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Sports Then and Now




Preston Pearson: The Ultimate Third-Down Back

Posted on November 17, 2018 by Dean Hybl

Preston-Pearson-Cowboys-2The Sports Then and Now Vintage Athlete of the Month played in five Super Bowls with three teams during a 14-year NFL season, but is likely best known for being the ultimate third-down situation back during his time with the Dallas Cowboys.

When Preston Pearson was drafted by the Baltimore Colts in the 12th round of the 1967 NFL draft out of the University of Illinois, there was no expectation that he would develop into one of the most versatile backs in the NFL. In fact, given that Pearson was a two-year starter in basketball and never played a snap of college football, he was a long-shot to ever play a down in the NFL.

Yet, his athleticism impressed Baltimore head coach Don Shula and after starting the year on the taxi squad, Pearson joined the active roster for the final seven games of the 1967 season.

The following year he found a role as kick returner for the best team in the NFL. He averaged 35.1 yards per return and returned two kicks for touchdowns, including a 102 yarder. He also saw limited duty as a running back, but did turn both of his pass receptions during the season into touchdowns.

The Colts won the NFL title, but then lost Super Bowl III to the New York Jets. In that game, Pearson returned two kicks for an average of 29.5 yards.

After serving in a similar role for the Colts in 1969, he was traded to the Pittsburgh Steelers prior to the 1970 season and was reunited with head coach Chuck Noll, who had been the defensive coordinator for the Colts.

Pearson started every game for the Steelers in 1970 and 1971. He was their second leading runner each season (behind Frenchy Fuqua) with 503 yards in 1970 and 605 in 1971.

With the arrival of Franco Harris in 1972, Pearson was no longer a featured runner, but he still saw significant action over the next three seasons as Pittsburgh emerged as a championship contender. He was part of the 1974 Pittsburgh squad that won Super Bowl IX.

Pearson was waived by the Steelers prior to the 1975 season, but quickly signed with the Dallas Cowboys, who were in need of a veteran back after losing stars Walt Garrison and Calvin Hill following the 1974 campaign. To make room for Pearson, the Cowboys released a rookie quarterback named Jim Zorn.

Interestingly enough, in Dallas Preston was one of two players with the last name Pearson on the roster as the star receiver for the Cowboys was Drew Pearson, who was not related to Preston. The pairing of Pearsons was one of three unique duos in 1970s of players with the same unique last name (not Smith, Jones, Johnson), but not related, playing on the same NFL team. In addition to Preston and Drew, there was Jim and Jack Youngblood who were both defensive standouts for the Los Angeles Rams and Mike and Greg Pruitt as running backs with the Cleveland Browns.

It didn’t take long for Pearson to move into the starting lineup and he finished the season second on the squad with 509 yards rushing. He also caught a career-high 27 passes for 351 yards.

After having missed the playoffs for the first time in nine years in 1974, the Cowboys surprised the NFL by not only reaching the playoffs, but winning on the road against the Vikings and Rams to reach the Super Bowl. In the NFC Championship Game, Pearson caught seven passes for 123 yards and three touchdowns.

In Super Bowl X, the Cowboys faced Pearson’s former team from Pittsburgh. Though Pearson caught five passes for 53 yards, the Cowboys fell just short losing 21-17. He also became the first player to play in a Super Bowl with three different teams.

Injuries limited Pearson to just 10 games the following season, but he still had 549 yards in total offense.

Prior to the 1977 season, the Cowboys drafted Heisman Trophy winning running back Tony Dorsett to become the featured runner for the Cowboys.

Though Pearson kept the starting position for the first 10 games, Dorsett quickly became the primary rusher. It was at that point that Pearson started to find his ultimate niche as the designated third down back for the Cowboys.

Often the primary third down target for quarterback Roger Staubach, Pearson caught a career-high 46 passes for 535 yards and four touchdowns. He also rushed for 341 yards and had a career-high 876 yards from scrimmage.

The Cowboys were 12-2 during the regular season and then rolled through the playoffs to reach the Super Bowl for the second time in three years. It also marked the fourth Super Bowl appearance for Pearson. Interestingly, Pearson was the only member of the 1977 Dallas team who was not either drafted or signed as an original free agent by the Cowboys.

Over the next two seasons, Pearson became well known as the premier “third down back” in the NFL as he seemed to always be making big plays in key situations.

He caught a career-high 47 passes for 526 yards in 1978 as the Cowboys again reached the Super Bowl. It marked the fifth Super Bowl appearance for several Dallas players, but Pearson was the only one who had played in a Super Bowl for a team other than Dallas.

As was the case three years earlier, the Cowboys and Steelers played an epic game, but at the end, the Cowboys were unable to come away with the victory.

Pearson continued to serve as a third-down threat for the Cowboys over the next two seasons, but retired following the 1980 campaign.

He finished his career with 3,609 yards rushing, 3,095 yards rushing and 30 career offensive touchdowns. He also had 2,801 career kickoff return yards and finished his career with 9,545 all-purpose yards and 33 touchdowns.

In 22 career playoff games, Pearson had 149 yards rushing, 529 receiving and 391 returning kicks. Interestingly enough, the only three postseason touchdowns he scored all came in the 1975 NFC Championship Game against the Rams.

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