As a baseball player at Alcorn State in the mid-‘70s, Jimmie Giles had some friends on the school’s football team, and even an inkling that he might be good enough to hold his own on the gridiron.
Quite frankly, though, it wasn’t worth it to Giles. The football team simply practiced too much – every day, it seemed, and well into the night. They had even been known to practice after a game if the coaches weren’t thrilled with the team’s effort.
However, that was before Giles realized he could do far more than “hold his own,” against his buddies on the football team.
At an impromptu pickup game during his sophomore year at Alcorn State, Giles found himself lined up across from the Braves’ best defensive back, who wanted to see how this baseball player measured up. It was, unfortunately, a mismatch.
Giles beat the varsity defender easily and caught a long pass. Throughout the game, he had no problem keeping up with the Braves’ football lettermen. Still, he didn’t read too much into it – in terms of a potential future on the football field – until he was approached by O.C. Brown, then the Alcorn State offensive coordinator.
Brown saw what Giles hadn’t, that defenders were scared of him because he was bigger, stronger and faster than they were.
“It dawned on me then that I did see something in the other guys’ eyes when they lined up across from me,” Giles recalled. “What [Brown] didn’t know was that he had created a monster!”
Actually, Brown had simply unearthed a gem. Giles would join the Alcorn State football team as a junior and perform so well that a promising baseball career (he was drafted in the 12th round by the L.A. Dodgers in 1976) took a back seat. Giles was drafted by the Houston Oilers in 1977, spent one season in Texas and then was traded to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers just before the 1978 draft. There, he would help a fledgling expansion team make a shocking turnaround in 1979, emerge as the franchise’s first offensive Pro Bowl player and eventually craft a nine-year run that ranks among the best in Buccaneer history.
And on Wednesday, Giles was named the third member of the team’s nascent Ring of Honor, joining inaugural inductee Lee Roy Selmon and 2010 addition John McKay. Selmon, the franchise’s first-ever college draft pick in 1976, was the Bucs’ initial breakout star on defense and, eventually, its first player to gain entry to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. McKay was the Head Coach from Day One, the architect who put together a winning team in a shockingly short amount of time. And now Giles is the first representative on offense, fitting since he accounted for four of the five Pro Bowl nods by offensive players in the team’s first decade of play.
Giles may have indeed had a motivational “monster” inside of him, as many great players do, but his former teammates have kinder words for him. Selmon called Giles a “great family man,” not to mention the prototype tight end that helped establish the mold for today’s stars at the position. Kevin House, who played wide receiver alongside House for seven seasons, said Giles was a receiver in a tight end’s body, and emphasized how much he deserved the Ring of Honor selection. And dozens of Giles’ former teammates said all that needed to be said by showing up for Wednesday’s press conference and packing one half of the auditorium.
Among the former Buccaneer players and coaches on hand were Selmon, House, Greg Roberts, Wayne Fontes and Richard Wood. Their mood was jubilant and, as Buccaneers Co-Chairman Bryan Glazer pointed out, they turned the post-PC question-and-answer session into something like a gentle roast. When Giles pulled out the notes for his speech, one of his former teammates breathed an audible, “Oh, no,” inspiring laughs, and another dared Giles not to cry.
Giles was able to meet that challenge, for the most part, though he had to pause twice to collect himself while thanking his wife, Vivian, and their three grown children. He told the story of how he and Vivian came to be together, which included his giving up a chance to play baseball at Michigan in order to follow her to Alcorn State. As Giles made clear, Vivian gave up much more than that along the way, choosing to stay at home to raise the kids despite graduating college Magna Cum Laude with two degrees.
Giles said he wouldn’t be joining the most exclusive club for one of only 32 NFL teams in the world if it wasn’t for Vivian’s influence.
“This belongs to her because she made so many sacrifices for me and our family,” he said. “She gave up her career.”
Jimmie set the two on that path when he accepted Davis’ invitation to come out for the football team. Houston would be the next stop, then Tampa, which was strangely a move Giles had secretly contemplated. Entering the NFL, he had thought the best opportunity might be with one of the two 1976 expansion teams, as it would give him a chance to help a young group grow into a contender. Since he preferred warm weather, Tampa was his preference over expansion twin Seattle. Still, as he said on Wednesday with a wry smile, you have to “be careful what you wish for.”
Jack Harris, a member of the Bucs’ first broadcast team in 1976, helped introduce Giles on Wednesday and pointed out what Giles discovered upon arriving: The Buccaneers as a franchise had won a total of two games to that point and were flying well below the national radar…except as a punch line for Johnny Carson.
But Giles’ vision of helping a young team grow came to pass. The Buccaneers quietly won five games in 1978, then burst out of the gate with a 5-0 start in 1979. Before the season was over, the “Worst to First” Buccaneers would be NFC South division champs and a true Super Bowl contender. With the league’s top-ranked defense and an offense that revolved around Giles, Doug Williams and Ricky Bell, the Bucs made it all the way to the NFC Championship Game.
“It was Jimmie Giles and some others along with him who helped turn this thing around,” said Harris. “Jimmie was 6-3 and 240, but height and weight were only part of it. The big thing with Jimmy was depth – depth of talent and depth of character.”
Giles’ talents really shined during that glorious ’79 season, when he caught a team-high 40 passes for 579 yards and caught seven touchdown passes. The next year he would lead the NFL with an average of 18.2 yards per catch and in 1981 he would help the Bucs back to the playoffs with a career-best line of 45-786-6. While today’s tight ends occasionally hit double that total in receptions, few can match Giles’ career mark (as a Buccaneer) of 15.4 yards per. With his size and speed combination, Giles would likely rank among those most prolific tight ends in today’s more pass-oriented game. Harris, in fact, said that even in the ‘80s there was talk that Giles was underutilized.
“If they had used him to the depth of his talents,” said Harris, “we might be having a ceremony like this in Canton, Ohio.”
For the dozens of players in the room who had banded together with Giles in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s to produce a winning team, Wednesday’s press conference was in the perfect location. They felt at home in a building that, while several miles away from the facility they inhabited as Buccaneers, was adorned throughout with massive pictures of players in both orange and red uniforms. The development of the Ring of Honor, and other alumni initiatives designed to recognize and honor all segments of the team’s three-and-a-half decades, helped create that welcoming feeling.
“We will never stop acknowledging the past,” said Glazer. “If it wasn’t for the past, we wouldn’t be here today.”
And as far as the assembled alumni were concerned, selecting Giles to be the third member of the Ring of Honor is a perfect we to acknowledge their era’s contributions.
As Selmon said to Giles in a heartfelt moment during Wednesday’s gathering: “This Ring of Honor, through you, represents all of us.”