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Club 46

Club 46: How Mike Pruitt ascended to legendary highs as a Browns fullback

Pruitt was patient in waiting to become Cleveland’s next star rusher

Mike Pruitt wasn't expecting any big news on the morning of April 8, 1976.

That day was the beginning of the NFL draft, and Pruitt, a fullback from Purdue, was feeling indifferent on whether he received a phone call that morning or in the following day of the 17-round draft. He had rushed for 899 yards and three touchdowns on 217 carries in his final season with the Boilermakers, but he had no clue how much value an NFL team might see in him.

"I did get some interest from the New York Jets," Pruitt said with in a recent Club 46 interview with Jay Crawford.  "They said, 'Mike, maybe in the later rounds, we may take you.'"

As far as Pruitt knew, that was his only shot of playing in the NFL. 

So when he received a call shortly after the draft began, he didn't think there was any chance that an NFL owner was on the other end of the line. It had to be one of his friends, whom he told specifically not to call him because of the draft, giving him a prank call.

Pruitt answered the phone.

"Man," Pruitt said, "I told you not to call me."

"Is this Mike Pruitt?" asked a man on the other end of the call.

"Um, yeah," Pruitt said, confused. "Come on. Don't play with me now."

"This is Art Modell," the Cleveland Browns owner said, "and we just drafted you."

Pruitt was the seventh player taken off the board and the first rookie Cleveland wanted to join its roster. That was how Pruitt's legendary career as a Browns fullback started, and it ended with 47 touchdowns and 6,540 rushing yards — both third all-time in franchise history — and nine years full of unforgettable moments.

"To this day, it still shocks me," Pruitt said. "I was thrilled to no end to know that somebody had that much interest in me to want to put that much stock in me."

But to understand how Pruitt arrived in Cleveland, it's important to understand where he grew up and who pushed him. 

Pruitt was raised in the south side of Chicago in an area of high crime. His mother enforced ground rules for when Pruitt, who loved playing baseball and running races against his friends, would go outside after school. He needed to be inside before darkness arrived and the street lights were turned on.

So Pruitt always made the most of his time outside, and he found out at an early age that he excelled at running. He always outpaced his siblings, his older brother, his older friends — it didn't matter who the opponent was. Pruitt always seemed to be faster.

"I was always amazed that none of them could outrun me," he said. "It was something that I was blessed with."

It didn't take long for Pruitt to become one of the top athletes as a youth and high school player running track and playing football. The former was Pruitt's favorite sport growing up because, well, he won plenty of individual awards for his blazing speed, but his devotion to football grew after one of his football coaches offered him a rather blunt assessment of the long-term benefits about each sport.

"Mike," he said. "I don't think you're going to make a whole lot of money at track, but I do think that you have a possibility to make some money at football."

That was all Pruitt needed to hear.

"That was the end of my track days," he said with a chuckle.

That decision, of course, worked wonderfully for Pruitt, who quickly ascended to one of the best players for the Boilermakers in 1974, when he rushed for three touchdowns and 613 yards and set a program-record with a 94-yard touchdown run against Iowa. 

Pruitt was on his way to stardom, only he didn't quite know it yet. He didn't even know how big his career would become after becoming the Browns' first-round selection, but he knew the opportunity was his to take once Greg Pruitt, who coincidentally had the same last name and was also a star Browns running back, went down with a knee injury early in the 1979 season.

"Mike," coach Sam Rutgliano said. "You got to step up. You got to step up." 

"I'm ready, coach," he said. "You just give it to me."

Pruitt became the starter, and he dominated with 1,294 rushing yards — his first of four seasons over the 1,000-yard mark — and nine touchdowns. He brought back memories of the dominant displays from former Browns legends in Jim Brown and Leroy Kelly, and the Browns had found yet another Pro-Bowl worthy player in their backfield.

All Pruitt needed was his shot. That was what went through his mind as he waited for a phone call in the draft, and when his name was called again to start four years later, he took the opportunity and turned it into a story of a legend.

"I never really had a bad day in Cleveland," Pruitt said with a smile. "It's a great organization. Nobody treats their players like Cleveland does."

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