Fred Julian may be the most famous New York Titan no one remembers.
That's because Julian came to the pros as an undersized (5'9", 185) and under-the-radar cornerback out of Michigan — the state and the university — who, just to make a roster in the very first season of the shaky American Football League, had to survive a cattle call.
"They had a big tryout at the Polo Grounds," Julian told me this week. "I just felt like I wanted to give it a shot. I paid my own way in. They must've had 500 people at the stadium, and they only signed six players.
"As it turned out, I was the only one who stayed the whole season."
And then after that season, Julian was out of major pro football. Due to a problem with his Selective Service System status — a different kind of draft in those days — he never made it to his second AFL season. After that, the only pro team he played for was the Grand Rapids Blazers back in his home state in the Continental Football League.
So why, as the Jets are about to embark on "Titans Throwback Day" Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles, should we care about Julian? Because in the wide-open, pass-happy days of the new league, he was this franchise's first interception leader with six picks.
"I probably made the team and did as good as I did because I had to cover Don Maynard and Art Powell every day in practice," Julian, 69, reflected from his home near Grand Rapids, on the western side of Michigan's "catcher's mitt," about the Jets' two exceptional pass-catchers. "I think I was third in the league in interceptions that first year. For a rookie, I had a real good year."
One reason the Titans and head coach Sammy Baugh installed Julian at right corner (the rest of the starting secondary for that first team was LCB Dick Felt, FS Corky Tharp and SS Roger "Rocky" Donnahoo) was his ballhawking ability.
Another, in the parlance of today's pro football, was his availability. That entire first preseason and regular season and the 1961 preseason, Julian never missed a play — "That was important to me," he said.
Perhaps another reason was that Julian was one of a seemingly small group of AFL people who didn't have a problem with Titans owner Harry Wismer.
"When I got there, everything was exciting and brand new, and I enjoyed it," he said. "Harry Wismer back in those days was looking to do it right. We always got our checks on time and when we traveled, we traveled first-class."
Wismer's spending was what ultimately cost him the Titans, when he went bankrupt in 1962 and the league took over the team.
But Julian never even got to the '61 regular season. After the Berlin Wall crisis and before the Cuban missile crisis, the U.S. military was drafting young men, and the Titans, rather than waiting for Julian to be called up as he was expecting in August 1961, released him. He declined feelers from the Boston Patriots and Oakland Raiders and returned home.
This could be one of those melancholy athletic stories that you hear about from time to time. That is, if you don't know Julian.
But he did OK for himself. After selling insurance for a while, he got back into football as a head coach. After 16 years at Grand Rapids West Catholic High, six with a semipro team and 18 at the junior college level and a combined winning percentage around .800, he was selected to three halls of fame. He's retired now and playing a lot of golf. And although he can't attend Sunday's festivities, he still has fond memories of his days in navy and gold.
"A lot of history is involved there with the Titans," he said. "I would not have given up that experience. It was well worth my time and effort."