We have great athletes in the NFL today, certainly the most athletic pro football players collectively to have ever played the game. But there were players back in the day as well, and the Denver Broncos lost one recently with the passing of Paul Howard.
Paul Howard will not be a name known to many younger fans, but those of an older generation will remember him, and fondly.
Howard was one of the best offensive linemen in team history, and he was an easy choice for our Broncos Top 100 Team named last year.
Many of us, when we were kids, read about Paul Bunyan, a larger than life lumberjack, and his pet, Babe the Blue Ox. You can even see statues of the two folk legends located near Bemidji, Minnesota.
Howard was a little like that for us.
A California native who played his college football at Brigham Young University, Paul was a real quiet guy who let his play talk for him.
He was drafted out of BYU by the Broncos in 1973, and his well-muscled physique immediately gave cause for the players to nickname him "Paul Bunyan." Very quickly that was shortened to "Buns," and he was a tremendous player at guard for the Broncos.
He played 13 years for Denver, 1973-75 and 1977-86. His service time should include 1976 when he was out for the season, but at that time service time was not included in union pension numbers, hence the gap.
As it is, his 13 years are tied for the sixth highest total in Broncos history, and just one offensive lineman "in the trenches" is ahead of Paul on that list, that being Ring of Fame center Tom Nalen. Nalen had 15 years of service. And in an era of 14-game schedules, "Buns" played 187 games for Denver, again second among interior offensive linemen only to Nalen (194).
Our Paul "Bunyan" did not have "Babe the Blue Ox," but he carried his own version of a lumberjack's axe, that being his shoulder pads.
Every player wears shoulder pads, but most have been easier to carry than Paul's were.
A lot of close-quarters combat takes place in the trenches, and once upon a time early in his career, future Hall of Famer "Mean Joe" Greene of the Pittsburgh Steelers delivered a punch that landed squarely on Paul's solar plexus. Needless to say, that took his breath away. But he only stayed out long enough to catch his breath and naturally went right back in to face Greene and the Steelers again.
But after the game Broncos personnel were debating how best to protect Paul's abdomen.
This was before the day when you could just call the company that made shoulder pads and have them customize something, so the Broncos concluded the best solution was to weld a piece of steel to the front center portion of his pads.
This made them very heavy. Once I was walking through the locker room and saw them next to a sitting Howard. I asked if it was OK if I picked up his pads.
"Sure, Jim," Paul said. "Go ahead."
I could barely lift them and asked how he could possibly play with them. An early proponent of weight training who made his 265 pounds look like steel itself, he just shrugged and dismissed his muscle and strength.
A few weeks later, I was again passing his pads and noted that the steel plate was beaten like someone had been hitting it with a mallet for the entire time frame.
I asked what the heck had happened, and Howard said, "Just playin' football, Jim. A lot of guys bang on my chest."
Indeed, they banged on his chest to the tune of 187 games over 13 years, but no one ever banged him out of the game until the bells of time rang for him after 14 NFL seasons.
And now Paul Howard has crossed over. He would not expect much fanfare, and there often is none for a guy who played the offensive line 35 years ago.
But I can think of no other player who had a sheet of steel attached to his shoulder pads due to the violence of the game, nor anyone who never took a day off because of it.
Paul Howard could carry his pads.
Rest in Peace, Buns.
Flip through photos of former Broncos offensive lineman Paul Howard.