One thing the Cleveland Browns have been known for all these many years is their running game. More specifically – the quality of the players running with the ball.
Jim Brown. Leroy Kelly. Mike Pruitt. Bo Scott. Kareem Hunt. Jamal Lewis. Earnest Byner. Marion Motley. Dub Jones. Kevin Mack. Eric Metcalf. William Green. Ken Carpenter. Nick Chubb. Bobby Mitchell. Cleo Miller. Peyton Hillis. Ernie Green. Leroy Hoard.
Add to that list Greg Pruitt.
He came to the Browns in the second-round of the 1973 NFL draft. He was the choice of owner Art Modell despite Pruitt being 5’-10” tall and only weighing 190 pounds. Then-Browns head coach Nick Skorich did not prefer Pruitt nor want him because of size concerns, but Modell insisted and the pick was made.
Pruitt was a stud in college playing for Oklahoma after having a great high school career at B.C. Elmore High School in Houston, Texas where he played quarterback before the switch to running back. His father worked for Folger’s Coffee while his mother was a beautician. Pruitt had four football scholarship offers: Wyoming, Arizona, Oklahoma and his hometown Houston Cougars.
After only gaining 241 yards his first season at Oklahoma, he proved that he had very good hands and added 240 receiving yards. In 1971, Pruitt busted out with 1,760 rushing yards on 196 attempts, scored 18 touchdowns and added 108 receiving yards. For his efforts, he was named Consensus All-American, First Team All-Big 8 Conference, was the Big 8 rushing leader, the nation’s second-leading rusher and was third in the Heisman voting which was won by Auburn quarterback Pat Sullivan.
In his final season at Oklahoma, Pruitt once again had a banner year with 938 rushing yards and 14 total touchdowns plus was the Big 8 rushing touchdowns leader. For the second straight year, he was named Consensus All-American, First Team All-Big 8 Conference, and placed second in the Heisman voting behind Nebraska’s Johnny Rodgers.
Even today, Pruitt ranks third in Oklahoma history in career All-Purpose yards. The College Football Hall of Fame inducted him in 1999. He was also inducted into the Greater Cleveland Sports Hall of Fame in 2003.
After being drafted by the Browns, the incumbent running back was Leroy Kelly with Bo Scott inserted as fullback. With Kelly, the word “workhorse” would be an adequate description. He had backed up Jim Brown for several seasons after being taken in the eighth round of the NFL draft. When Brown retired in 1965, this placed Kelly as the starting RB and he subsequently averaged an astounding 5.2 yards per carry.
In his rookie season, Pruitt made the Pro Bowl. After Kelly signed with Chicago of the newly-formed World Football League before the 1974 season, Pruitt took over as the starter. He was paired with FB Hugh McKinnis and the two of them combined for over 1,000 yards.
The next four seasons the fullback position was used like it was designed featuring a bulky blocking back making holes for the running back. During this span Pruitt gained 4,113 rushing yards plus 1,493 receiving yards and 23 total TDs plus had three straight 1,000-yard seasons from 1975-1977. He injured his leg in 1978 and sat out four games, and at season’s end was just 40-yards shy of another 1,000-yard year.
Even though Pruitt had success the franchise only had one winning season during this stretch and zero playoff appearances. In 1979 the Browns signed veteran RB Calvin Hill which regulated Pruitt to a backup role in the next three seasons as he gained just 474 rushing yards combined. He later signed with the Oakland Raiders and was used primarily as a kickoff and punt returner from 1982-1984, won a Super Bowl ring and earned his fifth Pro Bowl honor as a return man at the age of 32 after he led the league in punt returns.
For his career, Pruitt had 1,196 attempts for 5,672 yards with a 4.7 rushing average, scored 27 rushing touchdowns, played in 158 games with 83 starts. He also contributed with 328 receptions for another 3,069 yards with a 9.4 yards per reception average, plus scored 18 receiving touchdowns. Pruitt was named to five Pro Bowls, four of which were in orange and brown. He was named Second Team All-Pro in 1977.
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Only three players ran for more yards in Browns history than the elusive Pruitt. He even has an NFL rule named after him. “The Greg Pruitt Rule” states that no player can wear a jersey designed to be ripped easily off the player. Pruitt wore 100% cotton jerseys that when pulled during a tackle would rip off into the defender’s hand and then Pruitt would be gone. In 1979 the NFL had enough of copycats and outlawed them for good. The only tearaway jersey that remains is in a glass frame inside Pruitt’s home.
Pruitt is also a member of the Cleveland Browns Legends. The franchise uses this program as a method to honor the team’s all-time greatest athletes who have made sacrifices and contributed to the success of the entire organization. This program began in 2001 with automatic induction of the Browns’ then-Pro Football Hall of Famers.
Along with those Hall of Famers, the Legends inducted five other inductees into their initial class. Greg Pruitt was one of the that first five along with Ray Renfro, Gene Hickerson, Bernie Kosar and Michael Dean Perry.
Not bad for a kid who was too short and not enough meat on his bones. Now, he is considered “Browns Royalty.”
Today, Pruitt is a consultant to the general contractor company he began called Pruitt and Associates in Shaker Heights, Ohio. Their motto is, “Whatever repair, replacement a home may need. We Do-It Pruitt.” A true Texan and Southerner, what once was the cruel exposure to the frigid cold winters is now an embrace of the culture and climate of the Cleveland area. He even snow skis.
DBN caught up with Pruitt to ask him how he did not win the Heisman Trophy despite rushing for 1,760 yards in a single season, if he really had to write a letter to get onto a national sports competition, and why his ejection from one game helped the Browns win.
DBN: You grew up in Houston and played four sports: basketball, football, baseball and track. Your grandfather Edward Philpot played Negro League baseball. Were you able to attend his games, and do you feel you inherited his athletic abilities?
Pruitt: He had retired. But he coached and I was a bat boy. That is how I got introduced to the game of baseball and was my game of choice in high school. I definitely got his athletic genes. He was always helping us learn by giving rhymes to help us in sports or in life. I didn’t realize this until later in my life. We might not have understood what it meant at the time, but we remembered it because of how it sounded.
DBN: While playing football pickup games as a kid, did you ever get to be Jim Brown?
Pruitt: The first game I saw of Jim Brown was against the New York Giants on TV. He ran a sweep to the right and it looked like the defense was going to run him out-of-bounds. But when he got to the sideline, he planted his foot, dropped his shoulder and ran over a guy and ran for a touchdown. All of us were watching. We all wanted to be Jim Brown. So playing in our tackle football games, we pulled straws for who would be Jim Brown. Once, my friend Charles Law won. He ran a sweep and all he had to do was turn the corner and he would have scored, but he slowed up and was trying to re-enact what he saw Jim Brown do by the sidelines. We brought two legs and an arm and took him down. Years later with the Browns and I got to meet Jim Brown. We were playing in a golf tournament and I said to him, ‘You know Jim, when I was a kid everyone loved Jim Brown, except one guy.’ Jim said, ‘What?’ I said, ‘Except for one guy, his name is Charles Law.’ Jim said, ‘Why he didn’t like me?’ Then I told him that story. Jim then said, ‘Sounds like Charles found out the hard way there’s only one Jim Brown.’
DBN: You were All-Big 8 your last two years at Oklahoma. Why did you choose that school over the other offers?
Pruitt: M-o-t-h-e-r. I had all these different schools telling us the same thing – they are the best place to be. I had been to Wyoming so I know I wasn’t going there. I had four offers and my mama told me, ‘No. It’s not four, it’s two.’ The University of Houston is too close to your house and your friends. I had two teammates of my high school that were at Oklahoma and starting.
DBN: In your junior year you were named All-American and rushed for 1,760 yards plus had another 106 receiving yards with 18 touchdowns yet only finished third in the Heisman voting. The winner, senior QB Pat Sullivan, only tossed for 2,262 yards compared to your 1,868 all-purpose yards. How did you not win that award? Was the tilting point the fact that you were a junior?
Pruitt: I don’t know. We did beat them in the Sugar Bowl. Quarterbacks tend to beat running backs out for awards like this.
DBN: You were the fourth running back selected in the 1973 NFL draft and the first taken in the second round, yet your career outshines the three chosen ahead of you. After missing the first-round, did you play with a chip on your shoulder to prove you were first-round talent?
Pruitt: The chip on my shoulder came from my college coach Chuck Fairbanks. He was the new head coach of New England. We had just gone 11-1 and he had three first-round picks in that draft and they needed a running back. I knew he knows I can play. It’s a no brainer. The question marks on me has always been my size. I had told everybody I was going in the first-round and it came and went. I decided the golf course was a great place to hide and played the back nine. A reporter found me and told me I was going to the Cleveland Browns. The only thing I knew about Cleveland is that is where Jim Brown played. The first time I saw Cleveland was a Sunday and it was snowing. I had never seen that much snow in my life and it was like an every day thing there. I am a Southerner. Now I love it.
DBN: When you came to the Browns the team already had fullback Bo Scott and running Leroy Kelly, two very good backs. Did they treat you as the punk kid there to take their place?
Pruitt: Leroy was very accommodating to me. Both were. I felt I could play as good as anybody.
DBN: Your starting quarterbacks were Mike Phipps and later Brian Sipe. How was each one the same, and what made them different?
Pruitt: Sipe was in the same boat that I was in, in terms of not being big. He barely made the team and was taken in a round later than he expected like me. Sometimes you have to take a negative and use it to your advantage. Speed comes in all kinda ways and is the big equalizer. Sipe wasn’t very fast but he could read the defense and get rid of the ball. He knew where he was going with the ball. Phipps didn’t have the weapons as we later got better. He did a good job of driving this team with what he had.
DBN: You were the Kareem Hunt / Alvin Kamara clone of your day with your abilities to not only have great rushing games but gain good receiving yardage. What kind of numbers could you envision you putting up in today’s NFL?
Pruitt: Those guys don’t have to prove they are big enough to play. That haunted me throughout my career. I have always had the ability to do a lot of things without a lot of carries. So that played against me. They threw the ball to me a lot instead of handing me the ball. That hurt my rushing numbers which is what most look at with the running back position. That is how they judge you. And today’s defensive guys just don’t tackle the way they did when I played. They wanted to hurt you, and felt good when they did.
DBN: You rushed for over 1,000-yards three straight seasons from 1975 to 1977 and was 40-yards shy in 1978. Not many running backs have rushed for four consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. Where you disappointed that you came up short that year?
Pruitt: The 1978 season was the last year of my contract. I missed four games because of that leg injury. In the last game of the season we were 8-7 and going against the Cincinnati Bengals. We weren’t going anywhere anyway and weren’t going to the playoffs. Brian Sipe didn’t even play. I needed 222 yards to go over 1,000-yards. I had 182 yards at halftime. The second half I barely touched the football. I don’t know if me gaining 1,000-yards again scared them with a new contract or not.
DBN: You seemed to have exceptional games against the Kansas City Chiefs gaining 413-yards in three games from 1975-1977. The 1975 game you scored three touchdowns and the 214 yards you gained got you over the 1,000-yard threshold for the first time in your career. Was that your most memorable game?
Pruitt: Not just the Chiefs - the entire state of Kansas. I had really good games in that state in college. That Chiefs game was a home game and I wanted to get 1,000-yards rushing in front of the home crowd. The fans were important to me. The plateau for separation with running backs is 1,000-yards that puts you on another level. That is my most memorable game. I got a standing ovation. Years later at an NFLPA event, I see Willie Lanier, the middle linebacker for the Chiefs at the hotel. I walked to him since it been a while – he changed, I changed. When they were through taking pictures, I said, ‘Mr. Lanier, I’m Greg.....’ He said, ‘I know who you are. Man, you scored on our defense. You got 214 yards against us. We ain’t never got that many yards against us.’ He was mad at me.
DBN: You called him Mr. Lanier?
Pruitt: The way he hits, you would too.
DBN: You made the Pro Bowl in your rookie season. How did you find out, where were you, and who was the first person you told?
Pruitt: I was at Oklahoma. I went back every summer to get my degree. I heard on the news and told my best friend Ken Pope. He was drafted by the Raiders. We are still good friends today. He went on and became a college wide receivers coach but at Oklahoma he played defensive back. He got that job because so many receivers run past him he needed to show them how it was done.
DBN: How much was your rookie contract worth?
Pruitt: Three-year contract. $35,000 signing bonus, $25,000, $27,000, $31,000. I see guys signing now and then some walk away from big money, they just don’t know.
DBN: In 1978 you competed on the ABC show “The Superstars” which you won hosted by Bill Russell and Frank Gifford. How did you get invited to compete on this show, and can you get Bill Russell to shoot some baskets with us?
Pruitt: I still know Bill real well - so probably. He would come out and play the golf tournament in Palm Springs. For the show, I was sitting at home and watched it and saw the events. I thought I could do a lot of those events and see Earl Campbell, Walter Payton and Lynn Swann. So I called my agent Tom Vaughn I asked him to find out how I can get on. He called back a day later and gave me the number of this lady. I will never forget her name – Suzy Friendly. And she was not friendly. So, she told me to write her a letter stating that I was interested on being on the show and why I thought I should be invited. My attorney wrote the letter for me. I played a game on Monday Night Football against my old college coach Chuck Fairbanks. I was MVP of that game and then put that letter in the mail after the game. A couple of days later I got a response inviting me to participate in the Superstars. I went and won it. After it was over, Frank Gifford interviewed me and asked ‘What is the one thing that was the contributing factor of why I won the Superstars?’ I said, ‘Writing a letter.’
DBN: What is the “Greg Pruitt Rule”, what made the NFL add this to their rule book, and do you own any of those jerseys now?
Pruitt: That actually started in college. When I got to the Browns, I wasn’t the only one wearing a tearaway jersey but most people don’t know that. Cleo Miller wore one in the same backfield. I am sure that in some owner’s meeting they came up with that jersey rule to justify the trip. I was happy they made that rule to be honest. The only way they were effective is you couldn’t wear anything under them. When it got cold here it was colder in that jersey with nothing underneath. The other thing was it was a distraction depending on down and distance, defenders would walk up to me and tear my jersey with me not even being in the play. And that should have been an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and it wasn’t. Now I have to leave the field and put another jersey on. I have about four of them at my house. One of them I played in and it is ripped and in a case on my wall.
DBN: What is the story about your hand print being permanently displayed on fullback Bo Scott’s ass?
Pruitt: My rookie year they put a veteran with a rookie. My first game I am all excited and nervous. All that talking and now the time has come. I’m in the huddle and my eyes are getting bigger and bigger, and Bo looks over and says, ‘Hey rookie. It’s going to be all right. You just put your hand on my butt, don’t lose it and I will take you to glory.’ So all those years later I see Bo. We hug, and then I spin him around. He said, ‘What you doing?’ I said, ‘I’m trying to see if my hand print is still there.’
DBN: The lineage of World-Class running backs were a Browns’ staple ahead of you with Marion Motley, Jim Brown and Leroy Kelly. Did this add pressure on you to follow into those footsteps and be the next guy up?
Pruitt: Not really, but I contribute that to Leroy. He showed me he was a helluva running back. He was also a team guy. He wasn’t always trying to beat me and being mad because I am trying to get his job. I found out later on that every year they sign a running back. And that running back is trying to take your job. So, instead of being of mad, you just have to be on the top of your game and keep your job.
DBN: In your playing days, the linebackers covered the running backs on passing downs. Which linebacker you faced was the best cover guy, and which linebacker was the hardest hitter?
Pruitt: The hardest was Robert Brazille. I didn’t have to deal with the middle linebacker a lot, which would have been Willie Lanier was the hardest hitter. I mainly dealt with the weakside linebacker. Robert Brazille would hit you. Cover guy? None of them could cover me. So they started bringing a nickel back in to cover me.
DBN: Tackling is a lot different since you played. Your thoughts?
Pruitt: In college they are always trying to get you to square up and put your helmet in their chest. I met a lot of guys in that pose. In the pros, it is any way they can get you down. I don’t think they tackle as good as they used to.
DBN: What was the one thing missing or maybe holding those Browns teams back from 1977-1980 from making the playoffs?
Pruitt: That is a good question. The Browns just couldn’t put it together on both sides of the ball. We were lacking on one side of the ball or the other side. The defense gave up too much and the offense wasn’t good enough to overcome it, or vice versa.
DBN: What do you remember most about “Red Right 88” besides being on the sidelines during that play?
Pruitt: If you want to find out if a guy or gal is a real Browns fan, say “Red Right 88.” If they don’t get pissed off, they aren’t a real fan. We had certain packages for down and distance. These are plays we would execute from our playbook and the quarterback had the power to choose any of these. The backs or the guards would bring the plays in. You would say a play, and then the quarterback would repeat the play. A coupla times I would bring in the play and call it, and he would say something else. Sipe had a bit of success, and instead of nipping it in the bud, it became a habit because he was a good quarterback and had pulled out quite a few wins. I had just caught a pass and went out on the 15-yard line and was in field goal range. The next points wins the game. (Don) Cockroft had missed two field goals in the game. So they had a conference and asked him which side he wanted to kick from or the center. They were supposed to run the ball to the left hash mark. Just don’t lose yards. Mike Pruitt comes in and I go to the sidelines. It is like 38 below. We had heat benches and when you sit in them they get your heals warm but not your toes. If you toes are cold, you are cold. So, you have to turn around and get your toes in those chutes. So here I am backwards and the other guys are sitting there facing the field.
DBN: So, if you were standing with your back towards the field, how did you find out what happened?
Pruitt: I was talking about where are we going to party tonight? Suddenly, I read those player’s body language and they act like they had been whooped. And then I turned around. Have you seen the movie “The Longest Yard” with Burt Reynolds? You remember that last play when they slowed it down in slow motion? That is what it was like on the sideline. When I looked around, and saw Brian dropping back to pass, we all in unison said, ‘D-oooo-nn-t ttt-hhhrrr-oooo-w ttt-hhhh-e b-allll’. And Mike Davis of the Raiders who I knew because of my friend Ken was once with the Raiders, he couldn’t catch. It would be 80 degrees and he couldn’t catch. “Red Right 88” was supposed to go to Dave Logan who was open, then he went to Ozzie (Newsome).
DBN: Those Cleveland teams had a confidence that when a game would get close the pressure was more on the other team than on the Browns. That seems backwards. How did that attitude become a thing?
Pruitt: There is no doubt about that. We felt that. We could feel the pressure on the other team. I have had players tell me after a play as I was walking back to the huddle ‘That ain’t going to happen today’ meaning pull out another win when we were behind and had the ball one last time. That told me it was on their mind.
DBN: What is the story behind when you were thrown out against the Chiefs, and then your ejection is what won the game?
Pruitt: This one defensive back was smack talking real bad in the fourth quarter. The Chiefs were ahead, but we had the ball one last time and were driving. I catch a short pass, and here he comes jawing at me. ‘There ain’t gonna be no cheap shit today. Y’all ain’t coming with that bullshit’ and he won’t shut up, and I start in on him back. And before we knew it, we were in a fight. And the referees throw both of us out of the game. To show you how the year was going, the guy who took his place was a rookie. And Reggie (Langhorne) then beat him on a flag pattern and won the game. Now I knew I was going to get fined for being thrown out of the game. I told head coach Sam Rutigliano, ‘Coach, you know y’all gonna have to take care of that fine.’ He said, ‘What?’ I said, ‘I know what the depth plan was with the Chiefs. And if I took this guy out they had a rookie to come in and take his place.’ Coach paused a minute, then said, ‘You know what? That’s a good one Greg. That may be the truth but you gonna pay your own fine.’ The fine was $100 which seemed like a lot.
DBN: What was something from your career that people may not know?
Pruitt: That I really, really was affected by the fans. I paid attention to people. And everybody can relate to this. You go to work on Monday. Every Monday You ain’t all fired-up to go to work. Football was the same way. Every Sunday you ain’t fired-up to play football. Prior to the game you go through your routine, your trying to get time to push that button and get turned on. And for me, it was like it was going to be one of those days until I walk out of that tunnel. Those fans, the message it sent to me was, ‘If we could play – we would. But you get to.’
DBN: What was you fondest moment of being a Cleveland Brown?
Pruitt: It was my first 1,000-yard season. That was a big thing for me. I had now graduated up a level. And I don’t know if this qualifies as being a fond moment, but when I came to Cleveland my rookie year and being from the State of Texas, I did not realize the rivalry between the Cleveland Browns and the Pittsburgh Steelers. The first time we met they beat us pretty bad. When we got them at home, I got an option pass for a touchdown and at the end of the game I ran a sweep for the winning touchdown with really no time left on the clock. When the game was over, people rushed onto the field like we had just won the World Championship. At that time we exited through the home dugout we shared with the Cleveland Indians. And people are pushing and hitting on the helmet, and I am looking for that dugout. I finally find the dugout and the security pushed the fans back so that now I can finally enjoy the moment. And I look out and see just how important this win was over the Steelers to these Browns fans. I know there are going to be reporters that are going to ask me about the winning touchdown. So, I just go down the tunnel and as I am walking I am rehearsing what my answer will be. Then I make a grand entrance into the locker room - and I’m in the Pittsburgh Steelers locker room.