Former Temple coach Bruce Arians, who later gained acclaim as an NFL assistant coach and then head coach, has always put running back Paul Palmer in a special category.
Palmer, who finished second to Vinny Testaverde in the 1986 Heisman Trophy and Maxwell Award voting, will be inducted Tuesday into the College Football Hall of Fame during a ceremony in New York.
Both Arians and Palmer came to Temple the same year, in 1983, a rookie coach and a freshman running back who formed an unending bond.
"Pound for pound Paul Palmer was the best player I ever coached," said Arians in a recent phone interview, repeating his oft-heard statement.
Keep in mind that Arians, as a former head coach of the Arizona Cardinals, coached future Hal of Fame receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who is as tough as he is graceful.
Yet Palmer stands above all the people on Arians' toughness meter.
“When playing at around 170 pounds and to carry it 40 times a game and a lot of time it was up the middle, he was a true running back,” said Arians, who is a football analyst for CBS and whose name is popping up in NFL coaching rumors. “And he was always there. His dependability and availability were unmeasured, and he was just tough as nails.”
As Palmer prepares for his induction, the words of Arians and others help to recall one of the great careers, performed to a degree in anonymity. Those days were well before virtually every Temple game was television.
Arians had the best seat in the house for all four years of Palmer's career.
"He never took a day off and that was part of being Temple tough," Arians said. "He personified Temple tough."
Even after gaining 417 all-purpose yards, including 349 rushing and three touchdowns on 43 carries in a win against East Carolina, Palmer was back on the practice field two days later on a Monday, going full-tilt.
"I felt pretty good, so why not practice, that was the attitude," Palmer said in a recent interview.
What is interesting is that anybody who has talked to Palmer wouldn’t ordinarily think of toughness. He has a megawatt smile that can light up a room. At 5-foot-9 (which may be stretching it) and around 180 pounds, he doesn’t have the look of somebody who pounded Penn State for 206 rushing yards, or Alabama for 135 yards.
How tough was Palmer?
He truly enjoyed playing at Veterans Stadium, where the artificial turf was akin to running on cement.
"When I realized we would be playing at Veterans Stadium, a professional stadium with artificial turf, I thought it was great," recalled Palmer. "I didn't know any better to look at it any other way."
Palmer gained the respect of his teammates with his humility and toughness.
"I have never been around a running back who could take the kind of hits and get up the next play and get up again," said former Owls defensive back Joe Greenwood, who was a year behind Palmer.
Kevin Jones was a two-time all-conference offensive tackle at Temple, so he got a distinct view of Palmer’s career. Frequently, all Jones would see was the back of Palmer’s jersey as he darted for yet another big gain.
"Not only was he tough, but he was a smart player," Jones said. "He wasn't the type of guy who would try to run you over, he knew when to get out of bounds."
Palmer also knew his way to the end zone.
He scored 43 touchdowns, including 39 on the ground. Palmer still holds the Temple career record with 6,613 career all-purpose yards and 4,895 rushing yards.
Despite those statistics, Palmer wasn’t an immediate success. He only had a total of four carries in his first three games. Then in the fourth game he rushed for 98 yards on 11 carries at home against Boston College and remained in the lineup thereafter.
“That was probably poor coaching that we didn’t put him in right away,” Arians said laughing. “Once he got in against Boston College it was over after that.”
Palmer was a consensus All-American as senior in 1986 when he rushed for 1,866 yards and 15 touchdowns. His 2,633 all-purpose yards that year set a college football single-season record.
That senior season wasn’t a fluke. The year before Palmer, a radio analyst for Temple football, rushed for 1,516 yards and nine touchdowns. Those remain the top two single-season rushing totals in school history.
So one question he has fielded quite a bit was what took so long for him to earn entrance in the Hall of Fame?
"It took me a while to get on the ballot and once I did, it was scary with all the great running backs there were," Palmer said.
He says that he doesn't feel that signing with an agent before his senior year was what had kept him from entering the Hall of Fame sooner.
When Temple learned of the situation after he left the school, the university forfeited the six wins of 1986 and his many school records were voided. In 2000, his records were reinstated and he was inducted that year into the Temple Athletic Hall of Fame.
Palmer says the big reason why it took more than three decades to be inducted is a lack of exposure.
"I think a lot of the voters didn't see me play," he said.
The long wait has made the journey more special.
"I think I appreciate it more and it's a great feeling, said Palmer, who was a first round draft choice of the Kansas City Chiefs in 1987 and appeared in 41 games over three NFL seasons for three teams.
Since the announcement was made in January, Palmer has enjoyed reminiscing about his career.
So much has changed since he played, but one thing that still that works in any football era is toughness.
“He made it on heart and grit,” Arians said. “He wasn’t the biggest, but he was the toughest.”