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Ray Didinger: The Day Wilbert Montgomery's Career Took Flight

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It was Wilbert Montgomery's coming out party and it happened in Washington on September 10, 1978. The fact that the Eagles will be opening the regular season in Washington on the same date this year stirs the memory.

Montgomery was a part-time player as a rookie in 1977. He was a sixth-round draft pick from Abilene Christian, painfully shy and not at all certain he belonged in the NFL. Coach Dick Vermeil wisely brought him along slowly, using him on kick returns (he led the NFC with a 26-yard average) but not playing him very much at running back.

Vermeil did not start Montgomery until the final week of the regular season, a meaningless affair against the New York Jets at a cold, rain-soaked Veterans Stadium. Only 19,241 fans turned out, the smallest crowd to see an Eagles regular season game at the Vet, not counting the 1987 strike game. But those who came got a glimpse of the future as Montgomery rushed for 102 yards and scored two touchdowns.

Jim Brown was broadcasting the game for CBS. I rode in the elevator with him after the game and he asked: "Where have they been hiding that number 31? That kid can play." Coming from the great Jim Brown, a man not known for lavish praise, especially for running backs, it was a telling observation.

The next summer, Vermeil installed Montgomery as his lead back but among the fans and media there still was a question of just how good he would be and how long he would last. His college career was often interrupted by injuries and several NFL teams took him off their draft boards because they considered him a medical risk. That's how he was still available at the 154th pick.

But that day - September 10, 1978 in Washington - was when Montgomery hit the big time, scoring four touchdowns. He was only the fourth player in team history to score four touchdowns in one game. The others were Clarence Peaks (1958 vs. the Cardinals), Tommy McDonald (1959 vs. the Giants), and Ben Hawkins (1969 vs. Pittsburgh).

Montgomery scored on a 34-yard run, an 8-yard run, a 5-yard run, and he caught a 10-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Ron Jaworski. He actually scored a fifth touchdown but it was nullified by a penalty. The Eagles lost the game, 35-30, as Washington's Joe Theismann threw three touchdown passes but Montgomery's performance was an indication that better times were coming.

After the game, Montgomery disappeared into the tiny visitor's locker room at RFK Stadium. He was uncomfortable talking to the media and he knew there would be a crowd of reporters waiting for him so he tried to avoid it but there just weren't that many places to hide. Finally, he appeared and immediately was surrounded.

Montgomery spoke in a soft, polite whisper, rarely lifting his head. He was a kid from a small town (Greenville, Mississippi) and a small school who was unfamiliar with the whole notion of fame. He didn't like a lot of attention and he was uncomfortable being singled out when he believed football was a team game. He always credited his teammates, especially the offensive line, for whatever success he enjoyed.

What I remember about that day was the look of genuine disappointment on Montgomery's face. He kept saying, "This was a tough game to lose. ..."

That's what mattered - the losing, not the four touchdowns.

If someone would remind him that he tied a team record or that he had proven he belonged in the NFL, anything like that, he would say, "It's still a loss."

That was Montgomery's approach throughout his career: he always played for the team. He cared little about individual honors. He never kept track of his statistics. If he set a record - which he did often - the media had to inform him. Even then he would shrug and say it was all about the guys up front.

But that September day in Washington really was the start of it. The next week, Montgomery rushed for 104 yards in a 24-17 win over New Orleans. The following week, he rushed for 111 yards in a 17-3 win over Miami. The week after that, he rushed for 144 yards as the Eagles overcame a 14-point deficit to defeat the Baltimore Colts, 17-14.

Montgomery finished the season with 1,220 yards rushing, a 4.7-yard average, and 10 touchdowns. He was the first Eagle to crack the 1,000-yard mark since Hall of Famer Steve Van Buren in 1949. He was voted into his first Pro Bowl and he led the Eagles to the playoffs for the first time since the 1960 championship season.

Montgomery ended his career in Philadelphia as the team's all-time leader with 6,538 yards rushing. LeSean McCoy finally passed him in 2014 (McCoy has 6,792 yards) but Montgomery is still the only player in Eagles history with multiple four-touchdown games. He did it a second time - again against the Redskins - in 1979.

*An award-winning writer and producer, Ray Didinger was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1995. He has also won six Emmy Awards for his work as a writer and producer at NFL Films. The five-time Pennsylvania Sportswriter of the Year is a writer and analyst for Comcast SportsNet. Didinger will provide Eagles fans a unique historical perspective on the team throughout the year for PhiladelphiaEagles.com. You can read all of his Eagles History columns here.
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