When asked, Don Maynard will tell you he has won every fight he has ever been in—"by one or two city blocks." This is one of the secrets of achieving long life and happiness and setting records in the National Football League: be cowardly, like a fox. Maynard, who this week reports to training camp to start his 14th year as a wide receiver with the New York Titans-Jets (after one season as a New York Giant and one in the Canadian Football League), is 36 years old. His mustache and long sideburns are tinted with gray. At 6'1" and 173 pounds his weight-to-height ratio makes him even more spindly than wide receivers called The Flea or Bambi.
Yet Maynard has survived 180 games of being pounded by professional football's most ravenous defensive backs, and has caught more passes, 632, for more distance, over 6½ miles, than any receiver in NFL history. Maynard has achieved this level of skill and longevity by being stubbornly gentle in a sport known for its zestful brutality. Weekend after weekend, while so many of the more violent men around him become victims of the NFL's high attrition rate, gentle Don flows on and on.
"Maynard is one of those lean and hungry Texans who can run forever," says Jet Coach Weeb Ewbank. "Normally you'd think a guy his age would be all done, but he keeps himself in shape; no one knows his own body quite as well as Don. He still has fine hands and excellent speed. As a pass catcher he's lost none of his skills." Then Ewbank concludes his assessment with another hint of why Maynard may still be around when the season opens. "The only time we get on Don is when he seems reluctant to block on a running play," he says. "We don't expect that he'll be able to bruise anyone, but we do want him to at least molest people."
Suspicions that Old Man Maynard might be slowing down were laid to rest for yet another season when last December, against the varied defenses of the Oakland Raiders, Maynard caught seven Joe Namath passes and broke Raymond Berry's career record of 631 receptions. Maynard even surprised himself and Ewbank that day by throwing a shoulder block into Raider Safety Jack Tatum that sprang Tight End Rich Caster loose on a 49-yard touchdown play.
Appropriately for Maynard, who superstitiously favors the number 13, the record came in the 13th game of his 13th season with the Jets. A look at the details is worthwhile. With the Jet running attack crippled by injuries, the Raider defense that Monday evening just sat back and dared Namath to pass. He took the dare 46 times, completing 25 for 403 yards, though in a 24-16 losing cause. Maynard made his first catch of the night early in the game, beating Cornerback Nemiah Wilson to the outside and then reaching high over his head on the sideline at the Oakland 37 on a play good for 21 yards. Berry's record was tied early in the fourth quarter on another down and out pattern when Maynard made a leaping, spinning catch of a ball thrown behind him at the Oakland 21. The record breaker came a few minutes later at the Jet 43 on the kind of pattern that Maynard's wife Marilyn hates to see him run: straight across the middle where all the hitters are.
"I thought that this might be it when I left the huddle," Maynard recalls, "and when I made my cut and looked up. the ball was already coming at me like a bullet. I made a pocket over my stomach with my arms and hands and hung on to that ball as tight as I could. I hadn't thought about the record too much that night because we were trying real hard to win a football game, but as I lay on the ground with the ball it sort of jumped into my head about how many things had had to go right all down the line, through the years, to make that one catch possible."
Maynard's professional career began in 1958 with the New York Giants of the NFL. He attended five high schools in West Texas and New Mexico, chiefly because his father was a cotton-gin manager and frequently on the move, and finally settled down at Texas Western College in El Paso. There he was an outstanding hurdler on the track team, and in football a running back and a safety. The Giants drafted him as a future in the ninth round while he was still a junior.
At Yankee Stadium he came to be looked upon as a stubborn nonconformist who fumbled, a reputation that hardly presaged greatness as a pass-catcher. From the start he showed signs of what conventional people might have considered to be behavioral peculiarities. "Don's always been a bit ahead of his time," says Larry Grantham, the Jet linebacker who retired a few weeks ago. Years before they became stylish coast-to-coast, Maynard wore long sideburns, cowboy boots and Levi's. He printed 13 on his boots and demanded the same number for his football jersey. The Giants obliged.
"Supposing they hadn't given it to you?" Maynard was asked at the time.
"Well, I guess I wouldn't have played for the Giants," he replied.
No. 13 served out his rookie year returning kickoffs and punts and filling in as a substitute for such star running backs as Alex Webster, now the Giant head coach, and Frank Gifford. The season might have been considered a modest success for Maynard had he not fumbled a punt in a crucial game at Yankee Stadium against the Cleveland Browns. The Giants won that game anyway 10-0 and went on to play for the NFL championship, but Giant fans, never gracious at best, took to razzing Maynard. "Bad hands," was the verdict.
The country boy from Texas never did fit in with the closely knit, cosmopolitan Giant organization. During the exhibition season the next fall, Maynard delivered a sharp retort to Allie Sherman, who was coaching the offense, after Sherman suggested he cut down on his long, loping stride. "This isn't a track meet," Sherman said.
"I can cover more ground with one stride than anybody else here can with three," Maynard snapped. He was cut from the Giants a few days later.
Though depressed at being axed so abruptly, Maynard had never felt comfortable as an NFL running back. "It was fine in college," he says, "but when you weigh only 173 pounds, to be a running back is kind of a joke in the pros."
Apparently, inside Maynard's thin frame there has always been a fat man, or at least a sturdy one, struggling to get out. A line coach at Texas Western once mentioned to him that if he just had his tonsils removed he would gain 15 to 20 pounds. Right away Maynard wanted them out.
"There wasn't anything wrong with my tonsils, but I was thinking, dad gum, that I'd be some rompin', stompin' kind of football player if I weighed 190," says Maynard, smiling at the recollection. "They gave me a local and snipped the things out. Then I started to hemorrhage, swallowed blood by the quart, and they had to put in five stitches to fix me up. Of course I never gained a pound."
Being on the skinny side is slightly less of a handicap for the player who flanks out wide and whose only duties involve catching passes. And so it was as a flanker that Maynard joined the New York Titans in 1960 after he had played with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the Canadian Football League for one desultory season.
The Titans of 1960 were a new team in a new league, the AFL. Their owner was Harry Wismer, the frantic-voiced sportscaster. Their first coach was Sammy Baugh, who had been coaching at Hardin-Simmons University in Texas since retiring with all his passing records from the Washington Redskins. Maynard was the first player the Titans signed.
"Sammy and I were like old friends," Maynard recalls. "Td played against his teams in college and played for him in the Blue-Gray game. I'd never caught many passes at Texas Western because we didn't throw more than about nine times a game, but my gain per catch was pretty high, 27.6 yards, and so Sam said if I came to the Titans he'd make me his No. 1 receiver."
Maynard and Baugh may have been soul mates as well. Even as a Redskin in the 1930s, Baugh dressed like a cowboy. Grantham recalls meeting Maynard for the first time when the Titans reported to their preseason camp at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.
"Don was the first guy I saw," says Grantham, another of the original Titans who has become one of Maynard's closest friends and most fervent admirers. "He had those long sideburns and he was sitting on one of those old New England stone walls wearing cowboy boots, Levi's, a big Western hat and a belt with a huge brass buckle. The belt had number 13 on each side where it rode the hip and the word "shine" across the back of it. The whole thing was unreal. I mean, where was the rodeo?"
Maynard is as innovative a dresser on the held as off it. He seeks a streamlined freedom of movement. The result offers little more protection than one would find on a racing greyhound. The ear flaps of his helmet are specially molded to fit snugly over his wide cheekbones, and so he needs no chin strap. His shoulder pads have been carved down to an almost transparent shell of plastic and foam rubber. The front of the pads extends far enough over his rib cage to allow him to dispense with rib pads. Maynard would as soon wear chains as the heavy, long-sleeved jerseys worn by most of his Jet teammates. His are made of a lightweight mesh and usually have short sleeves. Most players use leather belts, but Maynard's is made of a stretchy elastic. He wears cutdown, kangaroo-skin soccer shoes with about 20 cleats (the conventional football shoe has seven) because he has decided they are easier on his legs and provide greater traction. When sleekly decked out for action, Maynard somewhat optimistically estimates that he carries five pounds less uniform than any other wide receiver in the NFL.
From the very beginning, Maynard put on a good show. Aside from his speed, he possessed a deceptive change of pace, and while he tended in his early years to be a bit loose running patterns, he has long since learned to cut them with disciplined assurance. He grabbed passes deep or he curled back and caught them short. It was virtually impossible to blanket him one-on-one. In his first AFL season he caught 72 passes, most of them from Quarterback Al Dorow. In subsequent years he shared receptions with such fine wide receivers as Art Powell, Bake Turner and George Sauer, but still kept up an average of more than 50 catches a year. He tied for the AFL lead with 14 touchdown catches in 1965 and two years later he led in total yardage with 1,434. Maynard broke Berry's career record for total distance in December 1968 and has been lengthening the record ever since. He is now up to 11,816 yards.
While establishing this solid public reputation as a pass catcher, Maynard is also privately recognized as an alltime thrift champion. "He used to write down everything he spent in a little notebook," recalls Bill Mathis, another original Titan who is now a stockbroker. "Like 'Newspaper, five cents, subway token, 15 cents.' "
Tight budgeting was understandable during those early days with the Titans. Payday was always a gamble. The players never knew whether the check a) would arrive at all or b) could be cashed before it bounced. The comparative prosperity of playing with the Jets has not gone to Maynard's head, however. A couple of years ago he brought a pro celebrity golf tournament to a stand-still when he disappeared after sending his drive over a hill. For an interminable time, the marshal didn't give the all-clear sign. Grantham, playing right behind Maynard, could not imagine what the holdup was until he reached the top of the rise and spotted his buddy. "He had his boots off," says Grantham, "and he was wading around in a pond pulling out old golf balls. 'Lookee here,' he yelled out, pleased as a kid. 'I've found half a dozen.' "
Through the years Maynard has tried, with little success, to pass his sense of economy on to teammates. He used to call Mathis "Bird" simply because it was the running back's devout wish to own a Ford Thunderbird. In virtually every city the team played, the two would tour showrooms together. "Don't spend all that money on a sports car, Bird," Maynard would tell Mathis. "Get yourself a Fairlane."
Maynard himself arrived at training camp in Peekskill, N.Y. in 1963 driving a turquoise, 8-year-old Ford coupe that he had fitted out to operate on butane instead of gasoline. One teammate called it the "El Paso Flame Thrower." Back home in El Paso the Flame Thrower, with 160,000 miles to its credit, still stands in the Maynard driveway. "Heck, you get the same mileage with butane as you get with regular gas, and it costs a whole lot less than gasoline does," Maynard says. "Besides, it doesn't pollute the environment, and your engine will last five times as long."
The fact that Maynard performs this automotive engineering himself is just a small sample of his versatility. He has taught math, industrial arts, government and world history in high school, and has earned a plumber's license, an achievement that took five years of apprenticeship.
As Grantham explains, "When Don believes in something he goes all out." One time, for example, Maynard dove fully clothed into an icy motel swimming pool to win a $75 bet. Another time, although neither alcohol nor tobacco has ever touched his lips, Maynard guzzled cleaning fluid just to prove a point.
This happened in connection with a distributorship he had for a cleaner named Swipe. Speaking at a Lions Club gathering in Peekskill, Maynard decided he needed a dramatic demonstration to prove that Swipe was nontoxic, so he poured himself a glass and chug-a-lugged it before the startled Lions. "I knew it would never make me sick," Maynard says, "but it did make the inside of my mouth pucker up and feel like cotton wool. I had to go to practice that afternoon with ice cubes in my mouth."
Late in the 1968 season Maynard promised to end his abstention from alcohol and take a glass of champagne if the Jets won the Super Bowl, but when the time came to pay off after the momentous upset of the Colts, he balked. Grantham demanded that he make good on his promise. Maynard thought for a moment, then shook his head. "I didn't say which Super Bowl," he said.
Maynard just as stubbornly refuses to lose his temper. "Don is such an easygoing guy, even under the worst circumstances," Grantham says, "that I can think of only one time he really got hot. That was in a game against Buffalo a few years ago when one of their defensive backs was hitting him late and getting in a lot of cheap shots. Suddenly on a play down near their goal line, Don hit this guy from the blind side with his forearm, knocked his helmet off and left him lying there in the end zone until his teammates came out and lugged him off."
The story is an exaggeration, according to Maynard. "It didn't happen like that," he protests. "The play was a quarterback roll-out, and my job was to block this guy. I hit him a good lick, but it wasn't until afterwards I even knew it was the same guy who had been beating on me. Maybe I smiled a little, but I don't believe in retaliation. It's always the guy who retaliates who gets caught and penalized, never the original sinner. You can lose ball games that way."
More representative of Maynard is a story concerning a game against Denver. A defensive back first interfered with Don on a pass play, then he clobbered Maynard on the side of the head and finally he spat obscenities at him. Shocked, Maynard addressed himself to the referee. "You should throw this dirty player out of the game," he said. "He's a disgrace to football. He's a disgrace to his family."
Some years back in a game against Buffalo both teams poured out on the field and started to brawl. Maynard, who was standing next to Mathis on the New York bench, talked him out of joining the fight. "Let's just stay here, Bird, and watch," he said. "We've got the best view in the house."
Perhaps it is because of his unflamboyant temperament that Maynard has never reaped the recognition that other wide receivers like Berry, Lance Alworth, Bob Hayes, Paul Warfield or even his former teammate Sauer have enjoyed. When the AFL closed up shop after 10 years and merged with the NFL, Maynard, along with Alworth, was named as a wide receiver on the league's alltime team. But in no single year had Maynard been voted to the first-string all-AFL team. Charley Hennigan of Houston was named three years, Powell, who went from the Titans to Oakland, made it four times, Alworth seven times and Sauer twice. Obviously, it takes a while—like a decade—for Maynard to grow on people.
In comparing the abilities of Berry and Maynard, both of whom he has coached, Ewbank points out that Berry, who was not fast, relied on his moves and precisely run patterns to get free, while Maynard has always been able to count on his speed. "Raymond was usually tackled the instant he caught the ball," says Ewbank. "Give Don a step and he's gone." Berry averaged 14.7 yards gained on his 631 receptions; Maynard's career average is 18.7.
Maynard is also particularly skillful at setting up a defensive man for the kill. "Don knows exactly what he can do," says Ewbank. "When he comes back and reports that a cornerback can be beaten, he doesn't just say "throw it.' He explains exactly what pattern should be run and where the ball should go, and you can bet it's going to work."
A good example of this occurred in the 1968 AFL championship playoff against Oakland that put the Jets in the Super Bowl. Since early in the first quarter Maynard had been making a move inside on Cornerback George Atkinson without cutting back to the outside. Midway in the fourth quarter, with the Jets trailing 23-20, Maynard told Namath that he knew he could beat Atkinson deep. Maynard made his usual move inside on Atkinson, but this time cut back to the outside, got a step on his defender and caught the pass for a 52-yard gain. One play later Maynard made a diving catch of a Namath bullet in the Raider end zone, and the Jets were in the Super Bowl.
Maynard's spectacular night against Oakland last December suggests that he can, as Ewbank says, run forever. But as Marilyn Maynard points out, "When you've been around for 15 years, injuries become a big part of your life." Still fast, lean and fit, Maynard thinks he can survive one or two more years in the NFL. His only worry is whether the urge to play will stay with him that long. Each year he grows increasingly reluctant to pull up stakes in El Paso and move north with a family that includes his daughter Terry, 14, and son Scott, 11, and into the small, modest apartment they rent on Long Island during the season. With income from investments and savings swelled from years of parsimonious budgeting, a tie-distributing business and promotional work for an El Paso clothing company, Maynard is comfortably fixed outside of his Jet salary of roughly $45,000 a year.
The other day he showed a visitor through the large two-story house just northwest of El Paso that the Maynards, in an uncharacteristic burst of extravagance, bought last year. It is a white brick, red tile ranch house, complete with interior courtyard, a wraparound balcony, a stable out back for the Maynards' horse, Cheyenne, and a field of alfalfa. In short, the good life.
"I guess I'll keep playing football as long as I can perform, but there's so much for all of us to do down here," said the man of multiple talents, waving a hand in the general direction of everything. "It's real tough breaking away each year. I think spiritually I'll be ready to quit football long before I'm physically incapable of going on."
UNPERTURBED BY THE RESTRAINING HAND ON HIS ELBOW, MAYNARD BREAKS DOWN FIELD