January 5, 2007
Catawba Football: Bucky Pope "The Catawba Claw"
by Mike London, The Salisbury Post, salisburypost.com
The athletic career of Bucky "The Catawba Claw" Pope was pure Hollywood, gushing tragedy and triumph in equal parts. Pope came out of left field, catapulted to stardom with the Los Angeles Rams and captured the imagination of the nation's sports fans. Pope was a pass-catching comet streaking across the NFL skyline in 1964 and finished third in Rookie of the Year voting. But Pope's special brilliance vanished overnight when he was struck down in a 1965 exhibition game.
Pope's secret was simple. "I'm 6-foot-5," he said with a smile on his recent visit to Catawba. "And I could run like hell."
Pope, who turned 65 in March, was born Frank Buckley Pope and was a two-sport schoolboy sensation in Crafton, Pa., near Pittsburgh. One night in 1958 he ran back three interceptions for Crafton TDs — including a 103-yard jaunt — but flags cost him two scores. Legendary Blue Devil Dick Groat, who was from the same area, wrote Duke basketball coach Vic Bubas and gave Pope a glowing endorsement.
"I was Bubas' first recruit at Duke," Pope said. "Played freshman ball with Art Heyman."
Heyman became an All-American. Pope became an ex-Blue Devil. "Grades," Pope explained. "They wanted me to go to summer school, but I didn't want to go."
Pope returned home. A friend urged him to check out Catawba. Pope visited but wasn't overly impressed. But the school grew on him, and he enrolled in 1961.
Pope became eligible to play basketball for coach Sam Moir on Jan. 27, 1962. Catawba old-timers still recall the date. Pope debuted with 28 points against rival Lenoir-Rhyne, including 16 of the Indians' first 20. He scored 32 points against Pfeiffer right after that. He averaged 19.4 points in the 61 games he wore an Indian uniform and was a perennial all-district player.
Football reentered Pope's life when Catawba coach Harvey Stratton noticed him flying around in a flag-football intramural game. "He asked if I'd played football, and I said I was from western Pennsylvania, where everybody plays football," Pope said.
Stratton and Moir reached an accord. Pope would play end for the football team but only to make receptions and defend passes. He wouldn't be asked to block or tackle. "Lonesome end, out there all by myself," Pope said.
In two seasons, he caught 66 passes for nearly 1,200 yards. His huge season was 1962 when he was a startling secret weapon. His numbers dipped a bit in 1963, but he helped Catawba win often because he was constantly double-teamed.
On October 26, 1963, Catawba trailed Elon 7-0 in the fourth quarter. It was 7-6 after Pope made a one-handed snag for a touchdown. Catawba faced fourth-and-8 with barely a minute to go, but Stratton had a plan. Pope caught a pass, then lateraled to Dave Campbell, who raced for the winning touchdown.
While Pope was at Catawba, an artist portrayed him in a cartoon as a hybrid hero — half basketball player, half football player, and with his left arm extending skyward like a claw. Pope is convinced that's the origin of one of the more colorful nicknames in NFL history.
Pro scouts heard about Pope. Dallas seemed the most enthused until Elroy Hirsch, the Hall of Fame receiver, visited Pope on behalf of the Rams. "I caught passes for him, over my right shoulder, over my left shoulder and straight over my head," Pope said. "I was fast and quick, and I could really catch the ball."
Pope was ignored in the AFL draft and was crushed. But the Rams took him on the eighth round of the NFL draft a few days later. "If you'd have asked every player in that Rams camp to name a guy who wasn't going to make the team they all would have said the rookie from the little school they couldn't pronounce," Pope said. "But if you'd asked me, I would've told you the one guy who was definitely going to make that team was me.
"I outran everyone in that camp. There was one practice, and Roman Gabriel threw a pass as far as he could throw it. It sailed directly over my head, but I caught it. I know that's the day I made the team."
Opening day was in Pittsburgh — back home. Pope played but did little. In Los Angeles the next week, Pope gathered in an underthrown pass against Detroit while lying flat on his back. No one touched him, so he got up and sprinted for a long touchdown.
Everything happened very quickly after that — a breakout game against Chicago, a three-TD afternoon against San Francisco, a 95-yard score against Green Bay. By December, Pope was in Sports Illustrated, striding in full color and at full gallop, and "Claw" fan clubs were sprouting everywhere.
"My rookie year was everything I could've ever hoped for — and more," Pope said.
His season was incredible. His 25 catches produced 786 yards, which meant nearly all were big plays. He averaged 31.4 yards per grab and tied Chicago's Johnny Morris and Washington's Bobby Mitchell for the NFL lead with 10 TD catches.
The Rams envisioned the 199-pound, 23-year-old as a force for years to come, but first he had six months of reserve duty to perform with the army. He rushed back for an exhibition game in 1965, knowing the Rams were counting on him.
"I wasn't ready, and I hurt my knee badly," he said. "There were 75,000 people watching in the stands, and I got paid $6. The players had no bargaining power then. It was nasty with the owners. For all intents and purposes, I lost my career for $6."
Pope missed all the 1965 season, played a little in 1966 and was healthy enough to catch eight passes for two TDs for the Rams in 1967. He was in Atlanta's camp and played briefly for Green Bay in 1968 before hanging it up. No one had to tell him he wasn't the "Claw" anymore.
He knew. "The knee — I'd lost the speed, couldn't make the cuts," Pope said.
While football ended prematurely, Pope's second career kept him busy. He's about to retire, but for more than 30 years, he's been a negotiator in Pennsylvania's steel industry.
Pope disappeared into history as football's version of a one-hit-wonder recording artist, and his fans are left to ponder what might have been.
But experts still rave about Pope's talent. Gabriel, visiting Salisbury for NSSA festivities a few years ago, insisted his ex-teammate was one of the best he ever saw.
This is the last of five stories on professional football players from Catawba who were invited back to this year's Homecoming.