He played youth football at the behest of a cousin, Dean Newby. After quitting, his cousin was angry. He called Gene a quitter. He tried to get him to come back. Shortly after, his cousin lost his life when mauled by a dog. When his aunt called him a quitter, too, he went back to football. After missing a couple of years to care for his terminally ill mother, he returned to school and found out that he excelled at football.
He later dropped out of high school and joined the Navy where he played for a Navy team and was a star. After his discharge, he returned to Akron and worked at the Goodyear plant. Reading the paper in the lead up to the inaugural 1960 season, he read about a former opponent who had played for the Army who was signed by he Denver Broncos. He wrote them a letter and received a contract. He made the team without having played any college football.