There has not been the start of a football season ever to arrive that hasn’t been accompanied by the question, “Who is the best you ever saw play?” My goodness, the longer you live the more you become certain the question is impossible to answer but there has never been any doubt in my mind who is the smartest that I have ever seen.
Over the last half-century I’ve seen countless athletes who have achieved advanced college degrees and I know some who never went to a university but can diagnose a car engine better than a computer. I adore “street smart” and “fourth-quarter savvy,” too, but long ago I became convinced the smartest kid to ever play football is today a quiet and somewhat reclusive university professor named Robert Glenn Etter.
The other day during my Morning Readings I came across an obscure update on Bobby Etter, who was famously the son of the greatest high school tactician I’ve ever known, E.B. “Red” Etter. Bobby’s dad, of course, coached dozens of football championships at Central High and Baylor School and his older brother Gene, fabulous as both a tailback and baseball star at UT in the late ‘50s, is surely his dad’s equal in coaching winners but in baseball.
Now it’s been widely told that some years ago Gene was politely asked to leave several different casinos in Las Vegas, so quick is his mind when it comes to blackjack cards, but Bobby Etter is believed to be even better. Several weeks ago a longtime friend named Loran Smith – whose fame arrived when the late Larry Munson would growl “Whatcha’ got, Loran?” on the radio during UGa football games – visited Dr. Robert Etter at Cal State in Sacramento, where he recently retired after a distinguished career.
Loran, in a delightful blog posted on DogBytes.com, caught up with Bobby because the younger Etter was also quite a star as a kicker and shortstop for the University of Georgia, this despite the fact he weighed only 150 pounds. Bobby actually played several years for the Atlanta Falcons and the now defunct Memphis Showmen, too, but let me tell you why Dr. Etter ranks at the top of my all-time brain team.
Aside from his PhD. in math, Bobby is a Grand Life Master in the lofty realm of contract bridge. I’m a poor card player and bridge – said to be the ultimate of all card games – is well over my head. The four qualities a skilled player must possess actually define the game – memory, tactics, probability and communication. For the record, I have none of the four.
But today Bobby, who is best remembered at Georgia for upsetting Florida with a heroic touchdown in 1964, is known far better around the world for winning two national championships and competing in world events in bridge. Don’t kid yourself; world-class bridge is bigger than Texas and today Bobby is spirited all across the country to partner with fat-cat players who’ll pay a “stipend” and his expenses for his stealth and cunning at the card table.
Bobby recently retired as a full-time professor in order to spend more time with his passions – fishing and bridge – only to be immediately hired back at Cal State on a part-time basis. Loran Smith, still an endearing figure in Georgia athletics, described Etter’s two hobbies as “a circumstance of frustrating humility with the former and of overachievement with the latter.”
Bobby told Loran “I make a decent income playing bridge – a little money to play with – but what I still enjoy the most is teaching,” which sounds exactly like something his late father and brother Gene would say. And it is said that a bridge game around the Etter table long ago was spectacular to watch indeed!
After Bobby graduated from Georgia and signed with the Falcons, he attended graduate school at Rice while kicking in the NFL and explained that his love for California was first kindled during a family trip to watch Gene play minor league baseball in the state of Washington. “I like Georgia and I like Tennessee but I love it out here … always have.”
Because of geography, many of today’s generation don’t know why Bobby Etter is in the Georgia-Florida Hall of Fame – a select group of heroes that are chosen from the annual SEC slugfest – and fewer still know that the famed Red Etter’s son is considered one of the most brilliant Grant Life Masters in bridge who has ever come along.
But I’ll always remember Bobby – who today is 67 years old – as the smartest football player who I ever saw and when he tucked inside the Florida end zone to clinch a 14-7 win for the Bulldogs 49 years ago in Jacksonville, it was a lesson to never bet against a guy who knows where every card is in a deck.