The Fan 

Jerry Schilling recalls Elvis and his love of sports.

PHOTO COURTESY jerry schilling
Elvis, Jerry Schilling, and fans in Hawaii.
Imagine playing pick-up football games as a 10-year-old at the local sandlot with your big brother, his 18-year-old friends, and Elvis Presley. For Jerry Schilling, one-time member of the "Memphis Mafia" and now president and CEO of the Memphis Music Commission, these casual games were part of regular Sunday afternoons.

"I met Elvis in 1954. We grew up in the same neighborhood in North Memphis. Elvis lived a block and a half from where I lived," says Schilling.

Schilling would later go on to star in football at Catholic High School as a member of the All-Memphis team and earn a scholarship to Arkansas State University. But he vividly remembers his first encounter with Elvis, who at that time was on the cusp of stardom. "I got back in the huddle with this football game, and I knew immediately that that was the guy. It was his record that played last night. I knew it was Elvis Presley," he says. "Elvis didn't have anything [yet]. They'd only played his record the night before, so he didn't even have a hit in Memphis. But I looked at him, and as a little kid -- he would laugh if he heard me say this -- [I thought], Man, I want to be like him."

And who did Elvis follow as a sports fan? According to Schilling, Elvis was big on Jim Brown of the Cleveland Browns, who led pro-football running backs in rushing for several seasons. "He loved to watch him run, but you know what Elvis was interested in? The way Jim Brown would get up so slow after he was tackled and have this cocky walk," says Schilling. "Elvis would use that walk in a movie. He could get something from anybody. He studied stuff."

Schilling also recalls an occasion when Wilt Chamberlain, former NBA All-Star and Los Angeles Lakers center, was acknowledged by Elvis during a concert at the Sahara Hotel in Lake Tahoe, California. "I've never seen Elvis give an introduction like that in my life. Halfway through the show, he stops and says, 'Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Basketball, Wilt Chamberlain.' And Wilt stood up and the audience went crazy," says Schilling. "So, after the concert, I'm walking off the stage with Elvis and I say, 'Elvis, I didn't know you were a basketball fan.' He says, 'I'm the fan of the number-one guy in anything.'"

And then, of course, there are the famous side-by-side televisions at Graceland, installed, reportedly, so Elvis could enjoy more than one football game at a time. While Schilling remembers going with Elvis to watch the old WFL Memphis Grizzlies play at the Liberty Bowl on at least one occasion, going to sporting events and concerts became quite challenging for Presley due to his stardom. "He was a distraction to the artists or the players," says Schilling. "We'd wait until the lights went down, and we'd go in and sit down, and then we were the first ones to leave, or else the audience would be looking at Elvis."

Finally, there was karate, which Elvis got into while serving in the Army. His love for martial arts lasted at least 15 years, and he earned (depending on whom you ask, and some will question the use of "earned") a 7th- to 9th-degree black belt. "He was doing karate demonstrations, breaking boards," says Schilling, who is a brown belt. "We would use the living room in Graceland."

This week, fans from South Korea to North Memphis will be honoring Elvis for his impact on music. As for Schilling, he will also be paying respects to his lifelong friend, not just for the music he made but for those sandlot football games too.

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