I realize there's another step to go, but how does it feel to be a Hall of Fame finalist?
I'm ecstatic. It's such an emotional high but I know I've got a long ways to go. There's a lot of good candidates trying to get into that final seven or final four, whatever it winds up being. You can't win the 100-yard dash if you don't get into the blocks. I'm in the starting blocks for the 100-meter race at the Olympics and I'm just waiting for the gun to sound so I can start running, because I'm ready to go.
What jumps out statistically is your 27 interceptions. Your game would have translated pretty well to today's NFL, don't you think?
The left side (of the defense) was always the strong side of the ball. When I played, the quarterbacks called their own plays and most of them were right-handed, so most of the plays went to their right and our left. I have a great, great, great deal of respect for Clay Matthews but Clay's style, he could not have played his style of play when I played and I couldn't have played my style and played with Clay Matthews today. However, I was a good enough player that I could adapt and I could play today, and I think Clay is good enough that he could have played back in the ‘60s and he's a good enough athlete to adapt to the style of the ‘60s. The game has evolved, so that's why it's hard to compare a Clay Matthews to a Dave Robinson …
I played on the strong side, which was the side of the tight end. Unlike today, where they let the tight end go without touching him – I never, never, never let the tight end off clean. You don't have to knock him down, just bump him off course to disrupt the timing between him and the quarterback. They don't do that anymore. That's why on third-and-6, the quarterback is playing pitch and catch with the tight end. They never did when I was playing. The tight end had to worry about getting off the ball. They don't do that anymore. The game has evolved. Jamming the tight end don't mean a thing today because nobody jams him. In my day, you jammed the tight end. I couldn't let the John Mackeys and Ron Kramers and the Mike Ditkas of the world come off on Tom Brown? What the hell?
Obviously, your defense had a ton of talent but the intelligence has gotten overlooked through time. Was that ability to freelance, like what you did on Don Meredith to win the 1966 championship game, the hallmark of your defense?
Me and Willie on the left side, we did that all the time. When I got traded to the Redskins, George Allen called me in and he showed the defense and he said, ‘What defense are you in?' I told him. He said, ‘What defense are you in on the right side?' I said, ‘Same one.' He said, ‘How come they're doing this and you guys are doing that?' I said, ‘Hey, we're not locked in.' You can't make us both do the same thing. I have strengths and Lee Roy (Caffey) has strengths; Lionel (Aldridge) has strengths and Willie has strengths. All four had weaknesses. I played and covered any of Willie's weaknesses and he covered mine, and same way with Lionel and Lee Roy. So, even though we're playing the same defense, George Allen, who was one of the great coaches of all time, didn't recognize it as being the same defense.
I remember talking to you at the ‘Lombardi' premiere at Lambeau Field a few years back and you mentioned how Vince handled you being the first African-American linebacker in the NFL.
Vince pulled me aside and told me, ‘We just won in ‘61 and ‘62. We did not need any distractions because we're going for three consecutive world championships. So, if anybody wants to write about you being the first one, refer them to me and I'll take care of them.' Which I did, and he did, and there was nothing written. Bud Lea, who wrote for the Sentinel, he came up to me and said, ‘Do you know you're the first black linebacker?' I said, ‘See Vince.' Never heard anything more about it.
Was being a trailblazer a big deal to you at the time, even if Vince didn't want it mentioned? Every time I stepped on the field, I knew people were watching and I wanted to do the best I could. I didn't want to be a flunky. I didn't want to fall on my face. At the time, there was a stigma that black guys weren't smart enough to play linebacker. I was determined to prove them wrong.