by Scott Benson
Jim Nance was the featured attraction at the first Patriots game I ever attended, on a sun-dappled Sunday a long while ago. I caught him at his apex as a pro football player, the reigning league MVP on his way to a second straight AFL rushing title. The rest of the team wasn’t nearly as accomplished as he was, but the mid-60’s Nance could still control a game anyway.
I’m having trouble thinking of a modern-day comparison. I don’t think players like Nance exist anymore. This was a 240 lb. fullback who was the only rusher in AFL history to top 1,400 yards in a single season. At his peak, Nance strung 100 yard games together like popcorn – he’s still the only Patriots running back to lead the league in rushing two years in a row (66-67). Nance was first and foremost a punishing finisher inside (a ball-control machine and the team’s all-time leading touchdown scorer), but he had the kind of speed and elusiveness that lands a guy on the cover of Sports Illustrated (you could look it up). Even today, no Patriots back has had more 50 yard runs.
Truthfully, the Nance described above appeared just briefly during his seven year career with the Pats. He never again matched the dominance of his 66-67 seasons, when he ran for 2,700 yards in 28 games.
But his brilliance in those nascent days of the team makes him the most worthy recipient of your vote for this year’s inductee to the Patriots Hall of Fame.
This year’s vote, which continues through June, presents further opportunity to recognize those men who laid the foundation of the franchise that has since gone on to make NFL history. There can be no question that these are in fact the golden years of the Patriots, but how can we truly understand and appreciate their true significance without knowing – and honoring – from whence they came?
I expect that Ben Coates, the prolific tight end of the mid-90’s, will receive support that is certainly due him, as his feats are the freshest in our minds. No one would argue that Coates shouldn’t walk among the best Patriots ever. Only that Nance should go first, before our fading memories leave him behind forever.
I saw Nance a second and final time on a blisteringly hot and hazy Saturday some two decades later, at an open scrimmage between the Washington Redskins and Dick McPherson’s Patriots. The Patriots were at perhaps the lowest point in their existence, horrible on the field and even worse off it. More and more fans turned their backs, leaving the old Foxboro Stadium as an empty, ugly, gray bowl. They were like the proverbial tree, falling in the forest yet not making a sound. So as they began anew under the enthusiastic McPherson, they opened up the gates to anyone who wanted to show, if only to see Joe Gibbs and the ‘Skins, who would go on to win the Super Bowl.
Inside waited a number of current and former players, rallied to support the wounded franchise that they still viewed, by their actions that day, with pride. They welcomed fans, signed autographs, touted the team and generally lent goodwill at a time when it was needed most, and noticed the least.
Among them was Nance, fending off the heat under one of those floppy terrycloth hats. He didn’t seem a well man, still showing the disabling effects of a heart attack and stroke he had suffered nearly a decade before.
It just so happened this this time, it my son’s first time at a (sort of) football game. It struck me how once again, it was Jim Nance commanding our attention. Well, mine, anyway, and so I said, “Andy, you should go ask that man for his autograph. He used to be a great player when I was your age.” I was already thinking of what a kick my dad would get out of that when we got home.
Nance couldn’t have been more warm and gentle and great, with all of us who gathered around him. Even as the ravages of time and fate were weakening him, Nance lent a credible and dignified presence to a place and time where those things were in short supply, just as he had as a young man.
He was dead less than a year later, just 49 years old.
Now, one of the most successful sports franchises in America builds a football shrine just a few feet from where we beleagured few stood that day. A shrine that now will preserve some of the greatest moments in league history, and the litany of name and faces and teams most responsible for them. Much of it will be dedicated to men whose deeds are so recent we can still recall them, step for step. Good. They should be celebrated, and savored.
So too should be the grandest exploits of those who came before them, and who, even in the most unremarkable times, laid the bedrock on which this new shrine will stand.
Put the great Jim Nance in the Patriots Fall of Fame, where he undeniably belongs.