Imagine having more rushing yards than legendary running back Herschel Walker – one of the greatest running backs in the history of college football.
That’s precisely what Joe Cribbs did in the 1985 USFL season prior to his infamous walkout from the Birmingham Stallions.
Realistically, Cribbs is not in the same stratosphere as Buffalo greats O.J. Simpson, Thurman Thomas, and Fred Jackson.
Nonetheless, he held his own during his prime in the National Football League.
He had three 1,000-yard seasons and became a Pro Bowler three times in his eight-year NFL career.
When his pro football career took off, he bolted Western New York to play for the Stallions.
When the Stallions couldn’t meet Cribbs’ demands, he returned to the NFL and became a shadow of the player he once was.
One can only wonder how much an impact Cribbs could have made had he maintained his early pace in the NFL.
Joe Stanier Cribbs was born in Sulligent, AL on January 5, 1958.
Cribbs told the Selma-Time Journal’s Thomas Scott in 2017 he began playing organized football in the sixth grade.
He joined his grade school’s varsity team as a defensive back a year later.
Cribbs attended Sulligent High School where he was on the track, basketball, and football teams.
Cribbs finished his high school football career with the Sulligent Blue Devils as a two-time Parade All-American.
Joe Cribbs would evolve into a workhorse running back for the Auburn Tigers in the college football ranks.
College Days With The Auburn Tigers
Joe Cribbs suited up for the Auburn Tigers for his college football career.
Cribbs was part of a Tigers backfield that featured William Andrews and James Brooks. All three played in the National Football League in later years.
Cribbs told the Selma-Times Journal in 2017 his lowest point in his freshman season was when somebody asked him why he didn’t join the Tigers for their road game against the Arizona Wildcats.
At the time, Cribbs returned to his hometown of Sulligent, AL watching a high school football game from the sidelines.
Cribbs was still on the Tigers’ freshman team and couldn’t travel to Arizona.
His uncle intervened and told him to start treating team practices like actual games.
Cribbs listened and the rest was history.
Cribbs emerged as a running back threat in his sophomore season in 1977. He had 872 rushing yards and four touchdowns on 161 carries that year.
Cribbs’ 250 rushing yards against the Georgia Bulldogs a season later entrenched him in Auburn’s record books: it was the fifth-best single game performance in Tigers program history.
He finished his breakout junior season with 1,250 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns on 253 carries.
Cribbs racked up 1,120 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns on 200 carries as a senior in 1979.
He finished his four-year stint at Auburn with 3,368 rushing yards and 34 rushing touchdowns on 657 carries. He never played in a single bowl game for the Tigers.
Joe Cribbs finished his stellar college football career fourth on Auburn’s all-time rushing list behind Bo Jackson, Carnell Williams, and James Brooks.
Cribbs would become one of the best running backs in Buffalo Bills franchise history in the National Football League.
Pro Football Career
The Buffalo Bills made Joe Cribbs the 29th overall selection of the 1980 NFL Draft.
Cribbs told Kelly Baker of BuffaloBills.com in 2019 he was in his Auburn apartment during the festivities. Three local Alabama networks covered the draft from that venue.
Cribbs’ initial impression was he’d be a higher draft pick – presumably the second running back taken in the draft.
However, it didn’t work out that way. When Cribbs thinks about it almost forty years later, he wasn’t taken that low.
He did hold a vendetta against the teams that passed up on him. He wanted them to regret not drafting him, so he let his play on the gridiron make a resounding statement.
Cribbs signed a four-year, $845,000 rookie deal with the Bills, per Sports Illustrated.
He had a fond memory of his first experience with Buffalo snowfall.
Since Cribbs was from sunny Alabama, he wasn’t used to the frigid temperatures in Western New York.
The Bills had an 8 a.m. team meeting one winter morning. When Cribbs peeked out of his window and discovered he had been snowed in, he went back to bed.
Buffalo running backs coach Elijah Pitts rang him up and asked him where he was at 8:10 a.m.
Cribbs told Pitts he was snowed in and couldn’t get out of his house.
Pitts told him the streets were clear. He just needed to pull his car out of his driveway.
To Cribbs’ astonishment, his running backs coach was right.
When Cribbs arrived late at the team meeting, Bills head coach Chuck Knox busted him.
Knox told Cribbs in front of the team that he wanted to fine him. However, he didn’t.
“And the only reason I’m not,” Cribbs quoted Knox as saying (via The Buffalo News‘ Erik Brady). “Is because you’re from Alabama.”
Cribbs busted up laughing at the memory. He also told Brady he was never late for another meeting since then.
When Cribbs experienced his first summer in Buffalo, he was pleasantly surprised. It was a stark contrast to the oppressive heat in Alabama.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he told The Buffalo News in 2019. “It took me forty minutes to break a sweat.”
Cribbs’ NFL career got off to a rip-roaring start.
Knox and Pitts emphasized a running attack. It’s a strategy that made Cribbs a focal point of the offense.
Cribbs responded and stormed out of the gates in his first pro football season.
He singled out his rookie debut as one of his most memorable moments with the Buffalo Bills.
The Bills squared off against the Miami Dolphins in Cribbs’ first NFL game.
Prior to that game, Buffalo had lost to Miami twenty straight times – it was a streak that had begun a decade earlier.
Cribbs had 60 rushing yards and a touchdown on 18 carries in his pro football debut.
Cribbs’ two-yard plunge into the end zone late in the fourth quarter sealed the outcome for Buffalo.
He never forgot what the home fans did after the final whistle, per BuffaloBills.com:
“The fans stormed the field; this was the first game of the year now, they stormed the field, they tore the goal posts.”
“I was like, ‘This is insane. This is just the first game of the year. We just won one game.'”
Cribbs didn’t know about the losing streak to the Dolphins until he went to the locker room after the game.
The rookie running back had 1,185 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns on 306 carries in 1980.
To nobody’s surprise, he made the first of his three Pro Bowl appearances at the end of the season.
Cribbs was also proclaimed 1980 AFC Rookie of the Year.
His contract warranted a $10,000 bonus if he had at least 1,200 rushing yards in 1980.
Alas, he missed that goal by a paltry 15 yards.
According to Sports Illustrated, Cribbs fumed when the Bills refused to give him the bonus money despite coming up short by the slimmest of margins.
Cribbs gave credit to veteran running back Roland Hooks for taking him under his wing during his rookie season.
While some veteran players mislead rookies because they perceive them as threats, Hooks was different.
Cribbs told the Bills’ official website in 2019 their mentorship evolved into a friendship that has carried on to the present moment.
Buffalo won an NFL franchise-record eleven games in the 1980 campaign. The Bills also broke a five-year postseason drought to the delight of their rabid fanbase.
Unfortunately, the Bills lost to the then-San Diego Chargers in the AFC Divisional Round, 20-14.
Despite the hear-breaking loss, Joe Cribbs proved he belonged in the National Football League.
Cribbs had 1,097 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 257 carries a year later. He’s the first Buffalo running back since O.J. Simpson to record consecutive 1,000-yard seasons.
Buffalo won ten games and made it to the postseason for the second straight year.
🗓️OTD 1981: The @BuffaloBills beat the Jets at Shea Stadium 31-27 in the AFC Wild Card! WR Frank Lewis had 7 receptions for 158 yards & 2 TDs while RB Joe Cribbs had 64 receiving yards & 84 rushing yards including a 45 yard burst in the 4th QTR to put Buffalo up 31-13! #GoBills pic.twitter.com/3C62XcqxXE
— 80s Football Cards (@80sFootballCard) December 28, 2018
The Bills beat the New York Jets in the AFC Wild Card Game, 31-27.
Cribbs had a 45-yard rushing touchdown early in the fourth quarter to give Buffalo a 31-13 advantage.
He finished the game with 83 rushing yards and a touchdown on 15 carries.
However, the best was yet to come.
Cribbs’ pregnant wife joined the Bills’ post-game celebration. She and her husband took an early morning flight to Buffalo the following morning, per BuffaloBills.com.
Their daughter – their first child – was born on December 28, 1981.
Cribbs was a young father: he was barely twenty-four years old when his daughter came into the world.
The Bills made the AFC Divisional Round for the second consecutive season.
Regrettably, they lost to the Cincinnati Bengals, 28-21.
Entering Cribbs’ third NFL season in 1982, he reportedly sought a five-year, $3.47 million deal, per SI.com.
For their part, the Bills dangled a four-year, $1.2 million offer in May 1982.
The two sides were still at odds in Week 1 of the 1982 NFL season.
It was a tumultuous time in NFL history. The league went on strike and consequently shortened the regular season to just nine games.
Cribbs even sat out two games in the 1982 NFL season due to contract renegotiation issues.
Despite missing some time, Cribbs still led the league in rushing with an average of 90.4 yards per game.
Joe Cribbs totes the rock for the Birmingham Stallions of the USFL. pic.twitter.com/zRJRM0qCyE
— SportsPaper (@SportsPaperInfo) August 24, 2015
Seeking a heftier paycheck and a return to his native Alabama, Cribbs signed a $3.5 million deal with the United States Football League’s (USFL) Birmingham Stallions prior to the 1983 NFL campaign, per The Washington Post.
The Bills, not to be denied, disputed Cribbs’ contract with the Stallions.
Buffalo claimed it included a right of refusal clause in Cribbs’ four-year, $845,000 rookie deal that he signed in 1980.
Since the USFL came into existence two years after Cribbs signed his contract with the Bills, the deal couldn’t prohibit any USFL team from signing the talented running back.
Buffalo federal judge John T. Elfvin eventually ruled in favor of Cribbs and allowed him to suit up for Birmingham.
However, he had to wait for another year before his USFL contract took effect.
Cribbs spent the 1983 NFL season in Buffalo where he had 1,131 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 263 carries.
It was Cribbs’ third 1,000-yard rushing season in four years in Buffalo.
Cribbs also made it to the Pro Bowl for the third and final time in his eight-year NFL career.
The Bills were a mediocre 8-8 squad that missed the postseason for the second straight year.
Meanwhile, Joe Cribbs was on his way to the USFL.
Cribbs continued making headlines on the football front when he played in the USFL.
He walked out of his five-year deal with the Birmingham Stallions in the spring of 1984, per UPI’s Harold Jackson.
Stallions president Jerry Sklar told Jackson that Cribbs wanted to more than double his $2.35 million in earnings over a five-year period.
At the time, Walker was the USFL’s highest-paid player at $6 million over four years.
“Joe is one of the highest-paid players in professional football, and we feel his demands are unwarranted and unjustified,” Sklar told UPI in May 1984.
Since the Stallions wouldn’t budge from their stance, Cribbs walked out of the USFL in 1985.
At the time of Cribbs’ walkout, he led the USFL in rushing. He had 1,105 rushing yards when he requested the Stallions for a much higher salary.
Cribbs’ closest pursuer, former Georgia Bulldogs star running back Herschel Walker of the New Jersey Generals, was a distant second with 791 rushing yards at the time of the former’s walkout.
If there was one thing Cribbs could go back in time and change, it was his two-year stint with the Stallions in 1984 and 1985.
“When that league started, I thought it was going to last forever,” Cribbs told Baker some three decades later. “If I knew that it wasn’t, maybe I wouldn’t have gone.”
Cribbs returned to his original NFL team, the Buffalo Bills, in the 1985 NFL season.
He took a backseat to fullback Greg Bell, who was the Bills’ leading rusher with 883 yards.
Cribbs not only lost his starting running spot, but he also played for a bad Buffalo Bills team that won a measly two games in 1985.
Since Cribbs’ departure for the USFL (which eventually folded in 1986), the Bills had won just an average of two games in the last two seasons.
It was a far cry from the winning culture Cribbs in Buffalo was accustomed to in 1980 and 1981 when the Bills won a combined twenty-one games.
Always a Bill pic.twitter.com/FsDdcrCrRZ
— Joe Cribbs (@autigerjc20) February 21, 2021
Cribbs then spent two seasons with the San Francisco 49ers before splitting the 1988 NFL season – his last – with the Indianapolis Colts and Miami Dolphins.
Cribbs was never the 1,000-yard rushing threat he once was when he returned to the National Football League.
Joe Cribbs finished his eight-year NFL career with 5,356 rushing yards and 27 touchdowns on 1,309 carries.
Some twenty-nine years after Cribbs played his final NFL down, he told Scott “the human body is not made to play football.”
Had he known about the long-term physical repercussions of playing on the gridiron earlier, he wouldn’t have played.
He wouldn’t have let his own kids play football, either, per the Selma-Times Journal.
Cribbs considered Buffalo Bills linebacker Ervin Parker one of his best friends in the NFL. The two men were rookie roommates in the 1980 NFL season and spent a lot of time together, per Baker.
Cribbs even invited Parker to attend his wedding.
In terms of the most memorable play, Cribbs told Baker the 90 halfback option stood out the most because he had the luxury of running different routes.
Cribbs and his Bills teammates called the 90 halfback option the “undefendable play,” per BuffaloBills.com.
If Cribbs and Buffalo quarterback Joe Ferguson were on the same page, the defense wouldn’t know what hit them.
Cribbs didn’t share any intimate details on how the Bills ran the 90 halfback option. All he told Baker was it was impossible for the defense to come up with a solution for it.
He also cherished the camaraderie and relationships he forged during his time in Western New York.
“There’s something special about being in the locker room, being in the fire, being in the huddle with ten other guys that are trying to achieve something or make something happen,” Cribbs told the Bills’ official website in 2019.
Cribbs never considered himself a superstitious player. He had a routine and he was consistent with it throughout his career – he said a short prayer before kickoff, per BuffaloBills.com.
He told Baker he preferred the white-jersey, blue-pant Bills jersey combo. In terms of Bills helmet preference, Cribbs liked the white one with the charging buffalo over the blue alternate with the standing buffalo.
Joe Cribbs and his wife currently live in Daphne, AL. They have two sons and a daughter.
On our way to support my wife’s Alma-Mata in Tallahassee. Go Bama State Hornets! pic.twitter.com/75xyMCVM2B
— Joe Cribbs (@autigerjc20) October 2, 2021
Cribbs’ daughter received a volleyball scholarship when she was in college. His older son had a short-lived football career at a Division III school. The younger son went to the University of Alabama at Birmingham on a track and field scholarship.
His daughter is currently a university math professor. The older son is a restaurant manager in Birmingham, AL. Cribbs’ younger son finished his master’s degree in mathematics in 2019.
Cribbs has a six-year-old granddaughter and a three-year-old grandson. His grandchildren reside in Houston, TX.
Happy Holidays!!! with my two grands in H-town. pic.twitter.com/vN6GCHNbtQ
— Joe Cribbs (@autigerjc20) December 27, 2020
Cribbs told BuffaloBills.com in 2019 he still keeps in touch around ten to twelve of his former Buffalo teammates. He touches base with Ervin Parker, Roland Hooks, Jerry Butler, and Ken Johnson on a fairly regular basis.
Cribbs has been working in the financial services industry for more than twenty years. He specializes in business and personal insurance.
He has been facilitating his popular Joe Pro Football Camps for young football players from ages eight to fourteen in the Birmingham, AL and surrounding areas after he retired from the NFL.
The ultimate goal of Cribbs’ youth camps is to teach the participants life skills through the game of football.
18 holes with Mark Everett & Joe Bock today. Real golf. pic.twitter.com/7yDx8tMmPp
— Joe Cribbs (@autigerjc20) March 22, 2021
Cribbs’ hobbies include playing golf and card games. He doesn’t like reality TV. Comedy series such as “Seinfeld” are more of his cup of tea.
He told the Bills’ official website he has a diverse musical preference. He also likes the occasional wine.