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Remembering Jake Scott, the consummate athlete

Those who really knew him and appreciated the way he played the game of football would have figured that Jake Scott would have found a way to outfox the Grim Reaper. After all, he was the man you wanted in the line of fire with the game on the line. When time was of the essence, Jake became the man of the hour, the author of the propitious closure that, more often than not, won football games.

Few gridiron superstars could arrive at the point of attack quicker or more prescient than Jake did. His slashing style was deadly when maneuvering to make a tackle, which was crisp and unyielding. A ball thrown in his direction was as much his as the intended receiver’s. He returned punts with alacrity and explosive aplomb.

He was the one who could scale the fence the quickest. He was the one most likely to summit the mountain, ford the rowdiest of streams and draw to an inside straight.

His style was the most graceful, the most fluid of his time. He could dance across the yard stripes of a defensive backfield in a fashion that made you feel you were watching an artist at work, confirming just how kinetic and effortless he played the game. No defensive back had a greater sense of urgency. His talent was heaven-sent. His modus operandi always lethal.

A maverick who walked to a different beat off the field, his natural instincts were unsurpassed. Timely and resonating. He was blessed with a keen mind, which he used cunningly to his advantage. He knew what the quarterback was thinking when he put his hands under center. He had extraordinary eyesight that allowed him to see the entire field with the snap of the ball. He could see the game in slow motion; he saw all the moving parts and took the greatest pleasure in a quarterback firing the ball in his direction. To him football was akin to chess, and in his nine years in the National Football League, he could often have yelled, “Checkmate!” when the ball was in the air.

Much has been written about him before he passed away last week, owing to complications from a fall. When he died, the tributes were a piling-on scenario, as he was remembered for his preeminent and extraordinary no-holds-barred abilities on the football field — and for his wayward-wind lifestyle away from competition.

The facts have been duly stated and amplified: five-time Pro-Bowler and two-time All-Pro, Super Bowl VII MVP, recipient of two Super Bowl rings, member of the Miami Dolphin Honor Roll and of the only undefeated team in NFL history, and All-America at Georgia. But perhaps the best compliment he ever got was that he was a “great” teammate.

I have had multiple conversations with many of those teammates: Bob Griese, Jim Mandich, Sonny Jurgensen, Billy Kilmer, Bill Stanfill, Mike Cavan, Billy Payne. They often shook their head in awe when they summed up Jake Scott the athlete.

Yet, because of a conflict with Don Shula, the Miami coach, he refused to attend reunions of the 1972 undefeated Dolphins. He also had an issue with Vince Dooley, his Georgia coach. Nonetheless, Dooley worked influentially to get Jake elected to the College Football Hall of Fame.

The officials of the National Football Foundation were first concerned whether Jake would show up. I got a call from the CFO of the organization, wanting to know whether, if elected, Jake would come to the dinner in New York. I called Mike Cavan, who offered encouragement and set about promoting the idea to his former teammate and close friend. The next issue: Would he wear a tuxedo? Jake did show up and he wore a tux (probably his first and last time).

When it comes to sports writing, most athletes and coaches never respond to anything that reaches print unless there is something they do not like – more than likely summed up in a single sentence. If you take a positive stance with an objective overview, you appreciate any “thumbs up” but never expect such.

I had written a detailed and balanced piece about Jake in the Hall of Fame tribute. Walking into a reception before the dinner at the Waldorf, I crossed paths with him. He smiled and said, “Hell of an article.” That was it, and he moved on. It may have been the nicest compliment I ever got. I had no idea he even read the column.

In the 1969 Sugar Bowl, a bad afternoon for the Bulldogs, Chuck Dicus, the Arkansas receiver, was the MVP, catching 12 passes for 169 yards. The next day, the teams were invited to the Fairgrounds Race Course. Dicus later told me he did not know Jake and went over to introduce himself. Jake, never one to sanction defeat said, “All I can say is that I hope you are as lucky here today as you were yesterday.”

In the opener at Tennessee in 1968, I was the Georgia spotter for the TV network. Jake returned a punt 90 yards for a touchdown and played brilliantly all afternoon. On one defensive play, Jake came across the field and literally stabbed a pass headed for an open receiver. Knocking the ball down would have been a salutatory accomplishment, but it became a sensational one-handed interception. It was an All-America play if there ever was one. The TV announcers almost leaped out of the booth in awe and admiration.

The Georgia Coliseum has four main arches. Drive by and you will see iron grates anchored across each one of them. Those are the “Grates of Jake.” He once rode a motorcycle up one of those arches and down the other side, a reminder that he indeed had nerves of steel.

There are many other vignettes in the life of this colorful character, who did not play for fame or glory. (He gave his Super Bowl MVP trophy to Mark Richt and the Georgia Athletic Association). Jake very much enjoyed playing for a check, however, and invested wisely so that when life after football began for him, he could fish and play golf the rest of it — which is exactly what he did.

One thing that is missing from his resume is a college degree. For one reason: going to class, for Jake, was like going to the dentist for a root canal. If you were privy to his SAT scores, you would quickly conclude he was timber for magna cum laude recognition.

He was the consummate athlete, pure and simple. If I were to cross paths with him now, I would say, “Hell of a career” and move on.