CLEVELAND — Long before entourages became fashionable, Jim Brown had his own personal bodyguard.
Gene Hickerson protected the Hall of Fame running back from harm.
Next time you watch any old black-and-white NFL footage of Brown, Cleveland’s great No. 32 weaving his way toward the end zone on a long touchdown run, there’s a good chance No. 66 — Hickerson — was out front or alongside.
“Gene was the leader of a great line,” Brown said, “and the greatest downfield blocker in the history of pro football.”
And finally, years, if not decades after he probably should have been inducted, the
72-year-old Hickerson will be enshrined in Canton, an overdue tribute to the Browns’ pulling right guard who blocked for three Hall of Fame backs.
Unusually quick for his size, Hickerson, a country boy from Mississippi, anchored Cleveland’s offensive line for 15 seasons. Throughout the 1960s and into the early 1970s, Hickerson opened holes for Brown, Leroy Kelly and Bobby Mitchell — all Hall of Famers — who would have never amassed as many yards or as much acclaim if not for Hickerson’s bone-jarring blocks.
“As far as I’m concerned he should have been in 20 or 30 years ago,” said Browns teammate Jim Houston. “He had the ability. Gene was always low key except when it came time to protect Jim Brown or Leroy Kelly. Brother, he did that.”
At 6-foot-3, 248 pounds, Hickerson was small by today’s gargantuan standards for an NFL lineman, but his athleticism, balance and speed allowed the Browns to utilize the former high school running back on plays toward the sidelines.
“The Browns ran a lot of sweeps with Gene,” said former Browns offensive tackle Doug Dieken, a close friend and former teammate of Hickerson. “Gene could run with any running back, they didn’t have to slow down for him to set up his block. He could also pass block, but when he got out there on the corner or down the field, it was like one of those smart bombs.
“That defensive back was toast.”
Drafted in the sixth round in 1957 — the same year Cleveland took Brown with its first pick — Hickerson proved to be one of the most durable players to ever snap on an orange helmet. He played behind former Steelers coach Chuck Noll for one season before taking over the starting job in 1959.
He broke his leg in the 1961 preseason opener, and then re-broke it later in the season while standing on the sideline. After sitting out two games in 1962, Hickerson never missed another game before retiring in 1973.
Hickerson was named an All-Pro five straight years (1966-70) and was voted to the Pro Bowl six consecutive seasons (1966-71). During his time in Cleveland, the Browns never had a losing record.
Before Hickerson’s arrival, only seven rushers in league history had ever reached 1,000 yards. In his first 10 seasons, the Browns had a 1,000-yard rusher nine times and the league’s leading rusher on seven occasions.
“He was an exceptional athlete, and always on his feet,” said Dieken. “You would watch the (game) film and be in awe. He was the standard for what a pulling guard is all about.”
Yet despite that glittering resume and testimonials from Brown and others of his worthiness to be elected, Hickerson was bypassed by voters for 29 years.
Brown has his theory on why.
“We’re human beings,” he said. “Sometimes we don’t see what’s right in front of our faces. It wasn’t because of Gene’s talent.”
His long omission gnawed at the soft-spoken Hickerson, whose health has deteriorated in recent years.
However, Hickerson rarely grumbled aloud about not making the Hall, said his best friend, Bobby Franklin, a former college and pro teammate, who will present Hickerson at the Saturday induction ceremonies.
“Gene never said much but I know it really bothered him. He would usually make a joke about it, though,” Franklin said on the phone from his home in Mississippi. “Somebody would ask Gene, ‘When are you going to get to the Hall of Fame?’ And Gene would say, ‘I’m going to drive down there tomorrow.’”
Hickerson’s joking only masked a deep disappointment he felt in not getting elected for so many years. Though a worthy candidate, he was often edged out because of more high-profile names on the ballot.
“Hickerson’s 15 years of modern era eligibility coincided with some of the sport’s greatest Hall of Fame classes,” said Tony Grossi of The Plain Dealer, a Hall voter. “It was tough for a guard to get in against the likes of O.J. Simpson and Pete Rozelle, and others, in the 1980s.
“Many offensive linemen of his time were tossed into the pool of deserving players who fell through the cracks. And then the wait becomes even longer for that logjam to be broken up.”
Hickerson’s long wait is finally over, but because of health issues, he can’t appreciate it as much as he would have years earlier.
“It’s going to be special,” Franklin said. “But it’s also a sad time, too, because Gene can’t enjoy it as much. But he’s in.”