Stories from the Pro Football Hall of Fame Archives

By: Jon Kendle

Jon Kendle is Director of Archives and Football Information at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His biweekly columns tell unique and interesting stories starting from the league’s founding in downtown Canton in 1920 to the present day.

“Hands off Havlicek”


Feb 27, 2017

Professional football is a game that represents many great values such as commitment, integrity, courage, respect and excellence that transcend the playing field and apply to everyone in life.

These lessons are taught through the rigors of athletic competition. I, undoubtedly, believe that the game of football is the best metaphor for life than any other sport. That’s because of its unique nature of needing so many different players relying on one another on each and every play. Certainly, all sports teach us great lessons that can make us stronger.

This story begins with basketball since the season is kicking into high gear. “March Madness” is upon us and the National Basketball Association’s postseason is quickly approaching.

Members of the media have openly wondered for years whether Cleveland Cavaliers small forward LeBron James, or any other NBA star for that matter, could play professional football at the highest level, the National Football League. Such discussion conjures memories of former Boston Celtics great John Havlicek.

After playing basketball, baseball and football at Bridgeport (Ohio) High School, the All-American enrolled at The Ohio State University. He focused solely on playing basketball following the completion of his freshman year. By the time he left Columbus, Ohio, he had helped lead the Buckeyes to a national championship in 1960 and a four-year record of 78 wins againts a mere six losses. The Celtics selected him in the first round of the NBA draft following graduation. 

That marked the second time he had been drafted by a professional sports franchise. The prior December, during his senior season on the court, Havlicek was informed that he had been picked by the Cleveland Browns in the seventh round, 95th player overall, of the 1962 NFL Draft. Hall of Fame Coach Paul Brown saw great potential in him as an NFL receiver, even though he had not played a down of football since he quarterbacked his high school team.

Even more surprising than Havlicek being drafted by the Browns was the fact that he decided to go to training camp with hopes of earning a roster spot. He appeared in only one exhibition game and did not catch a pass. However, the game account pulled from the Hall’s vast archives revealed he laid a key block that sprung Hall of Fame fullback Jim Brown for a 45-yard run against the rival Pittsburgh Steelers on Aug. 18, 1962 in the NFL’s first double header.

In the end, it was Havlicek’s lack of experience, not his talent that was the problem.  On August 22, when it became apparent that he was not going to make the squad, Coach Brown released him early so that he could concentrate on a pro basketball career. Havlicek quickly signed with the Celtics and embarked on a 16-season Hall of Fame career, one that included eight NBA championships and selection to 13 NBA All-Star Games. However, Havlicek’s flirtation with the NFL didn’t stop with his release from the Browns.

Havlicek-800

In 1966, the NFL knocked on his door one more time. Again, it was the Browns and owner Art Modell with an offer of a $40,000 contract to give football another try.  Cleveland was not the only team with a deal on the table. It was speculated that three other NFL clubs including the Washington Redskins made offers to the NBA star. The football inquiries prompted legendary Celtics Coach Red Auerbach and NBA Commissioner Walter Kennedy to complain to NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle about tampering. The NFL teams backed off and Havlicek continued to build his Hall of Fame resume on the parquet floor of the Boston Garden.

Today, articles and photos of Havlicek from his “football career” have a permanent home inside the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Ralph Wilson, Jr. Pro Football Research & Preservation Center.