Pro Football Hall of Fame wideout Don Maynard, iconic No. 13, one of the early originals to bring color and legitimacy to the nascent American Football League and one of the greatest receivers not just in Jets/Titans history but in pro football annals, has died at 86, just 15 days shy of his 87th birthday.
Maynard, who entered the NFL and AFL wearing his cowboy boots and sideburns his nickname of Country proudly, had a puckish way about him, which manifested itself in a healthy amount of pride in his achievements as one of the game's great pass-catchers, yet a charming laugh and self-effacing nature toward the players and teams and fans he encountered during his career.
His autobiography, after all, was titled "You Can't Catch Sunshine," and he said he told Namath upon their first meeting in 1965, "Joseph, I'm going to make you a better quarterback and you're going to make me a great receiver."
Yet he said on being inducted into the Jets' inaugural Ring of Honor class, "I'm just honored to be there, proud and thankful and all that."
"Don was a great player. He made many of his teammates better football players," Namath has said. "He was the man our opponents worried about, the knockout punch, lightning in a bottle, nitro just waiting to explode. I mean he could fly, but with the grace of a great thoroughbred. The man could flat play. He galloped through the best of the very best football players of the world."
"My thoughts and prayers are with Don's daughter, Teri, his son, Scot, and his entire family," Jets Chairman Woody Johnson said. "We lost someone very impactful, on and off the football field. I will his candor and his authenticity as well as his passion for the game and certainly for the New York Jets."
"Don was really Texas all the way," longtime Jets public relations director Frank Ramos said. "He was really well liked by his teammates. He was really a great one."
Overlooked in the Early Years
Maynard was the proverbial late bloomer, in part because of his nomadic school and football upbringing. With his father a Texas/Oklahoma cotton broker, his family was constantly pulling up stakes and he attended five different high schools. He finished up scholastically at Colorado City (TX) High, where he discovered his athletic talents as a football/basketball/track letterman.
Staying in the Lone Star State for college, he spent one year at Rice, not playing football, then three years at Texas Western College (now UTEP), when he was primarily a running back and had only 28 receptions — but for 27.6 yards/catch.
Maynard (6-0, 180) was drafted by the Giants in the ninth round (109th overall) of the 1957 NFL Draft and bounced around football his first three seasons. He played 12 games for the Giants in '58, rushing more times (12) than he caught passes (5) and even returning the overtime-opening kickoff against Weeb Ewbank's Colts in "The Greatest Game Ever Played." After the Giants released him during training camp in '59, he spent one season with the CFL's Hamilton Tiger-Cats, catching one pass for 10 yards.
Sammy Baugh, the New York Titans' first head coach, knew a few things about Maynard, having gone against him as the head coach of Hardin-Simmons in Abilene, TX, so he brought Maynard back to New York and made him the first signee of the just-born Titans in 1960.
Emerging in Green and White
Baugh's Titans and then coach Weeb Ewbank, Namath and the Jets, were the first franchise to realize Maynard's receiving talents, and Maynard had found a home for 13 Jets seasons. The reasons of course were that his performances and achievements were the stuff of legends:
■ Maynard's first season of '60, he erupted for 72 catches — which would stand as his NFL career high — for 1,265 yards, and teamed with WR Art Powell (69-1,167) to become the first pro football teammates to pass 1,000 receiving yards in the same season.
■ He teamed with Namath in 1965 and one of the great pass/catch tandems in football history was off and flying. Maynard had 1,218 receiving yards and a career-high 14 TD catches. Two seasons later in '67, Namath threw for his 4,007 yards and Maynard had 71 catches for 1,434 yards, the yardage standing as the franchise single-season record for 48 years. Such was their relationship that Namath once revealed that an early cellphone number of his contained the numbers 1213, merging the dynamic duo's uniform numbers.
■ Maynard began 1968 with a bang, going off for 203 yards in the opener at Kansas City. Two months later he had 228 yards at Oakland in "the Heidi Game," and to this day is one of only seven different receivers in pro football history to notch two 200-yard games in the same season. For the year he had another superb stat line — 57 catches for 1,297 yards, a career-best 22.8 yards/catch and 10 TDs. And he expanded on that with his starring role in the AFL Championship Game vs. the Raiders with four catches for 118 yards and two TDs in the 27-23 win.
The bittersweet part of the '68 postseason is that Maynard also came away with a hamstring strain in the title game, which limited him to decoy duty and no catches in the Super Bowl III win over the Colts.
Impact on the Jets and the NFL
But Maynard never complained about his limited role in one of football's biggest games ever. And when the members of that Super Bowl team reconvened for a private dinner at MetLife Stadium 50 years later, Maynard said the gathering "brings back great memories. We played together and we lived together. Once or twice we would come out on the short end, but when we got the chance to make up for that, we'd celebrate real good. I just happen to be a guy, I never did drink or anything, but I was tempted after we won that ballgame. So it all turned out great."
As did Maynard's stay in green and white in its entirety. From 1960-72, he compiled numbers that still are at the top of the franchise's record-book career entries: 627 receptions, 11,732 receiving yards, 50 100-yard games and 88 TD catches. He was voted Team MVP in 1967, was a four-time AFL All-Star, had his lucky No. 13 jersey retired, and was voted a member of that first Ring of Honor class in 2010
"Any honor anybody gets is hopefully deserving, and the other side of it is that it's a great honor to be in this first class," Maynard told newyorkjets.com his ROH recognition.
Maynard was equally deserving 23 years earlier to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, welcomed into the Canton shrine for any number of achievements as a member of the Class of 1987:
■ His career 18.7 yards/catch average trails only Paul Warfield, Bob Hayes and Lance Alworth among Hall of Famers and remains 16th all-time — but first for all players with at least 600 catches.
■ He was one of only seven players to play for the same team for the entire decade of the American Football League's existence, and he was elected to the AFL Hall of Fame All-1960s Team,
■ He was the sport's all-time receptions and receiving-yardage leader when he retired after one season with St. Louis in 1973. But as he said, "The record I'm proudest of is being the first guy to get 10,000 yards in receptions. Others may do it, but I'm the first, and only one guy can be the first."
See some of the best photos of the Hall of Fame wide receiver and Super Bowl III champion.
Maynard the Man
Away from the field, Maynard was eccentric, witty, innovative and creative. He was often kidded about his thriftiness. Ramos recalled Don's gimmicks to optimize his automobile mileage and his pitching items like a home-cleaning product to teammates.
But Maynard was always thinking about optimizing his game as well, which is why he did things like wear his helmet without a chinstrap, preferring to use special cheek inserts to keep the headgear snug, and spurning the seven-cleat wideout shoes of the day for custom-made 24-cleat Puma soccer shoes. "The sole was flexible so when you rounded your pass patterns, it was kind of like driving a car, making a 90-degree turn and you're not slipping," he said. "I also wore cleats half the length of other receivers. They kept my legs fresh."
Maynard even said he coined the phrase "wide receiver," perhaps along with Ramos' PR input, to help a reporter who had some difficulty figuring out if he was a split end or a flanker. "I told him, on the formation right I'm the flanker and on the formation left I'm the split end. So if you want to get right down to it, let's call it the wide receiver on the left and the wide receiver on the right. So that became the terminology and that's what it says my position is on my Hall of Fame ring."
But Donald Rogers Maynard may have shown himself to be ahead of his time the most when he used what may have been an homage to early old-school rap lyrics to explain himself a bit during his Hall of Fame induction speech in 1987:
"I came to play, and I came to stay. Football was a game, Country Don was my name.
"I made a mark and I became a star, with a lot of help from near and far.
"There are good ones and great ones I played with and against. Thank you, good Lord, for that wonderful chance.
"As I played my part many times, even late after dark, I don't have to look back as I played it with my heart.
"The direction from where I came resulted in a whole lot of fame.
"I played the best and I believe I passed the test. I am glad this is over. I need some rest.'
Maynard indeed passed the test. And as Woody Johnson said in his statement, "Rest in Peace, Don. Thank you."