Inside the Life of Paul Palmer
Monday, May 19 2014 11:45 AM By Zach Gelb
Paul Palmer, for the most part, was your typical young exuberant Maryland-based boy. Before he went on to become a record-setting running back and Heisman Trophy finalist at Temple University, he got into trouble and loved playing sports.
Frances Palmer, his great-grandmother, raised him for as long as he could remember.
“My great-grandmother raised me since I was 2 years old. My mom was a little wild,” Palmer said. “If it wasn’t for her, I could have grown up outside my family structure in the systems. I was blessed. She raised her great-grandkids and deserves a lot of credit.”
Paul is often referred to by his nickname. He was called “Boo Boo” early on in his childhood, but he didn’t get the nickname from “The Yogi Bear Show.”
“The honest truth is I got to the age where I shouldn’t be making a mistake in my pants,” Palmer said. “I would wait until the last second and would make in my pants. My great-grandmother always knew when I sneaked in at home because she could smell me.”
Palmer’s great-grandmother wanted her great-grandson to make the right decisions. He also recalled several instances where his great-grandmother would punish him for being wrong and siding with what school officials said he did.
Palmer was a child who also found himself in trouble at school. He often recalled visits to the principal. Any time he got in trouble, his great-grandmother would be there to tell him he was wrong.
It was also hardly a coincidence his uncles would show up that weekend to knock some sense into him.
Then at a young age, he realized it was time to grow up.
“In junior high school, I developed a notoriety for being good at sports,” Palmer said. “I got kicked out of one junior high school and then I decided I was going to mature. I thought, ‘Enough is enough.’ The people at the new school didn’t really know me, so I had to go there and show I had sense. I also owed it to my great-grandmother not to embarrass her.”
From that moment on, Palmer matured and started focusing more on football.
Touching the football for the first time
Palmer always loved to play and watch sports. He admired his uncle, Brian Dove, and Georgetown basketball player and local community legend Eric Smith.
Brian was a good-looking man and was the captain of his high school football team. Palmer also recalled Brian always having a girlfriend and wanting to be just like him.
Palmer loved Smith because he would bring Patrick Ewing and the rest of the Hoyas around their community. Palmer said he always remembered the entire neighborhood smiling when the Hoyas came to town — and how the streets would go silent when Georgetown played as everyone was watching on television.
“They were stars in my neighborhood,” he said. “Everyone watched them and I knew from that moment that I wanted to be involved in college sports.”
Palmer also watched a lot of professional football and that drew his interest in playing the game in addition to his role models.
“I remember the 1972 Super Bowl,” he said. “I cried when the Redskins lost to the Dolphins. I also started playing football that year when I was seven or eight years old.”
The undersized running back scored in his first game on the first play from the line of scrimmage. But he also said he had a fear playing football.
“When I played football, I had a feeling I was going to be caught, and that fear happened all the way even in the pros,” Palmer said.
Coming to Temple
Although Palmer did mature, his grades were still shaky in high school. His best friend, Travis Curtis, who played at West Virginia, also received a plethora of interest from major Division I schools. Palmer did not receive much interest from Division I programs other than an occasional letter in the mail.
In fact, Temple noticed Palmer’s talent because of Curtis.
“They came down to probably check out my best friend and then they saw me,” Palmer recalled.
It was not the last time Coach Bruce Arians and Spencer Presscott would see Palmer.
Palmer visited Temple. The campus was pretty much dead on a weekday during his visit, with not much going on besides a basketball game. Palmer got a tour of the campus and the not overly ostentatious football facility.
Palmer was then surprised when he received his first and last Division I offer.
“Arians said to me, ‘Son, we want a verbal commitment,’” Palmer said.
Palmer sat there with a huge smile on his face and jumped at this golden opportunity. He had no clue what he was getting himself into. He thought Temple played against junior-varsity teams and then he saw their schedule with Penn State and Boston College on it.
He was also amazed by the size of the players. He thought he was tricked when he saw running backs that he thought looked like lineman.
“What the hell did I get myself into?” he wondered. “I thought I had no right playing those teams, but I had this thought of ‘Maybe I can’t play here or maybe I could go there and start.’”
And Palmer was right.
It didn’t take long for him to move from seventh on the depth chart all the way up to the top. He credits two events that helped him become a Heisman runner-up.
One of them was his fumbling problem. When Palmer first arrived at Temple, he would fumble the ball in practice and it would roll 20 yards down field. After a rigorous practice, which included multiple fumbles, Palmer said he’d be upset and that doubt started to kick back in.
But Arians then told Palmer he could become the best running back in the school’s history if he could only hang on to the ball. At that time, Palmer realized Arians was right — and Palmer went on to develop more confidence.
The other moment came in a game against Boston College, which was led by Doug Flutie at the time. Palmer was second on the depth chart, but then found himself in the game following an injury to a starter.
“Our tailback got hurt and I carried the ball 11 times for 98 yards,” Palmer said. “That was my moment — that I knew that I could play.”
And he was right again.
The next game versus Cincinnati, he had 92 yards on the ground and caught the ball multiple times out of the backfield. Palmer did not stop running there. Against Delaware, in his first start, he had 144 yards.
After that game, there was no controversy. Palmer was named the starting running back and went on to become the best back in team history as Arians once said he would become.
In Palmer’s junior season, he became a top-five running back in yards per game. That is when all the talk began about him being a Heisman hopeful entering his senior campaign. In his junior year, he had 1,516 yards and nine touchdowns. His mindset then changed and he realized defenses were scared of him.
Palmer could not believe the success he was having. He believed his luck would run out and he would get hurt — but it never did.
In his senior season, he ran the ball in 11 games 346 times, gaining 1,866 yards while scoring 15 touchdowns. He had Heisman numbers and earned a trip to New York as a Heisman finalist.
Palmer also accomplished his mega stats having to fight the Temple perception.
Temple, back in 1986, did not have nationally televised games, leading most people around the country to not realize who Palmer even was.
One could argue the 1986 Heisman Trophy winner should have been Palmer and not Vinny Testaverde, but the 1986 Heisman winner had national attention while playing for Miami.
Palmer was not concerned about the Heisman talk, however.
“I did not worry about it — I just played,” he said.
In fact, he didn’t really think about the Heisman until he was in New York and he heard: “The 1986 Heisman Trophy goes to Vinny Testaverde.”
At that time, Palmer slowly clapped his hands and rolled his eyes.
“I was so disappointed,” he said.
During his time at Temple, pro agents recognized the reality of Palmer going to the pros. Two agents approached him offering him money. At first he denied the offer from Norby Walters and Lloyd Bloom. Then he met Walters and Bloom and agreed to take a miniscule amount of money.
That was an error, he says.
“I regret it because I should have been patient,” Palmer says. “All this stuff they offered was eventually going to come.”
Palmer was reluctant to take the money at first because he also thought only the end of the season mattered. He remembers wondering if he got hurt, whether the agent would still want to talk to him by year’ end.
He finally accepted the agents’ offers and used the money on his loyal friends.
“I took it, but honestly, the amount of money was no big deal,” he said. “All it allowed me to do was to go get a cheesesteak and pay for subway rides with friends.”
Palmer also kept this a secret as only one teammate knew about the agent — and that teammate blackmailed him for more cheesesteaks. Palmer would also send cash to his great-grandmother every month, anonymously, to help her financially.
Palmer was eventually caught and Peter Liacouras, the school’s president from 1982 to 2000, stripped all of his records at Temple.
In Palmer’s senior year, his great-grandmother suffered a heart attack, but she kept it a secret from him. He eventually found out when he would call home and his great-grandmother wouldn’t be there. He knew something was wrong, as the elderly woman did not leave her house much.
Frances Palmer’s health became worse. Palmer intended to watch the draft at Temple, but after realizing how sick his great-grandmother’s was, he decided to watch it at home.
Through this difficult time, his great-grandmother had one wish — to see her great-grandson get drafted by an NFL team.
Draft day finally arrived. It was Palmer’s moment. This once young boy who would chase around the Georgetown basketball players in the neighborhood was a local celebrity. His house was filled with family and friends waiting for the phone to ring, as the house did not have ESPN.
There was one person missing in the house and that was his great-grandmother who was in hospital on her last breaths.
The phone rang, and Palmer was drafted 19th-overall by the Kansas City Chiefs. Palmer then rushed to the hospital to visit to his sick great-grandmother. She was strong and she fought her battle and was alive for Paul’s draft day.
James Brown, now of CBS, was with Paul covering his draft day and went to the hospital with Boo Boo. It was the last time he’d see his great-grandmother.
“We went to the hospital with all of my friends and family,” Palmer said. “I remember talking to my great-grandmother and I told her I loved her.”
It was also at that moment that Palmer’s aunt screamed in the room “Ma, he made it! Paul made it.”
In an exciting but somber day, it was the last one that the courageous great-grandmother lived.
She died later that day.
Palmer had to go to Kansas City the next day — after his great-grandmother died — for media obligations. He was very emotional that day and throughout his rookie year.
“I went to the league as a mental mess. I just was not in a good place,” he said.
Palmer also held out his rookie year and the first day after he signed his contract, he had to get stiches on the field. Palmer led the Chiefs in rushing during the pre-season, but was primarily used on special teams that year.
He also lost 15 pounds his rookie year because he was, as he said, a mental mess. He had to deal with the loss of his great-grandmother, and he had a baby boy and girl on the way.
He got no therapy during that emotional timeframe. However, his first professional game was a bright spot in a rough rookie year as his first professional game was against childhood friend, Curtis, then of the St. Louis Cardinals
Palmer’s professional career was short — it lasted just six years. It makes one wonder how good he could have been if it was not for some emotional times early on in his playing career. It is also worth noting that Palmer’s last professional game was with the Barcelona Dragons, where he once again played with Curtis.
Temple announcing career
“Philadelphia and Temple is my home since I was 18,” Palmer said.
That was why when he was offered a sideline-reporting gig with Temple football, he took it.
But a run-in with former Temple Athletic Director Bill Bradshaw made it a short-lived stint at the time.
Temple had a game in Toledo, Ohio. Palmer had a fiancé who was on business in Ohio. Palmer thought it was a great idea to have his fiancé drive to the game and fly home with Palmer and the team.
Two weeks before the game, Palmer wondered who to talk to and the answer he received was Coach Bobby Wallace.
Palmer asked Wallace if his fiancé could fly home on the team’s chartered jet — which never, ever reached capacity — and he was told he could. Palmer said he confirmed this multiple times with Wallace.
The night before the game, Wallace was in the pool and Palmer thanked him for the benevolent offer.
“The night before the game, Coach Wallace and Dr. (Peter) Chodoff, (a big-time football-program booster) were in the pool and said, ‘No problem,’ again, to my request and said it was not a big deal,” Palmer said.
Palmer then thanked them again — and was quite happy. Little did he know those emotions would change pretty quickly.
It was the second quarter of the game when a Temple official approached Palmer as he was working.
“In the middle of the second quarter, I was told she can’t fly back,” Palmer said.
He was confused and told the official he would handle this after the game because he was working. After the game, Bradshaw met with the best running back in school history. The whole time, Palmer thought the Bradshaw was just messing around with him.
Palmer says Bradshaw then told him, “You have a flight, but she cannot go.”
He was confused and kept asking why she couldn’t go on. During that conversation, word spread very quickly, and Palmer’s phone started ringing. As Palmer was polite, he did not answer his phone during the conversation and his fiancé was embarrassed and cried because of what was happening.
During the conversation with Bradshaw, Palmer recalled Bradshaw receiving a phone call that he picked it up.
“In the middle of the conversation, Bradshaw pulls out his phone and starts having a conversation. That is when I screamed, ‘You have to be kidding me,’” Palmer recalled.
Palmer said Bradshaw then told him: “I’m on the phone talking to my family and do not disrespect my family.”
That is when Palmer became mad because his daughter was home and his fiancé was crying. Palmer said he believed Bradshaw was not treating his family fairly, and he was also surprised by the AD’s statement because Palmer said: “I never wanted special treatment and the one time I did, I was made out (as the) bad (guy) and didn’t get it.”
After the two finished their conversation on the field, Palmer went to the airport.
The team was boarding the jet.
That’s when Palmer was once again told, “Only you could go, but she can’t.”
Palmer, who remained calm, was livid inside. He just couldn’t understand how he could be told one thing, only to find this result. So, Palmer had his bags taken off the plane and he and his fiancé were left behind in Toledo.
It was reported in the newspapers that Palmer was visibly mad, but that was not true, Palmer insists.
“The ball players nor coaches knew what was going on — the whole thing still just saddens me,” Palmer said.
It is also still one of the greatest mysteries in all of Temple Football. Could you imagine Joe Montana and his fiancé not being allowed on the Notre Dame team charter?
Palmer eventually lost his job with the Owls following the incident. He believes he finally figured out why Bradshaw was ticked.
“After all these years, I finally think Bradshaw was upset that the request did not go through him,” Palmer said.
Palmer, years later, eventually came back to the radio broadcast team. Last year was his first year serving as the color analyst for Temple football.
He also feels there is a more welcoming feel with alumni under former coach Al Golden and current Coach Matt Rhule.
Matt Rhule believes it is important to have Palmer around. “He (Palmer) is an icon to Temple Football. He has some personal relationships with some of our players and players respect him,” Rhule said. “With what he has done and continues to give back to the program is phenomenal.”
Hall of Fame nomination
Palmer has been nominated three times for the College Football Hall of Fame. He was nominated again this year and believes he deserves to be in.
“I want in because I deserve it,” he said. “If you look at my numbers and who we played against even with the Temple perception I deserve it. I want to be in because it would be great for Temple Football. My family, friends and the program all deserve this honor.”
Rhule believes Palmer deserves the honor and it would be great for the program.
“It shows the young people in our program and at our university that you can come to Temple and accomplish anything you want,” Rhule said.
Palmer will be waiting anxiously for the Hall of Fame announcement to come on May 22.
And if that day does come — it should — somewhere, his great-grandmother will be looking down on him, smiling once again.