Richmond Flowers, Jr. was the starting safety for the Giants when the World Football League (WFL) came into existence in 1974. Flowers, in fact, was the first NFL player to sign with the new league. At the time he signed with “The Hawaiians” the average NFL contract was running less than $28,000 a season. Flowers signed a $200,000 contract with a $50,000 signing bonus.
Other than the large contract, the WFL basically promised Flowers a front office position and a career after football. That was the allure for Flowers – to stay in the game once he hung up his cleats. What happened instead, was the WFL folded with games left on their second year season.
Flowers came to the Giants after being converted from a wide receiver/kick returner, to the safety position while playing for former Giants’ defensive whiz Tom Landry of the Dallas Cowboys. He was a track star at the University of Tennessee and had Olympic hopes. He adjusted well to the new position of safety and became a starter when he joined New York during the 1971 season.
In 1968 he was preparing for being in the Olympics and put up a 13.3 in the 120-meter high hurdles in a meet in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. That time was one-tenth off the world record. In June, he blew out his right hamstring during a workout and with the lingering injury later failed to qualify at the U.S. Olympic Trials.
Flowers’ father was an icon in the civil rights movement of the 1960s as the state’s Attorney General and is credited with the integration of schools in the State of Alabama. He fought for the rights of black people to be installed despite harassing phone calls to their home, vandalism and on one particular night, a cross burning in their front yard.
Richmond, Jr. is now retired, a cancer survivor and currently lives in Birmingham, Ala. Big Blue View was able to get his response to what his time as a Giants was like, his chance at competing in the Olympics, and what it was like playing with Spider Lockhart.
BBV: You broke five high school state records in track. What got you interested in the sport initially?
FLOWERS: When I was a little kid in Dothan, Alabama I saw on TV on Wide World of Sports guys running the hurdles and I was fascinated by that. When I got older no school had track. When my dad became Attorney General of Alabama we moved to Montgomery and that was when I was able to run track.
BBV: Alabama head coach and legend Bear Bryant tried to sign you after a great high school career at wide receiver. Why did you choose Tennessee instead?
FLOWERS: Alabama did not have a good track team and I wanted to go somewhere that put some emphasis on being competitive. Plus, segregation was still a big issue and the University of Alabama got national attention for not allowing black students to enroll and Governor Wallace was leading the movement to keep things the way they were. I didn’t want to be hazed because of what my dad was doing to eliminate segregation.
BBV: At Tennessee, you were named All-American in track three-straight seasons and appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated while jumping the hurdles. How did you find out a kid from the Deep South was going to be on the cover of SI?
FLOWERS: I was competing in California at a meet and was going through the airport and saw a copy on the newsstand.
BBV: The Cowboys took you in the second-round of the 1969 NFL draft. At first did they practice you at halfback, wide receiver, or as a kick returner?
FLOWERS: All of the above. I even covered punts and kickoffs. I had fast twitch hands and fast twitch feet.
BBV: You ended up on the defense. How did that come about?
FLOWERS: Coach Landry called me into his office and told me he was moving me to linebacker. They wanted to see what I would do with a ball carrier coming at me. After they found out I wasn’t backing down, because I wasn’t linebacker size they moved me to safety.
BBV: What was Tom Landry like?
FLOWERS: Stoic. Cold. But I figured out that in the coaching business you can’t get close to guys because one day you may have to cut them and it must be hard to do that. He was very disciplined and had rules.
BBV: In practices, did Landry spend much time working with the defense?
FLOWERS: Some days he did, but he had his thumb on all parts of the team.
BBV: In the middle of the 1971 season the Cowboys waived you and then you were picked up by the Redskins, and then two days later you became a New York Giant. How did all that happen?
FLOWERS: George Allen was coach of the Redskins then and picked me up just to get weaknesses on the Cowboys. I told him I wanted to be paid for the remainder of the year which secured me a roster spot. I was afraid he would get the information he wanted and then cut me and I would be out of a job. Instead, he traded me to the Giants for (wide receiver) Clifton McNeil and a sixth-round pick. So, for the $100 waiver fee Allen got a good wide receiver and a draft pick.
BBV: You were a lock to compete in the 1968 Olympics in the 110-meter high hurdles but pulled a hamstring. That must have been one of your darkest moments.
FLOWERS: I enjoyed playing in the NFL but my passion was track. I pulled the hamstring in the Olympic trails. I have no doubts I would have taken a gold medal and was considered a leading contender. Dick Fosbury called me the “James Dean of track and field.”
BBV: Back then, did many players have agents or just deal with the team on their own?
FLOWERS: I made my own deal. I signed for $20,000 with a $20,000 signing bonus on a no-cut deal the first year.
BBV: What was it like in the 1972 Giants training camp? Did you feel you had a good shot at being their starting safety?
FLOWERS: Scott Eaton was the starting strong safety and pulled his ACL. I was in competition with him. They moved me down towards the line like a linebacker quite a bit because I would force the end runs to go inside – no question. I would hit linemen or the fullback - I didn’t care. If I couldn’t make the tackle I would try to turn the runner in so somebody else could.
BBV: How did you find out that you were starting at safety opposite Spider Lockhart?
FLOWERS: I knew about him from playing with the Cowboys and knew he was a great safety. When I signed with the Giants I knew I would have an opportunity to compete for the starting strong safety position, so it was just known I would play a lot with him.
BBV: What was Lockhart like?
FLOWERS: He was a really nice guy, funny and the captain of our defense. We worked together well from the start.
BBV: Along with Spider and yourself, the Giants defense was pretty good in 1972 and the following year with players like Jim Files, Pat Hughes, John Mendenhall, Willie Williams and Jack Gregory. But in 1972 the team went 2-11-1. What were the main issues?
FLOWERS: Not much offense. (QB Fran) Tarkenton did fairly well and called most of the plays. But when he left the offense was in disarray. That was quite a contrast from Dallas where every little detail is calculated to the second.
BBV: These same years were part of what fans called “The Wilderness Years.” Did the players talk much about this label or what it meant?
FLOWERS: I may have heard of this, but we just were working to fix the problems and as a player you learn to not read the papers. The Giants fans were the greatest fans I had ever seen despite getting a poor performance on the field.
BBV: In the two years that you started for the Giants you had five interceptions and three fumble recoveries and seemed to always be around the ball. What do you attribute your success as a defender to?
FLOWERS: My speed. I could close pretty quickly. Like they say, you can’t coach speed.
BBV: While playing with the Giants you were also a member of the International Track Association. What did you do with this Association, and did it help or distract from you playing pro football?
FLOWERS: Well, everyone had an off-season job. You had too. The money you made playing football paid better than a regular job, but it did not set you up for life like they get paid today. You only got paid during the season and the rest of the year you didn’t have any income unless you had another job. And New York City was expensive. My apartment alone was $1,500 a month and what the team paid me was just over $2,400 a month.
BBV: What can you tell fans about some of your Giants defensive teammates during this time?
FLOWERS: Most players weren’t real close. Every year we would have turnover and was difficult to make any type of bond for very long. My first game was at home and I took the wrong subway and was an hour late. When I finally got to the stadium nobody even asked me where I had been.
BBV: During the 1970s as a player, what bands or musical groups did you listen to?
FLOWERS: I have always listened to country music.
BBV: In 1974, you were the first NFL player to sign with the newly-formed World Football League with a two-year contract. What was your contract for and signing bonus (if any)?
FLOWERS: I got a $50,000 signing bonus which was more than players were making for the year back then. The contract was for $200,000.
BBV: Did you have mixed feelings about leaving New York and a starting position on an NFL team?
FLOWERS: I made $29,000 my last year with the Giants. I loved the city, loved the fans, and enjoyed my time there. I came from a small town in Alabama and was fascinated with the city, but I also knew I wasn’t going to stay there forever which made my time there more special.
BBV: With signing with the WFL, did you envision a coaching or front office position after you had stopped playing?
FLOWERS: Yeah, that was part of the deal. Of course the league had financial problems on almost every team, and in the end hardly anyone made any money much less had a future. They made promises about me becoming a coach or in the front office one day and that I could get on the ground floor of the league.
BBV: You ended up in Louisiana and played with the Shreveport Steamer. This franchise has been labeled a “play now pay later” team. How much trouble did you experience in getting your salary?
FLOWERS: Before the season I told them I wanted my money up front before I played because of all the issues I saw in their first year. And they did, which is good because I was probably the only one who got all their money.
BBV: Your father, Alabama Attorney General Richmond Flowers, Sr., has etched his name into the civil rights struggle in the 1960s. Why do you suppose his quest was to help the oppressed in a time when everybody seemed to be on keeping struggling people down?
FLOWERS: He felt segregation was illegal and he couldn’t do anything to not uphold the law. He made a stance to either support the Rebel flag or support the constitution of the United States. There were some very dark days for our family back then, but he was right and it taught me to not be prejudice in a world that definitely was.
BBV: What were some of your favorite memories as a New York Football Giant?
FLOWERS: The restaurants and bars in the city were good memories. Like eating at Galliver’s. Just the feeling of New York City. Those fans really knew their Giants.
Barry Shuck is a pro football historical writer and a member of the Professional Football Researcher’s Association