Opportunity Lost: Holding on to the ball...

Stan DyerCorrespondent IAugust 23, 2010

SAN FRANCISCO - AUGUST 14:  Quarterback Kyle Orton #8 of the Denver Broncos hands off the ball to running back Correll Buckhalter #28 against the San Francisco 49ers during the preseason game on August 14, 2009 at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

Remembering Oliver Ross

Actually, when I did the research on Oliver Ross, I was surprised to learn he actually spent as much time on the team as he did.  I just remember that one year, 1974, that he had all Bronco fans shaking their heads.  Now, few but the most die-hard and “seasoned” fans of the Broncos recognize his name, and understand how things might have been different if he could have just held on to the ball. 

Oliver Ross was drafted in the 16th round of the 1973 draft out of Alabama A&M.  He came to the Broncos in a draft that also brought Otis Armstrong, Barney Chavous, Paul Howard, Tom Jackson, and Calvin Jones.  There were a few other names drafted that year who had short careers with the team, but these six, including Ross, were the notables who made the roster and helped form the nucleus of the Broncos’ first ever Super Bowl team.  I was just a kid back then, and didn’t follow training camp that closely, but, if I did, I might have noticed what the coaches did - that Ross could run the ball. 

Competing for a spot in the backfield with future Hall-of-Famer, Floyd Little, flashy Otis Armstrong, and local hero Bobby Anderson - all three of whom were former first round picks - Ross was still able to impress.  Joe Dawkins and Fran Lynch rounded out the stable, but Ross’ making the team was special because he was drafted so low; he wouldn’t even be chosen in a modern draft that stops after six rounds. 

In his first year, he spent most of his time blocking, working special teams, and pulling splinters out of his pants.  He was the rookie, and that’s what rookies do.  He had five rushing attempts for a total of 21 yards in four games.  His next year really wasn’t much better, but it sure could have been.  Although he only played in seven games, and his statistics show him with just one carry for thirteen yards, he did a lot more running that year.  Those who were watching back then know why the statistics don’t reflect this.  Ross could run the ball, but he had trouble holding on to it. 

Little, Lynch, and Armstrong were still on the team in 1974, but Ross managed to keep a spot when Anderson and Dawkins were gone.  Jon Keyworth was added to the team for blocking power, and it looked like Ross would really get a chance to show some stuff, even if most of that “stuff” was blocking for Little and Armstrong.  Blocking, as it turned out, was a better way to use Ross. 

A lasting image of Ross, imprinted in my mind, came from the 1974 Thanksgiving Day game in Detroit in front of just about everyone in the entire nation.  He took a handoff, and, as he often did, found a hole.  He tore threw that hole, was running down the field with just one man to beat, and was caught from behind.  If it weren’t  bad enough getting caught from behind, he also dropped the ball.  The Thanksgiving audience witnessed that run, and that one game, but, the truth be told, Bronco fans saw a lot of the same that year.  I have never seen a player where fans worried more about his holding onto the ball than whether or not he would gain yardage.  Every time Ross got the ball, fans were crossing their fingers, clinching their teeth, and hoping he had discovered “stickum.”  There were probably a few teammates wishing the same.  He’d rip off nice runs, but then leave the loaf on the turf.  The Broncos would win that Thanksgiving Day game, but Ross’ career pretty much ended that day.  Technically, he would end the season with one carry for 13 yards, but he should have had a lot more. 

He would make the roster again in 1975, and, of course, all fans were still pulling for him.  He had a respectable season, playing in all 14 games and amassing a 9.86 yards per carry average, but his days were already numbered.  He was used mostly for blocking and rarely given the opportunity to touch the pigskin.  In 1976, he was gone, replaced by Jim Kiick, Mike Franckowiak, and Lonnie Perrin.  He ended up playing one, final season in Seattle before moving on to other things, and into football oblivion. 

I imagine he, as do I, wonders what could have been.  He really had some talent, and he showed it when he got the chance.  Unfortunately, he just couldn’t hold on to the ball long enough to make people forget his tendency to lose his grip, and take note of his ability to move his feet.  For many, Oliver Ross is just a faint asterisk or footnote in NFL history, or a forgotten ghost of football past, but I, for one, will never forget, and will always wonder how things might have been different if only Ross could have finished more of his runs the right way.  Shoulda, woulda, and coulda sure buy a lot of dreams in the NFL.