Hall of Famer Hickerson, key blocker for Jim Brown, dies at 73

BEREA, Ohio -- Gene Hickerson, the Cleveland Browns Hall of Fame right guard whose blocking helped Jim Brown, Leroy Kelly and Bobby Mitchell make the shrine, died after a long illness. He was 73.

Hall of Fame spokesman Joe Horrigan confirmed Hickerson's death. He said Hickerson's son, Bob, received a phone call from the care facility in Olmsted Falls, Ohio, where his father was under care on Monday morning.

Hickerson was Brown's personal bodyguard on the field, clearing the way for No. 32, who called Hickerson "the greatest downfield blocker in the history of pro football." When Hickerson was inducted into the hall in 2007, Brown, Kelly and Mitchell pushed Hickerson's wheelchair onto the stage in Fawcett Stadium.

"He was a great friend of mine, as well as a great protector of mine," Brown said in a statement released by the Browns. "He was a tremendous guard, a tremendous pulling guard, but also an outstanding individual.

"We all eventually leave this earth at some time, but I am so glad he was able to leave with his dignity and with the recognition from all of us -- his former teammates, the fans and writers -- who wanted him to go into the Hall of Fame after waiting so long for that honor.

"I truly respected him as a player and as a human being."

At 6-foot-3, 248 pounds, Hickerson was small by today's gargantuan NFL standards. A sixth-round draft pick from Mississippi, he used his superior speed and quickness to beat defensive linemen off the ball. Hickerson was voted to six straight Pro Bowls and was chosen for the league's All-Decade team of the 1960s.

The Browns never had a losing record during his 15 years with them.

However, following his retirement in 1973 at 38, Hickerson's achievements went mostly unrecognized for decades. He was constantly overlooked for enshrinement in Canton, an omission that bothered him greatly, but one he never mentioned publicly.

"Gene never said much but I know it really bothered him. He would usually make a joke about it, though," teammate Bobby Franklin said. "Somebody would ask Gene, 'When are you going to get to the Hall of Fame?' And Gene would say, 'I'm going to drive down there tomorrow.'"

Finally in 2007, he was elected for induction in a class with Michael Irvin, Thurman Thomas, Charlie Sanders, Bruce Matthews and Roger Wehrli.

None of the other Hall of Famers had to wait as long as Hickerson, who sadly, by the time of the ceremony was in failing health and stricken with Alzheimer's disease.

"Everyone associated with the Cleveland Browns is saddened by the loss of Gene Hickerson," Browns coach Romeo Crennel said. "His tenacity as a blocker and toughness as a player epitomized what it means to be a Cleveland Brown."

The Browns selected Hickerson in the same draft where they made Brown first selection. Hickerson played behind former Steelers coach Chuck Noll for one season before taking over as a starter in 1959. He broke his leg in the 1961 preseason opener and then re-broke the leg later in that season while standing on the sideline.

After sitting out two games in 1962, Hickerson played in 165 straight before retiring.

Funeral arrangements are incomplete for Hickerson, who was born on Feb. 15, 1935 in Trenton, Tenn.