Meet the man who was Odell before Odell

For a two-year period, Bill Groman could catch and run as well as anyone in professional football. Darryl Norenberg/USA TODAY Sports

Bill Groman was watching the Monday Night Football game between the New York Giants and Miami Dolphins when he heard Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden reference Odell Beckham Jr.'s amazing statistical ledger.

When the ESPN announcers got to the part about Beckham having 24 receiving touchdowns in 25 games, Groman thought for a moment before picking up the phone to call his friend and former boss, Ken Herock.

"Shoot, I had more than that," Groman said.

Groman was Beckham before Beckham was Beckham. According to Elias Sports Bureau research, Groman is the only player in pro football history to have more receiving touchdowns (27) within the first 25 games of his career than Beckham. Groman had 29 in his first two seasons as a member of the Houston Oilers' championship teams in 1960 and 1961.

Groman, 79, is now retired. He lives in Houston after a six-year playing career that was halted by injury (more on that in a moment) and 36 years in pro scouting.

His story is intriguing because he didn't go to a college football powerhouse. Instead, he went to Heidelberg College (now University), a small liberal arts school in his hometown of Tiffin, Ohio. Groman played football and basketball and ran track, excelling at all three sports. His senior year was his best statistically -- playing running back, he had 19 touchdowns in nine games alongside quarterback Jim Gruden (Jon Gruden's father). But there was no thought of playing football professionally back then.

After graduating, Groman taught eighth-grade science at Perrysburg High, in another Ohio suburb not far from his hometown. One day, he had a conversation with the eighth-grade English teacher, who invited him to lunch with her husband, former NFL head coach (and Notre Dame assistant) Bob Snyder.

Snyder, a former quarterback, wanted to see just how good Groman was, so they went back to the school and played catch. Not long afterward, Snyder called one of his former Notre Dame players, Lou Rymkus, who had just been named head coach of the Oilers in the AFL, the brand new competitor to the NFL.

"I think I have a kid who could make your team," Snyder said.

Groman had three traits that made him highly desirable.

  • Nimble feet: "My parents were really good ballroom dancers," he said. "I used to watch them a lot. That might've had something to do with it."

  • Great hands: "They always measure everybody's hands at the combine," Groman said. "A big hand for a receiver is 9½ inches. From the tip of my finger to my thumb is 10½ inches. I even measured it last year. I had long, thin fingers.

  • Speed: "I was the anchor on a 4x440 relay team at Heidelberg whose record still stands," Groman said. (The record may never fall, as the 4x440 has been replaced by the 4x400 in modern times.)

Those traits also established that Groman would be better suited as a wide receiver on what was a stacked Oilers team. Houston had 1959 Heisman Trophy winner Billy Cannon at running back and Charley Hennigan at receiver (Hennigan, who also holds a couple of records pursued by Beckham, was also a science teacher at the time). The quarterback was George Blanda, a pro football legend.

Newspapers would call Hennigan and Groman "the long distance twins." Groman was nearly cut in training camp, but may have saved himself with a two-touchdown performance against the Denver Broncos in an exhibition game.

Good thing for the Oilers. Groman caught 72 passes that first season, including 12 touchdowns, averaging 20.5 yards per reception. The Oilers won the championship, with Groman catching a pass for a score in the title game. He was a first-team All-Pro selection.

It's not a stretch to describe Groman as Beckham-esque in his catching style when listening to him recall his best receptions.

"I had one where I was going down the sideline, and the ball was thrown early," he said. "Just as I was looking up, I looked to my right and the ball was coming to my left shoulder. I swung my hands around and ended up catching the ball. Another catch, against the Titans, the newspaper headline was 'Groman catch is one to remember.' The one I remember most was a 92-yarder. I was open, and nobody caught me."

Herock, who played tight end for the Oakland Raiders, played against Groman at that time and gave him high praise.

"The award could have been the Groman Award instead of the Biletnikoff Award," Herock said. "I played with Fred Biletnikoff and I'd say that. Bill was very sure-handed and he was fast. He'd be every bit as fast as anyone today. He was the big stud receiver."

Groman earned first-team honors in 1961 after catching 50 passes, 17 for touchdowns. The Oilers opened 1-3-1 and fired Rymkus. But his replacement, Wally Lemm, went 9-0. The Oilers averaged 37 points per game and beat the San Diego Chargers for their second straight AFL title. The Bryan Eagle, in a profile of Groman that year, noted:

"Groman has excellent speed (9.8) and his defenders often underestimate his swiftness. More often than not, the mistake proves costly."

"He is really gonna be great from here on in," Blanda said.

Groman would never get the chance to live up to those expectations. In that 1961 championship-game win over the Chargers, he caught a short pass and was tackled by defensive back Claude Gibson.

"My knee bent in and then out," Groman said. "It tore my knee up."

Medical technology and injury detection were not the same in 1961 as it is nearly 55 years later, and Groman's initial treatment didn't go well. He ended up playing for years with two torn knee ligaments, but he was not able to replicate his past efforts. He managed 21 catches in his final season with the Oilers, played for a year with the Broncos, where he had 27 catches, then hung on for two seasons with the Bills (the team that discovered the full extent of his injuries). He played in four AFL title games and won all four. He is the only player to win four AFL titles.

Groman retired from pro football and became a stockbroker, but another football friend helped him get a job as a weekend scout for the Cincinnati Bengals. He went on to work for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Chargers and Atlanta Falcons and was a pro personnel director for the Houston Gamblers and New Jersey Generals in the USFL.

Groman recalled his two best scouting recommendations. The first was recommending the Buccaneers should draft Doug Williams in the first round (Williams went 17th overall in 1978 and won a Super Bowl with then-Bucs offensive coordinator Joe Gibbs when the two were with the Redskins). Perhaps more impressive, Groman was stubborn in his insistence that Utah running back Jamal Anderson was a second-round talent in 1994.

"He ran a 4.75 40 and our other scout had him as a free agent," Groman said. "But he was built like Earl Campbell, more elusive and with really good quickness. And he could catch the ball well."

The Falcons selected Anderson in the seventh round, No. 201 overall. Four years later, Anderson rushed for 1,846 yards and 14 touchdowns in helping the Falcons get to the Super Bowl. It earned Groman the ring he still wears to this day.

Groman retired from scouting in 2003 when his wife got sick and he needed to take care of her. Now widowed, he lives a block away from his oldest daughter, who helps him around after his vision in one eye became affected by cataracts.

He still watches football, enjoyed checking out Beckham ("I'd tell him to just play like he's playing. He's a heck of a receiver.") and likes DeAndre Hopkins of the Texans.

Groman said he goes to Heidelberg once a year when he's in Tiffin visiting his sister. The football coach introduces Groman to the players as a local legend and the players are wowed when they hear how often he scored those first two AFL seasons.

Herock, who went on to work with Groman on a couple of different teams, once told Groman he should have been a Hall of Famer. In one manner he is. His shoes from the 1960 season are on display in Canton, Ohio.

Groman knows he needed more years on his playing resume to be enshrined, but he seems content with how his life and career played out.

"If I hadn't gotten hurt, I probably would have gotten a chance [to be an all-time great]," Groman said. "But the way I look at it, the weird way I got into the game, I was very blessed, or very lucky."