Hall of Fame Class of 2021

Honor Of A Lifetime For Drew Pearson

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Football, much like life, is about what you're doing when no one is watching. Well, maybe it's okay if one other person watches, especially if that other person is Roger Staubach.

There were 49 wide receivers taken in the 1973 NFL Draft. None of them were named Drew Pearson. None of them now have a long overdue bust in Canton, Ohio, either.

The Cowboys signed Pearson for $14,500 out of the University of Tulsa, where he played quarterback as a sophomore before wisely moving to wideout. His signing bonus was a whopping $150, paid in cash, $20 of which went to buy gas for his drive back home after meeting a Cowboys scout at a Tulsa hotel.

Like almost every rookie, especially those who were married like Pearson, the Cowboys took care of living arrangements at an apartment adjacent to the practice field. When informal workouts started, what would now be called OTAs or minicamp, Pearson would walk out to his balcony and look for Staubach's car. If the car was in the parking lot, he was headed to the field.

But the National Football League was a different time and place 48 years ago and Pearson was also working a side job loading semi-truck trailers. Imagine a kid lifting refrigerators nowadays for some extra money just a week out from his first training camp.

Needless to say, that combined with running routes nearly every day with Staubach had Pearson exhausted. While always listed at 6-feet and 184 pounds, there's a legitimate chance Pearson never was close to the latter. He graduated South River High School in New Jersey at 145 pounds (and yes, it's against several laws to write a story about Pearson without mentioning he was both a backup quarterback and a wide receiver to Joe Theismann there).

Captain America being Captain America, Staubach noticed and asked Pearson why he was so tired. Staubach once played in a golf tournament in Las Vegas in August, running to and from the course, which was eight miles away. Dropping back 5 yards and throwing passes for hours even in the June Dallas heat wasn't an issue for him. On many days, however, only Pearson would show up to work out with Staubach.

So what was the story, rookie? Well, besides working out three hours a day, six days a week, there was this grueling full-time job loading trucks. So much for that. Staubach wasn't about to have his training schedule interrupted, so he met with Cowboys personnel director Gil Brandt later that day.

"Roger says, 'Look, this guy is showing me something with his work ethic and is catching everything I'm throwing at him, but he needs some help,'" Pearson remembered. "So next thing I know, the phone rings and it's Gil saying, 'Hey, Roger thinks you're doing a good job and wants us to help out so that you don't have to do that other job. Come get this $500 check.'

"This wasn't cash either. This was an official Cowboys check. I took a picture of it. That covered the rent until we left for camp and was enough for two plane tickets home to Jersey before we left, so I quit the other job."

Those sessions didn't just have a lasting impact on Pearson, either. Nearly five decades later, Staubach can still go into detail about their workouts together.

"It's about trust. As a player, why would I care about when someone was drafted, that's the last thing on your mind. This guy was showing up every morning and I trusted him," Staubach said. "That's what it's all about, more than anything else. Who do you trust?

"Later in my career, I was throwing passes to areas of the field I couldn't even see, just trusting that Drew would be there. We would sometimes leave the huddle and look at each other and just knew. Just knew he would break off a route based on coverage, just knew what he would do based on those mornings that first year, just me and him throwing for hours."

Pearson then showed up at training camp in Thousand Oaks, Calif., thinking there was a legitimate shot that he could make the team. In his mind, yes, the Cowboys had drafted 17 other players, but he was No. 18. Those chances didn't seem that overwhelming.

"I wasn't expecting 100 other rookies. That was the exact number too, 100," Pearson said. "Guys getting cut every day, crying, just brutal man."

Legendary head coach Tom Landry led the NFL in punting twice as a player and was a brilliant coverage player on kick and punt returns. He appreciated special teams more than most coaches at the time, and that was usually his deciding factor with undrafted free agents. Who can help on special teams? Pearson impressed that first preseason with both a punt and kick return of 50-plus yards.

Also, while Staubach is too modest to ever admit so on the record, he talked to Brandt and Landry about Pearson. He wanted the rookie on the roster and so Pearson made the cut.

As much as any player in franchise history, Pearson was a gamer. He wouldn't necessarily dominate the practice field, but he turned into "Mr. Clutch" on Sundays. He was almost always the first target of Staubach, Danny White, and on one memorable Thanksgiving afternoon, even Clint Longley. This undrafted free agent, who was so embarrassed by his skinny legs that he never wore shorts during his playing career, was the go-to for America's Team when, you know, they were actually becoming America's Team.

It's super cliché, yet so much of being successful is simply showing up. Pearson was always there, be it at those morning workouts with Staubach or missing just one game in his first 10 seasons. He was there in other ways, too, serving as one of the team's leaders.

The game changer for Pearson, though, came in the finale of his rookie campaign when he posted 140 yards and two touchdowns at the St. Louis Cardinals in a blowout win. The following week in the opening round of the playoffs, he recorded two more scores against the Los Angeles Rams. Never lacking in confidence, Pearson was ready to join the elite.

Over the ensuing four seasons he was just that, among the best wideouts in the game, earning three Pro Bowl nods and three first-team All-Pro honors. Despite the Cowboys being a run-first offense, he cracked 1,000 yards twice and led the NFL with 870 receiving yards in 1977.

Pearson was also a standout in the postseason, totaling 67 catches for 1,105 yards and eight scores over 22 career playoff games. And, of course, there's his legendary "Hail Mary" grab against the Minnesota Vikings as well as a win in Super Bowl XII.

When he wasn't selected for the Pro Football Hall of Fame a year ago, the devastation on his face was obvious, was almost too painful to watch. A lot of players will say an honor like that is beyond their control, but as the decades have passed, both Cliff Harris and Pearson have been vocal in wanting a bust in Canton, especially when they became the lone two players from the 1970s All-Decade Team not enshrined.

Now, both are taking their rightful place in history.

"For years it was always, 'Why aren't you in the Hall of Fame?' and I'm like, 'I don't know. I don't have an answer for that,'" Pearson said. "I don't hear that anymore and that's a good feeling. The whole process has taught me patience. There is nothing more prestigious than the Pro Football Hall of Fame with all respect to the others because it's just so darn hard to get into.

"It's really the honor of a lifetime."

And just like on that practice field in the summer of 1973, Staubach will be there as well, serving as his presenter.

"There just wasn't a better receiver in the NFL over my career than Drew Pearson," Staubach said. "There just wasn't."

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