Earl Morrall, a quarterback who played for six different teams over 21 NFL seasons and helped get two different teams to the Super Bowl, has died at the age of 79.
Morrall is best remembered for his years under coach Don Shula, whom he played for on Super Bowl teams both in Baltimore and in Miami.
With the Baltimore Colts in 1968, Morrall was the NFL’s regular season Most Valuable Player, leading the league with 26 touchdown passes and leading his team to a 13-1 record. That season is, however, remembered mostly for the Colts’ upset loss to the Jets in Super Bowl III, a game in which Shula benched Morrall for Johnny Unitas.
But Shula thought highly of Morrall, and in 1972, after Shula had left Baltimore to coach the Dolphins, he brought Morrall with him. That year Morrall started most of the season after Bob Griese went down with an injury, and Morrall helped the Dolphins go 17-0, the only perfect season in NFL history.
“He was an unbelievable guy,” Shula told the Miami Herald today. “There were no negatives with him. He was the best guy in the locker room. Great in practice. And on the field he made big plays in big games. He was just a fine human being and that transcended everything else. It wasn’t just about his career. In everything he tried, people recognized what a fine individual he was.”
After a stellar career at Michigan State in which Morrall led the Spartans to a victory in the Rose Bowl (and also played for their baseball team in the College World Series), Morrall was selected by the 49ers with the second overall pick in the 1956 NFL draft. But Morrall lasted just one season in San Francisco, and played more punter than quarterback, before he was traded to Pittsburgh. A year later he was traded again, this time to Detroit in exchange for Hall of Fame quarterback Bobby Layne, and he lasted seven seasons with the Lions. In 1965 he was traded again, this time to the Giants, and although he played well in his first season in New York, the team phased him out as it began a rebuilding effort in 1966.
But once he finally found himself traded to a good team with a coach who knew how to use him, Morrall thrived with the Colts in 1968, and he thrived again with the Dolphins in 1972. During the 1975 season the 41-year-old Morrall became the oldest player ever to start and win a game, and he stuck around as a backup in Miami through the 1976 season before retiring just weeks short of his 43rd birthday. Although he spent much of his time in Baltimore and Miami as a backup to future Hall of Famers in Unitas and Griese, he’s remembered fondly by longtime fans of both teams as a player who exuded greatness when his team needed it.