Most NFL offensive linemen are not household names.
They do not score touchdowns, create turnovers, get sacks, or kick field goals; their recognition during a game usually only comes when they commit a penalty.
An exception to this offensive lineman anonymity is Gene Hickerson.
For 15 NFL seasons with the Cleveland Browns, Hickerson was closely associated with great Cleveland running backs and recognized with numerous Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors, ultimately earning him a Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement.
We take a look at the life of Gene Hickerson – before, during, and after his Cleveland Browns career.
The Early Years Through High School
Robert Eugene Hickerson was born on February 15, 1935 in Trenton, Tennessee, a small town in western Tennessee.
Hickerson’s father was in the lumber business.
About his father, Hickerson said:
“He could read all those numbers and add all those lines – twenty sets of numbers and two lines, and he’d add them all up at once. When he was in his eighties, he walked to a shopping center every day. He’d buy some candy and then stop at the elementary school during recess. He’d pass out that candy. All the teachers and students knew my daddy’s name”.
Hickerson had his first job when he was in the eighth grade – pushing a wheelbarrow full of bricks to a stairway and then carrying those bricks up four flights of stairs.
Hickerson decided that there had to be a better way to make a living.
Trezevant High School
Hickerson attended Trezevant High School.
He did not even play football until his senior year in high school when his brother convinced him to try out for football.
While Hickerson would later be an All-American and Pro Football Hall of Fame offensive lineman, a little-known fact about Hickerson is that he was not a lineman in high school.
“I was a fullback in high school, a 226-pound fullback and a damn good one”.
The athletic skills that Hickerson displayed as a back in high school (speed and agile feet) were to stay with him in his college and professional football career as an offensive lineman.
Another little-known fact about Hickerson is that while in high school, he became friends with Tennessee resident Elvis Presley.
Hickerson and Presley (whom Hickerson referred to as “Eli”) remained friends throughout Presley’s life.
Hickerson would accompany Presley on overnight trips to Las Vegas on Presley’s private jet and would send Presley (a big football fan) game films of Browns games.
— thom loverro (@thomloverro) January 9, 2020
Hickerson was not highly recruited.
Fortunately for Hickerson, a University of Mississippi alumnus was impressed by Hickerson’s play and advised Ole Miss about Hickerson.
It was not until March of his senior year that Hickerson was visited by an Ole Miss recruiter, but the recruiter was sufficiently impressed to offer Hickerson a scholarship.
Hickerson was on his way to Oxford, Mississippi.
The College Years
At Ole Miss, Hickerson moved from being a high school running back to a college offensive lineman.
The change in position apparently had two causes.
First, Ole Miss coach John Vaught frequently moved players from their high school position to a different position in college.
Vaught sought to recruit the best athletes from high school and then develop their athletic ability at different positions.
Second, according to Hickerson:
“They started me with the fullbacks, but I got tired of running all of those sprints in that sweltering August Mississippi heat. So I asked to change positions. . . . I said, ‘I want a position where I don’t have to run as much.’ They said, ‘What do you have in mind?’ I said, ‘Make me an offensive guard or a defensive end. Let me play somewhere that I don’t have to run in all this Lord-awful heat.’ That is how I became a guard”.
Whatever the specific reason, Hickerson was on his way to an outstanding career as an offensive lineman.
After redshirting as a freshman, Hickerson played football at Ole Miss from 1955 to 1957.
In 1955, Hickerson principally was a back-up offensive lineman.
Old Miss finished the 1955 season with a 10-1 record, including a 14-13 January 2, 1956 Cotton Bowl victory over TCU, and a 10th place ranking in the final Associated Press poll.
In 1956, Hickerson became a starter at offensive tackle.
The Rebels were 7-3 in 1956.
Hickerson continued to start at offensive tackle and was also a co-captain of the 1957 Ole Miss team.
In 1957, the Rebels had a 9-1-1 record and were ranked 7th in the nation in the final Associated Press poll.
The 1957 season featured a 39-7 trouncing of Texas on January 1, 1958 in the Sugar Bowl.
Hickerson was later named to the Sugar Bowl All-Time Team for the era 1955-1962.
At Ole Miss, Hickerson met Bobby Franklin, who later played for seven years with Hickerson on the Browns and became Hickerson’s best friend.
“Gene really loved Coach Vaught and Ole Miss as well as anybody. I didn’t know Gene until my freshman year at Ole Miss and he took care of me. In those days, the veteran players were pretty rough on the freshmen. We played two years together at Ole Miss and then those years with the Browns. In fact, we roomed together my rookie season in Cleveland. . . . Gene was so much faster than the linemen and Coach Vaught made him run with the backs.”
Another teammate of Hickerson at Old Miss with fond memories of him is former Ole Miss Chancellor Robert Khayat.
“In the summer of 1956, I met Gene Hickerson for the first time and immediately thought I would never play football at Ole Miss. He was the finest physical specimen I had seen and he had remarkable speed”.
Hickerson was recognized for his performance in 1957, by being named All-American, All-SEC, and All-South, as a tackle.
In 1992, in recognition of the 100th year of Ole Miss football, the Ole Miss Athletic Department put together a “Team of the Century”.
Hickerson was one of the five offensive linemen named to the team.
After the 1957 season, Hickerson played in the 1958 Senior Bowl and the 1958 College All-Star Game.
Hickerson starred in the 1958 College All-Star Game on August 15, 1958; showing his speed for a lineman in blocking on screen passes to future Browns running back Bobby Mitchell, Hickerson helped the College All-Stars defeat the NFL champion Detroit Lions 35-19.
After playing for the College All-Stars, Hickerson’s next team was the Cleveland Browns.
The Pro Football Years
The Browns thought so highly of Hickerson’s pro football potential that they drafted him as a future draft choice in the seventh round of the 1957 NFL draft (as the 78th overall pick) when he was still at Old Miss.
Hickerson joined the Browns in 1958.
The Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League also sought Hickerson’s services.
Although Montreal offered more money, Hickerson chose Cleveland because Montreal was too far north, Hickerson wanted to play for Browns Head Coach Paul Brown, and, with the Browns, Hickerson’s family and friends in Tennessee could watch Hickerson play on television.
Hickerson negotiated himself his first contract with the Browns – a first-year salary of $10,000, and a signing bonus of $1,000.
Once again, Hickerson changed positions when he came to Cleveland.
The college tackle was to be a guard (right guard) in the NFL.
The move to guard was in part attributable to Hickerson’s speed; it was thought to be more useful for a pulling guard on running plays than for a tackle.
In addition, Cleveland needed guards to implement head coach Paul Brown’s “messenger guard” system; Brown would use rotating guards to bring in plays from the sidelines to Browns quarterbacks.
In Hickerson’s rookie season in 1958 (when the Browns tied for the NFL East Division title with a 9-3 record, but lost in the playoff tiebreaker 10-0 to the New York Giants on December 21, 1958), he started only four games.
In 1959, Hickerson replaced future Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Chuck Noll and became a full-time starter at right guard.
Hickerson started 11 games in 1959 and all 12 games in 1960.
In 1961, Hickerson had his most frustrating NFL season.
Hickerson hurt his leg in the first preseason game in 1961.
While rehabbing, Hickerson was standing on the sidelines during a game and fractured the same leg when a play went out of bounds.
Hickerson missed the entire 1961 season and the first two games in 1962 (the only games Hickerson missed in his entire NFL career).
In returning to the field in 1962, Hickerson started six games at right guard.
— Tom’s Old Days (@sigg20) June 10, 2018
By 1963, Hickerson was again a full-time starter, starting all 14 games at right guard.
1964 was a year of firsts for Hickerson.
In 1964, Hickerson won his first, and what turned out to be his only, NFL championship.
— Vintage Browns (@VintageBrowns) June 17, 2020
The Browns won the NFL East Division with a 10-3-1 record and then routed the Baltimore Colts 27-0 in the NFL championship game on December 27, 1964.
Hickerson had a viral infection and a temperature of 105 before the game.
However, Hickerson still played the whole game and helped the Browns claim the 1964 NFL title.
Hickerson also earned his first All-Pro honors in 1964, being named “2nd Team All-Pro”, by the Newspaper Ent. Assoc.
Unlike winning the NFL championship, earning All-Pro honors was to become a regular occurrence for Hickerson.
In 1965, Hickerson received the first of six consecutive Pro Bowl invitations.
In addition, in 1965, Hickerson was voted “2nd Team All-Pro”, by both Associated Press and UPI.
The Browns again won the NFL East Division in 1965, with an 11-3 record, but lost the NFL championship game 23-12 to the Green Bay Packers on January 2, 1966.
— Ken Gelman (@kengfunk) April 24, 2017
In 1966, Hickerson began a streak of starting every Cleveland game for the remainder of his career (through 1973).
He was also voted “1st Team All-NFL” by the Newspaper Ent. Assoc. and “1st Team All-Conference” by the Sporting News.
In 1967, the Browns won another division title, the Century Division, with a 9-5 record, before losing 52-14 to the Dallas Cowboys in the divisional round of the playoffs on December 24, 1967.
Hickerson was voted in 1967 “1st Team All-NFL” by Associated Press, Newspaper Ent. Assoc., the New York Daily News, and UPI, and “1st Team All-Conference” by the Sporting News.
The Browns again won the Century Division title, with a 10-4 record, in 1968.
After defeating the Dallas Cowboys 31-20 on December 21, 1968 in the divisional round of the playoffs, Cleveland then lost to the Baltimore Colts 34-0 in the NFL championship game on December 29, 1968.
In 1968, Hickerson was voted “1st Team All-Pro (AFL and NFL combined)” by the Pro Football Writers of America and Pro Football Weekly, “1st Team All-NFL” by Associated Press, Newspaper Ent. Assoc., the New York Daily News, Pro Football Weekly, and UPI, and “1st Team All-Conference” by the Sporting News. Hickerson also received the NFL Outstanding Blocker Award in 1968.
In 1969, the Browns followed a similar path as in 1968.
After winning their third consecutive Central Division title (with a 10-3-1 record), Cleveland defeated the Dallas Cowboys 38-14 on December 28, 1969, before losing to the Minnesota Vikings 27-7 on January 4, 1970 in the NFL championship game.
In 1969, Hickerson was voted “1st Team All-Pro (AFL and NFL combined)” by the Pro Football Writers of America and Pro Football Weekly, “1st Team All-NFL” by Associated Press, Newspaper Ent. Assoc., the New York Daily News, Sports Illustrated, and UPI, and “1st Team All-Conference” by the Sporting News.
Hickerson was named to the NFL’s All-Decade Team of the 1960’s.
In 1970, Hickerson was voted “1st Team All-NFL” by the Pro Football Writers of America, and “1st Team All-Conference” by UPI.
In 1971, Cleveland won the AFC Central division, with a 9-5 record, before losing in the divisional round of the playoffs on December 26, 1971 to the Baltimore Colts 20-3.
In 1972, Hickerson moved from right guard to left guard, where he played for the final two years of his career.
The Browns made the playoffs in 1972 as a “wild-card” team, with a 10-4 record, before being defeated by the undefeated Miami Dolphins 20-14 in the divisional round of the playoffs on December 24, 1972.
At the end of the 1973 season, at the age of 38, Hickerson retired.
Speaking of Henderson, Browns offensive lineman Monte Clark said:
“[H]e was a hell of a football player. . . . The guy was incredible. He could run like a deer and he had excellent size for that time. He could go all year and not get beat on a pass. And when he pulled, his man was on the ground. Show me somebody else like that and I’ll kiss your rear”.
While Hickerson’s teammates remember his outstanding play, they also recall other memories from Hickerson’s career with the Browns.
Hickerson never did anything during pregame warmups besides leaning against a goal post.
Although Hickerson was one of the strongest players on the team, he never lifted weights or worked out.
Hickerson would never answer a question from, and never acknowledge, Browns offensive line coach Fritz Heisler.
Hickerson would be chewing gum or doing puzzles and ignore Heisler.
Hickerson was one of the first Browns players to bring in his own window air conditioner and television to his room at Browns training camp at Hiram College.
Hickerson’s greatness is evident from the testimony of the star Browns Hall of Fame running backs for whom he blocked, Jim Brown, Bobby Mitchell, and Leroy Kelly, commenting concerning Hickerson’s induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“He was one of the best pulling guards that ever played. He had unbelievable speed and mobility and was the best lineman we had. He blocked downfield, something guys today can’t do. Nobody knows blockers better than the guys who ran behind them, and I for one am proud he is in the Hall of Fame”.
“You are looking down the field and making cuts, and all of a sudden you see No. 66 [Hickerson]. You don’t expect to see a lineman that far down the field. . . . For his size, he had exceptional speed. It’s refreshing to know . . . the guy who is there to protect you can get to the point of contact and give you some help”.
“Gene is one of the main reasons I’m in the Hall of Fame. I had a hard time catching up to him because he was a great pulling guard. He deserves the honor”.
These tributes to Hickerson’s blocking talent are generally confirmed by some specific statistics.
First, before Hickerson joined the Browns, there were just seven runners in the entire history of the NFL to reach 1,000 yards rushing in a season.
Once Hickerson joined the Browns, Cleveland had a 1,000-yard rusher in nine of Hickerson’s first 10 seasons with the Browns.
Second, the Browns had the NFL’s leading rusher in seven of Hickerson’s first 10 seasons with Cleveland.
Third, the Browns never experienced a losing season, and played in four NFL championship games, during Hickerson’s tenure with the Browns.
These statistics were certainly also attributable in part to the skills of Brown, Mitchell, and Kelly as running backs, and other outstanding offensive linemen on the Browns, including Mike McCormack, Jim Ray Smith, Dick Schafrath, John Morrow, John Wooten, Fred Hoaglin, and Doug Dieken.
However, Hickerson played a critical role in the Browns’ success and is justifiably regarded as one of Cleveland’s all-time best players.
Perhaps the continuing importance of Hickerson to the Browns from Jim Brown (a rookie a year before Hickerson was a rookie) to Leroy Kelly (who also retired from the NFL after the 1973 season) was best expressed in another quote from Kelly.
When asked what he learned in his years serving as Brown’s understudy, Kelly said:
“I learned to follow Gene Hickerson’s butt everywhere he goes” (a similar version of this quotation was referenced by Hickerson’s son, Bob, when he spoke at Hickerson’s Pro Football Hall of Fame induction in 2007).
The Years After the NFL
After his retirement, Hickerson was a successful businessman.
Hickerson started working for General Motors and then became a manufacturer’s representative in the auto industry.
He also owned several restaurants, including “Hickerson’s at the Hanna”, a popular dining spot for years on Playhouse Square in Cleveland.
Hickerson also was a real estate developer.
With a partner, Hickerson purchased 130 acres in Avon, Ohio.
Hickerson built an 8,000 square foot home on 10 acres of the property and sold the remainder of the acreage, which was developed into a golf course community.
He enjoyed a large vegetable garden behind his home, planting and harvesting tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers.
He also lived in the 8,000 square foot home all by himself.
Hickerson was married for just a short period of time early in his life and never remarried and had two children, Bob and Nancy.
Hickerson also was an accomplished chef, but he did not like to clean the dishes.
When he made a gourmet meal, Hickerson would serve it on paper plates and use plastic forks.
As Hickerson grew older, he began to develop health problems.
At an autograph signing session at a 40-year reunion of the 1964 Browns NFL championship team in 2004, Hickerson could not remember his last name.
In early 2007, Hickerson was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia.
He also suffered from sleep apnea and diabetes.
Pro Football Hall of Fame
For many years, Hickerson was a finalist for induction for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but never quite received enough votes to be approved for enshrinement.
Hickerson’s long wait for induction upset many of his Browns teammates (and likely Hickerson too).
Finally, 29 years after his first year of eligibility, after being nominated by the Pro Football Hall of Fame Veteran’s Committee, Hickerson was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2007.
Hickerson was presented for enshrinement by Bobby Franklin.
Franklin said (during the video presentation):
“[Hickerson] was such a great athlete that the Browns drafted him his junior year. I don’t think they drafted a year early unless it was someone real special. They thought he was real special. Everybody knew how strong Gene was, had great feet, tremendous speed. . . . Gene wasn’t a guy that talked and bragged about himself. He was a pretty quiet person. He wasn’t an outgoing person. He just did his job and took pride in doing his job”.
“Pride” was important to Hickerson.
On his Pro Football Hall of Fame webpage is the Hickerson quote:
“By taking personal pride in what I do, I want the respect of my teammates”.
As Hickerson was unable to speak because of his medical issues, Hickerson’s son, Bob, spoke for Hickerson at the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
“Gene is actually the 16th member of the Cleveland Browns to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. A few of the one of my friends actually said some of the fans have mentioned that they were calling Gene Sweet 16. Well, that might be so, but I believe there’s a few defensive backs and you linebackers that probably wouldn’t think Gene is that sweet. . . . [Dick] Schafrath and Gene were roommates in the early playing days. The other day I was visiting Gene. Mr. Schafrath came in. They had a reputation of being, shall we say, mischievous throughout the years. Mr. Schafrath leaned over to me and said, All of my mischievous ways, all of my bad habits, he said, I learned them all from Gene. I said, That’s funny, Dick, he said the same thing about you”.
Besides being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Hickerson is also a member of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame.
On October 20, 2008, living in a nursing home, Hickerson died at age 73.
At Hickerson’s Pro Football Hall of Fame induction, at the conclusion of his speech, Hickerson’s son, Bob, said:
“I would ask all of you to please join me in welcoming Gene, who still is leading the way for Hall of Fame running backs Bobby Mitchell, Leroy Kelly and Jim Brown”. Mitchell, Kelly, and Brown then pushed Hickerson’s wheelchair onto the stage.”
Whether from this poignant moment at Hickerson’s Pro Football Hall of Fame induction, or from Hickerson’s “Number 66” pulling and blocking defensive players, Browns fans have many special memories of Hickerson “leading the way” at the Pro Football Hall of Fame and at many Browns victories.