck did the Illinois football team miss on this guy? Probably would have been one of the greatest players in Illini history. Maybe right there with names like J.C. Caroline, Ray Nitschke, Dick Butkus, and Red Grange. AND…THATS MY TAKE!

Want another good story? Go to youtube.com and type in chiefpigskin. Look for episode #11 under recognize-socialize which features Coach Colby Brown, DBs coach at South Carolina St. University. Listen to his story as to how he got into coaching. A great American success story of how hard work and persistence pays off. It reminds me of RUDY. You’ll enjoy it.

Coach L. Albaugh      DBLITY

Coach Albaugh coached high school football in Illinois for 28 years. During that time he coached at every level and on both sides of the ball. He was the offensive and defensive line coach for four undefeated teams and was a defensive coordinator in his last 11 years, twice reaching the semi finals of the Illinois state playoffs.

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Coach L. Albaugh      DBLITY

Coach Albaugh coached high school football in Illinois for 28 years. During that time he coached at every level and on both sides of the ball. He was the offensive and defensive line coach for four undefeated teams and was a defensive coordinator in his last 11 years, twice reaching the semi finals of the Illinois state playoffs.