Sunday, May 22, 2016

Tolar couldn't play that way today

As I watched the NFL this season I noticed that more and more teams are featuring a "small" running back.

By and large these guys seem to be short -- 5'7" to 5'9" -- but quick; they're hitting holes and are gone before the opposing team seem to notice they've got the football. I'm thinking here of guys like Dexter McCluster, Maurice Jones-Drew, Jacquizz Rodgers and the like.

Then the other day , while reading some autumn back issues of the 1962 Sporting News on microfilm, I found a piece about a different sort of small pro running back from 50+ years ago.

The 1962

article was profiling what TSN called the two best running backs of the AFL: Cookie Gilchrist and Charley Tolar.

I knew about Gilchrist, but the Tolar name didn't ring any bells. 

It turns out he may have been the first pro running back described as a "human bowling ball." 

TSN described Tolar as 5'6" and 198 lbs. The paper said he was exceptionally quick with great balance and very strong. In 1962 he became the first Houston Oilers running back to pick up more than 1,000 yards rushing . . . 1,012 yards on 244 carries.

The article said his rushing style was to lower his head and use his helmet as a battering ram. In today's concussion-conscious NFL he couldn't get away with that. Dallas Cowboys linebacker E.J. Holub was quoted saying, "When you tackle Tolar you just butt helmets." Patriots guard Tony Sardisco, who also played defense, said, "Whenever I couldn't see where the ball went, I figured they gave it to Charley."

What I found especially interesting in the TSN article, and what inspired me to create a 1961 Fleer-style custom card (he was originally in the 1962 and 1963 Fleer football card sets and 1964 and 1965 Topps), was Tolar's off-season job as an oil- and gas-well fire fighter on the crew of the famed Red Adair.

Tolar told TSN that Adair was a big Oilers fan and asked him to join his crew fighting oil-field fires around the world. "I like travel, the money and the opportunities," Tolar said, "It's a lot of fun, too."

Adair's crew, including Tolar, fought the Gassi Touil fire in Algeria that came to be known as the "Devil's Cigarette Lighter." That Saharan desert fire blazed from November, 1961, to April, 1962.
"They say it was the worst one of all time," Tolar said. "We went back there twice and stayed about four weeks." On that job Tolar stayed in Algiers during some of the heaviest fighting of Algeria's war of independence from France. 

"I wasn't concerned about the danger," Tolar said, "but I didn't get much sleep with that gunfire and the cannons shooting off every night."

According to TSN, Tolar's work with Adair took him to East Pakistan (present-day Bangladesh), Iran, Algeria, the Sahara, Michigan and Texas.

Tolar had played high school football at Natchitoches (La.) Central as a 155-pound running back. Despite his size, he set a school record, gaining 1897 yards and 23 rushing touchdowns. He played his college ball right there in his hometown at Northwestern State University of Louisiana. He ran for 2,1994 yards in three seasons, leading the Gulf Coast Conference in rushing and scoring each year. He was twice MVP of the conference,

Tolar was drafted in the 27th round (319th player picked) of the 1959 NFL draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers. He signed an $8,000 contract with a $500 bonus, but was cut after the exhibition season.

With the formation of the American Football League, Tolar joined the Houston Oilers and became one the team's earliest stars and a fan favorite. He was part of the first AFL Championship team in 1960 and an AFL All-Star in 1961 ad 1962. He is one of the AFL's All-Time Top 10 rushers.

Tolar was elected to the Louisiana Hall of Fame in 1992. This career summary tells the story: Tolar biography .

Tolar died of cancer in 2003 at the age of 65. I have to wonder if he suffered in later life from the kind of trauma-related effects his rushing style must surely have brought on.

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