While the stereotypical football player is a big man, many great football players are blessed with physical traits other than size.
The short and small NFL player can still achieve success if he has speed and agility.
A returner or runner who is under six feet and under 200 pounds, but is too quick and shifty to bring down, can torment a larger tackler.
Greg Pruitt did not have size, but he had moves.
During his 12-year NFL career, including nine years with the Cleveland Browns, as a kickoff returner, punt returner, rusher, and receiver, Pruitt cut and juked his way to 5 Pro Bowls and football success.
Greg Pruitt! pic.twitter.com/Ie5blu9Nzg
— PizzaGuy (@Petrorock44) July 13, 2020
We take a look at the life of Greg Pruitt – before, during, and after his NFL career.
The Early Years Through High School
Gregory Donald Pruitt was born on August 18, 1951 in Houston, Texas.
Pruitt was first attracted to sports from watching them on television.
“We would often watch football, basketball, and baseball, and then go out and play sandlot. We would pretend we were the different athletes that we had seen on TV.”
Pruitt’s first sport was baseball in large part because his grandfather, Edward Philpot (who was a major influence in Pruitt’s life), had played professional baseball in an all-Negro league.
Pruitt’s early involvement with football was at an unexpected position – center.
“We lived in a low-income neighborhood – not ghetto, but low-income. The guys there, who were all black, played sandlot football, and I was the youngest and smallest to go out for it. I was seven or eight years old. Everybody wanted to be a receiver or a running back; nobody wanted to be a lineman. So, I volunteered to be the center, which was the most unpopular position. That gave me an opportunity to play. They usually played four guys against four guys, and I made the ninth guy. So, they made me the center for both sides. It got to the point to where they were used to having me, and my age didn’t matter. After a while, I got to play other positions, and I did very, very well.”
Pruitt’s father worked at Folger’s Coffee Company in Houston. Pruitt’s mother was a beautician.
When Pruitt was nine years old, his parents separated; Pruitt and his two brothers were raised by their mother.
After his parents separated, Pruitt did not see his father again for fifteen years.
The street where Pruitt’s mother worked influenced her son’s football development.
“My friends and I used to play football in the streets, in front of my mother’s beauty shop. She felt safer with us out there playing. . . . The street was narrow, three yards wide, if that, and that helped me develop a lot of my moves as a running back. Playing in a narrow street, you had to have some kind of move to get by the defenders. When I went into organized football in high school, I was playing on a field fifty yards wide, which seemed like much more room than I needed. A lot of the moves I used as a running back were developed in that little street right in front of my mother’s beauty parlor.”
B.C. Elmore High School
Pruitt attended B.C. Elmore High School in Houston.
B.C. Elmore High School was a small (there were only 58 students in Pruitt’s graduating class), all-African-American high school.
While there was not much money available for football equipment or uniforms, Pruitt felt there was “excellent coaching,” at B.C. Elmore High School.
In addition, Pruitt said:
“We had a winning tradition at B.C. Elmore High School, and athletes were accorded a lot of status. . . . It was a big thing to be a football player. To signify that you played football, you would take your chinstrap and put it in your back pocket. Girls were attracted to guys who did that.”
Pruitt was initially a quarterback in high school.
However, during Pruitt’s senior year in high school, his high school coach moved him to wingback.
The change in position was largely intended to help Pruitt in college recruiting, as most major colleges did not then actively recruit African-American quarterbacks.
Pruitt excelled as a receiver his senior year in high school, catching 87 passes and scoring 27 touchdowns.
Despite Pruitt’s success his senior year in high school, Pruitt was not heavily recruited by major colleges.
He had gone to a small high school, and many people thought Pruitt was too small in size (according to Pruitt, when he went to college, he “was only about five foot seven or five foot eight and weighed only about 142 pounds.”)
Pruitt was principally recruited by four colleges – University of Oklahoma, University of Wyoming, University of Arizona, and University of Houston.
Pruitt decided to become a Sooner and headed to Norman, Oklahoma.
Pruitt was a wide receiver on the Oklahoma freshman team in 1969 and expected to be a starting wide receiver for the Oklahoma varsity as a sophomore in 1970.
However, Oklahoma switched to a wishbone offense during 1970 and, as a result, needed running backs more than wide receivers.
Pruitt was moved to backup running back.
Pruitt was upset about the change in position and considered leaving Oklahoma until he spoke to his mother.
Pruitt’s mother told Pruitt to write down a telephone number.
“I asked her whose number it was and she told me it was my uncle. She said ‘I didn’t raise any quitters and if you can’t stay with him, you’d better find someplace to go, because you can’t stay here when you come home.”
Pruitt decided to reconsider and stay at Oklahoma.
It turned out to be a great decision.
When Oklahoma halfback Everett Marshall was injured during the 1970 season, Pruitt took over his spot.
In 1970 (including 11 regular-season games), Pruitt rushed for 241 yards on 45 rushing attempts (a 5.4 average yards per carry) and five rushing touchdowns.
In addition, Pruitt caught 19 passes for 240 yards and two receiving touchdowns.
Oklahoma had a 7-4 regular-season record in 1970.
The Sooners then played Alabama to a 24-24 tie in the Astro-Bluebonnet Bowl on December 31, 1970.
Pruitt had two touchdowns, on runs of 58 and 25 yards, in the game.
Oklahoma was ranked 20th in the nation in the final Associated Press poll in 1970.
In 1971, Pruitt exploded as a college football star.
On October 9, 1971, Pruitt scored three touchdowns (on rushes of one, four, and 20 yards) in a 48-27 Sooners victory over rival (and then ranked third in the nation) Texas.
The following week, on October 16, 1971, Pruitt scored two touchdowns (on rushes of 66 and 14 yards), as Oklahoma defeated (then ranked sixth in the nation) Colorado 45-17.
The following week, on October 23, 1971, Pruitt rushed for 294 yards (the most in Sooner history until 2014) and scored three touchdowns (on two rushes of 15 yards, and a rush of 38 yards), as Oklahoma routed Kansas State 75-28.
For the 1971 season (including all 12 regular season and bowl games), Pruitt rushed for 1,760 yards on 196 rushing attempts – an amazing 9.0 average yards per carry.
Pruitt scored 18 rushing touchdowns in 1971.
#TBThursday 1971 OU Backfield; 22 Joe Wylie, 11 Jack Mildren, 17 Leon Crosswhite & 30 Greg Pruitt. @MolohaMonte @JWarwickINS @Soonerorthodds @MPSallusti73 @Barry_Switzer #OUDNA pic.twitter.com/tkx4rwCZND
— Chris Lambakis (@chris_lambakis) August 27, 2020
Pruitt led the Big Eight Conference, and was second in the entire NCAA, in both rushing yards and yards from scrimmage, in 1971.
Pruitt was voted as a unanimous consensus All-American on the 1971 All-America football team by each of the American Football Coaches Association, the Associated Press, the Football Writers Association of America, the Newspaper Enterprise Association, United Press International, Football News, and the Walter Camp Football Foundation.
Pruitt was also voted to the 1971 All-Big Eight Conference football team by the Associated Press.
Pruitt finished third in the voting for the 1971 Heisman Trophy.
Oklahoma had an 11-1 record in 1971, including a 40-22 victory over Auburn (then ranked fifth in the nation) in the Sugar Bowl on January 1, 1972.
Oklahoma was ranked second in the nation in the final Associated Press poll in 1971.
As a senior, in 1972, Pruitt had another excellent season for the Sooners.
On September 16, 1972, Pruitt scored three touchdowns (on rushes of five, one, and four yards), as Oklahoma routed Utah State 49-0.
On September 30, 1972, Pruitt again scored three touchdowns (on rushes of five, four, and one yards), in an Oklahoma rout of Clemson 52-3.
Although bothered for part of the season by an injury to his left ankle, in 1972 (including 11 regular-season games), Pruitt rushed for 938 yards on 152 rushing attempts (a 6.2 average yards per carry) and 13 rushing touchdowns.
In addition, Pruitt caught 7 passes for 102 yards and one receiving touchdown.
Pruitt led the Big Eight Conference in rushing touchdowns in 1972.
Pruitt was again voted as a unanimous consensus All-American on the 1972 All-America football team by each of the American Football Coaches Association, the Associated Press, the Football Writers Association of America, the Newspaper Enterprise Association, United Press International, the Walter Camp Football Foundation, Football News, and The Sporting News.
Pruitt was again also voted to the 1972 All-Big Eight Conference football team by the Associated Press.
Pruitt finished second in the voting for the 1972 Heisman Trophy.
Oklahoma had a 10-1 regular-season record in 1972 and advanced again to the Sugar Bowl.
On December 31, 1972, Oklahoma shutout Penn State in the Sugar Bowl 14-0.
Oklahoma was again ranked second in the nation in the final Associated Press poll in 1972.
Happy Birthday Greg Pruitt, out of Houston, Texas and @OU_Football ; 2X All American, 2nd in Heisman 1972, 3rd in Heisman 1971, 12 year @NFL career, Super Bowl Champion, 5X Pro Bowl ( 1973, 1974, 1976, 1977, 1983), Member College Football Hall of Fame; 69 Today..#BoomerSooner pic.twitter.com/4JYFiqeCB6
— Larry in Missouri (@LarryInMissouri) August 18, 2020
After his individual and team success in college, Pruitt headed to the NFL.
The Pro Football Years
As a Heisman Trophy runner-up, Pruitt expected to be drafted high in the first round of the 1973 NFL draft.
In fact, Pruitt expected to be drafted by the New England Patriots, who had three first-round picks and were now coached by Pruitt’s former Oklahoma head coach, Chuck Fairbanks.
However, as Pruitt recalled:
“[D]raft day didn’t go the way I thought it would. I was just waiting for it to be official, going to the Patriots in round one, and I actually went out and bought things for a party. But the first round went, and I hadn’t gone. And all of those worries I had about whether my size would be a question mark started to become a reality to me. . . . Some reporter found me and told me I had been drafted by the Cleveland Browns in the second round [30th pick overall]. . . . I had no idea where Cleveland, Ohio, was. All I knew was that it was where Jim Brown had played. Jim Brown was one of the players we used to always fuss about when I was a kid. You know, who got to be Jim Brown when he played football. I was a running back, like he had been, and I thought this was a great opportunity.”
Concern about Pruitt’s size had dropped him in the draft, and it was an issue that bothered Pruitt.
“I knew a lot of people thought I was too small to play in the NFL. So, when I came to Cleveland after being drafted, before they weighed me I ate all I could eat and drank as much water as I could drink. Then I got up on the scale and weighed in at 177 pounds. I tell people today, jokingly, that I spent all of my career trying to get to 190 pounds. And now, I’m 225 pounds and trying to get back to 190!”
Pruitt’s small size did not prevent him from having a successful rookie season with the Cleveland Browns in 1973.
Pruitt began to accept his size in part based on a conversation he had with Browns Pro Football Hall of Fame running back Leroy Kelly.
“One time I told Leroy I was running and I couldn’t see around the guard. Leroy told me, ‘If you can’t see him, he can’t see you. You’ve got the ball. Set him up.’”
Pruitt scored his first NFL regular-season touchdown on a seven-yard run in a 16-16 tie with the San Diego Chargers on October 28, 1973.
For his rookie season in 1973, Pruitt, playing in 13 regular-season games, rushed for 369 yards and four touchdowns on 61 rushing attempts (a 6.0 average yards per carry), caught nine passes for 110 yards and one touchdown, and returned 16 kickoffs for 453 yards and 16 punts for 180 yards.
Pruitt was invited to his first Pro Bowl in 1973.
The Browns had a 7-5-2 record in 1973 and did not make the playoffs.
Unfortunately for Pruitt, the Browns were to miss the playoffs for the first seven years of his NFL career, posting additional records of 4-10 in 1974, 3-11 in 1975, 9-5 in 1976, 6-8 in 1977, 8-8 in 1978, and 9-7 in 1979.
Despite this lack of team success, Pruitt continued to have numerous individual accomplishments in Cleveland through these years.
In a 34-24 Cleveland loss to the Cincinnati Bengals on October 13, 1974, Pruitt showed his versatility in another area, as Pruitt threw a 60-yard touchdown pass to Gloster Richardson.
Pruitt also rushed for 83 yards on 11 rushing attempts, returned a kickoff for 23 yards, and returned a punt for 28 yards, in the game.
In explaining his versatility, Pruitt said:
“I think at first, in college, and later in the pros, I just wanted the opportunity to handle the football. How I got it didn’t matter, whether it was running or catching a pass or running back kicks.”
In 1974, Pruitt (playing in all 14, and starting nine, regular-season games) led the Browns in rushing, with 540 yards on 126 rushing attempts.
Pruitt also scored three rushing touchdowns.
Pruitt was invited to his second consecutive Pro Bowl in 1974.
’74 vs Broncos. Late in the game, Greg Pruitt returns a punt 72 yards, leading to Sipe’s TD. John Garlington saves the game by stripping the ball from Otis Armstrong. Final: 23-21 Browns. #clevelandbrowns #browns pic.twitter.com/40YLHeQSTC
— Cleveland Municipal Browns (@BrownsMunicipal) August 9, 2020
In 1975, Pruitt became a full-time offensive starter for the Browns, and it was reflected in his increased rushing statistics.
In 1975, Pruitt, who started all 14 regular-season games, led the Browns with both 1,067 rushing yards and eight rushing touchdowns (on 217 rushing attempts).
Pruitt’s 4.9 average yards per carry was third in the NFL in 1975.
In addition, Pruitt caught 44 receptions for 299 yards and one touchdown and returned 14 kickoffs for 302 yards and 13 punts for 130 yards.
Pruitt had 1,798 all-purpose yards in 1975, which ranked fifth in the NFL.
— Cleveland Municipal Browns (@BrownsMunicipal) August 8, 2020
Pruitt’s increased rushing attempts and receptions, and decreased kickoff returns and punt returns, in 1975 reflected his increasing role as an offensive player, and decreasing role as a kickoff and punt returner, which continued throughput the remainder of his time with the Browns, including in 1976.
Pruitt was invited to his third Pro Bowl in 1976.
’76 vs Chargers. Paul Warfield returns to the Browns and Greg Pruitt gains 100 yards before injury. Akron native Larry Poole fills in with 119 all-purpose yards. Final Cle 21 SD 17 #clevelandbrowns #browns pic.twitter.com/xWMaCTIrOA
— Cleveland Municipal Browns (@BrownsMunicipal) August 8, 2020
He also was voted in 1976 second-team All-Conference by United Press International.
In 1977, Pruitt again led the Browns in rushing yards and probably had the most productive offensive year of his NFL career.
In 1977, Pruitt, who started all 14 regular-season games, again led the Browns with 1,086 rushing yards (on 236 rushing attempts).
Pruitt was invited to his fourth Pro Bowl in 1977.
He was also voted in 1977 second-team All-Pro by the Newspaper Enterprise Association and second-team All-Conference by United Press International.
While 1977 was the last of Pruitt’s 1,000-yard rushing seasons, he continued his success on the field in 1978.
Greg Pruitt’s first @Browns 6 NFL seasons (73-78).. 5,022 rushing yards, 1,787 receiving yards, 659 punt return yards, 1,441 kick return yards, and 33 total TDs. Also, the NFL only played 14 game seasons until 78. pic.twitter.com/ojWo2pZ5sn
— Cbus Joe #D4L (@kardiackid33) July 30, 2020
In 1978, because of a lower leg injury, Pruitt played and started in only 12 of the Browns’ 16 regular-season games.
Had Pruitt played a full season in 1978, he undoubtedly would have exceeded 1,000 rushing yards for a fourth consecutive season (and potentially have had the highest season rushing yards total in his NFL career).
In 1978, Pruitt led the Browns in rushing for a fifth consecutive year, rushing for 960 yards on 176 rushing attempts; Pruitt’s 5.5 average yards per carry was second in the NFL.
Pruitt also scored three rushing touchdowns.
In 1979, Pruitt was even more beset by injuries, playing and starting in only six games.
Pruitt first injured his right knee in the fourth game of the season and missed the next three games.
Pruitt then returned for a game, before the following week tearing a ligament during Cleveland’s 38-20 win over the St. Louis Cardinals on October 28, 1979.
Pruitt underwent knee surgery and missed the rest of the 1979 season.
In 1979, Pruitt rushed for 233 yards on 62 rushing attempts, caught 14 passes for 155 yards (and one touchdown), and returned one kickoff for 22 yards.
When Pruitt returned to the Browns in 1980, his role with the team once again changed.
Mike Pruitt (no relation) had essentially become the leading rusher for the Browns (rushing for 1,294 yards in 1979).
For Greg Pruitt, just as his principal use by the team had once evolved from returner to rusher, now it evolved again from rusher to receiver (out of the backfield).
In 1980, Pruitt, starting nine and playing in all 16 regular-season games, caught 50 passes for 444 yards and five touchdowns.
He also rushed for 117 yards on 40 rushing attempts in 1980.
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) August 19, 2020
The Browns made the playoffs in 1980, winning the AFC Central Division title with an 11-5 record.
Pruitt played in his first NFL playoff game, on January 4, 1981 against the Oakland Raiders, catching three passes for 54 yards and rushing for 11 yards on four rushing attempts.
However, the Browns lost the game to the Raiders 14-12.
In 1981, the Browns followed their playoff season with a disappointing 5-11 record.
However, Pruitt had another solid season, particularly as a receiver.
In what turned out to be Pruitt’s last game as a Brown, on December 20, 1981, Pruitt caught five passes for 44 yards and one touchdown (on a five-yard pass from Browns quarterback Paul McDonald), as Cleveland lost to the Seattle Seahawks 42-21.
Prior to the 1982 season, the Browns traded Pruitt to the Oakland Raiders for an 11th-round draft pick.
Pruitt played with the Raiders from 1982 to 1984.
With the Raiders, Pruitt’s NFL career came back to where it started, as he again evolved, now from principally being to an offensive player to principally being a returner.
One of Pruitt’s best games in 1982 was when he returned two kickoffs for 57 yards and five punts for 45 yards in a 27-10 Raiders victory over the Cleveland Browns in the first round of the playoffs on January 8, 1983.
It was Pruitt’s first NFL playoff victory.
In 1983, Pruitt had an even better season.
In a 37-35 Raiders loss to the Washington Redskins on October 2, 1983, Pruitt returned a punt 97 yards for a touchdown – the only punt return touchdown of Pruitt’s NFL career.
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) August 18, 2020
In 1983, in sixteen regular-season games, Pruitt returned 31 kickoffs for 604 yards and 58 punts for 666 yards and one touchdown.
In 1983, Pruitt ranked first in the NFL in number of punt returns, total punt return yardage, and total number of kickoff and punt returns, and second in the NFL in average yards per punt return (11.5 average yards per punt return), and total kickoff and punt return yardage.
Pruitt also rushed for 154 yards (and two touchdowns) on 26 rushing attempts in 1983.
It is especially impressive that Pruitt had such a strong season in 1983 at age 32.
In explaining his football skill past the age of 30 (when many runners begin to decline), Pruitt said, “I think my style prolonged my career, because I never let people have good shots at me. I didn’t have to take many hard hits.”
Pruitt’s play helped the Raiders win the 1983 Super Bowl – Pruitt’s only college or NFL championship.
Pruitt was invited to his fifth and final Pro Bowl in 1983.
In addition, Pruitt was voted first team All-Conference by Pro Football Weekly in 1983.
After the 1984 season, at age 33, Pruitt retired from the NFL.
Life After Football
Pruitt and his wife, Mary, had two children.
Pruitt’s son, Greg Pruitt Jr., set the career rushing record at North Carolina Central University and had an NFL tryout with the Baltimore Ravens.
After his NFL retirement, Pruitt was involved with various business activities.
He worked as a recreational manager for the city of Cleveland, operated an electronics company, became a sports agent, and invested in Cleveland real estate.
For probably the longest length of time, Pruitt has operated a residential construction company, Pruitt & Associates, in Shaker Heights, Ohio.
Pruitt settled in the Cleveland area.
In 1997, Pruitt was inducted in the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame.
In 1999, Pruitt was inducted in the College Football Hall of Fame.
Pruitt was one of the first non-Pro Football Hall of Fame members who was inducted in the Cleveland Browns Legends Program in 2001.
He was inducted in the Greater Cleveland Sports Hall of Fame in 2003.
He also has remained close to the Browns franchise, including to Browns fans.
Pruitt has traveled to Browns road games with members of the “Browns Backers” fan club organization, participating with them in such activities as salmon fishing and turkey hunting.
“I’ve always said I would [not] have been anything without the fans. I played in front of the greatest pro fans in the world in Cleveland and I played in front of the greatest college fans at OU. It made a difference in my career. I didn’t get to meet all of those people when I was playing, but now when I get to speak at the Browns Backers events, I truly enjoy it.”
It is difficult to easily categorize Pruitt in his Browns career (from 1973 to 1981), as his versatility and evolution in different roles make it difficult to characterize Pruitt as just a returner, just a rusher, or just a receiver.
As a kickoff returner, among Browns who had at least 25 career kickoff returns with the Browns, Pruitt ranks second in average yards per kickoff return (26.3 average yards per kickoff return), and 11th in total kickoff return yardage (1,523 yards).
As a punt returner, among Browns who had at least 25 career punt returns with the Browns, Pruitt ranks second in average yards per punt return (11.8 average yards per punt return), and ninth in total punt return yardage (659 yards).
It is important to note that Pruitt’s separate kickoff return and punt return performance with the Raiders enhances his NFL career profile in these areas.
As a rusher, among Browns who had at least 100 career rushes with the Browns, Pruitt ranks 13th in average yards per carry (4.7 average yards per carry), and fourth in total rushing yards (5,496 yards).
As a receiver, among Browns, Pruitt ranks fifth in total receptions (323) and 18th in total pass reception yards (3,022 yards).
In addition, Pruitt threw six touchdown passes while with the Browns.
Pro Football Hall of Famer, and former head coach of Pruitt on the Browns, Forrest Gregg said, “I think Greg Pruitt belongs in the Hall of Fame.”
Whether as a kickoff returner, a punt returner, a rusher, a receiver, or even as a passer, Greg Pruitt could “do it” and played football like a versatile “superstar” who gave many happy memories to Browns fans.