On Monday night at halftime of the game against the Dolphins, the membership in the Jets' Ring of Honor will swell to 10 with the induction of the four members of the Class of 2011 — LB Larry Grantham, RB Freeman McNeil, DE Gerry Philbin and WR Al Toon. Over five days we're presenting a profile on each player along with a slideshow recalling their playing careers and audio of a conference call each player had with reporters this past week. Today: Larry Grantham.
Larry Grantham is the epitome of a Southern gentleman. He was born in Crystal Springs, Miss., and played his college ball at Ole Miss. Ask him about being inducted into the Jets Ring of Honor on Monday night and his response is equal parts Mississippi drawl and down-home gratitude.
"That probably climaxes a career and doesn't take second place to anything," he says. "I'm not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and sure, that's a great big honor, but to me this honor with the Jets is unbelievable. Just think of all the players they've had up there from 1960 till now. It's something I can't put into words. I don't have the vocabulary to tell you how excited I am about it."
But to get to the Ring of Honor, Grantham didn't behave like a Southern gentleman on the field. He brought the speed, packed a punch, and displayed the hands of a sure tackler and an adept thief from the right linebacker's spot for 13 seasons with the Titans and Jets.
And all at 205 to 210 pounds, the size of a big cornerback today, and in uniform No. 60, numerals we think of as fit for a lineman.
"I always saw Larry as the captain and the leader," said Gerry Philbin, the Jets' left end on many of Grantham's defenses and a fellow member of the Ring's Class of '11. "His football knowledge, the way he skirted around blockers and made tackles, he just surprised a lot of people. Pound for pound, he was the best player on the Jets."
Grantham's pro career had its roots in his college career. He played LB and TE and made Ole Miss' all-century team back in 1959. One might think that would've ensured him a high position in the NFL's 1960 draft, but as it turned out he was only a 15th-round pick (178th overall) of the Baltimore Colts, fresh off of two consecutive championship seasons under coach Weeb Ewbank.
A Coach on the Field
The Titans also chose Grantham as one of their 32 "First Selections" in the very first AFL draft. Grantham rolled the dice and went with the new team and the fledgling league. Three years later, the Titans became the Jets, Ewbank took over as the Green & White's head coach and brought Walt Michaels with him as one of his two defensive assistants, and Grantham's career took off.
"Walt would say Larry was one of the smartest players he ever coached," said Frank Ramos, the Jets' longtime public relations director. "And Weeb always thought he'd make a great coach because he was a coach on the field. Larry was so dedicated, he was an outstanding tackler, and he had a great, long career."
Among the on-field accomplishments were 175 games played — all but seven of the franchise's regular-season games in that 13-year career — 24 interceptions, at least 10 fumble recoveries and three touchdowns. Off the field, he reaped a number of awards: appearances in five AFL All-Star Games and on the first five All-AFL first teams, plus a second-team berth on the AFL All-Time Team before the merger in 1970.
But one award meant the world to Grantham. Late in the 1971 season, he was voted the Jets' Team MVP.
"I think Joe Namath was hurt that year," Grantham recalled with his aw-shucks nature. "To be voted by your teammates as MVP, that's an honor much like this honor, to be voted into the Ring of Honor. I had better years, it seemed like, but Walt Michaels gave me free rein to call a lot of the defense, and for us to be able to do that and have a pretty decent year, and then to be voted on by your teammates, that was just unprecedented for me."
"All Outstanding Memories for Me"
Grantham went on to a full life after football. He was a Jets radio broadcaster for a short while, and was in business and banking for a long time.
And he always took care to watch over his teammates. He's worked closely with Freedom House, the New Jersey drug and alcohol treatment center, for more than two decades. When Sam Walton, the tackle on the Jets' 1968 team, died homeless, Grantham made sure Walton received a proper funeral.
Fans know of Grantham's own health issues, but he reported this past week that his lymphoma is in remission.
"I've had good days and bad days, but the good days seem to outnumber the bad days right now," he said, "so I'm getting healthier all the time."
And he'll be on hand Monday night when he and his classmates are honored at halftime of the Jets-Dolphins game.
"I had 13 wonderful years in New York, even with the Titans. Sometimes we didn't get paid, but we had great times, and Sammy Baugh was one of the greatest coaches I ever played for," Grantham said. "They're all outstanding memories for me. I still get excited when I get fan mail. People have been awful good to me in New York."
And on Monday night this Southern gentleman, his Northern fans, and longtime Jets watchers from all points of the compass will share in the memories one more time.
Sunday: Freeman McNeil