Lilly, Robert Lewis ("Bob")

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LILLY, Robert Lewis ("Bob")

(b. 26 July 1939 in Olney, Texas), football player acknowledged by many as the greatest defensive tackle in National Football League (NFL) history, and the first member of the Dallas Cowboys to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Lilly's father, John Earnest Lilly (known as Buster), was badly injured in a motorcycle accident as a teenager but was a huge influence on Lilly's life and athletic career. "He worked every day when I was growing up. And after work, even though he couldn't run, he'd throw me that football and teach me the game—more importantly, taught me values and life." Lilly's father worked as a farmer and heavy equipment operator and later as an independent contractor. His mother, the former Margaret Louise Redwine, was a homemaker who cared for Lilly and his two siblings.

Between eighth and tenth grade, Lilly shot up from five feet, eight inches to six feet, four inches tall. Although he was thin, Lilly was a starter for the Throckmorton High School football team and an excellent basketball player and volleyball player. In basketball he averaged twenty-seven points a game as a sophomore. As a junior he was the state high school javelin champion. Prior to his senior year, a prolonged drought forced the Lilly family to leave Texas for Pendleton, Oregon, where Lilly's father found employment as a bulldozer operator clearing land for developers.

Lilly earned All-State honors in both football and basketball at Pendleton High School, from which he graduated in 1957, and he attracted attention from college scouts in the Northwest. Some offers were quite lucrative—in Lilly's words, "cash, cars, jobs for my dad." But Lilly's heart was in Texas. When a postcard arrived in Pendleton from Texas Christian University (TCU) line coach Allie White, who remembered Lilly from a sophomore-season volleyball game at Throckmorton (he later said, "I never saw a big boy so quick"), Lilly accepted TCU's scholarship offer. His mother "packed about sixty ham sandwiches and a few gallons of lemonade," and Lilly and a buddy drove the 1,600 miles from Pendleton to Fort Worth nonstop in thirty-five hours—in Lilly's 1947 Studebaker. TCU Horned Frogs head coach Abe Martin remembered the rawboned recruit as "the longest drink of water I ever saw."

A physical education major at TCU, Lilly became enchanted by a course in water skiing. In fact, he spent so much time on it that other courses suffered. But Lilly found himself academically and remained in school and eligible after one rocky semester. He was named All-Southwest Conference (SWC) twice by a majority of those who voted, and in his senior year he was a unanimous All-American. One of the football honors teams Lilly was chosen for in 1960 was the Kodak All-America, and the team made an appearance on Ed Sullivan's television show. Each member of the team received a Kodak camera. Lilly was hooked and immediately began taking snapshots of nearly everything. In 1983 he published Bob Lilly: Reflections, a book almost exclusively made up of photographs Lilly took during his days with the Cowboys—mostly candid shots of his fellow players taken during training camp and while preparing for games.

Lilly's strength and ability became a legend at TCU. Finding a Volkswagen in his assigned parking space one day, he simply picked up the small car and placed it on the sidewalk. Lest he be compared to Superman, Lilly pointed out, "I picked up the front end and moved it and then picked up the back end and did the same thing—at no time did I have all four wheels off the ground at once." To amuse friends, Lilly, by his own count, "moved about a dozen cars this way" while on the Fort Worth campus. This feat became known as the "Lilly Test," and no one else passed it. In college Lilly grew to six feet, five inches tall, and 260 pounds, but lost neither his quickness nor his desire. He graduated from TCU in 1961 with a B.S. in education.

The fledgling Dallas Cowboys coveted Lilly's services, and worked a deal with the Cleveland Browns (who were in a position to draft Lilly) to sign him as the team's first-ever draft choice in 1961. (As an expansion team, the Cowboys were not eligible to participate in the 1960 draft, their first year in the National Football League.) It was a good choice; Lilly was the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year in 1961. Lilly continued to play defensive end for the Cowboys until he was switched to defensive tackle midway through the 1963 season. This conversion allowed Lilly to become what many observers call "the best ever at his position." Cowboys coach Tom Landry, recalling the success he had as an assistant coach for the New York Giants when he gave defensive tackle Roosevelt "Rosey" Grier the freedom to disrupt the opposing offense, did the same with Lilly by moving him inside to tackle.

Lilly became the cornerstone of the famed Dallas "Doomsday" flex defense. In the flex, Lilly crowded the line of scrimmage—hit, read, and reacted with lightning quickness. Both Landry and defensive line coach and coordinator Ernie Stautner said that after watching numerous game films of Lilly, they had never seen him neutralized by the first block. "He always broke through the initial contact. Teams tried to double-team and triple-team him, but nothing worked." Lilly was a consensus All-Pro choice eight times between 1964 and 1972, missing only in 1970. Because of Lilly's amazing ability to pursue, some teams tried to run plays directly at him, but his strength made this tactic only marginally successful. Coach George Allen of the rival Washington Redskins said, "He's the greatest defensive tackle ever! He was the smartest, the coolest. We tried everything against him, but could never confuse or contain him." Coach Marion Campbell of the Atlanta Falcons said, "His instincts were unreal. He knew where the ball was going before it was snapped."

Called "Next Year's Champions" by the media, the Cowboys and Lilly endured much frustration before finally winning Super Bowl VI in 1972. With the monkey off his back—Lilly felt somewhat personally responsible for the Cowboys "not being able to win the big one"—Lilly smoked a Texas-size victory cigar after the victory over the Miami Dolphins. This celebration was in stark contrast to the previous year, Super Bowl V, in which the Cowboys lost to the Baltimore (now Indianapolis) Colts in the final seconds. At the final gun, Lilly ripped off his helmet and hurled it fifty feet into the air. When it came down, he kicked it even farther. Lilly claimed he was unaware of what he had done "until a Colt came up and gave me back my helmet."

Lilly retired after the 1974 season when he could not shake a persistent back injury. Despite this ongoing back problem, Lilly missed only one game in his 14-year, 292-game career. On 23 November 1975, the Cowboys retired his number 74 jersey in appropriate Bob Lilly Day ceremonies. Lilly's name was the first in Texas Stadium's Ring of Honor (similar to a Hall of Fame). Lilly was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1980, after the mandatory five-year wait.

Lilly and Margaret Ann Threlkeld married on 22 June 1973. They have four children. They live in Georgetown, Texas, where Lilly heads his own promotions company, Pro Imaging.

Called the "Paul Bunyan of the West" by former Cowboys publicist Doug Todd, Lilly is known better as "Mr. Cowboy." Coach Ernie Stautner, also a Hall of Fame defensive tackle, said, "Bob Lilly simply was the best." Landry paid Lilly an even higher compliment, "A player like Bob Lilly comes along once in a generation."

No biography of Lilly has been published, but his career and life are discussed in Joe Falls, The Specialist in Pro Football (1966); Berry Stainback, How the Pros Play Football (1970); Murray Olderman, The Defenders (1973); Jeff Meyer, Great Teams, Great Years—Dallas Cowboys (1974); and Peter Golenbock, Cowboys Have Always Been My Heroes (1997).

Jim Campbell