Wednesday, March 2, 2022

LARRY GRANTHAM: "The Heart of Their Defense"

By TJ Troup 
John Turney's excellent story on Larry Grantham inspired me to address his career at an in-depth level. The title comes from Bill Ryczek's entertaining and enlightening book "CRASH OF THE TITANS". Having spent many hours on research and film study over the years on this truly dedicated professional you would surmise that I know just where to begin? Damn, that has become a real challenge; thus going to be chronological, and address just who he was as a player. 


Better pour yourself a Dr. Pepper, or maybe something even stronger—this is going to take a while. Weeb Ewbank and the Baltimore Colts have won back-to-back Championships, and though all coaches look to strengthen their roster, there just are not many roster spots open. James Larry Grantham was an end on a bowl-winning team at the University of Mississippi, and he was drafted for that position. 

We all know who the Colts have as receivers, and Grantham realizes that going to New York and play for the Titans just might work. 1960: Many publications list Larry as playing left linebacker, and yes he did, study shows he played much more at right linebacker during the campaign. Grantham began as a left linebacker and was moved to right or "weakside" linebacker during his first year. 

His rookie year he records 2 sacks, recovers 3 opponent fumbles, and intercepts 5 passes. Quickly name the last outside linebacker that accomplished as much during his rookie year. Now is as good a time as any to address what one and all state about Grantham; his size or lack of same. Some publications list him at 6 feet and 193 lbs, others slighter heavier. 

Bill Forester for the Packers had become the poster boy for the size you wanted in a right linebacker; while Hazeltine of the Niners and Morris of the Bears were smaller than Forester, yet bigger than Grantham. The question that must be answered—can you play? 

December the 4th, 1960 the Titans are in Denver, and Grantham late in the game records his second interception. Earlier he also had recovered a Bronco fumble. He gains 5 yards on his interception return, and a hustling halfback for the Broncos; Gene Mingo lays him out, it is a classic knockout, that brings the stretcher on the field to take Larry away. Grantham fumbles and Mingo recovers. This is the only fumble in Larry's career, and the next week he is back in the line-up against the Raiders.

He intercepts for the third consecutive game. Much has been written about the New York Titans and their maiden voyage. The bizarre owner, the lack of money, and the challenge of putting quality players on the field. New York finished 7-7, and of course, those men look forward to the '61 season and the strong team camaraderie that had been forged. 

When young men all across America were asked to serve in the military, and when you are a Green Bay Packer that becomes news, big news (think Paul Hornung). Larry Grantham reports to Fort Devens and misses three games. Bill Ryczek states this in his book but has which games his misses incorrect. The wiry outside linebacker records 2 sacks, no fumble recoveries, and just 1 interception. Grantham still is voted all-pro, but his season of '61 is not as strong as his rookie year. Late in the season when New York is 7-5 they had an outside chance to win the division though the Oilers would have to falter. 

Again the Titans finish 7-7 and Baugh will not return as head coach of New York. Don Schiffer's 1961 Pro Football Handbook states "another linebacker must be secured to fit in with Ed Bell, Roger Ellis, and Larry Grantham". Nothing is stated about the skills or lack of same by any of those men. There are not alot of details about Larry and his relationship to either Baugh or the man who replaces him.....Clyde "bulldog" Turner. Everyone played hard for Baugh, and he treated his players as men. Larry Grantham is coached by John Dell Isola. 

Once upon a time the offensive line coach for the New York football Giants working under Vince Lombardi. The New York defense while not the best in the league gives a commendable effort, especially considering the revolving door in the secondary and defensive line. 

The Titans of 1962 are detailed much more in the 1962 Pro Football Handbook than the two previous editions. Quoting Schiffer "scarcely anyone has seen Larry Grantham turn in an inferior performance. Touted as a possible end as a '60 rookie but his fierce tackling and immediate response to a defensive opening earned him a linebacking job, one he held so well for two years...selected Second-team All-AFL". 

Opening day '62 and Grantham records a sack in the win over Oakland. Two weeks later he records another sack in the victory over the Bills. Are the New York Titans a contender in Turner's first year on the job? Grantham recovers a Bronco fumble in the loss to Denver. October 21st against the powerful Dallas Texans Larry sacks Len Dawson. New York beats the Raiders for the second time in '62 on November 4th, and he helps George Strugar take down the Oakland quarterback. Grantham recovers a Texan fumble on November the 11th. 

The Thanksgiving Day game in 1962 between the Packers and Lions has become one of the all-time discussed games for multiple reasons, but the game between the Broncos and Titans that day was in fact truly memorable. 

Take the time and read an account of the game, and the final score alone should tell you alot. Larry Grantham was a difference-maker with two interceptions, and again with help from Strugar recorded a sack. Sure wish I had the film of the November 30th game against the Patriots since Grantham will score his first touchdown as he recovers a fumble in the end zone due to the sack of Parilli. Just wish I knew if he got the sack.

A national television audience can tune in and watch the Saturday afternoon clash between the defending AFL Champion Oilers and the Titans. Grantham and his never say die attitude is on display as he records his fifth sack of the season as he takes down Jacky Lee in the season-ending loss. Nine of the fourteen games Larry got either a takeaway or a sack. He is voted First-team All-AFL and has earned a trip to the AFL all-star game. 

Grantham will be wearing a different colored jersey in ', he has not been traded, but the Titans have become the green-clad Jets of Sonny Werblin. He also will be coached by former hard-bitten all-pro Walt Michaels of the Cleveland Browns. Coach Weeb Ewbank has a chance to resurrect his career after being fired in Baltimore. The roster will go through changes, but at right outside linebacker will be Larry Grantham. 

As per usual, the Jets like the Titans before them get off to a strong start. Larry intercepts against the Oilers on September 22nd, and the next week he pilfers another pass against the Raiders. Clinging to a 10-7 fourth-quarter lead the Jets must stop an Al Davis-coached team as they drive for the winning score. Second down and seventeen at their own twenty-nine Flores pitches, and Grantham pilfers the pass on his own forty-four. Larry weaves his way back 23 yards to salt away a Jet victory. 

October 5th and in the first quarter Parilli of the Patriots fires to Neumann out of the backfield on a second and seven play. Grantham with blanket coverage intercepts on his own forty-three and dashes back 41 yards to set up Smolenski's touchdown to give New York a 14-0 lead.

Again Larry Grantham has intercepted in three consecutive games. October 26th on a first and ten play from his own 44-yard line running back Bobby Gaiters of Denver fumbles a pitchout. Grantham scoops up the pigskin and returns 42 yards to the Bronco two-yard line. The return sets up Christy's go-ahead score. 

December the 8th is a day that all Buffalo Bills fans cherish as Carlton "Cookie" Gilchrist gained 243 yards on 36 carries. Reading the gamebook play by plays of this game showcases that while Cookie gained some yards running to his left towards Grantham; the huge bulk of yardage was gained to the right on sweeps and off-tackle plays. On a 32-yard run up the right sideline, Larry with the proper pursuit angle made the tackle. Grantham even recorded a sack of Lamonica in the game. Grantham is again voted First-team All-AFL and another trip to the AFL All-Star game. 
Street & Smith's 1964 yearbook addresses the need for linebacking help for the Jets, yet it also states "Pound for pound; Grantham maybe the best linebacker in the league". October 24th and the contending Buffalo Bills host the Jets on a Saturday night. This will be the fourth consecutive Saturday game for New York, and they will again face Gilchrist and the vaunted Buffalo ground attack. 

Watching an entire game grants me an opportunity watch a player and a real evaluation. The companion play to the strongside sweep is the fullback slant. The left halfback blocks the outside linebacker and the ball is given to Gilchrist going off tackle. Twice in the game, Grantham knifes into the gap easily beating the halfback's block and then takes down Cookie. Both arms wrapped around his knees and limiting the gain to virtually nothing.

Larry Grantham has become a master at read, react, and textbook technique in defeating a back's block, and then doing what he is paid to do...make the tackle. Five of the last six games on the Jet's schedule are on the road, and New York goes down to defeat in all of them to finish 5-8-1 again. Larry recovered one fumble in '64 (against Boston on September 27th), and intercepted twice. 

His second interception of the season came in the last New York victory of the year. Walt Michaels determined that he needed Grantham to "red dog" more than ever, and Larry responded with a career high 8½ sacks to rank amongst the AFL leaders in this category. Grantham is unanimous First-team All-AFL. Entering the '65 season the Jets have won just 15 of their last 44 games, and the main question is...who do we pick in the draft to become a real contender? This is during an era when the Buffalo Bills have become the strongest and most physical team in the AFL. 

Joe Willie Namath arrives and the offense is reconfigured under Weeb. Offensive line coach Chuck Knox is making progress constructing a virtual wall of protection for Namath. Since so much is written about the Joe Willie, and the offense...what is happening on the defensive side of the ball? Walt Michaels will take a back seat for no one, but yet he needs to continue to upgrade the secondary, and defensive line. 

Years ago I chose to write to former players that played defensive back, and the best letter (cherished) that I got in return came from Bill Baird of the Jets. Wish I would have asked him questions about the linebackers, and specifically Grantham. Strong, in fact very strong pieces to the puzzle are coming together for the Jets defensively, and Michaels again adjusts his philosophy defensively. The front four will rush the passer, and the linebackers for the most part with drop into coverage. Thus, Grantham does not record a sack in '65, nor a fumble recovery. 

He has just one interception, yet film evaluation shows he played very well, and earned second team all-AFL honors. New York again comes out of the gate smoking hot to begin '66, and again cannot sustain it. Undefeated after five games, they finish at .500. Grantham records his lone interception in the early season win over Denver, and gets 2½ sacks during the year. He returns to the AFL All-Star game and is voted Second-team all-AFL. 
November 19th, 1967 the Jets are 7-2-1 and can lock up a division title for the first time by going just 2-2 the last four games. Earlier in the year, they are the only team to beat the Raiders, and Grantham pilfered two passes in the victory. Larry nabs five in '67 and records three sacks. Grantham receives some All-AFL votes, but there is a new kid in town. George Webster helps the Oilers win the division title, while Bobby Bell is still the consummate strongside linebacker for the Chiefs. 

They are voted First -eam All-AFL outside linebackers. Both of them play strongside, while Grantham plays weakside. Both Bell and Webster are built like greek gods, and we all know Grantham is not. 

Since New York faded badly down the stretch in '67 the Jets fans wonder what it is going to take to finally win a division title? NFL Films has taken over film production for the AFL in 1968, and there is an abundance of footage of the Jets. So much has been written about the '68 Jets, and rightfully so. A year of destiny, and no without a few trials and tribulations. Grantham does not record an interception, nor a fumble recovery, but with Verlon Biggs becoming a force at right defensive end he is asked to blitz more often and records four. His sack of Bob Davis of the Oilers in the Astrodome on October 20th is vintage Grantham. Quick, explosive, timing the snap count just right....he is in the backfield to take down Davis. 

Larry Grantham becomes a champion on December 29th, 1968 in the victory over the hated Raiders. Yes youngsters...hated! Since AFL teams for years played the other seven twice a year, division games and non-division games counted the same. Possibly the games with Buffalo mattered most to the Jets players, yet over the years the games with Raiders had a violence all their own. 

The hard hitting intense AFL Title game is one of the best games I ever watched on TV as a teenager. The Jets had earned the right to take on Weeb's former team, the Baltimore Colts in the AFL-NFL Championship game(was not called the Super Bowl yet). Four times during the second half Grantham made key stops to help the Jet defense. 

Third-quarter and New York leads 10-0 with Turner just having kicked a 32-yard field goal. Second and ten on their own twenty-six and Morrall flips to Hill. Grantham's open-field tackle stops Hill for no gain. Turner kicks another field goal and time is becoming a factor, thus the Master enters. Unitas completes to Matte and again Grantham tackles a running back for no gain on a pass completion. 

Early in the 4th quarter and on first and ten Johnny Hightops pitches to Mackey. Grantham tackles the All-NFL tight end after a gain of five. The Colts next possession is an 80-yard drive in 14 plays to score, yet the first play of the drive Larry broke up a pass to Mackey. Nine years of pro ball and now Larry Grantham is a champion, and can still visualize him running across the field helmet off, with the ball tucked under his arm, jumping for joy...the joy only a champion can feel. 
Entering the last year of the AFL the Jets are an experienced battle-tested champion with a defense that has some new faces. The linebacking corps returns led by Grantham, and after a 1-2 start gets hot and wins the eastern division title. Grantham twice recovers fumbles in late-season victories, but again does not intercept, and records just 1½ sacks. He is again honored with some All-AFL recognition due to his all-around play, and tackling ability. He is just always in position, thus being savvy is a trait that is key for all outside linebackers. 

1970 is the dawn of a new we have just one league and 26 teams, and the Jets are predicted to finish first in the AFC East in Street & Smith's. Quoting Larry Felser "Larry Grantham starts his 11th season. He's still under-sized and he's still an asset". 

November 15th, 1970 the Jets are in Los Angeles to face a contending George Allen team but have lost six straight. The upset of the year? Possibly as New York wins 31-20, yet let's focus on the NFL Films game of the week of November 29th at Shea Stadium against the powerful Minnesota Vikings. 

Have studied this film over and over, and my evaluation of Grantham is as follows: 1) he has lost speed 2) though he has gained a few pounds (around the belly), he is still only around 210) he continues to defy offensive coordinators to attack him. He plays to his strengths, always in position, and making the play when it comes his way. 

Grantham will recover 3 fumbles, record 4½ sacks, and intercept 3 times in 1970. Grantham recovered two fumbles against the Bills on October 4th..still hustling and finding a way to get the ball back for the offense. Records sacks in back-to-back games against the Colts and Bills. Sacked Joe Kapp in the November 22nd win over the Patriots. Larry Grantham must have relished seeing those horseshoe helmets when he took the field for the last game of 1970. 

Though New York lost 35-20 to the eventual world champions, he earned the linebacker trifecta...a sack, a fumble recovery, and an interception (which he returned 41 yards for a score). How many linebackers in league history have recorded a trifecta against the upcoming world champions? Felser in Street & Smiths' 1971 states "Larry Grantham hustles around with speed that camouflages his 11 pro seasons". 
He recovers three fumbles, takes down quarterbacks twice, and latches onto his 24th and final interception of his career in the 20-7 win at Buffalo. Grantham is voted team MVP and is Second-team All-AFC as well.  

Larry recovers two fumbles in his last year as a Jet in 1972 but misses playing time for the first time in four years. His durability has made him a legend, but his time in the AFL and NFL is up. He did play one season for Jack Pardee's Florida Blazers in the WFL—picking off two passes and going to the league title game in that league. 

Here is the must intercept at least 24 passes, recover at least 17 opponent fumbles, and record at least 40 sacks. Additionally, though cannot be found on a score sheet—you must be a textbook tackler, never be out of position, and lead by example. Are these Hall of Fame credentials?  


*Second-team All-Time All-AFL Team


  1. Great post Coach ...

    Grantham has the accolades to be in the HOF. Will he get there?

    Another thing about Grantham in SB III, his pass rush and line stunt strategies with DE Verlon Biggs played a part in the victory. Morrall knew he had to get rid of the ball quickly and that threw him off his game. His timing was just off with his receivers.
    After missing a tackle on John Mackey early, Grantham settled down and helped the Jets nearly shut the Colts out.

    Its interesting and amazing that in late 67, the Jets lose their backs --Snell and Boozer--to injuries, while their division hopes go down the drain but in 1968, Namath and the offense utilize them beautifully and they go all the way with Snell being the true MVP in the SB.

  2. ....thanks Brian! Could have made the story even longer, as he plays very well in the Game of the Week in 1971 against the 49ers. If you have not seen the film, try to find a copy....must see viewing. Agree that Matt S. should have been the MVP in SB III. Worst performance? Lenny Lyles attempting to cover Sauer, and make tackles against the run.

  3. Thanks TJ ...

    The tonsilitis that Lyles was getting over, didnt help his performance but he didnt have a healthy Rick Volk helping either as Sauer got over his fumble to Lyles and settled down.

    Another Colt who played bad was Mike Curtis, who usually played huge in big games but got blocked repeatedly and couldnt cover Snell or Mathis in the flat. The Jets knew they could go back to that well anytime they felt like it. A great gameplan ...

    With the Jets running repeatedly to their left side, you would think MLB Gaubatz for the Colts would adjust better but he never could get to the ball carrier quick enough.

  4. Seems to suffer from an anti-AFL defender bias, but Grantham was truly a "do everything" Linebacker. His 13 Stuffs in 1962 led both the NFL and AFL. A modern-day comp is another massively underrated star, Lavonte David. Both were undersized but were exceptional at reading-diagnosing-angle to the runner so that they could be effective against the run at a small size; both were exceptional in pass coverage.

  5. Excellent, well-researched post. Must have been an exceptional open-field tackler because Gilchrist and Mackey were both tough to bring down. Also, you really illustrated how a change in schemes can affect a player's statistics despite him still having an impact.