His Duluth-based heavy lift company is a family business for former Falcon Jeff Merrow (center). He is flanked, from far left, by his brother David Merrow, sons Jeffrey, Ian and Thor. He's holding grandson Colin.
Photo: Chad Rhym
Photo: Chad Rhym

Where the Grits Blitz players are, 40 years later

Catching up with coaches and notable starters from the 1977 Falcons Grits Blitz defense: 

Coach Leeman Bennett, 79: Long retired from coaching, Bennett and his wife split their time between homes in the Jacksonville area and in Cumming. Six years a head coach in Atlanta and two more in Tampa, Bennett started a car dealership, a bank and was the Peach Bowl selection committee chairman after coaching. Now, he said, “When in Florida I play a little golf, fish and turkey hunt a little. Just doing the things retired people are supposed to do.”

Defensive coordinator Jerry Glanville, 74: Lives near Knoxville, near his grandson and still does some speaking and coaching consulting work, having recently worked the Hamilton Tiger Cats (Canadian Football League). “I still love the Falcons,” said Glanville, who also was their head coach from 1990-93. And, yes, he watched February’s Super Bowl meltdown against New England. “That never could have happened (to the ’77 Falcons defense,)” he said.

Defensive end Claude Humphrey, 73: Living as he has for many years outside Memphis. After a long, sometimes frustrating wait, got into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2014. “(Getting into the Hall) did a 90-degree flip for me. I’ve gotten the chance to get in a little work, get in a little traveling. I’ve gotten a chance to do some of the things I didn’t do while playing ball. That Hall of Fame has been very, very good to me.” Has carried on through the death of his wife in 2013 and battles with diabetes and kidney cancer.

Defensive tackle Jim Bailey, 69: After working in the oil-supply distribution business for a dozen years, he went into real estate in his longtime home of Lawrence, Kan. Is retired, and helping to look after two of this three grandchildren. Will celebrate a 50th wedding anniversary this month.

Defensive tackle Mike Lewis, 67: Retired this year from the automobile sales job (Volkswagen) he held in Houston since shortly after retiring from the NFL. A widower, he has six children and 17 grandchildren. “Mention the Grits Blitz around Texas, it doesn’t mean much,” he said. “That was too long ago, plus I don’t think they paid that much attention to Atlanta back then.”

Defensive end Jeff Merrow, 64: Co-owner of Heavy Duty Lift and Equipment Co. in Duluth. A family business that includes his brother and three sons, it markets lifts used for the maintenance of heavy equipment such as buses and trucks. Merrow is looking to slow down some now and spend a little more time fishing. “When I got successful in business it was like I was just walking on the ballfield, baby,” he said. “We’re playing to win. The same mentality. And I was loving it.”

Linebacker Ralph Ortega, 63: Has lived in Miami since retiring from the NFL with the Dolphins in 1980. Had a mortgage business until 2008, now oversees investment property. Has four children, seven grandchildren. “Since I’m one of the few Spanish-speaking players to play in the NFL, I’ve done some work with some of the Spanish stations during Super Bowl time. I always want to plug the Grits Blitz stats then,” he said. 

Linebacker Robert Pennywell, 62: Remarried in May, he lives in Charlotte having retired as an assistant director for a mental-health rehab agency in Louisiana. His first wife died 10 years ago. “It was hard, but I know God wanted me to move on,” he said.

Linebacker Greg Brezina, 71: Brezina and his wife have long been involved in the ministry. Their Christian Families Today is a counseling and training ministry based in Newnan. Is searching now for the time to flesh out a book sharing his testimony and experiences. “I wanted to write my books at the end of my life, not the beginning,” he said. “I’m at the end of my life and I think I have a handle on (life), my perception of it.”

Linebacker Fulton Kuykendall, 64: Started five games in 1977, breaking his arm while tackling O.J. Simpson. Married, the man known as Kaptain Krazy lives in Woodstock, where he is retired after a varied post-football life that included working in a cath lab at Piedmont Hospital, farming cattle in Ball Ground and dabbling in real-estate development. Was one of the original players involved in the NFL concussion suit, but has yet to receive any money from the settlement. “I still have headaches and insomnia, but otherwise I’m doing pretty well. That’s just the way it is,” he said.

Cornerback Rolland Lawrence, 66: A Pro Bowler with seven interceptions in 1977, he retired from football following the 1980 season. Spent his post-football career working with at-risk children with the Pennsylvania-based VisionQuest program. Retired, he lives in Franklin, Pa. “I like quiet now, a little solitude. When we looked for a house, I told my wife, ‘Sweetheart, find the house you want, but my only request is that we have enough land that I can have a riding lawnmower and I can hit golf balls,” he said. 

Cornerback Ray Brown, 68: Lives in Atlanta. Spent seven years with the Falcons and three more with the New Orleans Saints. Is semi-retired from the building construction firm he helped to found. “I spend a good part of my time happily taking care of my wife (who has multiple sclerosis),” Brown said. Has two children and six grandchildren. 

Safety Rick Byas, 66: Lives in Texas. Did not return messages to be interviewed for this story.  

Safety Ray Easterling, died in 2012 at the age of 62: A ferocious hitter, he put in eight seasons with the Falcons before nerve damage from a shoulder injury became too much to overcome. Suffering from dementia, and later found to have CTE, the traumatic brain injury related to football, he committed suicide at his home in Richmond. “Certainly when you do a Google search of his name, that’s what comes up first,” said his wife Mary Ann Easterling. “That’s why whenever I do share about him I want to focus on the ways he was a leader and was a tremendous voice for pointing to Jesus.”

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