One man’s quest to gain Hall of Fame recognition for Lawton’s Speck Sanders

One man’s quest to gain Hall of Fame recognition for Lawton’s Speck Sanders

Some of football’s foremost authorities believe Speck Sanders belongs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Lawton native Gale McCray would settle for the Oklahoma's sports hall.

Jenni Carlson

By Jenni Carlson

| Jan 21, 2024, 6:00am CST

Jenni Carlson

By Jenni Carlson

Jan 21, 2024, 6:00am CST

Emotions catch in Gale McCray’s throat when he talks about the last time he saw Speck Sanders.

It was the early 2000s at a restaurant in Lawton. Sanders was in his 80s, and dementia had set in.

“I just couldn’t go up to him,” McCray said, choking out the words. “I didn’t know how it would play out. It didn’t want to cause a fuss in the cafeteria.”

Would Sanders remember McCray, who Sanders had first come to know through church when McCray was in elementary school? Would Sanders remember how McCray and so many other people in Lawton felt about his humble way and his encouraging spirit? Would Sanders remember his illustrious football career, which he so rarely talked about despite setting numerous records during pro football’s early days?

Would he remember?

McCray wasn’t sure.

“It sure hurt to see him like that,” he said of Sanders.

But now, McCray is doing everything in his power to make sure Sanders’ home state remembers him. 

Spurred by an article from Dallas-Fort Worth sports columnist Rick Gosselin, who believes Sanders belongs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, McCray has made it his mission to get Sanders into the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame.

McCray might not be able to help Sanders get a bust in Canton, but McCray believes the state where Sanders was born, lived a vast majority of his adult life and died in 2003 should honor him.

McCray begins and ends his correspondence on the subject the same way: SPECK SANDERS SHOULD BE IN THE OKLAHOMA SPORTS HALL OF FAME. 

Why?

His career stands for itself, but those in Lawton who knew Sanders say his greatness has been largely forgotten because of the kind of person he was. Humble. Unassuming. Modest.

“In Lawton, there was just a tremendous amount of respect for him because he was such a kind and genuine person,” said Dan Collier, who grew up in Lawton, and covered sports for the Lawton Constitution. “He’s one of those people that you didn’t know anyone who was his enemy or anyone that didn’t like him. He was just that respected, and you can’t say that about a lot of people.”

Sanders was more concerned about the here and now, about the people around him than he was about reliving the old days. He rarely even talked about his time as a pro football player.

But on a weekend the football world will be watching some of the sport’s best teams during the divisional round of the NFL playoffs, this seems a fitting time to talk about one of the sport’s best players.

A humble legend

Gale McCray grew up knowing Speck Sanders as a nice man at church.

Sanders was one of the department directors at the Baptist church in Lawton where McCray’s family went, and McCray remembers hearing people say Sanders had played football. But McCray didn’t think much of it. Lots of people played football.

Then one day, McCray went with his mom to the Sanders’ house for a visit.

“And in his den, he had the trophies,” McCray said of Sanders. “That got that little 10-year-old boy’s attention.”

But the thing that grabbed McCray was a newspaper underneath a glass-top coffee table. It was a copy of the New York Times with Sanders’ name in the headline.

“Oh, my gosh,” McCray remembers thinking.

Oh, my gosh, indeed.

 

Speck Sanders sold sporting goods in Lawton for a time. (Oklahoma Historical Society)

A football life

Orban Eugene Sanders was born on Jan. 26, 1918, in Temple, Oklahoma, a tiny town about half an hour south of Lawton and 10 miles north of the Red River. He got the nickname Speck — sometimes the K was dropped and he was known as Spec — because of his freckles.

Sanders made the Temple High School football team as a seventh grader, though he wasn’t eligible to play varsity for two years. When he was a junior in high school, he went to play football at Cameron, which was then a junior college in Lawton. Under the rules of the day, he could take high school courses and play four years of football there.

In 1940, he was recruited by and signed with the University of Texas.

Sanders played sparingly during his two years in Austin. He was hurt his first season as a Longhorn, then found himself stuck on the depth chart behind Jack Crain, a Texas legend.

Sanders, however, showed enough to be drafted in 1942 by Washington, one of the teams in the early days of the NFL. 

But before he ever played a down of pro football, Sanders decided to enlist in the Navy. World War II was raging, and he spent the next three years on active duty, including time in the Pacific theater.

Sanders was discharged in 1945, and then drafted by the New York Yankees of the newly formed All-American Football Conference, or AAFC. 

He became one of the league’s biggest stars. 

According to Pro Football Journal, Sanders led the league in its first season with 706 rushing yards while also having more than 400 passing yards and 200 receiving yards. No other player in the AAFC ever did that.

What’s more, no other player in the NFL has ever done that.

Sanders has the only 700-yard rushing, 400-yard passing and 200-yard receiving season in NFL or AAFC history.

The next season in 1947, Sanders made more history. He rushed for 1,477 yards and threw for 1,442 yards. No player in AAFC history or NFL history has ever thrown for 1,400 yards and rushed for 1,400 yards in the same season.

It wasn’t until Lamar Jackson’s MVP season of 2019 that another player averaged more than 75 yards passing and rushing a game.

Sanders stood alone for more than 70 years.

His 1,477 rushing yards was a single-season pro football record at the time, too. It stood for 10 years.

The player who bested Sanders: Jim Brown.

Sanders set another record in 1947 during an October game against the Chicago Rockets. Even though he played only three quarters because the game became a rout, Sanders still rushed for 250 yards, a pro football record that would stand for almost 30 years.

The player who bested Sanders: O.J. Simpson.

“I really do not remember a great deal about the game,” Sanders once told Pro Football Digest. 

What he did remember was teammates.

“I do recall Buddy Young taking the opening kickoff of the second half back 95 yards for a touchdown,” Sanders said. “Later, Buddy was replaced by Dewey Proctor, who I threw a short pass. Instead of the conventional stiff arm, Proctor used a closed fist which proved very effective as he made a nice gain.”

Even as he praised others, Sanders was clearly the star. He played offense, defense and special teams. He not only returned kicks and punts but also punted. 

He was Deion Sanders and then some.

But the brutality of pro football’s early days took a toll on Speck Sanders, who left the AAFC after three seasons. (Remember, four of his prime athletic years were spent fighting in World War II.)

A year later in 1950, the AAFC dissolved as the NFL absorbed three of its teams, the Baltimore Colts, the Cleveland Browns and the San Francisco 49ers. One of Sanders’ former coaches also moved to the NFL and asked him if he’d come back to football.

Sanders agreed with one condition — he would only play defense.

That season playing defensive back, Sanders had an NFL-best 13 interceptions, a league record. It was a record that was actually broken only two years later by Dick “Night Train” Lane, but Sanders’ 13 interceptions are still tied for second most in NFL history.

That was his first and last season in the NFL.

Sanders retired from football for good, returning to Lawton to run a dry cleaners business and raise a family with wife, Cletis. 

But his football career resonated.

 

Orban “Speck” Sanders, second from left, is shown during a workout in Cleveland with New York Yankees teammates, from left, Lloyd Cheatham, Eddie Proko and Lowell Wagner before the 1946 All-American Conference championship game. (Oklahoma Historical Society)

‘A different plane’

When Sports Illustrated wrote the 2018 obituary for Paul Zimmerman, known as Dr. Z and among the most recognizable football writers of all time, the first sentence referenced his deep football knowledge.

“It’s easy to imagine him sitting at a dinner table, fine wine at hand,” the SI obituary said, “engaged in another football debate, lecturing you on the greatness of Marion Motley or Spec Sanders.”

Rick Gosselin, the football writer in Dallas, believes Sanders should be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He is on the selection committee and has lobbied for Sanders’ inclusion, despite the short span of his career.

“But his window of greatness matched that of 2017 Hall of Fame enshrinee Terrell Davis,” Gosselin wrote in 2019. “Another Hall of Famer, Doak Walker, played five seasons, and Gale Sayers also enjoyed just a five-year window of greatness. So what’s the cutoff? Should Sanders be penalized for sacrificing the first four years of an NFL career — very prime football-playing years — to serve his country and fight in World War II?

“Regardless of length of career, greatness is identifiable in players. And it is identifiable in Sanders.”

Speck Sanders during his New York Yankees playing days. (Oklahoma Historical Society)

It was that Gosselin piece that sparked Gale McCray to action. He began researching more about Sanders, assuming he was in numerous halls of fame. Instead, McCray found Sanders wasn’t even in his home state’s sports hall of fame.

“As these country boys would say,” McCray said, “that put a burr in my saddle.”

McCray and others in Lawton believe Sanders’ personality may be why so few people know how great he was.

“He never talked about his sports accomplishments,” Collier said. “That was something that was behind him, and he was a guy that always looked forward. He never gloated about being an athlete. You would have never known the accomplishments that he had by talking to him because that wasn’t as important to him.”

McCray said, “He was one of the most modest, down-to-earth people there ever was. If you go to Lawton, you ask anybody that knew Speck, they’ll tell you, he was … ”

McCray chuckled.

“ … in the top 1% of the human species.”

When McCray was 11, he spent a day at Sanders’ dry cleaning business as part of a Boy Scouts program. Not long after, McCray got a handwritten letter from Sanders saying how much he enjoyed having McCray there.

McCray now has that letter framed.

“Speck was just something else,” McCray said. “He was on a different plane than anybody else that I knew when I was a kid.”

Frankly, Speck Sanders was on a different plane in many ways, and in a state that celebrates its football legends, he had a career that should at least be remembered and at best be honored in any way possible.

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Jenni Carlson is a columnist with the Sellout Crowd network. Follow her on Twitter at @JenniCarlson_OK. Email [email protected].

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