By Dr. Ken 


My introduction to college and professional football was an immediate passion. In truth, playing football, preparing to play football, reading about football, and knowing what could be known brought a great deal of structure and peace to what was otherwise described by teachers, K through 12, as “that kid’s hyper behavior.” For me, football was “the deal,” the one source that could take my entire attention and rivet it upon the names, heights, weights, colleges attended, and the game related statistics. I often think it’s unfortunate that I did not truly begin the mental and emotional “full court press” with college football until 1956 and the NFL until ’58. One may think, “My gosh, you were only eight or nine when you got started, how young did you want to be before you knew the life story of Eddie Price, Lou Michaels, or Jerry Tubbs?” I always had the thought that if I could have been older or felt the tug of football even earlier, there were many more players I would have had a deeper appreciation for. Of course, Earl Morrall was one of these, and this would be the time to interject that few gave Morrall the appreciation he deserved.


 Earl Morrall at Muskegon High School

Completing his collegiate career at Michigan State in 1955, I missed out on following Morrall and like most fans, I later thought of him as “one of those Lions back-ups from Michigan State.” At least in 1960 and 1961 it wasn’t unusual for me to confuse Morrall and Jim Ninowski while watching a Lions game on television. I believe that most fans remember Morrall now as a very good back-up quarterback who personally lost Super Bowl III to the New York Jets. The more astute fan will also recall that he saved the Miami Dolphins undefeated season of 1972, but he was much more than this and in my opinion, remains under appreciated for the true talent he was and the influence he brought to every squad he played with. “Every squad” includes his Muskegon, Michigan High School teams of 1950 and ’51, with the latter winning the State Championship behind Morrall’s High School All American season. He also led the Big Reds basketball team to the Regional Championships and the baseball squad to the State Championships. At Michigan State, [ see HELMET HUT   http://www.helmethut.com/College/MichState/MIXMSU4755A.html ] he was a Consensus All American quarterback as a senior in 1955,second in the  nation in punting, and led the Spartans to a 9-1 mark, a Rose Bowl victory over UCLA, the National Championship, and he finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy balloting. He played the infield well enough on the MSU baseball team, one that went to the College World Series, to consider a number of Major League offers.


Morrall entered the National Football League as the first round draft pick of the Forty Niners for the ’56 season. Frankie Albert was the new Niners’ head coach and though Morrall played in every game, he was the definite back-up to older hand Y.A. Tittle. With the Steelers dying a slow death in Pittsburgh, they traded for Morrall prior to the 1957 season and as a first time pro starter, he led the moribund team to a 6 – 8 record, completed close to fifty percent of his 289 passes, and played in the Pro Bowl. With Buddy Parker abruptly leaving the Lions and signing on as the new Steelers head coach who desperately wanted his old quarterback Bobby Layne with him, Morrall found himself in a Lions helmet after the Steelers first two games of the 1958 season. Wearing his third team jersey in three years may have beaten the spirit out of many, but Morrall played tough and remained with the Lions until the end of the 1964 season, sometimes starting, sometimes coming in as the relief man, and at times, doing no more than remaining on the bench as a back up to Tobin Rote, Ninowski, and later, Milt Plum.

As the full time starter in ’63, he threw twenty-four touchdown passes but had his 1964 season interrupted by a shoulder injury playing against the Bears in mid-October. During training camp of 1965, Morrall was part of a three team trade that sent him to the N.Y. Giants. With a team that had completed the ’64 season with a 2-10-2 record that may have been worse than the actual numbers, he led them to an exceptionally improved 7 – 7, second place in the division finish behind his twenty-two touchdown throws. Utilizing the infinite wisdom that made him a pariah with loyal Giants fans, head coach Allie Sherman relegated Morrall to a reserve role as a youth movement was pushed to the tune of a 1-12-1 finish in 1966 and he then sat behind newly acquired Fran Tarkenton in ’67. Late in August of 1968, Morrall was dealt to the Colts as the designated back-up to the great John Unitas but fate had much in store for the quarterback who had plenty left in him.

I doubt that any true football fan would believe that there was any “shame” or that it was a negative evaluation of one’s ability if they were named as back-up to the great John Unitas. However, Johnny U was injured in the final pre-season game against the Cowboys and the season was turned over to Earl Morrall. Seemingly rejuvenated, Morrall took the reins to the tune of a 13-1 season and the rights to the NFL’s Most Valuable Player Trophy. The only loss was a 30-20 defeat to the Browns on October 20 and the reserve quarterback more than made up for that with a 34-0 victory over the same Browns team in the playoffs. Unfortunately the Colts, entering Super Bowl III with the NFL’s best defense and second ranked offense did not defeat the Jets in what remains one of the most significant games and biggest upsets in sports history. With the signature play, and perhaps the most remembered moment being Morrall’s inability to locate a wide open Jimmy Orr downfield for what could have been a touchdown pass that may have altered the outcome of the game, Morrall’s tremendous achievements and sterling play during ’68 were largely ignored by many fans and those in the media.


Unitas returned to his usual, solid if not spectacular form in 1969 and ’70 and in the Super Bowl following that latter season, Unitas was again injured against the Cowboys and Morrall had to step in during the second quarter. This time, and with much less media and fan attention than the Jets vs. Colts error, Morrall threw well though with one interception, and kept control of the offense despite seven Colts turnovers, resulting in Baltimore’s 16-13 victory.

During the off-season prior to the opening of 1972 training camps, Morrall was claimed off of waivers by his former Colts head coach Don Shula. Going to the Dolphins, Morrall knew that his role, a familiar one, would be to back up Bob Griese who took the squad to a fast-start 4-0. However, as it was with Unitas, Griese was injured on October 15 and Morrall carried the team the remainder of the year, to an undefeated season. This earned him the AFC Player Of The Year and NFL Comeback Player Of The Year awards. The only negative aspect of the Dolphins run to their Super Bowl victory, at least for Earl, was Shula’s decision to replace Morrall with Griese for the second half of the AFC Championship Game against the Steelers and also start him for the Super Bowl contest. That the Dolphins obviously won and became the first undefeated team of pro football’s modern era I am sure was enough satisfaction for Morral. As it was with the Colts, many teammates believed that Earl could have accomplished those final wins just as well.


Morrall finally retired after twenty-one seasons of professional football, hanging up his helmet on May 2, 1977. When it was all said and done, he had totaled almost 21,000 yards passing in his role often described as “a career back-up.”  To no one’s surprise, he took all of his football knowledge and became a quarterbacks coach at the University Of Miami where he helped to develop Jim Kelly, Bernie Kosar, and Vinny Testaverde. He later became Mayor of Davie, Florida and lived quietly until passing away on April 25, 2014. Like so many of our football players from the 1950’s and ‘60’s, Morrall at seventy-nine, became elderly and passed on. However, he was a step above in his ability to lead, to always be available and ready, and because of that, served as a special example to many who needed to be reminded that greatness includes a lot more than raw statistics.


At the offices of HELMET HUT Mr. Morrall remained a favorite among all of the many greats who have visited or who have sought to possess the helmets they have worn in their past [ see HELMET HUT http://www.helmethut.com/EarlMorrall.html ]. As one staffer stated, “This is so sad...  I have met many of the older players and Earl was one of my true favorites.  He reminded me of my grandfather.  He and his wife have been so sweet, we always get a Christmas card. I have wonderful hand written letters from him.  There have only been two players that have actually spent the time to ask me a question about my life and one of them was Earl.   This is very very sad.”  Although his “highest honor” may be his induction to the Michigan Sports Hall Of Fame, certainly laudatory by itself, Earl Morrall is remembered and revered by his teammates and fans for much more than that.