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Jim Nance: A bigger Emmitt Smith

06.15.09 at 1:11 pm ET
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Jim Nance. (Photo Courtesy New England Patriots)

FOXBOROUGH — The most recent selection to the Patriots Hall of Fame could have easily wound up in Pro Football Hall of Fame had he played in a different time and place.

But as it was, Jim Nance played for the Boston/New England Patriots from 1965-71, winning the MVP of the old American Football League in just his second season. He didn’t play before the same NFL crowds and audience that began to capture the imagination of the American football conscience in the late 60s.

But if he did, he may have been as popular as Jim Brown and received as much attention. Both Nance and Brown were outstanding running backs from Syracuse University who starred in other sports — Brown was a star lacrosse player while Nance was a two-time NCAA champion wrestler.

Talk to ex-teammate Gino Cappelletti for five minutes and he will tell you all about the greatness of Nance, who died on June 17, 1992.

“He would be really recognized as a strong player and one of the top running backs in the game,” Cappelletti said last week in announcing the running back as the 14th player inducted into the team’s Hall of Fame. “We all know the game has changed. The evolution of the game, and all of that is part of the different types of football that is played today. He had quickness, and he speed and he had size and he had power. MVP in ’66 as well, richly deserved and I would say that exemplifies the type of player he was.

“He was a bigger Emmitt Smith, maybe,” Cappelletti continued. “He could really fly right through. And when he got going, that’s where he was really difficult. It’s pretty hard to make comparisons with players of today but he had speed, size and power.”

Nance beat out teammates Houston Antwine, a defensive tackle from 1961-71 and Jon Morris, a center who played from 1964-74.

“The three finalists were all teammates,” Cappelletti said. “And it was very emotional for me to hear that they were finalists in this induction year. It was difficult because they all contributed to the success of the franchise in those early years, which were very critical.”

The Patriots are celebrating their 50th anniversary this season, and fans had the chance to vote for one of three stars of the then-Boston Patriots.

“Jon Morris was a very important cog for the team because he manned the center position and was also the long-snapper,” said Cappelletti, a star kicker for the Patriots. “I can honestly say he made me a better place-kicker because of his accuracy snapping the ball.”

“Houston Antwine was a force defensively,” Cappelletti said. “Houston Antwine played in the time of being an every-down player and not a situational player and was quick as a cat. All three certainly had the qualifications to get in. Jim Nance really stood out and made the Patriots a better team in those early, critical years.”

Nance was the first Patriot on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1966, with the photo of him galloping 65 yards for a touchdown against Buffalo in 14-3 win, called by the mag, “The Game of the Year.”

“Jim Nance had an outstanding career for us,” Cappelletti said. “He was very instrumental in his ability to offset the opposition with his running talents and running ability. Having a 4.9 yard average in 1966 is almost unheard of. The team responded to his leadership and inspiration.

“If I had to say one had the edge perhaps it would be Jim Nance for all he contributed,” Cappelletti said.

In addition to his time with the Patriots, Nance played seven games for the New York Jets in 1973 and finished his career by playing his final two seasons in the World Football League, becoming the WFL’s all-time leading rusher with 2,007 yards on 490 carries and 15 touchdowns.

Nance is survived by his daughter Rachel, who will represent her father at the Patriots Hall of Fame induction ceremony the weekend of the Patriots preseason opener Aug. 20-23.

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