Bill Priatko can attest to why some consider Jim Brown, who died Friday at the age of 87, is considered by some the greatest running back in NFL history. Priatko played with the Cleveland Browns in 1959-60, when Brown was in the prime of his incomparable career, one in which he led the NFL in rushing in eight of nine seasons before retiring to pursue acting.
“An offensive play, we called it 38 toss, averaged 12 yards a carry,” Priatko recalled. “Teams knew the formation but they still couldn’t stop it. There have been a lot of great running backs, but I don’t know who can be considered a better runner than Jimmy. He was a powerful runner but he had speed too. He took pride in being what he was, and he was good at it. He was a winner.”
Priatko played for the Steelers in 1957 before his stint with the Browns, where he was around one of the greatest players in NFL history.
“Jimmy was a very quiet guy, didn’t say much,” Priatko said. “For some reason Jimmy took to [wide receiver] Ray Renfro and in the heat of the battle when we needed some offense, Ray would rap him on his behind and say, ‘C’mon Jimmy, pick it up. We need you buddy.’ Every time he did that, man, Jim Brown just turned it on. For some reason when Ray said that to him, it would get him going.”
Priatko , 91 and living in North Huntington, Pa., about twenty miles east of Pittsburgh, had a memorable encounter with Brown when the two were in Cleveland. One practice, a drill called for the fullback to pick up the linebacker blitzing from a 4-3 alignment.
“When it was my turn to blitz, Jimmy didn’t know which three of us was coming and I knocked him flat on his back,” Priatko said. “He got up and he stared at me and said, ‘Let me know which one of you guys are coming.’ Paul Brown was standing there and he said, ‘You’re not going to know who’s coming in a ball game Jimmy.’ That’s the only time Jimmy and I had any expression between each other that was negative.”
Priatko, who represented the 1950s for the Steelers’ 75th anniversary celebration, is a walking history book, especially when it comes to the NFL. He was close friends with Chuck Noll, is tighter than taffy with Dick LeBeau, and credits a phone call from Brown to the Robert Morris University president for his getting a job at the Pittsburgh-area school as an assistant athletic director (he proved his old coach right and is a member of the RMU Athletic Hall of Fame).
Priatko starred at Pitt in the early 1950 and was a year behind future Pro Football Hall of Fame linebacker Joe Schmidt. The two remain close and Priatko said nothing more affirmed Schmidt’s greatness than what Brown once said about him.
“He said, ‘Nobody hits you like Joe Schmidt,’” Priatko said.