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Turn down Woody Hayes? Purdue’s Len Dawson did

August 20, 2006 - By Dave Johnson - Courier & Press Executive Sports Editor

Len Dawson had a difficult decision to make after developing into an all-state quarterback at Alliance High School in the early 1950s: Where should he go to college?

His main choices were Ohio State and Purdue, and the logical choice for a schoolboy from Ohio was the Buckeyes.

"Ohio State was big even back then," said Dawson, who grew up listening to OSU games on the radio. "Woody Hayes never went out of state to recruit because he got all of the good in-state players."

But Hayes would have a tough time getting the kid from Alliance High.

"Woody talked to me about his split-T offense," said Dawson, "and I wasn't too crazy about it. I didn't want to put my life in the hands of a tight end if he wasn't gonna block for me."

Which made Purdue and better choice.

Purdue passed the ball and I was a passing quarterback, not a split-T quarterback," said Dawson, who had thrown for 19 touchdowns and over 1,600 yards as a high school senior. "So Purdue was a good move for me."

Looking back, Purdue was probably more then a little lucky to land Dawson. The future Pro Football Hall of Famer wasn't too familiar with the Big Ten school from West Lafayette, Ind.

His first recollection of Purdue football came in the fall of 1950, when he was 15 years old. He went to the movies and saw one of those old movie-tone film clips that showed highlights of Purdue’s 28-14 upset of top-ranked Notre Dame. Left halfback Mike Maccioli, who also had gone to Alliance High, scored the Boilermakers’ final TD in that game, which snapped the Irish’s 39-game winning streak.

"Back then, I didn't even know where Purdue was," said Dawson, who will be in town Thursday to appear at the Evansville Cancer Center’s annual prostate awareness program. "I thought it was someplace in Illinois."

But he ultimately found his way from eastern Ohio to west-central Indiana and quickly developed a friendship with Hank Stram, a Purdue assistant coach. A decade later, Stram would play a pivotal role in Dawson’s career.

Freshmen weren't eligible to play college football then, so Dawson had to wait until 1954, his sophomore year, to start showing what he could do.

In his first game, he passed for four touchdowns in a 31-0 victory over Missouri. "They had no clue that anybody on our team could even through the football," he said of the Tigers.

The next week, he threw for four more TDs and sparked the 19th-ranked Boilermakers to a 27-14 win at No. 1 Notre Dame, handing the Irish their only loss of the season.

Like most starters back then, Dawson played both ways, He also handled some of the Boilermakers’ kicking chores.

I asked Dawson what position he played on defense.

"Way back," he replied. I was probably the first free safety. We always played zone and my zone was deep. (The coaches) said, Don't let anybody get behind you."

Dawson said the only time he got hurt at Purdue was when he was playing defense. My senior year, I missed a few games with a bruised shoulder. They had these 5 & Dime (cheap) shoulder pads. (The coaches) got me out of there whenever they could."

The Boilermakers were just 13-10-4 in Dawson’s three seasons, but he led the Big Ten in passing and total offense each year. He also led the nation in touchdown passes as a sophomore.

Fifty years after he left Purdue, Dawson still ranks among the school’s most prolific passers. He's eight in TDs (29), ninth in completion percentage (53.8), 11th in yards (3,325), 12th in attempts (452) and 12th in completions (243).

Dawson went on to play 19 seasons in the American and National Football Leagues. He passed for more than 29,000 yards and 239 touchdowns.

His pro careers got off to an inauspicious start, though, despite the fact he was the Pittsburgh Steelers' first-round pick (and fifth overall) in the 1957 NFL draft.

In his first five seasons, three with the Steelers and two with the Cleveland Browns, Dawson started just two games. After the 1962 season, he asked the Browns for his release and signed with the AFL's Dallas Texans. The Texans' head coach was Hank Stram.

Stram and Dawson had stayed in touch over the years.

"Hank would always say, 'If you ever get released, let me know,' so that's what I did. All I ever wanted was an opportunity to play, and Hank gave me one."

Dawson led Dallas to the AFL championship in '62 and earned the league's Player of the Year Award. The Texans became the Kansas City Chiefs the next season and Dawson guided them to two more AFL titles.

An eight-time all-pro, Dawson spent 12 seasons with Stram and the Chiefs and led them to two Super Bowls They lost Super Bowl I to the Green Bay Packers and Bart Starr, who will appear with Dawson here Thursday, but beat the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IV.

Dawson went into the Hall of Fame in 1987; Stram was his presenter. In 2003, when Stram was inducted, Dawson presented him.

Stram passed away in July 2005. I asked Dawson about the impact Stram had on his life. Would it be accurate to say that, if it hadn't been for Hank Stram, there might not have been a Len Dawson?

"There'd have been a Len Dawson," he said, "but probably not Len Dawson, the football player."

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