As we’ve mentioned several times before in this series, the TJB Hall of Fame was created not only to honor and remember fan favorites from over the years, but also to right some of history’s wrongs. This year’s first inductee, offensive tackle Marvin Powell falls squarely into that category, with a résumé that wouldn’t look out of place in Canton, Ohio, let alone in our humble virtual museum.
Powell was a nine-year starter with the Jets and from 1979 to 1983 had one of the best five-year runs in franchise history, with five straight Pro Bowl appearances and three first-team All-Pro nods.
While I am too young to have seen Powell play for the Jets, researching this article has given me an appreciation for how ambitious, driven and hard-working he was. Combine that with his obvious size, athleticism, intelligence and durability and what you end up with is a prototypical NFL tackle.
Powell’s determination seems to have been borne from his military upbringing in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. In the ninth grade, already standing head and shoulders above most of his classmates, he apparently had to be coerced into playing football and admitted that he didn’t even understand the game for the first month or so. “I had to ask one of my buddies before each play, “Are we blocking or tackling this time?” he was quoted as saying.
Eventually, he got to grips with the basics and started to realize he could excel at the game, applying the same level of dedication to improvement that would define his 11-year pro career. This ultimately led to a scholarship at USC, where he once again had to work hard to overcome a slow start, but won a starting job and helped the team win a National Championship as a Sophomore. He would eventually appear in three Rose Bowls, with USC winning two, and would earn three all-PAC 10 and two all-American nominations. Powell was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1994.
By the end of his college career, it was apparent that Powell was an elite NFL prospect – his Head Coach John McKay had been quoted as saying, “Sometimes you look at him and say ‘No-one can be that good’” – so it was no surprise when he went 4th to the Jets in the first round of the 1977 draft.
He started ten games in his rookie season, which was described as “outstanding”, but it was a rare bright spot for a team still suffering the effects of the post-Namath era hangover and the team lost 11 of 14 games.
In 1978, the Jets used another high draft pick to draft Chris Ward. Ward and Powell were supposed to be the bookend tackles for the next ten years and the early signs were good, as Ward played well and the team improved dramatically, finishing 8-8. Powell’s controlled style that he termed “Passive Aggression” led many to believe that Ward had overtaken him as the Jets’ best tackle, after a good, but not great second season.
Ward, while durable, did not share Powell’s mental attributes and desire, never managing to live up to the promise shown in that rookie season. As a result, the Jets offensive line wasn’t the dominant force it should have been, behind Powell’s outstanding play over the next five years.
After that second season, Powell decided he wasn’t progressing as fast as he would like so he holed himself up over the offseason, rededicating himself to the game. Over that period, Powell was a virtual recluse. He spent time thinking and reading, while he evaluated what was required to reach the next level.
This plan worked, as he had a tremendous 1979 season, constantly striving to better himself as he reportedly took film reels home with him to study upcoming opponents, footage of himself and highlight reels of other tackles around the league. He would win the team’s MVP award, a first team All-Pro nomination and the plaudits of Head Coach Walt Michaels, who was not known for being overly generous with his praise but said of Powell, “He may be the best in the league.”
His commitment to self improvement didn’t stop there. When voted to the Pro Bowl for the first time after the 1979 season, he spent most of the week talking to his more experienced teammates about technique, although Michaels apparently joked that they should all be asking him how to play tackle.
1980 brought another Pro Bowl appearance, as he was beginning to become a mainstay on the AFC roster, despite the dominance of the offensive lines of Steelers and Oilers during the late seventies and early eighties. The Jets however, following two straight 8-8 campaigns, took a step backwards, finishing 4-12.
Also in 1980, another Trojan tackle, Anthony Muñoz was drafted by the Bengals. His outstanding career at left tackle would overshadow Powell’s during the early eighties and no doubt contributed heavily to Powell being for the mostpart overlooked whenever the top linemen of the eighties are discussed.
In 1981, the rise of the Sack Exchange made the Jets relevant again and Powell had another All-Pro season, as the Jets made the playoffs for the first time since the Namath era, only to lose a heartbreaker against the Bills.
The strike-shortened 1982 season brought more success, as this time the Jets advanced to the AFC Title Game. Freeman McNeil led the NFL in rushing with Powell paving the way, en route to another All-Pro nod.
During the period from 1978 to 1981, the Jets had beaten Miami in seven out of eight games, with the other one being a tie. This was largely attributed to how well Powell and Ward were able to neutralize the Miami defensive ends. Unfortunately, they were unable to beat the Dolphins for a place in the Superbowl after a controversial 14-0 loss in Miami, putting an end to their postseason run.
By his high standards, Powell had struggled down the stretch in 1982, but did make the Pro Bowl again in 1983, although the Jets slipped back to 7-9. Over that five year span, Powell had missed just four games, although he displayed toughness by overcoming an ankle injury early in 1981, incurred when he fell down the stairs at home.
1984 saw Powell miss the Pro Bowl for the first time since 1978, but Powell still considered himself an elite tackle, which ultimately led to his ignominious departure from the Jets. In 1985, he was involved in a disruptive six-month contract holdout, finally signing a new deal after the Jets were blown out in their first game. Following his return, they won 11 games, but his performance came under criticism as Ken O’Brien was sacked 62 times over the course of the season.
In 1986, Powell – who had spoken in 1980 of his eventual desire to become President of the United States – was elected as President…of the NFL Players Association. Just one week later, the Jets surprisingly placed him on waivers, leading to an eventual trade to the Bucs for a late round draft pick. The Jets were cleared of having done this for “anti-union” reasons in 1987.
Letting Powell go backfired in New York, as the Jets’ top draft pick, Mike Haight, didn’t really pan out. As for Powell, he played just three games with Tampa Bay in 1986 before suffering a season ending knee injury and the only role he played in the 1987 season – his last – was as a key figure in the decertification of the union, the player’s strike and all these things that we know all too well are still relevant today.
Despite the way his Jets and NFL career ended, Powell should be remembered for his brilliance during his nine-year career as a Jet, especially during that five year run from 1979 to 1983.
Powell is an intelligent man, who had a reputation during his playing days as a “voracious reader”, who was fond of quoting Churchill and Shakespeare. The afore-mentioned fall down the stairs was apparently because he was carrying a “trunkload of books”. Powell used his offseasons to earn a law degree and remained as the NFLPA president until 1988. His son also attended USC and had a cup of coffee with the Denver Broncos in 1999. Powell currently resides in California.
Our congratulations go out to Marvin (please share yours in the comments), whose entry into the TJB Hall of Fame is long overdue.
Sources for this article comprised the NY Times and Boys’ Life Magazine