If history had worked out a little differently, one of the top NFL quarterbacks in the 1960s would have been a handsome lad from Memphis named Elvis Presley.
OK, that’s not quite accurate. History would have had to work out a whole lot differently for Elvis — who’s enjoying a bit of a cultural renaissance this week with the release of a new biopic — to even play football at the college level, much less the NFL. But Elvis loved football, so much so that he played it at a rugged level through most of his life, and later used his celebrity to rope in big names for games that were “touch” football in name only.
“Football was his way to escape pressure,” says Angie Marchese, Vice President of Archives and Exhibits at Elvis Presley's Graceland. “When he was a 19, 20, 21-year-old guy, he could just have fun and not have to worry about his career. It was his way of relaxing, besides playing gospel music.”
Growing up in Memphis, Elvis wasn’t permitted to play football in high school; his mother Gladys, afraid he’d get injured, wouldn’t even allow him to try out. Young Elvis wasn’t deterred, merely redirected. While he was entering (and winning) talent shows and dressing in ever-more-outrageous fashions, he kept his eye on the football field … specifically, a tiny North Memphis patch of grass named Guthrie Park.
It was there, at the corner of Chelsea Ave. and Decatur Street, a few blocks from Humes High School, that a teenage Elvis began organizing Sunday afternoon football games even as his star was rising locally, then regionally, then nationally.
In 1953, an 18-year-old Elvis walked into Sun Studios and cut a single for his mother: “My Happiness” on one side, “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin” on the other. The single caught the interest of Sun head honcho Sam Philips, and a few months later, he invited Elvis in to cut a few professional recordings. The rest, literally, is history.
At the same time, Elvis would meet up with a few pals — the crew would form the basis of what would later be known as the Memphis Mafia — and play pickup football every Sunday at Guthrie Park.
“They said they were playing touch football, but it had contact, for sure,” Marchese says. “Elvis was normally the quarterback, but he wasn’t afraid to throw a tackle. He loved the sport. It was just guys being guys.”
Time passed, and as Elvis rose to megastardom, he never lost touch with his Memphis roots — for better and worse. He blew up nationally, appearing on the TV shows of the day before tens of millions of lovestruck teens and their disapproving parents. (Elvis’s 1956 appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show drew 60 million viewers, a number that only Super Bowls eclipse today.) He kept on playing football, even when he was drafted and shipped to Germany in the late 1950s.
“He won the MVP of his Sunday afternoon touch football games in Germany,” laughs Marchese. “So yes, Elvis has an MVP trophy for playing football.”
Elvis spent much of the 1960s in Hollywood, pumping out godawful movies for easy cash at the behest of his manager, Col. Tom Parker. But he never lost the love of football, regularly tossing around footballs on-set and inviting luminaries like Ricky Nelson to join him for pickup games.
The studios got wind of these games, and required Elvis to wear a helmet to protect that million-dollar face of his.
“Elvis hated it, but he wore it,” Marchese says. “Then, when he started wearing a helmet, he said, ‘Let’s get some pads on.’ And so a game that was already rugged became even more rugged.”
His favorite teams were the Browns, who would send him game tapes after every Sunday, and the Steelers. He became close friends with Jim Brown, and Joe Namath once visited him backstage in Las Vegas. Namath later recalled that Elvis happily sat and talked football with Namath’s father.
Elvis also had no problem flexing some celebrity muscle to try to feed his football jones. Terry Bradshaw recalls a time in the mid-70s, right in the heart of the Steeler dynasty, when he was in Vegas to give a speech. He was in his hotel room, packing to leave, when the phone rang. A familiar voice got on the line.
“Hey man, how you doing?” Elvis said, as Bradshaw recalls it (in a perfect Elvis drawl). “I’ve got a flag football game going. I’d love for you to come play on my team.”
Bradshaw had to leave to catch a plane, and made a decision he still regrets.
“I turned down Elvis!” he howls. “Can you imagine what that would have been like?”
On the ride to the airport, Bradshaw cursed himself. “I’m thinking the whole time, ‘Are you kidding me? I’m so busy I can’t play flag football with Elvis, my hero?’”
At least Bradshaw got a story out of it … but only a story.
“I turned down Elvis!” he laughs. “Tom Brady can’t say that!”
In the mid-70s, Elvis chartered buses from Graceland, his mansion, to watch the Memphis Southmen of the upstart-and-quickly-defunct World Football League. (After one season, the Southmen were renamed the Grizzlies, and signed fading Dolphins stars Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield. After two seasons, the league folded.)
Graceland, now a museum for all things Elvis, has a collection of handwritten plays that Elvis drew up throughout his life. After ESPN contacted Graceland about Elvis’s football history for an episode of “Peyton’s Places,” museum curators created an entire exhibit about the King’s football exploits.
“He played in full uniforms, he had handwritten playbooks,” Marchese says. “He was a true student of the sport.”
Elvis died in 1977 at the age of 42, but he very nearly made his mark on the NFL anyway; Memphis made a 1993 bid to join the NFL under the team name “Hound Dogs.” That attempt failed, but Memphis did get an NFL team for one season before that team — now known as the Titans — moved to Nashville.
It’s a shame Elvis didn’t live to see a football team in his home state, but that could have gone sideways.
“Elvis would have been one of its biggest supporters,” Marchese says. “He probably would have been on the sidelines telling the coach what plays to run.”
Contact Jay Busbee at email@example.com or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.