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The First Number One

Before Luck, Elway and Plunkett, Bobby Garrett was the toast of the NFL draft, though glory proved fleeting.

Courtesy Stanford Special Collections & University Archives

By Sam Scott

With an arm like a sling and aim like a guided missile, Cardinal quarterback Andrew Luck, ’12, hardly seems to need history in his arsenal as he enters the National Football League.

But Luck’s vast promise in the pros appears still greater in light of the triumphs of Stanford’s last two No. 1 draft picks, both also quarterbacks: John Elway, ’83, and Jim Plunkett, ’71. Both men rank among the giants of the game, each playing at least 15 years in the NFL, each ending their careers as members of the elite club of passers to win multiple Super Bowls.

But if their success bodes well for Luck, Stanford’s unrivaled quartet of top-pick quarterbacks also includes a reminder that greatness is assured to no one—not even an overall No. 1 pick, not if you land in the wrong location.

Bobby Garrett, ’54, burst onto the national stage his senior year after leading Stanford to victory against UCLA. Stanford was expected to present little challenge to the undefeated Bruins, then ranked fourth in the country. But Garrett almost single-handedly led a 21-20 upset, throwing three touchdowns, kicking all extra points and playing every minute on offense and defense.

“I’ve never seen a man dominate a game so completely as Garrett did,” said UCLA coach Red Sanders after the October 1953 game. “I mean anytime, anywhere.”

In the ensuing 1954 NFL draft, the Cleveland Browns snapped Garrett up with the first pick and signed him to a then-record rookie contract of $15,000 a year with a $5,000 signing bonus.

But within three years, Garrett was done with football with fewer than 10 games under his belt. Today, if his name comes up, it’s usually as an example of an epic bust, a player whose prodigious skills couldn’t overcome a debilitating condition—a stutter so profound he was unable to call plays in the huddle.

Football on the Farm

The career-ending speech impediment is a misconception Garrett’s son Bill, ’82, also a former Stanford football player, tires of correcting. True, his father stuttered, he said, but that never held him back at Stanford, where Coach Chuck Taylor and his teammates gave it little attention.

On that team, Garrett’s handicap barely caused a ripple. Sam Morley, ’54, JD ’59, his friend since seventh grade, played end for the team. He would stand next to Garrett in the huddle and slap him on the butt if he began to struggle. Words beginning with “F” and “Th” were particular challenges, Morley said. “I’d give him a slap on the rear end and he’d come right out of it,” said Morley, a retired lawyer living in Cupertino. “I don’t think it was much of a problem.”

Only once did the trick fail, he said, forcing the team to call a timeout, a fact everyone laughed about, Garrett included. Nobody thought to tease him.

The Brown Effect

What ended his dad’s career, according to Bill Garrett, was Coach Paul Brown, the Cleveland Brown’s hard-assed taskmaster who all but told the Russian history major to stand in a corner with a dunce cap on. The two got off to a poor start that had nothing to do with his father’s speech impediment, said Garrett. Brown apparently only realized his new quarterback faced two years of military service (from earning his Air Force commission at Stanford) after drafting him.

Brown reacted by shipping his new quarterback to the Green Bay Packers before he even arrived in Cleveland, a fact Garrett learned on the radio as he drove across the country with his new wife Joan.

Still, Brown thought enough of Garrett’s talent to reacquire him from the Packers after his military service. That proved to be the worst thing for his dad’s football career, his son said.

Coach Brown, who built a football dynasty in Cleveland and is often credited as the person responsible for making coaching the exact science it is today, operated by hasher rules. He made Garrett’s speech impediment into a public mockery that only made the young man more prone to stutter. Adding to the problems was the team’s new system of audibles (when a quarterback calls play changes on the field). It was the beginning of a tailspin.

When Brown’s rookie Paul Wiggin, ’57, MA ’59, arrived two weeks late to training camp in 1957, Garrett was a shadow of the man who had vanquished UCLA four years earlier.

Wiggin went onto play 11 years for the Browns. He says Garrett still stands in his mind as one of greatest quarterbacks he has seen in his career—which included coaching Elway at Stanford and nearly three decades working for the Minnesota Vikings, where he continues as a consultant. “What Luck is to Stanford now, Garrett was then,” he said. “When he had the ball with even a little bit of time and you were down, you knew you could score.”

But his talents couldn’t withstand Brown’s withering treatment. For all his professional glory, the Hall of Fame coach could hardly have done a worse job handling Garrett, Wiggin said. “It was just a misunderstanding of what stuttering was,” Wiggin says. “It didn’t solve the problem, it enhanced the problem.”

The choice to hang up his cleats, though, was Garrett’s alone, his son said. In fact, the decision blindsided Coach Brown. But after weeks of Brown’s criticisms, and missing his young family—including a son who nearly drowned during his absence—Garrett had enough. On the team’s pre-season trip to Southern California, near his hometown, Garrett interrupted a coaches meeting to tell Brown he wouldn’t be taking the trip back.

The coach claimed to be taken aback to learn how miserable Garrett was, saying they were bringing him along slowly. But Garrett declined the overture as well as an offer to be traded to Philadelphia. At 25, he was done with football.

Only then did the story spread that Garrett’s stutter made him incapable of leading a team, Bill Garrett said. His dad, though, was happy with his choice, going on to work for Sears Roebuck and Co. until his death from a heart attack in 1987.

“So that’s what happened to Bobby Garrett, my dad,” and Stanford’s first overall No. 1 draft pick, Bill Garrett wrote on an online forum of Stanford fans where discussion had turned to Garrett’s fate and his stutter. “He chose to stay home.”


Comments (3)

  • Eric Wells, MD

    The "online forum" was "The Bootleg."

    Posted by Eric Wells, MD on Apr 26, 2012 11:24 PM

  • Mr. Arthur Ashendorf

    One more reason to despise Paul Brown. Please remember how he mistreated Bill Walsh.

    Posted by Mr. Arthur Ashendorf on May 2, 2012 7:17 PM

  • Mr. Eric Lutkin

    you should send this article to the Daily as they have the misinformation story on Bobby Garrett here

    Posted by Mr. Eric Lutkin on May 3, 2012 4:23 PM


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