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He Made His Catches Count - Don Maynard: 1935-2022

He Made His Catches Count - Don Maynard: 1935-2022

01/10/2022
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The professional football world today is celebrating the life of Don Maynard, a record-setting wide receiver who played in several of the sport’s most memorable games.

A member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 1987, Maynard died Monday. He was 86.

Hall of Fame President Jim Porter called Maynard “a resilient man on and off the field – and someone that his teammates could always count on. He was humble, and perhaps the best way to remember Don is through his own words – from his Enshrinement speech:”

‘I came to play, and I came to stay. Football was a game; Country Don was my name. I made a mark, and I became a star, with a lot of help from near and far. There are good ones and great ones, I played with and against. Thank you, good Lord, for that wonderful chance. As I played my part many times even late after dark, I don't have to look back as I played it with my heart. The direction from where I came, resulted in a whole lot of fame. I played the best and I believe I passed the test. I am glad this is over; I need some rest.’

Maynard was born Jan. 25, 1935, in Crosbyton, Texas, and raised around the cotton fields of West Texas and Oklahoma that provided work for his father, who processed the crop at local cotton gins. Finding jobs meant the family uprooted frequently; by the time Maynard graduated, he had attended 13 schools.

Because he moved almost annually, Maynard – as a newly established student in a school – often was declared ineligible to play sanctioned fall sports and participated in little organized football. By spring, however, he could run on school track teams, and with his natural speed and long stride became a standout sprinter and state champion hurdler.

That success caught the attention of college scouts across the Southwest. He accepted a scholarship at Rice University, but after one semester transferred to Texas Western College (now UTEP) in El Paso.

At Texas Western, Maynard continued to excel in track – he was Border Conference champion in the hurdles – and also played football. He caught only 28 passes in his three seasons (1955-57), but he turned those receptions into 10 scores and averaged 27.6 yards per catch. He led the nation with 34.4 yards per catch as a senior.

“When I made a catch, I made it count,” he said.

His college production included 154 rushing attempts for 843 yards (5.4 average) and nine touchdowns. He also returned punts (21 for 250 yards) and kickoffs (12 for 275 yards).

Maynard’s two-way skills – he intercepted 10 passes in college – earned him a spot at the 1957 Blue-Gray Football Classic. Playing for Gray coach Sammy Baugh – their meeting that would pay off later – Maynard was named co-MVP of the game after a touchdown catch and three extra points helped the Gray team win 21-20.

The powerhouse New York Giants selected Maynard in the ninth round of the 1957 NFL Draft. Appearing in 12 games as one of the few rookies to make the team’s 1958 roster, Maynard provided depth in both backfields, learning from Emlen Tunnell, Frank Gifford and Kyle Rote. He got on the field mostly on special teams and was the first player to touch the ball, on a kick return, to start the famous overtime period of “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” The Giants fell to the Colts, 23-17, in the 1958 NFL Championship Game, the first of many notable pro games that included Maynard.

Figuring to make more of a contribution with the Giants in 1959, Maynard instead found himself out of a job. Cowboys boots, sideburns and other differences of opinions with an assistant coach, which Maynard verbalized during training camp, led to his surprising release.

Maynard headed to Canada and played the 1959 season with Hamilton in the CFL. “I felt I could play somewhere,” he said in reflecting on his career and decision to stick with football rather than return to El Paso and his jobs as a plumber and high school teacher. The Tiger-Cats reached the Grey Cup but lost to Winnipeg (a team coached by future Hall of Famer Bud Grant).

As Maynard was considering a second season in Canada, he instead took a chance on a new league forming in the United States. The New York Titans were among the original franchises in the American Football League and hired Baugh as their first head coach. He offered Maynard a contract, making him the first player signed in the history of the Titans, which three years later became the Jets.

In the AFL’s debut season, Maynard led the Titans with 72 receptions for 1,265 yards – both totals ranking second in the league. He scored six times.

Immediate bond

Maynard posted another 1,000-yard season in 1962, but the team’s early years were filled with numerous quarterback changes, coaching turnover and new ownership. Fortunes finally began to turn in 1965 with the drafting of Joe Namath, who immediately bonded with Maynard.

“Joseph, I’m going to make you a better quarterback, and you’re going to make me a great receiver,” Maynard recalled telling Namath when they first met. “We’re going to talk on every play, every route ahead of time.”

In 1965, Maynard caught 68 passes for 1,218 yards and a league-leading 14 touchdowns in earning his first Pro Bowl nod. By 1967, the pair was clicking, with Maynard catching 71 passes for a league-high 1,434 yards and 10 TDs, earning team MVP honors, as Namath became the first pro to eclipse 4,000 passing yards.

It set the stage for a 1968 season filled with memorable moments for the Jets and Maynard, who would finish the regular season with 57 receptions for 1,297 yards (a league-best 22.8 per-catch average) and 10 touchdowns.

New York opened with an impressive 20-19 win over the powerful Chiefs in Kansas City, with Maynard catching eight passes for 203 yards and two touchdowns. He would add a career-high 228 yards at Oakland nine weeks later. On a drive that began at the Jets’ 1, Maynard caught back-to-back passes covering 99 yards for a go-ahead score. The game between the eventual AFL division winners lives in pro football lore as “The Heidi Bowl.”

In the 1968 AFL Championship Game, Maynard caught six passes for 118 yards and two touchdowns – the game’s first and last scoring plays in a 27-23 victory over the Raiders. Shortly before the winning reception, Maynard hauled in a 52-yard, wind-altered bomb from Namath.

Maynard called it “the greatest catch I ever made.”

The win lifted the Jets into Super Bowl III, and despite the fact he didn’t catch a pass, Maynard considered his performance against the heavily favored Colts one of his best as a pro.

“I did my job. I had the greatest game in the world,” he said of the 16-7 upset. “I got out wide to the right side, and I made them double- and triple-(team) me, and they had to play my game.”

Maynard’s stats dipped slightly in 1969, the AFL’s final season: 47 catches for 938 yards (20.0 average) and six touchdowns, but those were league-leading numbers when his season ended after 11 games because of a broken foot. He earned All-Pro honors for the first time.

In 1970, Maynard opened the season with four catches for 69 yards in the debut of “Monday Night Football,” but his overall production that season fell significantly. He played through the 1972 season with the Jets, then joined the St. Louis Cardinals for two games in 1973. He was a player-coach with the Houston/Shreveport franchise in the World Football League in 1974.

Record-holder upon retirement

At the time of his retirement from the NFL, Maynard’s 633 receptions and 11,834 yards were league records. His 88 touchdowns trailed only Hall of Famer Don Hutson, who scored 99 times.

Maynard’s career average of 18.7 yards per catch trails only Paul Warfield, Bob Hayes and Lance Alworth among Hall of Famers and remains 16th all time – but first for a player with 600 receptions. His name still occupies places 2, 3, 4 and 6 on the Jets’ all-time list for single-season receiving yardage more than a half-century since the last of his five 1,000-yard seasons.

He was among a select few – 20 men – to play the entire decade of the American Football League and one of seven to do so with the same team. He was elected to the AFL Hall of Fame All-1960s Team. The Jets retired his famous No. 13 jersey and elected him as a charter member of their Ring of Honor in 2010.

“Don was a great player. He made many of his teammates better football players,” Namath said. “Don worked with 25 different quarterbacks throughout his career, and he made most of us better football players.

“He was the man our opponents worried about, the knockout punch. Lightening in a bottle. Nitro just waiting to explode. I mean he could fly. But with the grace of a great thoroughbred. The man could flat play. He galloped through the best of the very best football players of the world.”

Maynard took pride in one accomplishment in particular: reaching 10,000 receiving yards before any other pro player.

“I don’t really look at it like I’m the greatest receiver,” he said at his Enshrinement. “After you play awhile, anybody can break certain records. Longevity is the key. The record I’m proudest of is being the first guy to get 10,000 yards in receptions. Others may do it, but I’m the first, and only one guy can be the first.”

Maynard’s legacy as the first to 10,000 receiving yards and his many accomplishments in some of pro football’s most memorable games will be preserved forever at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

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