George Reed is one of those people who would be a success no matter what he did. What George wants, George earns. There was a time when all he wanted was a college education, and he knew football was the only way to get it. He won an athletic scholarship to Washington State. Then he decided he wanted to be the best running back in Canada. He earned that reputation, and now, in his 11th season as a fullback for the Saskatchewan Roughriders, George Reed is on the verge of becoming the leading ground-gainer in the history of professional football. "I want to excel," he explains.
In the Roughriders' first two games of the 1973 season, which were played just 48 hours apart last week, Reed ran for 150 yards, leaving him only 140 short of Jim Brown's pro record of 12,312. In the National Football League Brown outdistanced the second-best rusher, Green Bay's Jim Taylor, by 3,715 yards. Brown ran for 106 touchdowns, 23 more than any other NFL back. Reed has already tied that mark. At one point in his career Brown led the NFL in rushing for five consecutive seasons; Reed has done the same in the CFL. And so forth. Robert Sproule, a research statistician for the CFL, has determined that Reed holds the league record for most records set: 51.
In a way what is most remarkable about achievements of this order is that they bespeak an almost superhuman durability. In nine seasons Jim Brown never missed a game. In 10 years Reed has sat out just five, three of those because of a bone crack in his right knee, which he agreed to rest until the playoffs, after playing with it for several regular season games.
"We haven't been fair to George," admits Canada's leading career passer, Ron Lancaster, who came to Regina in 1963, the same year as Reed. "We've asked him to do a lot of things you shouldn't ask one back to do." The Roughriders have always counted on Reed to pick up the tough second-down yardage (there are only three downs in Canadian football). But Reed is also an excellent blocker and a good pass receiver (although, curiously, only one of his 190 career receptions has resulted in a touchdown), and Saskatchewan has taken full advantage of these talents, too.
"I never worry about the amount we use him," says Coach John Payne. "The more work he gets, the better he gets. He's unhappy unless he carries 20 times in a game." At 5'11" and 208 pounds George Reed looks trim. His power is in his thighs, which measure 29 inches around. In order to get a comfortable lit in a pair of pants he buys a size 40 and has them taken in six inches at the waist. Reed is generally quiet with sad, sleepy eyes, but when he laughs, his whole body laughs and everybody around him does, too. Game days find him moody and nervous, unable to eat. On the field, opponents say he shows no emotion. Reed, who takes a tremendous beating in every outing, says only two things make him mad when playing—blowing assignments and failing to pick up tough second-down yardage.
The son of a steel-mill machinist in Renton, Wash, and one of 12 children. Reed showed enough promise in his first two years at Washington State to start thinking about professional football. But at the beginning of his junior year he suffered a badly broken ankle that many thought would put an end to his playing days. It didn't. He came back to lead the Cougars in rushing in 1961 and 1962, but the NFL and AFL lost interest and offered only measly free-agent deals.
The British Columbia Lions of the CFL put him on their negotiation list, then, without informing him, dropped him. He didn't find that out until Ken Preston, the general manager of the Roughriders, which had claimed his negotiation rights, stopped by to talk contract. Within an hour Reed signed.
That contract brought Reed—some would say consigned him—to Regina, Saskatchewan's capital, an isolated community of 140,000 located 350 miles northwest of Bismarck, N. Dak. The Roughriders are a community-owned club, the lone professional sports franchise in the entire province. They play their games in tiny Taylor Field (capacity 22,400) and are compensated by gate equalization, a CFL policy which averages gate receipts around the league and then apportions one-third of the excess from the rich to the poor.
In his rookie year Reed rushed for 751 yards and Saskatchewan made it to the Western Conference finals. In only one other year has he rushed for under 1,000—1970 when he had the broken knee—and during his tenure the Rough-riders have always made the playoffs, have won the Western Conference championship four times and the Grey Cup once.
Through it all the man in the clutch has been George Reed. Like Green Bay's Paul Hornung he seems to improve as the offense nears the goal line. In last year's Western Conference title game against Winnipeg, Saskatchewan trailed 24-7 in the third quarterand had a key second down at its 27-yard line. Lancaster called on Reed, who responded by pounding off right tackle for 42 yards, carrying three defenders on his back for the final five. That run aroused the Roughriders, who scored three plays later. They edged closer on a field goal and in the waning minutes took over 63 yards from the Winnipeg goal line, needing a touchdown to tie. Reed ran five straight times for gains of eight, four, nine, eight and nine. One play later it was Reed again, then a short pass and Reed once more. Another short pass and. finally, on third and goal from the two. Reed scored to tie the game. Saskatchewan won 27-24 on a field goal after time had run out.
In four playoff games at the end of the 1967 season Reed established a rushing record of 529 yards, including 204, another playoff mark, in the victorious Western Conference final. His one-day best of 268 yards won Saskatchewan a playoff berth in 1965, and in the Rough-riders' 1966 Grey Cup win he contributed 133 yards, including a 31-yard touchdown run that iced the victory.
Earl Lunsford, one of three backs to run over a mile in a single season (the other two are Reed and Brown) and now the general manager of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, attributes Reed's success to the tremendous development of his upper legs. "They give him a combination of quickness and power," says Lunsford. "Some fullbacks just hit the hole and run over people for a yard or two. George can be a power runner when he needs to be, but he can use his quickness to step outside and slide. He has great reading ability and a good lean—very low to the ground with high knee action. He gets those legs into you good. If you hit him there he has the power to run through you." Around the CFL they tell the stories of Jack Delveaux and Brian Palmer. Delveaux put a shoulder into Reed. The shoulder was smashed and the nerves so badly injured that to this day he doesn't have full use of his right arm. Palmer tried an arm tackle. The arm snapped in three places.
In Regina, Reed's reward has been acceptance and what one local defines as being "a medium-sized frog in a relatively small puddle." But it is not blind acceptance. Reed may have been named honorary head coach and coordinator of the special summer Olympics for the mentally handicapped because of his association with sports, but that's not what got him elected president of the PTA. He is no less respected on the playing field than he is in the community. Last year he became the first American and first black to be elected president of the CFL Players Association.
Reed moved his wife Angie and three children from Seattle to Regina after the 1965 season, in which he gained his mile plus of rushing and won the Schenley Award, the Canadian equivalent of MVP. Canadian football players can hold down jobs year round, since they practice in the late afternoon and early evening. Reed went to work for Molson's brewery and has risen to the post of sales promotion manager. "That job has been his first wife," says Angie. "He works so hard and so late that sometimes I think he's going to forget my name. George has a bad habit: he can't say no to anybody." The Reeds still live in the modest one-story house they bought when they arrived in Regina. "George is pretty close to the dollar," says a business associate. Whether that assessment is accurate or not, it is a fact that George Reed collects coins.
For that matter it is money that kept him from ever trying his legs in the NFL, where his brother Smith played for the Giants, and where four relatives—foster brother Clancy Williams, brother-in-law Jerry LeVias and first cousins-by-marriage Miller and Mel Farr—currently excel. How would George Reed have done? He has pondered that. A few years back he almost pondered his way down to the States, but then he added up the dollars and cents. "I had no reason to go back but pride," he says, "and pride will just make you go hungry."
Joe Kapp, who led teams in both leagues to championships, thinks Reed would have been a standout in the NFL. Bud Grant, the coach of the Minnesota Vikings and a former Canadian coach, agrees. "George Reed would have been a superstar here just as he is in Canada," says Grant.
As Reed approaches Brown's rushing record comparisons become inevitable. George is well aware that he will come out second best in the eyes of most, which doesn't bother him. "After all," he says, "there was only one Jim Brown."