By Dr. Ken 


The first two parts of our three part series about the unbelievable backfield talent on the Robert Taft High School backfield during the 1960 season [see HELMET HUT NEWS/REFLECTIONS November 2016

and Janauary 2017 ] have created quite a bit of excitement and comment. I would obviously agree with the observation of so many of our readers how unusual it is to have a collection of players, all running backs, that graced a high school team in one specific season and then went on to college and professional football success. Cincinnati high school football ranks among the better areas in the nation but the achievements of Al Nelson, Carl Ward, Cid Edwards, and Walter Johnson remain unique.




Johnson was perhaps the standout of the group, a 6’4”, 230 pound senior fullback with an outsized physique and enough acceleration to be nicknamed “Zoom.” He was no overweight sluggo and must have been a frightening sight on a high school football field. Johnson had plenty of speed to augment his muscular physique, consistently timed at 10 flat in the 100 yard sprint even late into his pro career and at 265 – 275 pounds. He was highly recruited, making his first collegiate stop at New Mexico State University. Of the forty-three Aggie players who have graced the active rosters of the NFL, twenty-two of them represented New Mexico State in the 1960s and ‘70s and the coaching staff went far and wide to bring them to Las Cruces. With the weather ranging from 10 to 110 degrees F, Johnson moved on to the California State University, Los Angeles. Cal State LA was a ‘60s small college powerhouse, and very much like rival West Texas State provided a disproportionate number of pro players relative to its student body size. Johnson variously played fullback, guard, and middle linebacker, always playing both ways and fit in well with future pros Jim Weatherwax, Don Davis, Dunn Marteen, Howard Kindig, and George Youngblood on an undefeated team that outscored its opposition by an average of 41 – 7 and were voted the 1964 Small College National Champions. Even at the small college level Johnson was so dominant that he was a magnet for pro scouts.  


He was a second round draft choice of the Cleveland Browns in ’65 and established himself as a dynamic player and immediate contributor at defensive tackle backing up Jim Kanicki and Dick Modzelweski. In 1966 Johnson assumed the starting role and then started every game with the Browns until the finale in 1976, earning berths in the Pro Bowl in 1967, ’68, and ’69. In an era of perhaps the greatest defensive tackles the game has known, men like Alan Page, “Mean” Joe Green, Bob Lilly, and Merlin Olsen, Johnson was usually the odd-man-out when All Pro accolades were distributed. Yet many believe he was every bit at their level and he was durable. Including his final season with the Bengals, the understated Johnson played in 182 consecutive games. He teamed with Kanicki and later with Jerry Sherk to provide a formidable front for the Browns and was named a Browns Legend. In 1977 he played his final pro year at home in Cincinnati, still emphasizing his amazing speed and quickness at a muscular 265 pounds. This combination led Johnson to an off-season career as a professional wrestler where he was a popular performer despite lacking top-level wrestling skills.



 Johnson usually would work his way off of the canvas and finish opponents with his football bull rush and bear hug


His three-point stance rush that culminated in a powerful bear hug were his “signature moves” but his football status lent credibility in the Midwest states where he did most of his ring work. At one time, he and Bengals linebacker Ron Pritchard who also pursued off season pro wrestling matches drew very good crowds. Johnson was even crowned America’s Champion by a Los Angeles based promotion in 1980. At the close of his athletic career, Johnson directed an alarm security firm but unfortunately suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of fifty-six. For those who are long time Browns fans there is a strong belief that Johnson never received the recognition he deserved as one of the best defensive lineman of his era.    


The city of Selma, Alabama often takes credit for the high school success of Cleophus “Cid” Edwards, and although the records indicate that he was in fact born in Selma, Alabama on October 10, 1943, he was “as Cincinnati” as Graeter’s Ice Cream and Skyline Chili! Various reports claim that he attended Selma High School but of course, up until the 1970 integration of the Selma schools, Cid would have attended the segregated R.B. Hudson High School. Even though Hudson and A.G. Parrish High Schools merged to form Selma High School, Hudson would have been the accurate listing. After his family moved to Cincinnati from Alabama, Edwards in fact grew up very close to the future location of Riverfront Stadium and when it was time for his professional try-out, it was done at Taft High School, his alma mater. As a prep performer he was a bit overshadowed in the Taft backfield by Al Nelson and Walter Johnson. Edwards manned the right halfback position and was named to the All City of Cincinnati team only after his two teammates graduated. As a 6’2”, 210 pound battering ram, Edwards played in the Ohio North – South All Star Game and then accepted a scholarship to Tennessee A & I which was renamed Tennessee State in 1968. Also variously reported as having graduated from Tennessee State, Edwards left during his first year to join the military. An All Asian fullback, he returned to Cincinnati following his discharge and deployment, having missed the opportunity to share the gridiron with Tennessee A & I standouts Eldridge Dickey, Claude Humphrey, Nolan Smith, Robert Reed, and Roosevelt Davis and of course benefit from the coaching of John Merritt and Joe Gilliam, Sr.


Many in Cincinnati remembered Cid’s high school exploits and a local sportswriter contacted St. Louis Cardinals’ backfield coach Rick Forzano who had an extensive Ohio related history. He in turn passed the information to Emmet “Abe” Studer, a long time college head coach, NFL assistant, and at that time, the Director Of Player Personnel for the Cardinals. Enjoying the home cooked food he had missed while away and not planning on a visit from an NFL personnel director, Edwards was a bit overweight at 237 pounds but he and Studer went to the Taft High School field where the big back was put through his paces and turned in a very credible 4.8/100 yard sprint time. Studer signed him and he spent the 1967 season on the Cardinals taxi squad, shaping up to an impressive 230 rock-hard pounds and consistently running 4.5/100s and had the team’s best performance in the twelve minute run. He was activated for the ’68 season and spent five years with the Cards, primarily playing on special teams and in a back-up role to Johnny Roland, MacArthur Lane, and Willis Crenshaw, although he led the Cards in rushing in ‘69.


He continued to contribute but many will recall the charges of blatant racism that tore the Cardinals apart in the late 1960s. As an older player and military veteran, Edwards advice was sought by younger players and as per Dave Meggyesy’s best-selling book, Out Of Their League, Edwards was outspoken in team meetings and in denoting the specific race relation problems the team had failed to address. It was not surprising that he was one of numerous veterans that were traded prior to the ’72 season. With the San Diego Chargers, Edwards had a very productive year, rushing for 679 yards and catching forty passes for 557. Much of the offense for a poor team consisted of screen and out-of-the-backfield passes to Edwards. In 1973 he was again productive, leading the Chargers in rushing and ranking second on their receiving list. In ’74, Edwards only started six games as the Chargers new head coach Tommy Prothro “started from scratch” with rookie running backs Don Woods, Bo Matthews, and Glenn Bonner. Traded to the Bears for 1975, a separated shoulder was misdiagnosed as a “shoulder bruise” leaving Edwards with a paltry twenty-seven rushing attempts in his final pro year.       




Perhaps the least known of the Taft Backfield quartet, except to die-hard Michigan fans, is Carl Ward. The crowded Taft stable left sophomore Ward primarily on the defensive side of the football, an undersized but speedy and talented athlete who would fill out to a 5’9”, 170 pounder by his senior season. However, the consensus opinion of the Cincinnati area sportswriters was that Ward was “the best all-around back the city has produced in a decade.” He was a versatile player with surprising toughness that augmented his obvious speed. He parlayed an outstanding football career as an offensive and defensive back, kick and punt returner, and team leader with three years of basketball, and four years of track which left him as one of the top sprinters in the state. He accepted a football scholarship to the University of Michigan and started six games as a sophomore on the1964 Big Ten and Rose Bowl Championship squad. The Wolverines’ 34 – 7 victory over Oregon State was highlighted by Ward’s ten carries for eighty-eight yards performance. He gave up basketball after his frosh season to focus on football and track where he garnered four letters and was the Big Ten Conference 60 yard sprint champion. He was All Conference as a halfback in ’65, proving to be an excellent blocker while rushing for 5.7 yards per carry. He was a consistent danger as a return man and a quiet but effective leader.




At the conclusion of his U of M football career, Ward had amassed 2,266 all-purpose yards and was considered one of the school’s greatest return men. The Cleveland Browns drafted him in the fourth round and an everlasting highlight of his rookie year was a record-setting 104 yard kickoff return against the Washington Redskins. Ward put in two seasons as a defensive back while returning kicks and punts, and then went to the Saints for 1969.


Through the years, there have been numerous high schools that have bragged about sending players to college football programs but there are no others in the author’s memory that can boast of having four members of the same backfield that not only played college and professional football, but did so at a productive level when their accomplishments are stacked up and analyzed. With the rise in popularity and the reputations of high school football in Florida and Georgia, and the long established record of excellence in Texas, California, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, many have forgotten that the Cincinnati area was and remains one of the most fertile areas for high school football tradition and proliferation of terrific players. The Robert Taft High School backfield of 1960 however, was truly unique.