LAS CRUCES, N.M. – It has long been said that when one door closes another door opens.
Few people know the validity of that adage better than Bob Talamini.
Despite being a late addition to the recruiting class at the University Kentucky, Talamini went on to enjoy a less than glamorous, but stellar career blocking and opening holes for some of the greatest names in professional football history. He ended his pro career in what is still considered one of the most memorable games in pro football history.
Talamini grew up in Louisville, Kentucky and it was obvious that the husky youngster was destined to play football. It just took some time for his potential as a lineman to be realized.
“I was a slow developer,” said Talamini, who graduated from St. Xavier High School in 1955.
He played on the scout squad as a sophomore and saw limited varsity action.
“During the spring before my junior year the light went on,” Talamini recalled. “I think I realized just how much I enjoyed the game and I set out to become the best player that I could be.”
He did that. And more.
Talamini, who stood just over six feet tall, developed into a talent on both sides of the ball for the Tigers.
After graduating from St. Xavier in Talamini thought his football career had come to an end.
That changed when teammate Don McAllister, one of the greatest high school players in Kentucky history, opted to not play in the state’s all-star game. McAllister had been named to the Kentucky all-state team and had also appeared on several all-American teams while starring for the Tigers. He had accepted a scholarship to play at Notre Dame following his graduation from St. Xavier after spurning offers from nearly every Big Ten school, as well as many Ivy League programs.
McAllister, who became a doctor, returned to Louisville and became the team doctor for his former high school. He was inducted into the school’s hall of fame in 1993.
McAllister’s absence from the all-star game opened the door for Talamini, who reported for practice in Lexington ahead of the annual contest between the top high school players in the Bluegrass State.
“It was a tremendous opportunity,” Talamini said of his elevation to the all-star squad. Although event organizers were slow to note the change and Talamini reported for the start of practice amidst wide eyes and confusion.
“I had a good week of practice,” said Talamini.
So much so that then-Kentucky coach Blanton Collier offered Talamini a scholarship to join the Wildcats and the wide-eyed freshman jumped at the opportunity.
“The Southeastern Conference was, and remains, a very tough league,” Talamini said Talamini, who played guard on offense and linebacker on defense. “It was tough learning both sides of the ball in a time when many players played both ways.”
As he did as a high school player, Talamini adjusted nicely to the new-found rigors of football.
“(Kentucky) usually finished middle of the pack,” he recalled, “but then we were playing against some very good teams like Ole Miss, Georgia and Ole Miss.
Collier, who was the top assistant coach with the Cleveland Browns prior to taking the Kentucky job, led the Wildcats to a 41-36-3 (.469) record in his eight seasons (1954-61) in Lexington before returning to the Browns. Collier was elevated to head coach in Cleveland in 1963 when owner Art Modell surprisingly fired former coach Paul Brown.
Under Collier, the Browns advanced to the NFL championship four time and claimed the 1964 NFL championship.
“(Collier) was a very organized person,” Talamini recalled. “He was very cranial and was astute at breaking down game film and devising a game plan each and every week.”
Talamini played well enough during his time at Kentucky that he earned third-team all-conference honors in his final season of 1959.
That was when another door opened and Talamini took advantage.
The upstart American Football League held its first-ever draft just weeks after the completion of the 1959 college season and went head-to-head with the established National Football League to attract the top collegiate players.
Talamini, who had grown to 250 pounds, was drafted by the Houston Oilers.
A far cry from the draft of today, the AFL Draft was archaic in terms of organization … and compensation.
Talamini coaxed the Oilers into a signing bonus of $250 when he inked his first professional contact for just $7,000 per season.
He said the organization withheld a small percentage of each game check until the end of the season when that was returned to the player.
The Oilers also misunderstood Talamini’s request for a signing bonus. The team thought it was meant to be an advance, which in term meant Talamini’s first check as a professional was for a mere $50.
In his first year in Houston Talamini was tasked with protecting quarterback George Blanda and running back Billy Cannon.
Blanda, who played at Kentucky more than a decade before Talamini, had been picked up by the Oilers following stints with Chicago (1949, 50-59) and spending part of that 1950 season with Baltimore. He played seven seasons (1960-66) in Houston along with Talamini and ended his career by playing nine seasons in Oakland (1967-75) at the age of 43.
Cannon, meanwhile, played against Talamini as a member of the LSU squad and had won the Heisman Trophy in 1959 before being the top selection by the Los Angels Rams (NFL) and was a territorial selection by the Oilers (AFL). That led to a contract dispute that ended up in court before Cannon began his pro career with Houston and providing the new league with an immediate sense of credibility.
“(Cannon) was a great player,” Talamini said of his former teammate. “He really didn’t like having to go into the line to find a hole to get through … but once he got into the open field he was as dangerous a player as there was.”
Cannon played four seasons in Houston before being traded to Oakland prior to the start of the 1964 season where he was used as a receiver out of the backfield to take advantage of his open-field ability. He was moved to tight end the following year and remained there through 1969 and finishing his career in Kansas City the following year.
The Oilers, behind Blanda and Cannon, and the blocking of Talamini, won the first two AFL Championship games.
Talamini, a first-team all-AFL selection in 1962 became a regular at league all-star games by appearing in six such contests through 1967. The Oilers, who went through a rebuilding process after winning the title in 1960 and 1961, returned to the championship game in 1967 before losing to Oakland.
That would be the final game for Talamini in a Houston uniform. He was released by the team and was picked up by the New York Jets where he continued his legacy of playing alongside some of the greatest names in pro football history.
One of those, Joe Namath, made a bold prediction that still resonates across the football world.
At a luncheon days before Super Bowl III was played at Miami’s Orange Bowl, a heckler, who Talamini recalls was Lou Michaels, a boisterous former teammate of Talamini’s at Kentucky, began an exchange with Namath that resulted in the New York quarterback responding in a big way.
“He was always known as being outspoken,” Talamini said of the former Wildcat, “ … and the exchange was nothing more than trash-talking.”
Talamini said that when Michaels informed Namath that the heavily favored Colts were the best team in pro football over the past several seasons, Namath responded by “guaranteeing” the Jets would be victorious.
Weeb Eubank, the Jets coach at the time, was livid with Namath for his words at the luncheon.
“He was none too happy about arousing a sleeping dog and giving (Baltimore) bulletin board material,” Talamini said.
History will show that Namath was prophetic as the Jets defeated Michaels and the Colts 16-7 on the strength of a touchdown run by Matt Snell and three field goals off the foot of Jim Turner.
Talamini, who was later selected to the All-Time All-AFL a few years later when the AFL and NFL merged, retired following the Super Bowl win.
“I pretty much knew the Super Bowl would be my last game,” said Talamini, who made his home in Houston and would deadhead a cargo plane for a flight home after each game during the 1968 to spend time with his wife and children before returning to New York a few days later to prepare for the next game.
Talamini, who was inducted into the Kentucky Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2011, now resides in Las Cruces, New Mexico and still follows the Houston organization which relocated to Tennessee following the 1996 season.
“You have to have confidence in yourself,” Talamini said when asked his advice to aspiring football players, “get in there and do what you can to improve and do not let anything break yourself.”
That approach can make doors otherwise thought to be closed to open wide and present opportunities that will last a lifetime.
A native of Bismarck, N.D., Ray is a graduate of North Dakota State University where he began studying athletic training and served as a student trainer for several Bison teams including swimming, wrestling and baseball and was a trainer at the 1979 NCAA national track and field championship meet at the University of Illinois. Ray later worked in the sports information office at NDSU. Following his graduation from NDSU he spent five years in the sports information office at Missouri Western State University and one year in the sports information at Georgia Tech. He has nearly 40 years of writing experience as a sports editor at several newspapers and has received numerous awards for his writing over the years. A noted sports historian, Ray is currently an assistant editor at Amateur Wrestling News.