Preston Pearson: From College Hardwood to NFL Legend

DALLAS, Texas – Preston Pearson downplays the significant role he played during the Golden Era of the National Football League.

“I am the unsung, unheard of Pearson,” quipped the personable NFL legend.

Hardly, despite recent results.

While any notion of Pearson leaving a mark in football may have been the furthest thing on his mind after graduating from high school, his legacy in the NFL is secured for all time.

A multi-sport standout while attending Freeport (Ill.) High School and attracting few college scholarship offers, Pearson wrote a letter to Harry Combs, the basketball coach at the University of Illinois in an effort to convince the legendary Illini coach to give him an opportunity to compete for his home-state team.

“I was hell bent on playing (basketball) for Illinois,” said Pearson, who also considered journeying out of state to compete at Bowling Green before following his heart to Champaign. “I told (Coombs) about my statistics, my honors and my accolades,” added Pearson, who graduated from Freeport in 1963 after earning all-state honors as a center, despite his standing only six-feet, two-inches tall.

Combs answered Pearson’s letter and informed him that no scholarships were available for the upcoming season, but invited the fresh-faced graduate to try out for the freshmen team. The letter also added that if Pearson did make the freshmen team that he could possibly get a partial scholarship.

That’s all it took to stoke the fires brighter.

Pearson boarded a train in Freeport, near the Wisconsin border, and journeyed some 200 miles downstate to Champaign with as much uncertainty as optimism.

Pearson had little trouble earning a spot on the team and performed well enough that Combs extended a scholarship offer for the next season. 

That offer never materialized. But instead of allowing that to derail Pearson’s dream of playing for the Illini he used it as motivation.

“When (Coombs) told me that the scholarship would not be forthcoming I kept my cool … and set my focus on becoming the best player that I possibly could.”

His first year on the varsity roster saw Illinois finish the year 18-6. The Illini climbed to as high as sixth in the national rankings that season but failed to make it to the NCAA Tournament.

Pearson was a starter over the final two years of his collegiate career as the Illini finished 12-12 in each of those two seasons.

But they were memorable seasons.

Early in the 1965-66 season Pearson and his teammates journeyed to Lexington, Kentucky and came away with a 98-97 win over the third-ranked Wildcats. That Kentucky team featured future professional legends Pat Riley and Louis Dampier.

“We beat a very powerful Kentucky team on their own court,” beamed Pearson.

The memories continued the following season during a 120-82 loss against Lew Alcindor and top-ranked UCLA in a game in historic Chicago Stadium.

“He ate us up,” Pearson said of the iconic Bruin who would later change his name to Kareen Abdul-Jabaar and going on to become one of the greatest players in the history of the game.

One play during that game is forever etched in college basketball lore.

Pearson become one of the few players to block Alcindor’s patented skyhook despite giving up more than one foot to the seven-foot, four-inch Bruin legend.

“The length of (Alcindor’s) arms were unbelievable,” Pearson recalled. “He was incredibly tall and with his long arms I believe the ball was 12-13 feet off the ground when the it would leave his hand.”

Pearson, who developed a reputation of playing tough defense, played in 47 varsity games during his time with the Illini. He ended his career with a 6.7 points per game scoring average. He averaged 8.7 points and six rebounds per game in his final collegiate season.

Pearson was a standout in baseball and track while growing up in Freeport. He  was induced into the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2017 along with former Boston Celtic great Kevin Garnett.

“It is a tremendous honor,” said Pearson … “I am so proud of that.”

NFL

Even though Pearson never played a single down of football in college, the multitude of athletic skills he put on display during his time at Illinois did not go unnoticed by National Football League teams.

“I think the speed, power and ability to jump were the things I brought to the table … and were the skills I think the pros saw in me,” Pearson said.

Despite not playing football since his prep days in Freeport, Pearson was drafted by the Baltimore Colts in the 12th round of the 1967 NFL Draft. He was a 12th round selection (298th overall pick) and got news of his selection when an assistant coach for Baltimore visited Pearson at his fraternity house in Champaign.

“It was a huge surprise,” said Pearson, who would go on to play 14 seasons in the league.

The memorable moments Pearson enjoyed in college continued during his pro football career.

“When I got to training camp I was surrounded by some of the greatest names in football,” said Pearson, whose locker was just a short distance from a recognizable figure with a crew cut and “ugly” high top cleats.

“Johnny Unitas had been one of the players I worshipped and to be just feet away from him on a daily basis left me awe struck,” said Pearson, who sat between Unitas and another legendary figure, Lenny Moore, in the Colts’ locker room.

“Lenny Moore was the guy I tried to emulate,” Pearson said of the pro football great.

Pearson was a defensive back during his rookie season in 1967 and was elevated to the active roster late in the season and appeared on special teams the rest of season.

His first kick return in pro football left a lasting impression.

“I took one step and Herb Adderly taught me was a forearm was all about in the NFL,” Pearson said.

The Colts, behind two passing touchdowns from Unitas, defeated Green Bay 13-10 in Baltimore.

He was moved to running back in 1968 and led the NFL in kickoff returns that season with an average of 35.1 yards per return, including a 102-yard return against San Francisco, the longest return of the season in the NFL. The Colts won that game 41-14. He also returned a kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown in a 27-10 win over Detroit in the Motor City nearly one month earlier.

That same season he averaged four yards per carry.

“Nobody can say I did not make a huge contribution to the success we had during my time in Baltimore,” Pearson said.

Pearson requested to be traded following the 1970 season and was dealt to Pittsburgh where he was reunited with Chuck Noll, who had been the defensive coordinator for Baltimore when Pearson and the Colts defeated Dallas 16-13 in Super Bowl V inside Miami’s Orange Bowl. It was the first of three Super Bowl rings Pearson would earn during his career.

Pearson became a starter at running back in his first season in the Steel City and would rush for 605 yards the following year. In what would be his final season in Pittsburgh Pearson would see his season cut short after suffering a hamstring injury and being replaced by a rookie by the name of Franco Harris, who would not relinquish the position until leaving the Steelers following the 1983 season and ending his career the following year after playing for Seattle. Harris, who starred at Penn State before being selected by the Steelers in the first round (13th overall) in the 1972 NFL Draft. was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1990.

During his time with the Steelers Pearson had a bird’s-view of one of the Immaculate Reception, one of the most famous plays in NFL history.

During a 1972 divisional playoff game at home against Oakland, Pittsburgh quarterback threw a pass intended for John Fuqua with 22 seconds left in the game. It is unknown whether the ball bounced off the helmet of Oakland safety Jack Tatum or off the hands of the intended receiver.

As the ball fell, Harris scooped it up and ran in for the game-winning touchdown as the Steelers rallied for a 13-7 victory. Pittsburgh lost the following weekend 21-17 to Miami which went on to defeat Washington 14-7 in Super Bowl.

Harris’ catch in the game against the Raiders remains uncertain in the eyes of virtually every NFL fan, including Pearson.

“I was one the sideline and had one of the best views of the play,” Pearson said, “and I am not sure if (Harris) did catch the ball.

“Even with the technology of today with instant replay and challenges I am not if the real answer will ever be found,” Pearson added.

Pearson would earn his second Super Bowl ring two years later when Pittsburgh defeated Minnesota 16-6 in Super Bowl IX in New Orleans.

It would be the final game of Pearson’s four season as a Steeler. He would be released following the season when the relationship between Pearson and Noll soured in large part by Pearson’s role as the Steelers’ player representative in a season that saw players strike.

“I met with (Noll) and with my knees rattling, I explained to him that I was representing the players on the team and following their wishes,” Pearson explained.

He learned through newspaper reports a short time later that he had been waived in favor of rookie running back Mike Collier. At the time of his departure from Pittsburgh only six players had rushed for more yards in franchise history.

After the start of 1975 season Pearson signed as a free agent with Dallas and would spend six years with the organization.

He led the Cowboys in rushing in 1975 after gaining 509 yards and adding 351 yards on 27 pass receptions. He also added 391 yards on kickoff returns.

Pearson played a vital role in Dallas’ march to the Super Bowl. He caught 12 passes for more than 200 yards in the two games of the National Football Conference playoffs.

In the first round of the playoffs Pearson was witness to yet another of the league’s most memorable plays when Dallas quarterback Roger Staubach threw a pass to Drew Pearson, who Preston Pearson says is the more famous of the two players on the Dallas roster with the same last name. The play resulted in 50-yard touchdown to give the Cowboys a 17-14 win over Minnesota that brought the term Hail Mary to a whole new meaning.

“I closed my eyes and said a Hail Mary,” Staubach said of the game-winning throw.

“I really do not know if (Drew) pushed off on the play or not,” Preston Pearson said. “I know Drew will tell everyone that he did not push off.”

Drew Pearson was recently elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Dallas would defeat the Los Angeles Rams the following weekend 37-7 in the NFC championship in Los Angeles to advance to Super Bowl X before coming up short in a 21-17 loss to Pearson’s previous team, Pittsburgh, denying him a shot at becoming a Super Bowl champion in back-to-back seasons.

Pearson was hampered by an injury after starting the first two games of the 1976 season and appearing in just 10 game and finished the year with was just 233 rushing yards and one touchdown. He also caught 23 passes for 316 yards and two more touchdowns that season.

History repeated itself in 1977.

Pearson returned from the injury of the previous season to regain his starting spot in the Dallas backfield. Midway through the 1977 season Pearson was replaced by highly touted rookie Tony Dorsett, who was the second player selected in the 1977 NFL Draft after winning the Heisman Trophy the previous season while leading Pittsburgh to the national championship.

“Everyone knew Dorsett would going to play at some point that season,” Pearson said, “ … but I held him off for half the season.

“With his quickness and speed, along with his ability to stop on a dime, he had all the tools to become another Bob Hayes,” Pearson added of his replacement in the Dallas backfield.

Despite losing his starting position to the future Hall of Famer, Pearson still managed to set a franchise record for receptions by a running back with his 46 receptions on the season. The receptions were the second most on the team and his 535 receiving yards was also second on the team charts that same season as Dallas won Super Bowl XII with a 27-10 win over Denver in the Superdome.

Pearson, the first person in NFL history to appear in the Super Bowl with three different teams, played in five Super Bowls during his career. He is believed to be the only player to have been led by Don Shula, Chuck Noll and Tom Landry, three of the greatest coaches in NFL history who are members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

His list of teammates also reads like a Who’s Who in league history. He played in the backfield along with Unitas, Bradshaw and Staubach and was a running mate with Moore, Harris and Dorsett during his pro career. All three of those former teammates are also enshrined in the hall of fame.

Pearson, who retired just before the start of training camp in 1981, finished his career with 941 carries for 3,609 yards (3.8 ypc) and 13 touchdowns in 176 games. He added 254 receptions for 33,095 yards and 17 TDs. As a kick returner he gained 2,801 yards on 114 kickoff returns and two touchdowns, both of which came during the 1968 season, his second year in the league. He also saw limited action as a punt returner and finished with 40 yards on seven returns.

Pearson never fumbled during his time as a professional.

Pearson, who is now 76 years old, wastes little time in offering his advice to young football players. He has made his home in Dallas since 1977.

“If you get a chance, take it,” he said. “But it is important to remember that you have to put in the work because nothing worth having is going to be given to you.”

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