Paul Warfield's brilliant football career had its roots in the mid-1950s at Turner Junior High School, which is now marked by an empty field.
Thursday night Warren's finest athlete ever stood a stone's throw from the former school's site as part of the Tribune Chronicle's ''It All Started Here'' series at the Packard Music Hall.
Warfield, who earned induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1983 after a 13-year NFL career, spoke from the heart and with passion at times about his formative years. He fondly recalled former teammates and coaches like Gene Slaughter, who challenged a reluctant Warfield to play football. Several of his former high school teammates and close family members were in attendance.
It was clear from Warfield's words that a childhood in Warren was the perfect starting point for everything that would follow.
"This is really a special place as far as I'm concerned because it presented for me a foundation of what I was to be," Warfield said. "All of the people who came into my life at that time outside of my immediate family were so important in encouraging me, counseling me and helping me to reach the goals that I along the way developed."
Warfield's parents moved from Kentucky to Warren prior to his birth so his father, Dryden, could work at Republic Steel. It was a move to not only improve the family's financial situation, but also to get away from a part of the country that hadn't fully accepted the idea of racial equality.
Tribune Chronicle / Michael Taylor
NFL Hall of Famer Paul Warfield speaks Thursday at the Packard Music Hall in Warren. The Harding graduate spoke as part of the “It All Started Here” lecture series.
Warfield can't begin to think how his life might have played out if his parents hadn't made the move north.
"Different times; different era," he said. "Unfortunately, the country wasn't totally unified. Opportunities in the southern part of the country were totally non-existent.
"My father realized that if he was going to be able to do the things he needed to do for his family, but even beyond that if his children to be were going to have a chance, then the best opportunity was north."
Warfield didn't jump for joy at the thought of trying out for the football team. While he showed the athletic skills that eventually made him one of the most gifted receivers in NFL history, he wondered if he was too small for the game.
Slaughter's influence was crucial. He saw in Warfield what Warfield might not have seen in himself at the time. When Warfield was inducted into the Hall of Fame, he did something rare and asked Slaughter to make the presentation speech.
"For me, Gene Slaughter had to be the guy because he changed my life significantly," he said.
Warfield played halfback for the Warren G. Harding Panthers and was recruited to The Ohio State University at the position. His skills didn't always surface at Ohio State because legendary coach Woody Hayes preferred a fullback-oriented offense featuring the likes of Bob Ferguson and Matt Snell.
Warfield, who was drafted in the first round of the 1964 draft by the Cleveland Browns, admits to having had some concerns about making it in the NFL because of his Ohio State experience. Once Browns coach Blanton Collier decided to move Warfield to receiver, though, his career took off. He finished with 427 career receptions for 8,565 yards and 85 touchdowns. His average of 20.1 yards per catch is ninth best in NFL history.
"There's always a little bit of doubt that lingers when you're going into the unknown," Warfield said. "There was doubt at another time for me when I had to make the decision if I was going to attempt to play football at the high school level. There was doubt when I was shoved into the arena in sixth grade at First Street Elementary because I wasn't sure if I was big enough."
Warfield's professional career was highlighted by an NFL Championship with the Browns in his rookie season and back-to-back Super Bowl titles with the Miami Dolphins in 1972 and '73. The '72 season marked the only time a NFL champion went undefeated in both the regular season and the playoffs.
Warfield had many thrills in his career, but the '72 season might get the edge in his heart.
"To play on a championship team the first year had to be very special, however the magnitude of the Super Bowl and going to a situation in Miami that was at best pessimistic, and to rise to the top of the football world and establish a mark that some 40 years later has not been broken is probably the pinnacle."
Don Szuch and Bob Davis, both of Warren, attended Thursday with a group of other people who attended Harding and played sports with the Hall of Famer there.
Szuch said it was obvious early that Warfield was a great athlete, having that special something that set him apart from other athletes.
''Paul had that,'' Szuch said. ''He was such a graceful runner. Me, as big as I was, I was kind of a rough runner.''
Athletic prowess aside, Szuch said, Warfield is a good person, too.
''Paul's a great guy, as good of a person as he was an athlete,'' Szuch said. ''He took that wherever he went.''
Martha Ellers of Warren, a football fan, said of Warfield, ''I was thrilled with him at Ohio State and the professionals.''
Ellers and her husband, Richard, have been at each of the lecture series' speakers the paper is staging as part of 200 years of publishing in Trumbull County. They complimented the variety of speakers, which in addition to Warfield have been Warren native Hugh Hewitt, a syndicated, radio talk show host; Michael Capellas, also from Warren, who has served as CEO of Compaq; and Niles native Gary Lehman, who has performed around the world as an opera singer.
Up next in the speakers series is actor and Warren native Austin Pendleton.
''It's been a good mix,'' Ellers said of the group of speakers arranged by the paper.
Tribune Chronicle reporter Ron Selak Jr. contributed to this report.