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John Stearns

February 24, 2011

There have been some football greats who have dabbled in major league baseball (Deion Sanders, Bo Jackson, and Jim Thorpe leap to mind), but who’s the best football player to ever have been identified primarily as a major league baseball player?

I’ve given it a bit of thought, and I can’t come up with a whole lot of candidates. (Among those that occurred to me: Jackie Robinson, Rick Leach, Butch Hobson, Steve Garvey; I also considered Drew Henson and Jeff Samardzija, but they don’t quite fit the parameters of the conversation because of their Danny Ainge-like baseball marginality). Maybe it’s difficult to transfer the brute raging aggression of the gridiron to the more ruminative artisanship of the baseball diamond. And a hefty percentage of football players, the pot-bellied, arms-the-size-of-legs behemoths that toil in the grunting sumo clashes at the line of scrimmage, would seem to be excluded from possible baseball careers on the basis of body type alone (the players named above, and the one considered at more length below, all either played in the defensive or offensive backfield or played quarterback, with one exception, Samardzija, who played wide receiver).

I don’t know a whole lot about the football careers of Robinson, Leach, Hobson, and Garvey, but none of them seem to have been beyond the high level reached by the player pictured here, who is, if his colorful public persona is any guide, seemingly on the brink of wrapping the pinky and ring fingers of his left hand around the barrel of the bat to leave one finger flying free. And John Stearns was not only a standout football player at Colorado University, setting school records for interceptions and interception return yardage, but he also gets some points in this discussion for bringing a football mentality onto the baseball field to a greater degree than any of his fellow former football stars. In short, he seemed to really, really enjoy leveling people. On the ever-enjoyable Ultimate Mets memory page, all of Stearns’ “greatest hits” are mentioned: his takedown of a fan who had run onto the field during a game; his body-slam of Bill Gullickson after the enemy pitcher buzzed a fastball at fellow Met Mike Jorgenson’s head; his literally jaw-breaking hit on Dave Parker as the hulking Pirate baserunner tried to separate the plate-blocking Stearns from the baseball; and, most notably, his flattening of Atlanta Braves mascot Chief Noc-A-Homa.

As Stearns explained in a 2010 New York Post article, the latter incident included an element of premeditation.

I watched him for three or four years and I said, ‘Someday I’m going to clothesline this guy.’ One day I took off, running at him like a defensive back. He looked at me like, “What is this guy going to do?” I didn’t really hit him. I kind of dragged him down. It was just a fun thing but Joe Torre was our manager and he didn’t like it.

Torre’s actual take on the incident, according to an ESPN article about Mets in the All-Star game that touches on Stearns for his propensity for being the Mets’ lone All-Star representative through the team’s dark years of the late 1970s and early 1980s, sounds more like a mix of amusement and weary resignation: “It was just the Dude being the Dude.”

Stearns’ full nickname (lest Torre’s shortening of it lead anyone to believe that Jeff Bridges should be tabbed to play the Mets’ catcher in the long overdue film version of the Mets late-1970s struggles) was “Bad Dude.” The moniker, while aptly illustrative of both his toughness and his confidence (“there’s no hiding the fact that when I was younger, I lacked humility,” he told the Denver Post), has in Stearns’ eyes turned into something that has held him back. “I can’t even get an interview,” Stearns, speaking of his desire to be a major league manager, told the Denver Post. “The Bad Dude thing always pops up. I’m not doing that thing anymore and I’d like to get rid of it.”

Another memorable figure from the 1970s who is no longer living within the confines of the name he was known by back then is Levi Walker, Jr., who John Stearns chased down and tackled while the former was in his full mascot regalia as Chief Noc-A-Homa. Walker, a Native American with roots in the Ottawa and Chippewa tribes, was the third and most famous of the men who played Chief Noc-A-Homa, who in addition to running past the enemy dugout before every game (the part of the mascot’s act that inspired Stearns to the most famous of the Colorado Buffalo legend’s many open-field tackles) “lived” in a teepee in the outfield stands during games and emerged to do a dance whenever a Braves player hit a home run. His list of moments in the public eye reads like a back-and-forth between goofiness and politics that somehow epitomizes the 1970s (and the later fallout traceable back to those years). In 1972 his portrayal of a cartoonish Indian stereotype was dismissed witheringly by Native American rights activist Russell Means; in 1974 he brought a lacrosse stick to the park to better his chances of snaring Hank Aaron’s 715th home run; in 1982 the removal of his teepee to open up more ticketed seating area immediately preceded a hideous team-wide slump that finally led the team to reinstate the Chief in his rightful home in time for the team to right itself and win the division; in 1986, perhaps becoming aware of the problematic nature of employing a mascot who was, unlike other notable mascots with googly eyes and giant baseball heads or anteater snouts or chicken feathers, based on a race of humans, the Braves decided to part ways with the Chief, who responded to a question about what he would do next by saying that he had “no reservations” anywhere; in 1991, Walker reappeared as the Braves entered the World Series to debate American Indian groups who were protesting the Braves, whose team name and other appropriations of Indian culture were seen by the protesters as insensitive and dehumanizing.

Finally, Walker seems to have eased back into a life away from the spotlight. Below is a clip of him at some kind of festival, making an arrowhead. He seems like a nice guy. At any rate, it’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to tackle him.

15 comments

  1. For some reason, certain cards from some years were impossible for me to get, no matter how many packs I bought. This classifies as one of those cards. Thanks, Topps.


  2. I’m digging the Stearns love but Kirk Gibson was an All-American WR at Michigan State.


  3. Yes, Gibson! I knew there would be guys I should have thought of. (I would have researched it a little, but I had already wasted a couple days wandering around the Internet searching for Chief Noc-A-Homa.)

    I guess All-American (Gibson) trumps All Big-Eight (Stearns).


  4. Maybe Brian Jordan?


  5. I met Chief Noc-A-Homa in 2009. Now you’ve given me an excuse to write the story. I’ll try to have a blog entry about it later today. It’s a bit too long a story for a comment.


  6. Todd Helton was the starting QB for Tennessee until he got hurt. Peyton Manning took over and Helton became a darn good Major League hitter.


  7. my brother and i both loved john stearns and the way he played. for some reason we called him “ur-ga-dur,” and i have no idea why. but even today, if we’re playing football with his kids and one of us blocks one of them or tackles them hard, we call out, “ur-ga-dur!”


  8. I’ll nominate Darin Erstad as a more recent example, although as a punter for the Nebraska Cornhuskers that may not quite count on the football side.


  9. OK, the blog entry is written:

    http://kenarneson.wordpress.com/2011/02/24/mascots-in-the-wild/


  10. Damn, I should have thought of Erstad! He was at Nebraska when I was in school there, and was a key member of our ’94 championship team, doing kickoffs and field goals as well as punting. He was part of a great underrated highlight that year–on a botched extra point, the holder picked up the ball and while getting tackled, blindly lobbed the ball up from the 25 yard line, into the arms of Erstad at the goal line for a 2-point conversion. See the 1:09 mark on this video: http://www.mefeedia.com/watch/30904336

    Or in choppy motion at 2:30 here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eDUQ1k8DP7Y


  11. Great entry!

    One slightly interesting note is that that card pictures Stearns wearing No. 16, which he wore only in his rookie season before swapping 16 for 12 with Lee Mazzilli. He subsequently became the best 12 in Mets history as I examine Cardboard God style, here: http://mbtn.net/very-boswell-birthday


  12. Stearns wore 16 in his first two years with the Mets before switching to 12. In his second year, 12 was worn by not only Mazzilli, but by…Jack Heidemann!


  13. Another arresting post, Josh, this one (plus your lost-rabbit story) jostled a particular regret that I feel: as a boy not only did I live for more than a decade in the same small Michigan town as Chief Noc-A-Homa, but from 1972 to 1975 my family attended the same church as did he. My baseball consciousness did not explode until 1976, at the ripe old age of 11. So, sure, I remember Levi McClellan preaching. And Brother Harvey. And Brother Chandler. And I well remember (Ottawa tribe) Chief (the real deal) Robert Dominic. But did I comprehend that the man in the next pew was Chief Noc-A-Homa? During Hammerin’ Hank’s historic quest for number 715, no less? Nope. And I regret that.


  14. I miss Stearns – considering the down era for the Mets in which he played he was a mainstay and a real competitor. With little stability at catcher for the past half-decade, we could sure use someone like him now.

    As far as the question posed, I think the conversation has to include All-American Quarterback Jake Gibbs, who led Ole Miss to a national championship, and was drafted by the NFL and AFL, before embarking on a lengthy career odyssey as back-up catcher for the Roy White-era Yankees.

    Considering his triumphant gridiron exploits and mediocre career stats on the diamond, one even wonders if, Charle-Ward-style, he may have chosen the wrong vocation. Probably didn’t do much for his knees, either. When I was first entering baseball consciousness I knew nothing of Jake’s football success, and used to confuse him with Curt Blefary.

    Also, collecting football cards as well as baseball cards in my early years, I often confused Joe Ferguson the catcher with Joe Ferguson the quarterback. I’m sure that at one point or another it probably even crossed my mind that maybe they were the same person. But I really don’t remember giving it all that much thought.


  15. I just missed the Jake Gibbs era. I don’t think I’ve ever even heard of him until right now.

    When I was very, very young, I thought Jimmy Connors and Pete Rose were the same guy.



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