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Gold Jacket Spotlight: Fateful Meeting Changed Paul Warfield's Life

Gold Jacket Spotlight: Fateful Meeting Changed Paul Warfield's Life

10/17/2021
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Growing up as the son of a steelworker/Baptist deacon in 1950s America, odds were you respected authority.

When your junior high school football coach said to attend a meeting, you attended the meeting. Even if it involved a discussion about playing that sport the following season and you already had decided your athletic passions and opportunities would come elsewhere.

Paul Warfield – the Hall of Famer featured this week in the Gold Jacket Spotlight – clearly possessed the talent to play at Harding High School in Warren, Ohio. He needed a little encouragement, however, and it came from a man who would become a lifelong mentor and friend and ultimately his presenter for Enshrinement in Canton.

“My experience at that point in football was kind of so-so,” Paul recalled in a 2019 interview with the Cleveland Browns. “I was a much better baseball player. I was very good in track and field. I thought as a youngster my sports in high school could be either one.”

He called the meeting with Gene Slaughter, who had just signed on as the new head coach at Harding, a “life-changing experience.”

“I had made up my mind the bigger boys were up there (at Harding) and all better than I (in football), and if I was going to have any success athletically, it was going to be in those other sports.”

Slaughter needed roughly 15 minutes to win over Paul with his recruiting pitch.

“I got the feeling one would have watching a television promotion. ‘Be a member of the few, the proud, the United States Marines.’ And it really stuck with me,” Paul said.

He was “scared to death,” but because of Slaughter’s influence and belief in him, Paul knew he had to give high school football a try “to see where I fit in.”

Fitting in came quickly.

Playing both running back and defensive back, Paul demonstrated the speed, graceful athleticism and willingness to study opponents that set him apart from most peers. He totaled 810 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns on offense and was equally menacing on defense. He also continued to excel in track, too, winning state championships in the broad jump and 180-yard hurdles.

A 14-year-old questioning his ability in football turned into a 17-year-old with skills in great demand. It didn’t hurt Ohio State’s chances at landing Paul that Slaughter also joined the Buckeyes’ program that 1960 season, as one of Woody Hayes’ backfield coaches.

Paul emerged as the Buckeyes’ No. 2 rushing threat in 1961, helping Ohio State to an 8-0-1 record and the national title in one poll. In 1962, his 6.4 yards-per-carry average led the Big Ten. In his senior season, 1963, he totaled 526 yards from scrimmage and earned first-team All-Big Ten honors for a second consecutive year.

With their first-round pick in the 1964 NFL Draft, the Cleveland Browns chose Paul to join a team on the cusp of winning an NFL championship. Whether he would play as a complementary runner to Jim Brown on offense or add speed to the defensive backfield seemingly remained the only decision for Coach Blanton Collier and his staff to make.

In a preseason work out, Paul took a snap at receiver.

In his book “Tales from the Browns Sidelines,” Hall of Fame Selector Tony Grossi quotes Paul on what happened next: “I did something against a defender. I can’t remember specifically what it was, but the very first time I ran against a defender, I caught a ball, and Blanton said, ‘That’s it. You’re a receiver.’”

As a rookie, Paul led the eventual 1964 NFL champion Browns in receptions (52), receiving yards (920) and receiving touchdowns (nine) in earning Pro Bowl honors.

Paul would finish his pro career with 427 catches, 8,565 yards (a sterling 20.1 average) and 85 touchdowns. He won two Super Bowls with the Miami Dolphins and was named to the NFL 100 All-Time Team.

His path to Canton and this week’s Gold Jacket Spotlight started because he listened to his junior high coach.

Shrugging, Paul said: “I couldn’t say no to the coach.”

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