Talk about a late start!
Earl Christy was a sophomore at Maryland State, now known as the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, when he contemplated trying out for the football team.
"I never put on a football uniform until I went to college. I never played Pop Warner or high school. Nothing. Some of the players saw me talking to the coach, Skip McCain, who's in the (College Football) Hall of Fame. 'Have you ever played any ball before?' 'No, sir.' And I recall seeing the players, some big linemen, laughing. 'Oh, man. We've got some new meat that we're going to get,'" Christy laughed.
"The first time I put on (a helmet and shoulder pads), I was watching practice and they were hitting guys. One went down and they go, 'Get him off the field. Bring in the next running back!' I thought I was going to get killed.
"Then they said, 'Christy, get ready. I'm going to give you 241, off-tackle, right hit,' and all that stuff. And so the quarterback called the play and said, 'Take the ball on two.' I was pointing at the hole I was going to and the linemen on the defense were laughing because they knew I was coming right there. So when he said, 'Hut two, I grabbed the football and was running over people. I had my eyes closed. And the coach said, 'If you had your eyes opened, you probably would have scored.'"
In a sense, Christy did score two years later when Jets assistant coach Walt Michaels was scouting at one of Maryland State's games.
"He came down to check out Emerson Boozer, the running back, and saw this kid, Christy, run a kickoff for a touchdown, run a punt return for a touchdown, and catch a touchdown pass as a wide receiver. And I also was a running back. But the bottom line is that he saw that and had nerve enough to ask me, 'Would you like to play for the New York Jets?' Of course, I said, 'Yes,'" Christy laughed.
In New York, Christy, a defensive back and return specialist, played for another Hall of Fame coach, Weeb Ewbank.
"To be honest with you, he's a genius because we didn't make many mistakes. When you talk about (running backs) Matt Snell, Emerson Boozer, Bill Mathis, they didn't miss assignments. And our receivers didn't," Christy said. "Weeb said, 'That's the most intelligent football team I've coached.' And, of course, he coached the great John Unitas and the Baltimore Colts (for nine seasons and two NFL Championships). We were really smart. Nowadays, the kids don't pick up blitzes like we used to do. We always said, 'Check blitz' when Joe Namath was in the huddle. It was amazing."
In 1968, the Jets had what could be called an amazing season. Posting an 11-3 record, they won the AFL Championship, and then upset the NFL Champion Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III, 16-7.
"That caused the merger because the first two (Super Bowls), people thought (the AFL was) inferior," said Christy, who returned the game's opening kickoff 25 yards. "But the AFL were getting the players and they were paying for them. It was a bidding war. Green Bay handled Kansas City and Oakland in the first two. That really changed because of our upset. Nobody gave us a chance, but we felt confident."
With the Jets for three seasons, 1966-68, Christy returned 58 kickoffs for a 23-yard average and averaged seven yards on 34 punt returns. He was a fan favorite at Shea Stadium, particularly with the younger fans.
"People used to say, 'I want you to wave after you run a kickoff or punt return.' And I said, 'No, I can't be waving. I've got to stay focused,'" Christy said. "So I said, 'What I'll do is, I'll take off my helmet.' And then they'd know I was doing that for them. So as soon as I got finished running the kickoff, I just took my helmet off and ran off the field.
"And they had a TV show called Captain Kangaroo. And what was so amazing is that Captain Kangaroo [Bob Keeshan] had a son who had an Earl Christy Fan Club. When they held their meetings, they would take off their hats."
The father of three, Christy and his wife, Darlene, make their home in Hudson, Florida. Following his playing days, he taught physical education and health for 20-plus years, mostly in the Chicago, Illinois school district. And while he was teaching, Christy invented an academic and physical fitness game – Sports-a-cise. He also played for the Harlem Wizards show basketball team.
And even though he's now enjoying his retirement, Christy is as active as ever.
"Occasionally I have an opportunity to minister at different churches. I've been so blessed. I'm an arch bishop, I'm a sportscaster (as the host of the Earl Christy Sports Network), and I'm a motivational speaker," said Christy, who has a website, www.earlchristy.com.
Christy is also the subject of a book written by Ruben Rodriquez and Joy Buckels. Published in 2020, it's titled: The Earl Christy Story – The Story of a Super Bowl Champ.