21 Feb

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Eric Metcalf to be inducted into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame

(photo: TexasSports.com)

In the game of chess, pieces move sideways, crossways, limited spaces or lots of spaces. But no other piece has the ability of the knight. Because the knight, or "horse" if you prefer, can jump both sideways AND forward or backward.

And for those who saw him play, Eric Metcalf was the ultimate knight. He epitomized a "now you see him, now you don't" running style that made him one of the most dangerous players in football. He led the Longhorns in rushing during the seasons of 1987 and 1988, in pass receiving in 1986, and in punt returns and all-purpose yards all four years he was at UT. He combined quickness and speed and that sudden "change of pace" better than anyone of his era.

Metcalf, who will be inducted into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame on Tuesday, was an incredibly gifted athlete who was a world-class track star and a three-time all-Southwest Conference football player before going on to a 13-year career in the NFL, which included three seasons when he made the Pro Bowl.

So, it is not odd that Metcalf is being inducted into the prestigious Texas Sports Hall of Fame. It is only surprising that he wound up in Texas in the first place. But then, considering the ability of the knight to change directions, perhaps it is not so strange after all.

"It is certainly an unexpected honor," said Metcalf, whose most memorable early trip to Texas came on a recruiting visit to Austin. "It is a big state, and only a small number of its great athletes have been inducted into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame. It includes some really great football players, as well as some outstanding people who competed in track and field. It means something to have people think of me in that company. It means they think I was really good."

Metcalf, a two-sport star in track and football at Bishop O'Connell High School in Arlington County, Virginia, was competing in an indoor track meet in Preston, New Jersey, on a winter day in 1984 that would change his life.

"I was sitting up in the stands waiting until it was time for me to long jump," Metcalf remembers. "That's when I met James Blackwood. We got to talking. He didn't know who I was, and he was asking me what events I did. He ended up watching me long jump, and I guess he was pretty impressed because I jumped 25-feet, 8 or 9 inches--or something like that."

Blackwood was a University of Texas assistant track coach at the time, and his research quickly told him to go back to the Longhorns' football office.

"He told everybody in the football office 'there's a guy you need to check out' and from that point on, Coach Akers and his staff started recruiting me," Eric remembers. "I visited, and I liked it."

But there was a slight problem: Metcalf had committed to the University of Miami, even though there was some heavy lobbying against it.

"My father (Terry, an NFL star running back in the 70's with the St. Louis Cardinals) and my mother did not want me to go there because there was a lot of turmoil surrounding Miami at the time. I had everybody and their mother calling me and trying to talk me out of it, even some people who were alumni at Miami," Metcalf says.

The next pressure came from Notre Dame, but Eric was determined that wasn't a fit for him.

"So I agreed. I won't go to Miami, but I am not gonna go to Notre Dame."

Finally, Metcalf waited more than a week, and then signed with Texas, which had earned a No. 1 or No. 2 regular season ranking in four of the five years between 1979 through 1983.

Metcalf would flourish, but the teams he played on did not. He would earn honors as the Longhorns' and Southwest Conference's Most Valuable Player in 1987, win the NCAA Long Jump in 1986 and 1988,  and was named a team captain of the 1988 team. But the football success he longed for in order to follow in his famous dad's footsteps never came. Akers' 1984 team collapsed after gaining a No. 1 ranking, and when Metcalf arrived on the UT campus, the disenchantment with the program was in full voice, and two seasons later, Akers was fired and David McWilliams became the head coach.

While victories were not plentiful in McWilliams' first season of 1987, there were highlights. The 'Horns finished 7-5, and beat Arkansas on the final play of the game in Little Rock. Metcalf turned in a highlight reel performance in a 32-27 victory over a respected Pittsburgh team in the Bluebonnet Bowl. As the 1988 season approached, Metcalf was high on everybody's list of Heisman Trophy Candidates.

In a summer when he was also competing for the 1988 Olympic team as a long jumper, it was beginning to look as if Metcalf was in the process of leading Texas back to an honored spot on the national landscape. But an inadvertent business office mistake which had gone unnoticed all summer as Metcalf worked his way between a potential summer school semester and the Olympic Trials caused Metcalf to be declared ineligible for the first game of the 1988 season.

The decision to sideline the star player came as the team was boarding the airplane for a nationally televised match at BYU. Metcalf's Heisman hopes were effectively dashed, and McWilliams' career never recovered as the season went into a tailspin on the way to a 4-7 record.

In all, Metcalf wound up playing in offenses that produced five different starting quarterbacks in four years. But, through it all, Eric never gave up on Texas. He learned that the tradition might not be as rich at that moment, but the people never changed.

As Metcalf accepts his award, the proudest guy in the arena likely will be Larry Falk, who was an equipment manager for Akers when Metcalf came to Texas.

"He's my biggest memory from Texas," says Metcalf. "From day one when I got to Austin, he took me in under his wing. It was like, 'this is my guy, and I am going to take care of you.' I was a million miles from home. He would do whatever possible, within the rules, to make it like home for me. Big Larry treated me like a younger brother. What makes it so special, me being younger than him, and being from two different walks of life, is that nothing has ever changed him. He is a good person with a kind heart, and to this day, I know I can always count on him."

Metcalf was a first round draft choice of the Cleveland Browns, and became one of the great punt returners and all-purpose backs in the pro game. Today, as an assistant track coach for the Washington Huskies, he works with sprinters, and only occasionally glances toward the long jump pit where he once earned international fame. At times, he thinks back on that summer of 1988, when he basically passed on a chance for the Olympic team to concentrate on a memorable football year that never happened.

"All my life I had concerned myself with being a football player, and that's what I wanted to do. I wanted to be like Terry Metcalf and play football," he says.

Eric Metcalf did follow in his dad's footsteps, and even surpassed some of the things his father had done in pro football. He led the league in punt returns for touchdowns in four different seasons from 1993–1995 and in 1997. Metcalf is also the only player ever to have 7,000-plus yards on offense and 7,000-plus yards on kickoff and punt returns. And he is still ranked second all-time in punt returns for touchdowns with 10. Following his career in the NFL, he returned to college and achieved his degree, so that he could eventually expand from coaching youngsters to tutoring elite college athletes. He was named to the Longhorn Hall of Honor in 2002, as a representative from both track and football.

He truly has been like the knight in a chess game. He has maneuvered the course of life as the game has taken him, sometimes with the twists and turns of jumping sideways and racing forward, but never forgetting the places, or the people who got him there.

"Not only from Big Larry, but from everyone around my time at Texas was a great time and a great feeling," Metcalf says. "Just knowing that people cared for me and still do. Things like this honor are very special, because they give me a chance to say I'm a Longhorn and one of the best ones. People do say that. And all I would say is, if I had to do it all over again, I would do it in a second."

Which is about as long as it used to take him to jump to the right or left, accelerate, and head into history as the Longhorns' latest inductee into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame.