Editor’s note: Welcome to another installment of “How Good Was He?” It’s an occasional Playbook series in which we delve deep into the athletic pasts of celebrities.
With his full gray beard, bandana, camouflage clothes and dark glasses, Phil Robertson looks like a rocker from ZZ Top gone rogue.
Yet Robertson, who first found wealth as the inventor of the Duck Commander duck calls and then fame as the patriarch of a clan of Louisiana duck hunters on A&E’s “Duck Dynasty” reality series, is no backwoods bumpkin. He’s a multi-millionaire with a master’s degree in education. He’s also perhaps the best athlete ever to come out of the little town of Vivian, La.
In the 1960s, Robertson, now 66, was the starting quarterback at Louisiana Tech for two seasons ahead of Terry Bradshaw. His teammates and a coach recall him as a talented, outdoors-obsessed character who walked away from his final year of eligibility to spend more time hunting and fishing, but had the talent to play in the NFL:
Robertson: As a little kid, looking back on it, I could always throw farther than all the other kids. The point is, a good arm, my man -- you’re born with that. You can’t teach someone how to do that. It’s either there or it’s not, you know what I’m saying?
Alan Robertson (Phil’s oldest son): When Dad was in high school he was a baseball pitcher and a javelin thrower. He basically was all-state in both. That shows you the arm strength was there, not just in football, but the other sports as well.
E.J. Lewis, defensive backs coach: He had a good presence in the pocket. He knew what he was doing back there. He had a good arm. I mean that booger could chuck that football. He was a good football player, a natural. … When we would scrimmage each other, offense and defense, I coached the secondary and I could hear that thing (ball) coming through there like a Teal. It was zipping.
Bob Brunet, running back: He was tall and wiry, 6-foot-2, 195 pounds. He had a good arm, probably could have played at the next level in some capacity. He kept Bradshaw on the bench.
Butch Williams, offensive tackle: I remember he was quite a good quarterback. He had a great arm. The thing I remember about him is we went over and played Alabama. Bear Bryant was the coach, and of course Alabama beat us that day (34-0 in 1966). But I remember the next day in the paper Bryant said, “That young man over there on the Tech sideline, that quarterback, he has one heck of an arm. He’s a great prospect. He’s one of the best prospects I’ve seen.” And Bear Bryant’s quarterback was “Snake” Stabler.
Phil Robertson: They won the national championship that year. Beat us 34-0. They picked me off three or four times, but I slashed ’em up pretty good. We were a small school and I remember how efficient they were and what a charge they had coming at me. You’ve got to remember, in those days you could head-butt, everything. They chewed my tail up and I mean good. Alabama showed up. I was asked what it was like playing Bear Bryant and the Crimson Tide and I said, “When the ball was snapped it sounded like a clap of thunder.”
Brunet: We weren’t very good. I don’t recall our record, but Phil did a good job. Phil’s smart -- very, very smart, a sharp guy. He could read defenses as well as anybody at that age and had a good arm. Nothing like Bradshaw’s, but then again, who did?
Phil Robertson: I had the arm. The ability was there. Bradshaw probably had me a little more on distance. I was about a 65-yard man. … I remember at some point, Bradshaw and I would get out there and he would throw like 70-plus.
Lewis: A good friend of mine was his coach (in high school). He could have played anything. He was a heck of an athlete.
Phil Robertson: As far as delivery, you could study the films, his delivery or mine, but my delivery was quicker than his (Bradshaw’s). … I didn’t come back too far. It was all from about the ear, from there forward.
Williams (on Robertson’s school-record 302-yard passing game in a 1967 loss to Southeast Louisiana): You have to remember, too, 300 yards was a lot of yards. Three hundred was an exceptional game back in those days. That’s just a lot of yards. You just didn’t throw the ball that great. We were a run offense. Most everybody was a run offense back in those days. There wasn’t a lot of throwing.
Phil Robertson: I think we would have won the game -- I think Southeastern beat us -- but late in the game, Brunet came out of the backfield and did a long flag (route), and I mean I put it right on the money. These days it would have been a touchdown, but when he hit the ground, somewhere along in there he juggled the ball or something, but I remember that part of the game. I didn’t know it was 300 yards. I forgot about that.
• • •
Over three seasons, from 1965-67 -- his final two as starter -- Robertson was 179-for-411 passing for 2,237 yards and 12 TDs, but threw 34 interceptions for Tech (which was 8-20 in that span).
Lewis: He didn’t have the stats, but listen, he was a good football player.
Phil Robertson: When I would throw it, a lot of times they (receivers) would decide they were gonna change their mind, go somewhere else. Or when they looked around, the ball was within three feet of them. In other words, I understood I had to get that sucker to them with no delay. So a lot of these boys would turn and the ball would be like three or four feet from them when they turned their head. They just didn’t have the reaction time to catch the doggone thing. A lot of them were my fault but for the most part, I always said that if I’d been throwing to the caliber of receivers that are in the NFL now, oh my goodness, my stats would have been far higher, I can tell you that. I never wavered. If you’re running an inside route or a slant or a post, that ball’s gonna be there in that little gap and you better be ready for it. As it turned out, a lot were bouncing off the hands and off the headgear and I don’t know what all, but I just took it in stride. Well there’s nothing I can do about it -- just the way it was, my man. That’s the reason for a lot of interceptions. They just weren’t prepared for the ball to get there.
Williams: Sure, at the time Phil was there (he was better than Bradshaw). Of course, Terry was several years younger.
Lewis: His teammates flocked around him. He held court. When he’d speak, they would listen, I guarantee. I don’t want to say he was funny, but he knew how to tailor the conversation to the crowd. He was a good leader.
Williams: He was very well-liked. And he’s just an old country boy. He was just an old country boy then, too. … His main interest was not quarterbacking. His main interest was hunting and fishing. And the thing that I remember about Phil, coach (Joe) Aillet would make him come over and spend the night with him before the game, where he wouldn’t get up and go duck hunting at 4 o’clock in the morning so he’d have his mind on the ballgame instead of hunting and fishing. That’s just the way Phil was. What you see when you watch him on TV, that was Phil. That’s no put-on, that’s just Phil.
Brunet: Hunting and fishing was his life. He’d come into class all full of blood after skinning a deer or something. That was Phil.
Phil Robertson: That’s true. I can’t deny it.
Lewis: He had a good arm, but the thing was, the only thing he wanted to throw at was ducks. Football, let me say it this way, his love was hunting.
Terry Bradshaw, backup quarterback (from his 2001 book, “It’s Only a Game”): The quarterback playing ahead of me, Phil Robertson, loved hunting more than he loved football. He’d come to practice directly from the woods, squirrel tails hanging out of his pockets, duck feathers on his clothes. Clearly he was a fine shot, so no one complained too much.
Brunet: He would time it to come to class and get out of the woods just in time.
Lewis: When he came to practice, he practiced, but you could tell that he’d been some other place.
Williams: Really, it was no big deal. We didn’t care. When he got to the football field he was a football player.
Phil Robertson: I made a little pact with myself where I was going to study enough in between hunting squirrels and ducks and deer and whatnot -- I was going to study enough to come out with a solid C. Because in my mind, if I come out with a solid C with the least amount of study I can get away with, at the end of the day that will prove I’m at least smarter than half of them. So that’s what I went with.
Brunet: I promise you that nobody could compete with Phil Robertson as an outdoorsman. He was the best, maybe the best that ever was. He just lived in the wrong era. He probably would have done well in the pioneer days. He used to mention that quite often that he lived in the wrong era.
Phil Robertson: One time a bunch of geese came over and I was over there with the coach and talking about techniques or whatever, a big skull session on the practice field. I heard these geese. Remember we were practicing in the fall of the year -- and the grand passage as we call it -- the ducks and geese were coming from Canada. I heard these blues and snow geese coming over and I sort of fell into a trance. Of course I had my headgear next to my chest and I’m looking toward the sky and finally one of them coaches looked around, and he started cursing at me, “What the hell you doing son? Get over here! What are you looking up at?” I said, “A bunch of them geese, Coach. Boy they pretty, ain’t they?” He said, “Get your butt over here.”
Brunet: I had a friend, a recruit from my hometown who was visiting Louisiana Tech and a possible signee, and we were in my house and I said, “Let me go introduce you to Phil Robertson.” And when we knocked on the door he wouldn’t come to the door. Finally, I was being a little persistent and I knocked and he found out who it was. He opened the door and he was all full of blood and he’d been cleaning a deer on his kitchen table in the apartment.
Phil Robertson: I picked ducks in a tub in my dorm room. I’d hang deer in the doorway between the bedroom and the little living room in our little apartment there, and I’d skin my deer and all the guts would go in the tub and I’d sneak them out so my fellow students on both sides wouldn’t see all that, you know. I’d clean fish up there and all.
Williams: He could bass fish as good as anybody I’ve ever seen in my life.
Phil Robertson: One time the dean of men called me into his office. When you go to the dean of men you had messed up somehow, and what he said was, “Mr. Robertson, do you realize the name of that street you live on? Would you give me the name of that street?” “I’m thinking, what the heck is it?” He said, “Let me help you out. It’s called Scholar Drive. You live on Scholar Drive.” He said the president of the university had some dignitaries over and he said he was showing them Louisiana Tech’s facilities and he said, “Mr. Robertson, I got to tell you, when we got to your house there were nets, there was duck feathers and blood on the sidewalk, an old deer hide and antlers and a bunch of old junk piled up.” And I said, “Dean Lewis, that’s my equipment.” And he said, “I want you to get out there and get that stuff out of sight because it’s just not real scholarly, Mr. Robertson.”
Brunet: Phil was always cooking something. He was nice to live next to. Everybody could tell you Phil Robertson stories.
Lewis: Now some people might have got down on him because he wasn’t all football. But (outdoors) was his life, and I understand that. That’s the way it is. And he just backed off, said y’all got somebody here, let me get out of the way and I’m gonna do my thing, you do yours. It’s just that simple.
Brunet: The last game of my senior year was Phil’s junior year. He and I and Bradshaw were standing on the field before our last game, and we used to call Terry “Bomber.” He (Robertson) looks at Terry, says ,“Bomber, I’m not coming back next year.” He said, “You’re not? What are you gonna do?” He said, “I’m going for the ducks, you can go for the bucks.”
Phil Robertson: I loved the game and throwing touchdown passes was fun, but at that time, in other words 44 years ago all the way to now, what gave me more of an adrenaline rush, my man, was big bunches of mallard ducks raining down through the trees. It just did it for me and that is pretty much why the ducks took precedence over football. It’s just that simple.
Alan Robertson: Another thing that affected Dad, he and Mom were married and they had me there when they first got to Tech, so he was also a little different than the modern athlete. He already had a family at that young of an age. I think that hunting, some of it was just providing for us. So I think that changed a bit of his attitude and allowed him to walk away a little bit easier, you know. Just a different athlete who’s already got a family.
Phil Robertson: Playing football was a game. Hunting was my lifestyle.
Williams: We really hated to see Phil leave at the time. But he (Bradshaw) turned out to be a great quarterback.
Phil Robertson: When Brunet went with the Washington Redskins (a few seasons), he came down here. He said, “Robertson why don’t you come up here and just walk on?” I said, “Well what are they paying?” He said $60,000 a year if you make the team. That’s what the money was like. … Well, 60 grand didn’t seem like that much to give up duck hunting. He said, “Look, Sonny Jurgensen, you’re not gonna beat him out. But we got this hot dog you won’t have any problem with, you can beat him out hands down. I said what’s his name? He said Joe Theismann. … I said, “Brunet, let me ask you something: When all them ducks start heading south and I’m stuck up there in Washington somewhere, do you think I’ll stay?" And he kinda looked at the ground and he says, “Naaah.” I said, “No, I don’t want to fool with it.”
Brunet: I thought it was strange he would forgo his last year. But it wasn’t strange that he wanted to hunt and fish.
Phil Robertson: The choice came down to me in the woods hunting ducks, or getting in a situation -- a lifestyle -- wherby large, violent men are paid huge sums of money to do one thing, and that’s stomp me in the dirt. I said, you know, I just think it would be less stressful to go after ducks.
• • •
Robertson says he saw Bradshaw in November for the first time since 1967 when he ran into him at the airport in Los Angeles.
“I hadn’t seen him in 44 years and he runs up behind me and grabs me,” says Robertson. “Well, he’s got four Super Bowls and I’m some kind of movie star now, but he said, ‘You did pretty good, Robertson,' and I said, “You ain’t done bad yourself.”
Within a few minutes, Joe Montana came by and told Robertson some of his kids watch “Duck Dynasty.”
As a small crowd gathered, the trio talked football and ducks.
Says Robertson: “We had a quarterback session there in the airport, my man.”
The premiere of Season 3 of “Duck Dynasty” is Wednesday at 9 p.m. EST/PST.