Alworth, Lance Dwight

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ALWORTH, Lance Dwight

(b. 3 August 1940 in Houston, Texas), wide receiver for the San Diego Chargers and Dallas Cowboys, who was the American Football League's (AFL) first true superstar.

Alworth was the son of Richard Alworth, an oil field–construction foreman, and Elizabeth Louise Parrish, a schoolteacher. Although Alworth was born in Houston, the family moved to Brookhaven, Mississippi, where Alworth grew up and attended the public schools. Alworth was an outstanding athlete at Brookhaven High School, earning fifteen varsity letters and recognition as a scholastic All-America football player in 1957. Alworth credited much of his success to his father, who discouraged alcohol consumption and smoking. Although Mississippi was embroiled in violent reactions to the civil rights movement in the late 1950s, Alworth's experience was different. He asserted, "Small towns teach you people are people. I used to pick cotton with black people, and to me a person's a person, color never made any difference."

Alworth graduated from high school in 1958. The New York Yankees offered him a baseball contract, and football scholarships were available from schools such as the University of Arkansas, University of Minnesota, and University of Mississippi. However, the University of Mississippi withdrew its scholarship offer when Alworth married his high school sweetheart, Betty Jean, during his senior year of high school. The couple later had two children. Alworth later explained, "There must have been fifteen married couples in my graduating class. It seemed like the thing to do at the time."

Alworth was impressed by coach Frank Broyles of the University of Arkansas and elected to become a Razorback. The running back enjoyed a distinguished career at Arkansas. During his senior year he led the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) with sixty-one punt returns and was selected as an All-American. Alworth graduated from Arkansas in 1962 with a B.A. degree in marketing and enrolled in law school for one semester.

Alworth, however, focused on opportunities in sports rather than in the business world. The exceptional speed of the six-foot, 180-pound Alworth continued to attract baseball scouts. He turned down contracts from the Yankees and Pittsburgh Pirates, casting his lot with football. In 1962 the National Football League (NFL) was in a bidding war for player talent with its upstart rival, the American Football League (AFL). Taking advantage of this situation, Alworth signed a lucrative contract with the San Diego Chargers of the AFL, who had picked him in the second round of the player draft.

Alworth's youthful appearance and leaping, twisting style on the football field earned him the nickname "Bambi." But as a wide receiver for the Chargers, Alworth proved to be a rugged athlete who could take the vicious hits of defensive backs. For example, Alworth played much of the 1966 football season with two broken hands until he was sidelined with a hamstring injury, yet he still led the AFL in all pass-receiving categories. Alworth's accomplishments and stature as a football player helped the AFL in its struggle to achieve parity with the NFL, which culminated in the merger of the two leagues in 1970.

Alworth gained over 1,000 yards receiving each season from 1963 to 1969 and was selected as an All-Pro in those years. Alworth led the AFL in receiving three times and played in two AFL championship games. However, in a 1969 Look magazine article, Charger coach Sid Gillman was critical of Alworth's work ethic, long hair, and sideburns. Alworth responded, "A person has to feel like he or she's special. I want to do my own thing. I hate for somebody to get on me in front of people." Following the 1970 season, San Diego traded Alworth to the Dallas Cowboys. Alworth caught thirty-four passes for the Cowboys in 1971, and snagged a touchdown pass in the Super Bowl as the Cowboys defeated the Miami Dolphins.

Following the 1972 season, Alworth retired from professional football at age thirty-two. During 11 seasons, Al-worth scored 87 touchdowns (all but 2 via pass receptions) and caught 542 passes for 10,266 total yards to rank fourth on the all-time receiving list at the time of his retirement. Alworth was selected as a member of the All-Time American Football Conference team, and his number 19 was retired by the Chargers. He was inducted into the Professional Football Hall of Fame in 1978. At the induction ceremonies in Canton, Ohio, Al Davis, general manger of the Oakland Raiders and a key figure in the establishment of the AFL, noted that Alworth was the first member of the new league to be elected to the Hall of Fame. Davis proclaimed, "He was the most feared player of our time and deserves to be the standard-bearer for the American Football League."

After he retired Alworth settled in San Diego, where he pursued business interests including real estate development. Alworth's first marriage ended in divorce in 1969; he married Marilyn Joyce Gallo in 1970. Alworth and Gallo had three children, two of whom died in infancy. They divorced in 1979.

Alworth is a successful businessman in San Diego and owner of Space Saver, an industrial real estate company. But Alworth is best remembered for his acrobatic catches for the San Diego Chargers during the early years of the American Football League.

Journalistic profiles providing some background information on Alworth's life include Edward Shrake, "They All Go Bang! at Bambi," Sports Illustrated (13 Dec. 1965); Herman L. Marin, "Fawn-Loving Rover Boy," Senior Scholastic (16 Sept. 1966); G. Brown, "It's Pride that Gets You Up There," Saturday Evening Post (14 Dec. 1968); and Gerald Astor, "Lance Alworth: Charger Goes Groovy," Look (2 Dec. 1969). For information on Alworth's football career, see Ronald L. Mendell and Timothy B. Phares, Who's Who in Football (1974); and Total Football: The Official Encyclopedia of the National Football League (1999).

Ron Briley