By Roger Gordon
“We just might be headed for the AFC Championship Game!”
That was the thought going through Ron Bolton’s mind at approximately 2 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 4, 1981. Bolton, the Browns’ left cornerback, had just returned a Jim Plunkett pass 42 yards for a touchdown – Bolton’s second pick of the day – to give his team a 6–0 second-quarter lead over the visiting Oakland Raiders in an AFC Divisional Playoff Game.
“Anytime the defense or special teams score it’s a real plus,” said Bolton, who led the Browns with six interceptions during that magical Kardiac Kids season of 1980. “And with the weather the way it was, I really felt that touchdown might’ve been all we needed to win the game.”
Bolton didn’t run back Plunkett’s floater. Rather, he ice-skated to the end zone. The playing conditions inside Cleveland Stadium that afternoon were more suitable for an Eskimo. It looked like the game was being played on the North Pole, not the north coast. How does a wind chill that made the 1 degree temperature at game time feel like 37 below sound? The frigid air, frozen field and swirling winds caused havoc on both teams – especially the offenses.
The Browns’ opponent that day may have no longer had legendary players like Ken Stabler, Dave Casper and Jack Tatum around, but it still had its share of greats – Art Shell, Gene Upshaw, Cliff Branch and Ted Hendricks to name of few, not to mention Plunkett, who was Pro Football Weekly’s NFL Comeback Player of the Year that season. Oh, and don’t forget Mark van Eeghen, who scored both of Oakland’s touchdowns against the Browns that wound up giving the Raiders a 14–12 triumph that ended with the infamous Red Right 88 play.
“Even though we came out on the losing end that day,” Bolton said, “that touchdown I scored to give us the lead was no doubt the most memorable individual moment of my career.”
It was a career whose roots were actually planted in the early 1960s when, at about 10 years of age, Bolton, the third oldest of seven children, gained an interest in athletics while growing up in Petersburg, Virginia, a town of about 37,000 people at the time.
“I’d play baseball, basketball and football with the other kids in the neighborhood,” he said. “We’d play football in one of my friend’s backyard, we had a hoop for basketball in another friend’s backyard and we played baseball in the fields. No matter the sport, we’d play until dark.”
Bolton always made sure he competed with the older boys, whatever the sport.
“If I wanted to hang out with them,” he said, “I had to get in there and play sports with them. I was kind of skinny, but I had a lot of heart. I had to have a lot of heart to just fit in and be accepted.”
Bolton was welcomed by the older boys because he was a good athlete.
“In football, if I was covering a receiver, I’d stay with him wherever he went and make the tackle,” he said. “Baseball was my favorite, though. It was a passion of mine. I was a pretty good hitter. There was a house at the end of this one field. If you hit the ball to the house, it was a home run. And one time I broke a window! I played third base and in the outfield, but I played catcher the most. One day, I wanted to prove that I could play catcher without a facemask. The batter tipped the ball and it spun right back into my eye. After that, I gave my bat, my ball, my glove … everything … away. I didn’t want to play baseball anymore after that.”
That’s what a black eye will do.
“I wasn’t that great at basketball,” Bolton said, “so after that I focused solely on football. I knew the only way I was going to get to go to college was by playing a sport, and I felt I had the best chance of doing that by playing football.”
Weighing not even 120 pounds upon arriving at the first day of summer football practice prior to his freshman year at Peabody High School, one of two high schools in Petersburg, Bolton was nonetheless determined to make the team. His small stature, however, wasn’t his only roadblock. There was no junior varsity team at Peabody. There was no freshman team, either. Just the varsity and that was it.
Young Ron, though, bested everybody – even the upperclassmen – in the conditioning drills.
“The coach said I was too small, though, and cut me,” he said. “But I didn’t quit and came back out. He cut me again. I wouldn’t stop trying and came back out a third time. I got cut again. So I went to the coach and said, ‘I’ve done everything you asked me to do. I ran the distance, the sprints and everything else just heads above everybody.’ But he just felt I was too small. So I said, ‘I can handle it, just give me a chance.’ So he let me stick around, and I just started playing.”
The coach allowed Bolton to dress for games as a freshman even though he didn’t play.
“I practiced with the team,” he said, “playing the role of the opponent at wide receiver and cornerback. I actually enjoyed playing receiver more. I had decent moves at receiver, but I didn’t have the great hands. Sophomore year I started getting some playing time at receiver and cornerback but not a whole lot, just in mop-up duty.
“There were still guys a lot better than me in front of me,” Bolton said. “I just kept working at my craft.”
By his junior year, Bolton was a starter at receiver and cornerback.
“I didn’t make All-District or anything like that,” he said, “but I played well enough to get recognized as being a good player.”
But not good enough for college recruiters to come calling. Bolton desperately wanted to get a scholarship … somewhere.
“I didn’t want to be left at home,” he said, “so I told a friend, and teammate, of mine who was like 6–5, 300 pounds, ‘If any colleges come looking for you, call me so I can come over and meet them.’ So about 10 o’clock one night my buddy calls me to tell me that the head coach for Norfolk State, a black college in Virginia, was at his house recruiting him. I got up out of bed and ran over to his house to meet the coach. I convinced him to give me a tryout, to let me go down to Norfolk State to try out for the team. If I made the team, I’d get a scholarship. If I didn’t make the team, I knew what was going to happen – I’d have to go back home. So I walked on, trying to earn a scholarship.”
Bolton started off at wide receiver. It wasn’t long, though, before he noticed that the Spartans were stocked with a number of talented wide outs but were weak in the defensive backfield.
“I went to the receivers coach and said, ‘Listen, I want to switch over and play DB,’” he said. “I figured I had a better shot of playing cornerback than receiver. He said, ‘Hell, I don’t care.’ So then I went to the defensive backs coach and asked him if I could switch to cornerback. He said, ‘Son, you can’t even play wide receiver, how are you gonna play defensive back?’ I said, ‘Let me deal with that part.’ So he put me out on the field and said, ‘Okay, let’s see what you can do.’
“The first thing that happened was they opened up the holes for the running backs and let them run. And these running backs were like 6-foot–4, 220 pounds and 6–2, 240 pounds! I must’ve been about 6–2, 150 pounds. It seemed like on every play all the other players – on both sides of the ball – fell down on purpose so it was just me against a much bigger running back. So on the first play I came up and hit one of the backs and brought him down. Then they ran another play with the other back, and I came up and hit him and brought him down. Then they started running pass plays to these much bigger wide receivers – including future NFL wide out Ray Jarvis – and I was defending the passes and keeping these guys from catching the ball.”
From then on, Bolton remained at cornerback. And he got his scholarship – a full ride. After sitting on the bench his freshman year in 1968, he started at cornerback – on both sides – his last three years.
“Everything seemed to come together for me my senior year,” he said.
That’s when Bolton was named to The Pittsburgh Courier All-American Team, the nation’s premier black college All-American Team. The Sporting News rated him as one of the top 10 defensive backs in the country – and not just for Division II schools like Norfolk State (now Division I-AA) but for all schools. Pro scouts began to take notice, too.
“Ever since I started playing football my dream was to play in the NFL,” said Bolton.
Bolton, who didn’t have enough credits to graduate but went back to school five years later to complete his degree in health and physical education, was chosen by the New England Patriots in the fifth round of the 1972 NFL Draft. His enthusiasm and desire to succeed helped a great deal during his first training camp that summer.
“There were some DBs on the Patriots who’d been in the league for a while, and they really didn’t want to take all the reps in practice,” Bolton recalled. “So I said I’d take those extra reps. I figured the more reps I got, the faster I’d become better and know exactly what we were doing and show the coaches that I could play. So I wound up doing that, and I started getting good and being recognized.”
As a rookie, Bolton saw significant action at both corner spots and became a starter during the second half of the season. Despite the Pats’ poor win-loss records, he hung up impressive interception numbers, leading the team with six in 1973, seven in ’74 and five in ’75.
“I should’ve had more because I was batting balls down that I should’ve caught,” he said.
Bolton credited Larrye Weaver, the defensive backs coach his last three years in New England (and the Browns’ offensive coordinator in 1983), with truly teaching him how to play the position of cornerback.
“I had a lot of quickness and speed,” Bolton said, “but Larrye taught me how to use technique and reads and all of that stuff, especially in covering man-to-man. He was responsible for prolonging my career.”
Philosophical differences between Bolton and the Pats’ coaches when it came to play calls on defense resulted in Bolton being traded to the Browns during the 1976 NFL Draft. Just like he did with New England, the 6–2, 170-pound Bolton played both corner spots for Cleveland.
Bolton helped the Browns rebound to a 9–5 record, barely missing the playoffs, in 1976 – including a 37-yard INT return for a score in a Week 10 win over the Eagles – after the team had finished just 3–11 and in last place in the Central Division the year before. After a 6–8 finish in 1977, Bolton and the Browns were re-energized when the personable Sam Rutigliano replaced Forrest Gregg as head coach. Bolton suffered a broken arm in 1978 during a Week 6 win at New Orleans that prompted surgery and caused him to miss six weeks. The Browns finished 8–8, but Bolton felt he was part of a defense that, although much-maligned, was improving.
“We already had some pretty good players on defense, and we’d drafted Clay Matthews that year,” he said. “We were trying to catch up to our offense, which was becoming one of the better offenses in the league.”
The Browns finished 9–7 in 1979, again barely missing the playoffs, as the Kardiac Kids were born. By the time the team went 11–5 and won the Central Division the next year, Bolton said being a Cleveland Brown was akin to being a rock star.
“It was amazing,” he said. “Everybody in town just knew who you were walking down the street, in clubs and at different places. It was a nice feeling, real nice to be recognized in that way.”
Bolton stuck around for two more years before retiring after the 1982 season. He opened a nightclub in the Cleveland area and ran it for 14 years before returning to football and venturing into the coaching profession. He began as the defensive backs coach at Liberty University in Virginia, reuniting with Rutigliano, who by that time was the head coach there. Then he had stints coaching DBs at his alma mater of Norfolk State, Howard University and Delaware State with a head coaching gig at Washington High School in Norfolk (Hall of Famer Bruce Smith’s alma mater) for two years in between.
The 65-year-old Bolton has returned to Howard, where he once again coaches the defensive backs. In fact, two Bison DBs who played under Bolton’s tutelage made it to the NFL. One is Antoine Bethea, who has spent nine successful seasons as a starter for the Indianapolis Colts. The other is Ron Bartell, who played for the St. Louis Rams from 2005–11 before finishing his career with the Detroit Lions and Oakland Raiders in 2012.
Bolton, who has two grown daughters and six grandchildren, resides in Virginia, not exactly the shortest of drives from Howard, which is located in Washington, D.C.
“I rent an apartment in D.C. and go home on the weekends and in the off-season. I also do a lot of recruiting in the off-season, including in the Cleveland-Akron area,” he said, adding that he spends much of his free time working on his many cars.
Bolton said he will never forget playing in front of the Cleveland fans.
“They were blue-collar people, just like the family I came from,” he said. “And win or lose, they were always there for us, supported us. Take the Oakland playoff game. When I woke up that morning at my home in Cleveland Heights and saw the weather conditions, I didn’t think we were going to play the game. I thought it’d be cancelled, rescheduled for another day. It was just too cold. I didn’t think anyone could play a game in that kind of weather. But the game went on as planned. And the fans showed up.
“Almost 80,000 of ‘em.”