by Lawrence Vos (@F10YRetro)
He’s a lumberjack and he’s ok – he catches balls all night and day…
Let’s start with a few facts about historic catchers of the pigskin. Only 34 players in NFL history have caught over 800 passes. Of those, unsurprisingly 30 are wide receivers (including the active Larry Fitzgerald ) and three are tight-ends.
This leaves us with one non-receiver/tight-end in that list. If hand on heart you know who this is, without looking it up, then you are either the editor of the NFL Record and Fact Book or you have fond memories of one of the most remarkable careers in NFL history that nobody knows about.
This particular mystery player has caught more passes than Chad ‘Ocho Cinco’ Johnson, Calvin Johnson and Hall of Famer’s Michael Irvin, Steve Largent and Shannon Sharpe.
He has a ring. Just like Jerome Bettis and Peyton Manning he left the world of the gridiron on a high, with a Vince Lombardi Trophy, having toiled for 14 seasons on four different teams.
Three Pro Bowls, one All-Pro season, a career catch rate of 77.4% (to put this into context Jerry Rice’s career catch % is just 62.4%) along with 827 regular season catches and you have a Hall of Fame career and what should be a household name.
In fact, in the mid 90’s this guy caught 200 passes in just two seasons.
Still don’t know who this is?
Our guy was born and raised in Tatum, Texas, and became the first man in the town to ever make an NFL roster. Only one over has made an NFL team – WR Denarius Moore (who lasted 5 seasons in the early to mid 2010s).
Recruited by Baylor and Texas Tech (Mahomes’s alma mater) our hero chose to accept a scholarship at local college Stephen F. Austin State, where he was seen as a receiver, running back and defensive back.
In his first year in college a finger injury demoted him to the scout team, where he refined his skills as a running back, and as a sophomore he scored some karma as he came in for an injured team-mate mid-season and dominated in seven games.
Maintaining his position as a team leader and dominant back he helped the Lumberjacks reach the 1989 Division II Championship Game, scoring in the game but losing the final 34-37 against Georgia Southern.
Our man’s quarterback at Stephen F. Austin was Todd Hammel, who went on to be drafted in the 12th round of the 1990 NFL draft, before joining the New York/New Jersey Knights in the World League of American Football (1991) as a backup. Hammel went on to play for 12 – yes 12 different Arena League franchises.
Draft and early career
Drafted in the 5th round of the 1990 NFL draft by the Phoenix Cardinals our guy didn’t touch the ball a single time as a rookie. Fellow rookie Johnny Johnson (7th round pick) led the team in rushing in 1990, reaching his only Pro Bowl.
Our mystery man managed just 14 rushes and 19 catches as a second year player. With little impact in the field nobody was prepared for what was about to happen. He even had little success as a returner between 1990-91 – averaging just 18.7 yards per kick return and 6 as a punt returner.
Former Redskins double Super Bowl winning offensive coordinator and then Cardinals head coach Joe Bugel decided to let our guy loose in 1992 and installed him as a third-down back, catching short passes to help maintain energy sapping drives in the heat of the desert.
With soft hands for catching and a vice-like grip for holding onto the ball our protagonist caught 50 passes in 1992, a figure that turned out to be his lowest output for the next decade.
In 1993, Bugel’s last year as Cardinals HC, our guy was officially moved from occasional back to a full-time starter – as the team’s fullback. He played that position for the next six seasons, as the team transitioned city names from Phoenix to Arizona. He only missed one game in that period.
Starting in the NFL
Our guy started catching balls with the frequency of a starting receiver, nabbing 66 in 1993, 77 in 1994, and then stunned everyone with 101 catches in 1995 and 99 in 1996. He was rewarded with two Pro Bowl appearances from 1995-96 and was an All Pro in 1996 to cap an incredible 24 months.
His 1996 season included 9 touchdowns (7 receiving) and 425 yards rushing. In those two jaw dropping seasons he accrued 2,407 yards from scrimmage, the only two times he topped a thousand yards in a season.
1997 was a bit of a blip – only 54 catches in 15 games under OC Dick Jamieson, who happened to retire from coaching at the end of that season after 25 years calling plays.
It took until 1998 for our man to reach the playoffs with the Cardinals, and he was part of the Arizona team that upset the Cowboys, and their Triplets (Aikman, Smith and Irvin) in the Wild Card, catching a 3-yard score from Jake ‘The Snake’ Plummer in the third quarter. Luck soon ran out against the 15-1 Minnesota Vikings, our guy catching a team leading six balls in a 21-41 trouncing by the likes of Randall Cunningham, Randy Moss and Cris Carter.
After 9 seasons of mostly barren seasons in the NFC East, our mystery player moved on in free agency to….another NFC East team, this time the Washington Redskins.
In 1999 , and for the first time in his career, our man gained double digit wins and a division title, and ended up as the team’s leading pass catcher, with 69 grabs. A second career playoff victory followed in the Wild Card round against the Lions, with our guy leading the team in catches (7). In fact no other Redskins player had more than two grabs.
A tense battle followed in the Divisional round ending again in heartbreak with a 13-14 loss to the Buccaneers. Both teams combined for just 90 rushing yards on the day. Three catches for 8 yards was the stat line for our guy.
Production went up in 2000 for our veteran, easily leading the team in catches (81) on just 93 targets. By comparison WR Albert Connell was targeted 102 times and caught just 39 balls. The Redskins finished 8-8 and missed the postseason.
In 2001 our man defected to the AFC and the chilly winds of Buffalo, and in two seasons he caught 168 balls. He gained a third Pro Bowl trip (in 2001) on a truly awful 3-13 Bills team that featured Rob Johnson and Alex Van Pelt at the helm.
Aged 35 our man made one final attempt at a Vince Lombardi Trophy and as luck would have it he was picked up by Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots for the 2003 season.
After 5 games he had just 17 catches and then picked up an injury and was released in Week 6. Somehow he managed to stay nearby and was re-signed in Week 15 meaning veteran WR J.J. Stokes was released. Our man immediately had impact catching 8 passes in his first game back.
The Patriots finished the 2003 season 14-2 and following two AFC playoff wins they capped an incredible season with a hard fought win in Super Bowl XXXVIII against the Carolina Panthers.
Our guy had one catch in each of the AFC contests, and whilst he didn’t touch the ball in the Big Dance he did get a target from Brady. What mattered most was that he won a ring and then bid farewell to the NFL.
So who are we talking about?
The man with more receptions than any other FB in NFL history (827) is none other than Larry Centers.
Centers deserves to have a bust in Canton, Ohio. He revolutionised a position, that since 2003 has never had anyone even approach the gaudy numbers Centers put up in his prime.
Catching 77.4% of career passes thrown his way Centers never averaged more than 9.5 yards a catch in a season, but he was there always, 198 games, including missing just two in an 11 year stretch from 1992 to 2002.
Is Larry Centers the most prolific short yardage weapon in NFL history? Maybe not, but he left his mark on the teams he played for and the four fan bases he performed in front of for 14 seasons.
From not seeing the field as a rookie to being cut aged 35, the Larry Centers story is a remarkable one, in an anonymous position, playing in the vast majority of seasons for anonymous teams.
Join me now in helping Larry Centers get recognised as a Hall of Fame yellow jacket wearer.
Any comments – HMU on Twitter @F10YRetro