April 17, 2013

Food was the early incentive for former NFL player Womble

Royce Womble is the first athlete from a Mansfield ISD school to play in the NFL and one of the league’s oldest living players at age 81.

MANSFIELD — A sign on the bridge leading up to Royce Womble’s humble home reads: “No fishing from the bridge.”

For those that cross it heading up to visit the former Baltimore Colts and Los Angeles Chargers running back, it foreshadows what can be expected from the jovial 81-year-old.

On approach, the bridge looks likes it stretches over a vast creek. In actuality, it covers a dry ditch with long grass that perhaps collects water after a heavy rain.

You’re not going to find many Large Mouth Bass or Rainbow Trout in its confines.

And that’s the way Womble lives his life, constantly finding humor in the people and things he comes across.

So it makes sense that what he thought was a practical joke, took him from the hardpan of Mansfield’s football game field to old school NFL fields the likes of Tiger Stadium in Detroit and Wrigley Field in Chicago.

Living with his mother, brother and five sisters in the farming community of Webb, Texas, Womble road the bus to Mansfield High School where he played for the Tigers.

“Back then, sports was way down the list on things of importance,” he said. “So it was ride the bus to school in the morning and then, because I stuck around for football practice, I hitched-hiked back home.”

It was that kind of commitment that helped him improve as a running back for what he described as modest Mansfield teams that won a few games here and there.

“But if a college scout or someone said they were coming to Mansfield to recruit some players, they’d have been laughed at,” he said.

Shortly after Womble graduated from Mansfield, he was convinced by a friend to take a car ride up to Denton for what was supposed to be a football tryout.

Three weeks later, he had a scholarship, a dorm and a pair of cleats as a member of the North Texas State Mean Green.

“I will always, always be thankful for North Texas State,” he said. “But I was more impressed with the free food and the gorgeous girls than anything else. I just couldn’t believe that football could get you something like that.”

These days, Womble and a motley crew of characters cut up the world’s problems each morning at a local coffee shop.

Tennessee Titans scout C.O. Broccato is usually among them and said he doesn’t know much about Womble’s playing career, except that he is generally appreciated as one of the first pass-catching running backs.

“He had good hands,” Broccato said. “Royce was way ahead of his time and he fell to the right person in Coach (Weeb) Ewbank. He wasn’t a speedy guy, but he could catch the football and he was tough.”

The playing days

After his college eligibility was up, Womble spent two and half years doing his bit in the Navy before friend and fellow North Texas alum Ray Renfro talked Womble into visiting with new Baltimore Colts coach Weeb Ewbank, who was traveling through the Metroplex.

Renfro, whom Womble said was the greatest player he played with, played 12 seasons with the Cleveland Browns and knew Ewbank from his time as an assistant to coach Paul Brown.

Ewbank and the Colts front office offered Womble a $5,500 free agent contract for the 1954 season, contingent upon him making the team at training camp in Maryland.

It was in camp at what was formerly known as Western Maryland College that Womble got another dose of good food and fortune.

“You know we stayed in the dorms there,” he said. “Practices weren’t easy, but I wasn’t all that worried because they fed you like you’d never seen before.”

The Colts were a fledgling organization at the time having completed what is considered its inaugural season in the NFL at 3-9.

Ewbank, who succeeded Keith Molesworth, liked what he saw in versatility and the last day of camp featured a roster with Womble’s name on it. According to Elias Sports Bureau, Womble is the first player from a Mansfield school to play in the NFL.

He played 12 games and carried the ball 60 times for 170 yards. What was striking about Womble’s official numbers is that he never scored a rushing touchdown in his career and had 30 receptions for 338 yards and three receiving touchdowns in his first year.

Womble made enough of an impact, though, to make an impression on at least one teammate.

Defensive back and future Hall of Fame coach Don Shula remembered Womble’s ability.

“He was a guy that had the right speed, good hands and ability to change direction,” Shula said. “He fit in real well with his teammates and I don't recall anything negative about that guy. He was just a player that wanted to be the best he could be."

Still, the statistics spoke for themselves on how much Womble had to evolve as a player.

“Yeah it was different,” he said. “I went from primarily running the ball and being around run-minded offenses and coaches to playing in systems where passing the ball was the game.”

Womble had surgery on his right knee after getting hurt in the 1955 season and played only three games. He came back for 12 more in ’56 before injury again forced him out of two games in the ’57 season and perhaps a career.

But after coaching football in the Metroplex for two years, Womble got a visit from coach Al Davis who was involved with a new organization, the American Football League.

Davis worked out a deal that took Womble to Southern California for training camp with the Los Angeles Chargers’ 1960 season.

It was at camp with coach Sid Gillman where Womble’s pass catching ability shifted him from the backfield, mostly to slot and receiver.

"With both of Royce's coaches, they were great at assessing what kind of player he was and putting him in the right situation to be successful," Shula said. "When he played with Baltimore, it makes sense that he was able to stick around with the Colts because John Unitas liked to have a back that could run after the catch. That's what Royce could do well."

Womble earned a roster spot with the Chargers and it was the last season he would play in his career, catching 30 passes for 316 yards from quarterback and future presidential candidate Jack Kemp.

“There were a lot of plays that we ran which were totally different from anything I’d ever seen,” Womble said. “I would swing out from the backfield a lot and the reason I didn’t score rushing the ball was because they like to have the bigger guys down there when we got closer to the end zone.”

No regrets

Womble’s recollection of various football-related stories and anecdotes is consistent to a seasoned individual of his age, which is to say he remembers a great deal, but needs reminders of names and faces which are not as easy to recall.

With the current hot button of player safety in the game, he said he often wonders if some of his memory lapses are a result of his playing days.

“But at least I’m able to put that together, to make that connection,” he says with a smile.

“Seriously, I’m not sure what the league can really do,” he continued. “We all know players are bigger, smarter and faster. But medical care has improved too, training your body has improved and equipment is getting better. But it’s a violent game and a blow to the head is a blow to the head.”

Womble said he can’t remember the specific year or game, but that he got hit so hard in the back of the head on one play, that he felt like something was jarred loose in his head.

“I walked around for more than a week feeling like something was rattling around back there,” he said with a laugh. “And in that day, you played, period. I don’t know if I had a concussion and I’m not a doctor, but from what I hear and read, that’s probably what I had.”

Asked to recall his memories of the 40,000-plus that jammed the legendary fields like Wrigley and Detroit’s Tiger Stadium, Womble deadpans, “Not much, other than having to line up on the side of the pitcher’s mound a few times.”

Womble said that’s a direct example of the popularity of baseball over football at that time. The pitcher’s mound now is routinely removed for teams that share a stadium, where pro football was just lucky to play in those venues during that era.

Womble insists that Renfro was the best player he ever laced them up with.

“He just never stopped,” Womble said. “He was doing modern-day workouts back then. I mean there were times where we would go on a trip down to the coast and along the way, he would say to pull over to that football field off the highway and let’s get some.”

Womble said he spent more time than he naturally would have keeping himself fit and game-ready because of how Renfro pushed him.

Broccato got to know Womble when he opened his sporting goods store in the '70s.

Over that time, he built a strong connection with athletes and coaches from every sport and they routinely used Womble’s store as a resource.

“To say he was respected by all the area high school coaches wouldn’t be accurate,” Broccato said. “He was trusted by them. I mean their kids needed equipment and needed advice and their wasn’t anyone better in the area to take your kid to.”

Despite the pro football success and the career, Womble said he doesn’t think of himself as either a Colts or Chargers player. And that’s not hard to believe when you realize he has no memorabilia from that era.

Ask any Colts fan to lay claim to Peyton Manning and there’s not a hesitation as to how the Denver quarterback’s bust will be adorned in the Hall of Fame.

But Womble said he’s never really felt that way about a loyalty to the Colts or the Chargers.

“I was a football player and I just enjoyed that,” he said. “I love to watch the games still, but I’m more of a UNT kind of guy you know. I mean that’s really where things started for me and there’s really no way for me to talk enough about everything that did for me and my stomach.”

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