If history had been a little different, one of the best NFL quarterbacks of the 1960s would have been a handsome kid from Memphis named Elvis Presley.
OK, that’s not quite right. The story should have worked itself out as a whole a lot of different for Elvis – who is enjoying a bit of a cultural renaissance this week with the release of a new biopic – even playing football at the college level, let alone in the NFL. But Elvis loved football, so much so that he played it at a tough level most of his life and later used his fame to attract big names to games that were ‘touch’ football in name only.
“Football was his way of escaping pressure,” says Angie Marchese, vice president of archives and exhibits at Elvis Presley’s Graceland. “When he was 19, 20, 21, he could just have fun and not worry about his career. It was his way of relaxing, aside from playing gospel music.”
Elvis grew up in Memphis and wasn’t allowed to play football in high school; his mother Gladys, afraid he might hurt himself, wouldn’t even let him try it. The young Elvis was not deterred, only diverted. As he entered (and won) talent shows and dressed increasingly extravagantly, he kept an eye on the football field…more specifically, a tiny patch of grass in North Memphis called Guthrie Park.
There, on the corner of Chelsea Ave. and Decatur Street, a few blocks from Humes High School, a teenage Elvis began organizing Sunday afternoon football games while his star rose locally, then regionally, then nationally.
In 1953, an 18-year-old Elvis walked into Sun Studios and recorded a single for his mother: “My Happiness” on one side, and “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin” on the other. The single piqued the interest of Sun boss Sam Philips, and a few months later he invited Elvis to edit some professional recordings. The rest is literally history.
At the same time, Elvis was hanging out with a bunch of cronies — the crew formed the basis of what later became known as the Memphis Mafia — and playing pickup football at Guthrie Park every Sunday.
“They said they played touch football, but it definitely made contact,” Marchese says. “Elvis was usually the quarterback, but he wasn’t afraid to throw a tackle. He loved sports. It was just boys being boys.”
Time passed, and as Elvis rose to megastardom, he never lost touch with his Memphis roots — for better or for worse. He exploded across the country, appearing on the TV shows of the day in front of millions of smitten teenagers and their disapproving parents. (Elvis’ 1956 appearance at the Ed Sullivan Show drew 60 million viewers, a number now dwarfed only by the Super Bowls.) He continued to play football even after he was drafted and shipped to Germany in the late 1950s.
“He won the MVP of his touch soccer games on Sunday afternoon in Germany,” laughs Marchese. “So yes, Elvis has an MVP trophy for playing football.”
Elvis spent much of the 1960s in Hollywood, producing horrific easy-money films at the behest of his manager, Col. Tom Parker. But he never lost his love of football, regularly tossing footballs around on set and inviting luminaries like Ricky Nelson to go to pickup games with him.
Studios got wind of these games and required Elvis to wear a helmet to protect his million-dollar face.
“Elvis hated it, but he wore it,” says Marchese. “Then when he started wearing a helmet, he said, ‘Let’s put some pads on.’ And so an already robust game became even more robust.”
His favorite teams were the Browns, who sent him game cartridges after every Sunday, and the Steelers. He became close friends with Jim Brown, and Joe Namath once visited him backstage in Las Vegas. Namath later recalled Elvis happily sitting with Namath’s father and talking about soccer.
Elvis also had no problem flexing some celebrity muscles to try and feed his Football Jones. Terry Bradshaw recalls a time in the mid-’70s, right in the heart of the Steeler dynasty, when he was in Vegas to give a speech. He was in his hotel room packing his bags when the phone rang. A familiar voice answered.
“Hey man, how are you?” said Elvis, as Bradshaw recalls (in a perfect Elvis drawl). “I have a flag football game going on. I would be happy if you would play in my team.”
Bradshaw had to leave to catch a plane and made a decision he still regrets.
“I rejected Elvis!” he howls. “Can you imagine what that would have been like?”
Bradshaw cursed himself on the drive to the airport. “I keep thinking, ‘Are you kidding me? I’m so busy I can’t play flag football with Elvis, my hero?’”
At least Bradshaw made a story out of it… but only a story.
“I rejected Elvis!” he laughs. “Tom Brady can’t say that!”
In the mid ’70s, Elvis chartered buses from Graceland, his mansion, to see the Memphis Southmen of the nascent and quickly defunct World Football League. (After one season, the Southmen were renamed the Grizzlies and signed fading Dolphins stars Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield. After two seasons, the league collapsed.)
Graceland, now a museum for all things Elvis, has a collection of handwritten plays written by Elvis throughout his life. After ESPN contacted Graceland about Elvis’ football history for an episode of “Peyton’s Places,” museum curators created an entire exhibit dedicated to the King’s football exploits.
“He played in full uniform, he had handwritten playbooks,” says Marchese. “He was a real student of the sport.”
Elvis died in 1977 at the age of 42, but he still nearly made his mark on the NFL; Memphis made an offer to join the NFL in 1993 under the team name Hound Dogs. That attempt failed, but Memphis got an NFL team for a season before that team — now known as the Titans — moved to Nashville.
It’s a shame Elvis didn’t see a more football team in his home state, but that could have gone wrong.
“Elvis would have been one of their biggest supporters,” says Marchese. “He probably would have been on the sidelines telling the manager what games to run.”
Contact Jay Busbee at [email protected] or on Twitter @jaybusbee.