Gene Hickerson: Elvis Took His Calls

My new book “Pass the Nuts: More Stories About the Most Unusual People and Remarkable Events from My Four Decades As a Sports Journalist
” is coming out in early November. Here’s a preview of the book– taken from Chapter 1.

It was a few years too late when Gene Hickerson was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2007. They could just as well have inducted a tomato plant. Gene had just turned 70 and his mind was ravaged by dementia. At his induction ceremony he could not speak. In fact, he didn’t even get out of his wheelchair. There wasn’t a dry eye in Canton’s Fawcett Stadium when Jim Brown, Bobby Mitchell and Leroy Kelly, Hickerson’s three Hall of Fame running backs, pushed him in his wheelchair onto the stage. Massive men with paws the size of polar bears dabbed at their eyes. Gene was the offensive guard who usually cleared the path for Brown, Mitchell and Kelly into the end zone. Gene’s old teammate and close friend Bobby Franklin, consumed by emotion, made the presentation speech for Gene, words he had practiced four times a day for six months.

Hickerson and Brown were both drafted in December of 1956. Brown was the first pick and Hickerson was taken in the seventh round. The NFL moved up its draft from spring until before Christmas, before the 1956 season had actually ended, because of the war between the NFL and the Canadian Football League. The Canadians were blatantly looting players from the NFL and competing for draft choices. Hickerson was only a junior at Mississippi and couldn’t play until the 1958 season, which explains why he was picked so low. That was a favorite ploy of Browns coach and general manager Paul Brown. He would identify “can’t miss” underclassmen and draft them as “future” picks. He could use a low-round draft pick to get a future Hall of Famer. The Browns were usually so deep with talent that they could afford to wait a year for a draft choice. Most other teams did not have that luxury. They needed their draft picks right away.

Gene almost never played football. Not until his senior year in high school did he pull on the shoulder pads and only because his younger brother, Willie, persuaded him to try out for the Trenton High School team near Memphis, Tennessee. When Gene trotted onto the practice field for the first time, the coach’s eyes lit up like the headlamp on the Chattanooga Choo Choo. His teammates stood back in awe. At 235 pounds, Gene was the fastest kid on the team. No thought was given to putting Gene in a three-point stance on the line. Gene was the tailback and he led the team in rushing and scoring. He trampled opponents almost at will.

How the University of Tennessee missed Gene is easily explained. Gene was born and raised in Trenton, Tennessee. The Volunteers rarely lost a player of Gene’s caliber, but the Trenton postmaster was an Ole Miss man. He called Ole Miss coach John Vaught and extolled the prowess of Hickerson. College coaches get those calls all the time and usually ignore them. When nothing happened after two weeks, the postmaster called again. Still no action. Two more weeks passed and the postmaster called a third time. The name Hickerson was becoming familiar in the Ole Miss football office.

That winter, the Ole Miss recruiting coordinator took a bird-hunting trip to Trenton and while there he called Hickerson’s home and got directions to his house. When the coach pulled into the driveway, Gene stepped onto the front porch to greet him and the recruiting coordinator’s jaw dropped. He offered Gene a scholarship on the spot. He had never seen him play football.

At Ole Miss, coach Vaught turned Gene into a tackle, but in practice he made him run sprints with the backs. Before long everybody knew about him. In 1958 Gene was a starter in the traditional exhibition game between the reigning NFL champions and the College All-Stars that opened every season. The College All-Stars easily spanked the NFL champion Detroit Lions that year. Gene then began a 15-year career as a gloriously decorated guard with the Cleveland Browns, 13 seasons at right guard and the last two at left guard. He made all-league five times and made six Pro Bowl appearances. In 15 seasons, Hickerson had a role in sending five different Browns running backs to the Pro Bowl—Jim Brown, Bobby Mitchell, Leroy Kelly, Ernie Green and Greg Pruitt.

“He was a great player, but he was contrary. He’d argue with a sign post,” said Bobby Franklin, who played with Gene at Ole Miss and the Browns. With the Browns, Bobby played all four defensive backfield positions and was Lou Groza’s holder on field goals and extra points.

“Gene always had to do it his way,” Franklin continued. “He never trained. He never ran. He never lifted weights. When Nick Skorich became the head coach, he made everybody run laps. Gene refused to run laps. He wouldn’t do it and there was nothing Skorich could do about it. In pre-game warm-ups, Gene would always lean against the goal post and watch Frank Ryan throw passes to the wide receivers. Gene said to Paul Warfield, ‘I can run better routes than that.’ Paul said, ‘Let’s see.’ Gene got down in a three-point stance and ran right into the dugout.”

* * *

Hickerson was a bundle of contradictions. For example, he was a friend of Elvis Presley but loved classical music. He was a frequent patron of the Cleveland Orchestra at Severance Hall and he knew the famous conductor George Szell personally. He sneered at popular music, despite his personal relationship with Elvis, who also came from Memphis. Because of Gene, Elvis became a huge Browns fan. Every Monday, Gene would pick up an extra copy of the previous day’s game film and ship it to Elvis, who studied the film like a scout. One night in a bar I scoffed when Gene told me about his friendship with Elvis.

“You go over to that phone and call this number and see who answers,” Gene said.

He wrote a number on a cocktail napkin. We were in a bar, for Pete’s sake, and the phone was a pay phone. I did not have a pocket full of quarters. I stuck the number in my pocket and threw it away later.

Jim Mueller, who was broadcasting Browns games on the radio with Gib Shanley, also reacted skeptically late one night to Hickerson’s boast that he knew Elvis.

“Call this number,” Gene said to Mueller.

Mueller did not need pocket full of quarters. He was sitting in the living room of Hickerson’s apartment on the Lakewood Gold Coast. He picked up Hickerson’s house phone and Gene recited the number.

“Ask for Elvis,” said Hickerson.

“Can I speak to Elvis Presley?” Mueller said when a voice answered the phone.

“Who is calling?”

“I’m a friend of Gene Hickerson,” said Mueller.

“Just one minute.”

Momentarily, Mueller heard Elvis Presley’s voice on the other end of the line. After that nobody doubted Hickerson.

Over the years I spent many hours in the company of Hickerson. When you were with Gene, you kept your money in your pocket because he bought every round. But in 1970 he stopped talking to me in the locker room after games and never spoke to me there again. He objected to something I wrote in my clubhouse interview story. I didn’t misquote him. I captured his words perfectly. What he didn’t like was my interpretation which began, “Hickerson seems to be saying . . .”

After the next game I went up to him in the locker room and he said, “I’m not talking to you anymore.”

He didn’t. But in the bar that night we talked for hours. Gene could be rigid. His embargo applied only to the locker room.

* * *

From his first training camp, Doug Dieken was one of Hickerson’s most loyal friends. Hickerson was the wise old veteran; Dieken a rookie.

“My rookie year Gene said, ‘Hey, rookie. Come on down to the Hanna Pub. It’s my birthday.’ Bo Cornell and I went. He wouldn’t let us pay for a thing. The next week, same thing. He said it was his birthday. He just wanted to go drinking with us,” said Dieken.

At the end of his career, Hickerson moved to left guard next to Dieken, the left tackle.

“We had a play where the guard was supposed to block the first guy coming across and the tackle was supposed to take the second guy. Gene never touched his man. The guy came right through and clobbered me. I got up and said, ‘Gene, guard first, tackle second.’ ‘No,’ said Gene. ‘Guard first choice.’

In practice during the 1970 season, Bill Yanchar, a rookie defensive tackle from Purdue, head slapped Hickerson.

“Don’t do that,” said Gene.

On the next play Yanchar head slapped him again. Gene said nothing. He simply kicked him in the shin as hard as he could. Yanchar limped to the sidelines.

* * *

Gene was poor growing up near Memphis. No doubt it was this upbringing that drove him to success in business. For many years he was a manufacturer’s rep for Anchor Tool and Die in the steel business. He sold to the auto industry. He even worked during the football season. Every Monday, which was usually the players’ day off, Gene called on customers. He once told me that he never cashed his Browns paychecks. I think he meant that he just socked them away in an account somewhere and he lived on the income from his steel company. He did well.

Dino Lucarelli recalled that every year Hickerson bought a loge at the Stadium, which he used to entertain his customers. Gene would come to Dino’s office at the Stadium and hand him a personal check for the entire amount. I never heard of an athlete actually buying tickets, much less buying a loge.

Jack Bush, the general manager for J & L Steel, told Gene that he needed soaking pit covers for his mill so Gene and Dieken started a company to make them. The name of the company was D & H, Inc.

“Why do you call it D & H instead of H & D?” someone asked Hickerson.

“Because when you go bankrupt they always go after the first name,” Gene explained.

Dieken said the company lasted a year and a half.

“We actually sold a few soaking pit covers,” Dieken said.

* * *

Gene was married briefly in college and had a son. The marriage did not work out and Gene vowed never to marry again, a vow he upheld. Years later a daughter surfaced and he treated her generously. He always lived alone, first in the Commodore Hotel in the University Circle neighborhood, then to the Lakewood Gold Coast and finally in a big brick house in Avon across from a golf course, a house far bigger than he needed. He had three families, however. His teammates were his first family. For many years he put on lavish holiday meals at Dieken’s house in Bay Village for the bachelors on the team—the strays, as he called them. Gene liked to eat and he liked to cook. In the 1990s he and a partner opened a high-class restaurant in Playhouse Square. Gene closed it when his partner died.

Bob Hickerson, his wife, Eileen, and their children were Gene’s second family. They live in Berea. Eileen is the sister of the Browns’ former media relations director Kevin Byrne, currently a vice president with the Baltimore Ravens.

His third family were Mimi and Jim Hall and their children. They also lived close by in Avon. Mimi was Gene’s old girlfriend. They moved on but they did not grow apart. Mimi and Jim got married and had children, but there always was a place at their table for Gene. That’s where I found Gene on the Saturday before the 2007 Super Bowl when Gene learned he had been elected to the Hall of Fame. It was at their kitchen table that I attempted to record on camera his response to the news. One sentence, one 10-second sound bite was all we needed for Fox 8 and the Fox network. Mimi and I even wrote out the sentence and placed it before him. He tried courageously a dozen times but he could not do it as Mimi watched in agony. Gene was in the throes of that terrible disease.

Nobody heard his voice again but his career spoke volumes.

Excerpted from the book Pass the Nuts: More Stories About the Most Unusual People and Remarkable Events from My Four Decades As a Sports Journalist
, copyright © Dan Coughlin. All rights reserved.

This excerpt may not be used in any form for commercial purposes without the written permission of Gray & Company, Publishers.

This article reprinted from CoughlinForever.com, through a partnership between Dan Coughlin and The Cleveland Leader. To read more of his writing, visit his website.