November 18, 2017

Charlie Hennigan Deserves a Call to Canton

On February 4, 2012, in Indianapolis, the site of this year’s Super Bowl, the Pro Football Hall of Fame will announce the inductees for 2012. The two senior nominees for this year, Jack Butler and Dick Stanfel, are both deserving of induction in Canton, but again many stars from the American Football League have been forgotten. The “Mickey Mouse League”, which the AFL was called by the powers that be in the more established NFL right up until the New York Jets defeated the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III, brought fans of professional football some of the greatest players ever to grace the gridiron. Unfortunately, despite the depth of talent in the AFL, only one player that played exclusively in the AFL, Billy Shaw of the Buffalo Bills, is enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

There are several players from the AFL that fans of professional football have campaigned for their induction into Canton. Some of the players on that list have included the following names, among others: Cookie Gilchrist, Johnny Robinson, Paul Lowe, Jack Kemp, Abner Haynes, Lionel Taylor, John Hadl, Winston Hill, Otis Taylor and Charlie Hennigan. All of the players on this list have excelled in professional football and have strong arguments for induction into Canton, but the one player on the list that stacks up extremely well with already inducted members of the HOF, at the same position, is former Houston Oilers receiver Charlie Hennigan.

Before providing a statistical comparison of how Hennigan stacks up with other receivers in the HOF, a little background into how he came to play professional football will make his accomplishments all that more impressive.

Charlie Hennigan attended LSU as a track star, which was a miracle considering as a child he was afflicted with an extended illness thought at the time to be tuberculosis and his parents were told that he would have difficulty with just walking. Hennigan overcame his childhood illness and this was the first sign that he would not let any obstacles stand in his way. While at LSU, Hennigan decided to pursue playing football and transferred to Northwestern State University where he became the star of the team. Upon graduation, no NFL teams came calling and Hennigan became a high school biology teacher in his home state of Louisiana.

Then a glimmer of hope opened when the American Football League announced that they would begin operation in 1960. Hennigan drove to Houston to try out for the Oilers and motivated himself by taping the pay stub from his meager teaching salary to the inside of his helmet. The head coach for the Oilers in 1960 was Lou Rymkus, who was less than impressed by Hennigan, but he caught the eye of the receiver coach, Mac Speedie. Speedie was a star receiver for the Cleveland Browns in the 1950s and knew talent at the receiver position when he saw it. Speedie campaigned on the last day of cuts to keep Hennigan on the team and even threatened to quit if Hennigan was dismissed from the team.

Luckily for the Oilers and fans of the AFL, Mac Speedie was correct in his assessment of Hennigan’s football skills. Hennigan teamed with quarterback George Blanda, receiver Billy Groman, and running back Billy Cannon to form the high-powered offense that won the first two AFL Championships in 1960 and 1961. The Oilers came close to winning a third championship in 1962 when they lost to the Kansas City Chiefs in double overtime of the AFL title game.

In addition to having team success, Hennigan had become a star receiver in the AFL. In his second season (1961), he amassed a record 1,746 receiving yards on 82 receptions for a 21.3 yards per reception average. Hennigan compiled those statistics over a 14-game schedule and surpassed the prior record holder, Crazy Legs Hirsch, who had compiled 1,495 yards in a 12-game season. As a matter of personal pride, Hennigan, who was playing a 14-game schedule, made sure he surpassed Hirsch’s total within the first twelve games of the season to make sure he fairly eclipsed Hirsch’s record in the same number of games. Hennigan’s receiving record stood for 34 years and was broken in 1995 by Jerry Rice and Isaac Bruce, both of whom played a 16-game schedule. Now fifty years later, despite the changes made by the league to increase scoring and limiting defensive player contact, Hennigan is still ranked third on the all-time receiving list for yards in a season, only trailing Rice and Bruce.

From 1961-1965, Hennigan was an AFL All-Star and a perennial league leader in receiving. In 1964, he set another record when he became the first receiver to surpass 100 receptions in a season when he finished the season with 101 receptions for 1,546 yards. He also became the first receiver to have two 1,500-yard receiving seasons in a career. Unfortunately, the record-setting season for Hennigan was the last great season he would have due to knee injuries and the repeated concussions he suffered.

Hennigan called it a career following the 1966 season when he could no longer take the punishment his body had put up with and finished his seven-year pro career with 6,823 receiving yards on 410 receptions while scoring 51 touchdowns in 95 games. While not eye-popping statistics in today’s pass happy NFL, Hennigan’s statistics compared favorably to many of his peers already enshrined in Canton. Hennigan had four career 200-yard receiving games, including the AFL record 272 yards receiving he had against the Patriots in 1961. Only HOF members Jerry Rice and Lance Alworth, with five career 200-yard receiving games, surpassed Hennigan’s record and they required 303 and 136 career games respectively to compile those statistics compared to Hennigan’s 95 games played.

Despite his records and personal statistics, Hennigan has two major obstacles in his pursuit of enshrinement into Canton. The first being that he was an AFL only player and the second being that his career only lasted seven years. Many of the sportswriters that hold votes for the HOF say that the AFL was an inferior league or that a player really needed a longer career of at least ten years to be considered for enshrinement. In reality, it all comes up to a popularity contest and a writer’s personal opinion of a player. Gale Sayers played only five complete seasons in the NFL, yet was enshrined immediately after he became eligible for the honor. It did not hurt Sayers’ cause that “Papa Bear” George Halas personally pushed for Sayers’ enshrinement.

A website campaigning for Charlie Hennigan as a candidate for the Hall of Fame, www.henniganforthehall.com, was started two years ago and compares his statistics to other HOF members – you will be more than surprised how well he stacks up. Several HOF members including Don Maynard, Jackie Smith and Lance Alworth have written letters of support for Hennigan’s campaign stating that he is more than deserving of a bust in Canton, Ohio. Alworth and Smith even added in their letters of support that they studied Hennigan’s route running to perfect their own games, which led them to football immortality. But, Hennigan is still on the outside looking in. Apparently, all of the statistics and letters of support from a player’s peers mean nothing when it comes to the HOF vote. Don Maynard said it best when asked about his support of Hennigan. “I believe Charlie and several other player’s belong in the Hall of Fame, but it falls on deaf ears with the sports writers that vote for the Hall. It’s like having a bunch of plumbers vote for the best electrician.” Hopefully, the sports writers will take up the campaign for Hennigan and other forgotten players of the AFL, who rightfully deserve to be in Canton. Remember it’s not the NFL Hall of Fame; it’s the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Too bad many of the writers on the selection committee forget that.

 

My Memories of Sid Gillman

My interest in the American Football League began when I started writing my master’s thesis on Sid Gillman, the Chargers’ first head coach.  I was fortunate because at the time, the Gillmans lived at La Costa, in San Diego’s North County.  During my research, and then for a few years after, I was able to spend time with Sid and his wife, Esther.  It was a very neat time for me.  My girlfriend at the time (and now wife), Kym, often came with me.  She and Esther would walk through their beautiful gardens, enjoying the flowers and talking about things ranging from family to football, being married for 60+ years, politics, and having to pick up and move your family with each new coaching position.

Meanwhile Sid and I watched television, talked about the current NFL, or reminisced about his time with the Chargers.  I remember watching the 1999 NFL Draft with Sid.  He didn’t know much about the draftees, but he still liked to keep track of what was going on in the NFL.

One of the pieces that I love most in my collection was given to me one day by Esther.  Knowing that I liked to collect memorabilia, she presented me with one of Sid’s pipes.  Aside from the passing game, Sid was well-known for wearing bow ties and smoking pipes.  That simple gift meant more to me than she ever knew.

Sid Gillman was 88 years old when we first met.  His memory was still sharp, but began fading shortly thereafter.  I was able to record four interviews with him.  The one presented below is the first of those interviews, and I believe the best.  It was done on December 16, 1998, and covers many areas within coach Gillman’s career.  I have presented the entire interview for you to enjoy.

 

 

TT – How did you get started in football?  When did you begin playing?

 

SG – Well, of course I played as a youngster.  I played in high school and was always, as far back as I can remember, oriented as far as athletics are concerned.  I was very much interested in them.  I played in high school and I played in college, played in professional football and it just carried on through life.

 

TT – How did you get started in coaching?

 

SG – Well, that is kind of an interesting story in that my coach, a fellow that I worked with, briefly, to start with.  His name was Francis Schmidt, and he was probably one of the greatest minds of anybody that I’ve ever known.  I was playing in the all-star game in Chicago.  We don’t have an all-star game anymore because insurance rates are so high that if any of those kids got killed, especially if somebody hurt his arm and he’s got an insurance policy of $15 million, you couldn’t afford to stay up with the insurance deal.  So they cut it out.  But I was playing in this all-star game when my coach wired me and wanted me to come back and help out in spring football practice, which I did do, although I was destined for law school.  I thought that maybe I might become a lawyer.  But I thought, “Well, we’ll give football a try.”  And I went back, this was at Ohio State.  I went back and I haven’t seen a law school yet, because I was taken back by football and teaching football and coaching football.  I wasn’t interested in anything else after that experience.

 

TT – Were the offenses that you played in at Ohio State similar to the ones you ended up coaching later?

 

SG – Not even a reasonable facsimile.  It wasn’t close.  I played old-fashioned football where it was called single-wing.  You had a wing-back and a half back and a running back and a blocking back but there was no I-formation at that time.  Actually “I” came in later on.  Clark Shaughnessy had a lot to do with establishing the I-formation.  We had some great teams at Ohio State at that time.  And that’s how it got started.  Francis Schmidt, the guy loved to work and I fit right in with him because I was a workaholic.  That’s the way she went.

 

TT – Can you explain how you started off with your offensive philosophy in football, the thoughts that you went into your first coaching jobs with?

 

SG – It goes way back to when I decided that running the ball isn’t going to win for you.  You had to have a good passing attack and some good ends that can catch the ball and quarterbacks that can throw the ball.  And the key to the whole thing was scoring points.  You can score faster, quicker by throwing the ball than you could any other way.  This fascinated me.

 

TT – Is that something that you learned right away?

 

SG – It is something that I learned right away.  It started right on out.  And of course Schmidt, my coach, was pass-oriented.  He liked to throw the ball, too.  It started kind of with him and the fascination myself.  Scoring fast.  So that’s just about the way it went.

 

TT – Who were your greatest influences in football?  You mentioned Francis Schmidt.

 

SG – Well, Francis Schmidt was probably the key.  He was the worker and he enjoyed having me around because I worked right with him.  So it was Schmidt that really was the key guy in my thinking.  Because of the fact that you could score faster, quicker and that was what was happening.

 

TT – Can you discuss some of the difficulties you encountered between coaching college and pro ball?

 

SG – Well, the main thing in pro ball was throwing the ball and scoring quick.  This was the idea.  Against college football it was more run-oriented.  People didn’t think too much about throwing the ball in the old days when I was breaking in.  They were thinking about running the football until some of us got to thinking that it was kind of a waste of time.  We began to throw it.


TT – What do you think were your greatest strengths over the years as a coach?

 

SG – Well, number one is work.  I worked probably harder than most coaches.  As a matter of fact, I think that and the fact that I enjoyed throwing the ball rather than running it.  I guess throwing the ball was the key and working day and night.

 

TT – I’ve heard that from many of your players that you were the hardest-working person on the team.

 

SG – Well, I hope that they appreciated it.

 

TT – They did. I’ve talked to probably 20 of your players with the Chargers and they were all extremely complimentary, not only of you, but of Mrs. Gillman as well.

 

SG – Well, that’s nice.

 

TT – So many of your coaches went on to have extremely successful coaching careers of their own.  What were some of the qualities that you looked for in your coaches when you chose them?

 

SG – Well, the key to the whole thing is to get somebody that will be willing to work.  That’s the key to the whole thing.  And then to have a guy that was bright enough to learn as much as possible of the system we had so that he could go out and coach it for us, and if necessary go out and get a job on his own.  That’s all it is.  No magic at all, just work.  Work your rear end off.

 

TT – This next set of questions is about things that you introduced to the game.  First of all, you brought in Alvin Roy in 1963 as the first weight training coach.

 

SG – Yeah, we had the first weight training coach.

 

TT – What was the desired result that you were looking for when you brought him on?

 

SG – We tried to make people stronger and larger.  That was the key to the whole thing, get them larger, get them stronger.  Then we thought that we could block a little better.  That was the key thing.  As a matter of fact I saw a high school team work out once with weights and that intrigued me.  I went back home and went to work right away trying to get a system going of lifting and that helped us a great deal.

 

TT – That was my next question.  Was it a success?

 

SG – Oh, definitely a success.  It was a success in high school football and college football and pro football.  Everybody began to copy it.

 

TT – When did you first begin to learn about weight lifting?  Roughly how many years before the Chargers?

 

SG – Maybe a year or two.  I mentioned I saw this high school team in the weight room, lifting weights and I thought what a great thing that would be for us.  That’s the way it was.  We became stronger and stronger by the day.

 

TT – Do you think that maybe it hurt because weight lifting was not as well understood at that point?  Did you have any drawbacks to it?

 

SG – No, no drawbacks, none at all.  We just carried on as much as we could and everybody fit right in the program.  The first time I was connected with any weight program was with a high school team years ago.  I watched them work and thought it was going to be a great thing for us.  And it was.

 

TT – When did you first begin to use film as a coaching tool?

 

SG – Oh, that dates back to my cradle.  It was college as a matter of fact, we filmed our practice sessions and carried it over into pros.  When I went with the Rams we began to take film of our practices.  So it dates way back, almost to day one.  Of course it was very simple for me, because my parents were in the movie business.  And in those days, this was long before you were born, they used to have Fox Movie Tone News and Paramount and they all had newsreels and I used to clip the football out of those reels.  It was against the law, but I did it anyhow.  So that’s what started me out.  Invariably it was our newsreels which were a big thing in the movie business.  People now get television, but years ago you had the Movie Tone.  Fox, Paramount, they all had shots of major games and I used to cut those major games out and study them.  So that’s what started me out in the movies.  And then the fact that I just took the movie camera out on the practice field.

TT – So were you even clipping these highlight reels before you started coaching?

 

SG – No.  I was coaching at the time.  Gee, I’ll never forget.  I was coaching in college at the time and we were in a training camp and I had a cameraman work with us.  He was shooting one day and we noticed that there was going to be a storm.  The clouds were so goddamn black, you could hardly see.  The guy reminded me of Gene Leff, same mode.  I said, “Jimmy, come on down.  It looks like were going to have a storm.”  Well, before he was able to get down, that storm came up and it was about a 25-foot scaffold and the son of a bitch just flopped on over and the camera and everything just smashed to smithereens.  It was just a hell of a thing.  Nothing happened to him, thank goodness.  He survived, but all our film equipment broke up.  I see that in my mind every once in a while.  He had just enough room to move in a direction.  He was like a rat trying to find the hole and he couldn’t find the hole and he decided to ride down with it.  He rode down with the storm.  Oh jeez, I’ll never forget that.

 

TT – You were also the first coach to allow black and white players to room together on the road.  Can you explain your philosophies behind that?

 

SG – Well, it was a simple thing.  They all decided to room together.  We just got together and had a meeting and discussed the situation with them and told them we just had to live together.  That’s all.  We played together, we had to live together.  And they accepted it, without question.  We left the movie one night because the owner of the movie came up and told me, “Coach, you’re gonna have to get your boys up in the balcony because we got a big crowd coming in and you gotta move up.”  I said, “We’re not moving any place.”  I told him, “We’re not moving anywhere because of black and white, see.”  I told him, “We’re not moving any place.  If we have to move, we’re moving out.”  And he says, “Well, I can’t help it.”  So we just took our squad and got the hell out of there.

 

At this point Bob Hood, a Chargers staff member from 1962-77, joined in the conversation.

 

BH – Sometimes we went and all sat in the balcony just so there wasn’t any problem.  The whites would sit where the blacks had to sit, rather than embarrassing the blacks.

 

SG – But we just collected our whole team and told them, “We’re leaving, getting the hell out of here, because it’s not a place we want to be.”

 

TT – And that was in Atlanta?

 

SG – It was in Houston, wasn’t it?

 

BH – That one was in Houston.  We had another incident, remember in Atlanta.  It was in 1964 and we played…  Do you remember when we played in Memphis and we flew on that crappy plane that Johnny Gough got, that constellation?  We stayed in Jonesboro and we played in Little Rock.  And then we stayed in Jonesboro, we went to Kansas City and we finished in Atlanta.  And Atlanta didn’t have a team yet.  We played in a little stadium called Wickham Stadium, stayed in a Hilton out by the airport and Ernie and those guys , we all went next door.  I went with them to the bowling alley to play pool.  Keith Lincoln, Lance, all of us were playing pool and they came up in the pool hall and asked the blacks to leave because they weren’t allowed in there to play pool.  You had to have the mayor come to breakfast the next morning because the guys said they weren’t going to play.  You had it in the all-star game, I think it was the same year.  But 1964, it was the preseason Sid.  My eyes were big.  I came from California and didn’t know what segregation was.  But that happened in 1964.  We stayed in a Hilton and right next door was the bowling alley.  Ernie and those guys, Ladd and Luther we all were there, playing.  The whole group left just like the movie theater, and the players came to you and said they were not going to play the game.  That’s when they were trying to get either and AFL or an NFL team in Atlanta.  I remember that.  I remember that, at the time I was 19, 20 years old.

 

SG – Well, we were at training camp when we decided that we weren’t going to have any segregation and I discussed with members of the squad and they all agreed.  I tell you.  They all took a black roommate and every one of them was tickled to death to do it.  We had some great kids, no problem at all.  And the next time that we had a problem was the all-star game.  Cab driver would only take our all-stars a certain distance.  And he stopped the cab and said, “It’s time to get out now.”  Our kids decided, “The hell it is.  This isn’t time to get out.  We haven’t reached our destination yet.”  So they went back to the hotel and packed.  And I caught a bunch of them walking out of the hotel and I didn’t know what the hell was going on.  Then I nailed a few of them and we discussed the thing with them and got it settled and went and played it in Houston.  We played it in Houston.

 

BH – That was before New Orleans had a team, too.

 

SG – Yeah.

 

TT – You had problems with some of your hotels as well, didn’t you?

 

SG – We didn’t have too many problems with the hotels.  Do you recall any problems with the hotels?

 

BH – I think Barron kind of eased the way on that.

 

SG – Listen, when I was coaching the Rams, the black football players could not travel with us.  We had to put them up with families.  They couldn’t go to a hotel in the South, below the Mason-Dixon Line.  We had to take all our black kids, and we had a few of them, and get a place for them to stay in a private home.  I’ll never forget that.  That’s when it all started.

 

TT – Did you ever face any pressure for having so many black players on your teams?  You had a lot more than most teams.

 

SG – No.  I didn’t have any problems.  None what-so-ever.  We had some high-class guys.  Tank Younger and guys like that.  We had a bunch of them and they were first-rate guys.  So we didn’t have any problems.  We didn’t have any problems when they weren’t allowed to live in a hotel.

 

TT – What kinds of things did you have to do differently coaching the Chargers than you did with the Rams?  What kind of things did building a new league at the same time cause?

 

SG – Pretty much the same.  There wasn’t any difference in the football.  The football was the same.  We probably threw the ball more than most people.  I’m sure that’s true because we wanted to give the fans a thrill, so we threw the ball a little more than anybody else.  Basically there wasn’t any problems.

 

TT – That was actually my next question.  Why was there more passing in the AFL than the NFL?

 

SG – Well, that was one of the reasons.  Instead of running the ball, we knew we could start the cash register going a hell of a lot faster when we’re throwing than when we’re running.  So we just decided that we’re going to throw the ball and not run much.

 

TT – Most of the teams were that way in the AFL.  Most of the teams threw a lot more.

 

SG – Well, I think they probably did.  Of course we were so successful at the time, throwing and everybody was willing to grab onto our theory at the time and so we would grab onto theirs if they had something good that we could use.

 

TT – What were some other differences between the AFL and the NFL at that time?

 

SG – Well actually, there wasn’t a hell of a lot of difference, except the passing game.  We didn’t have the size and experience player-wise, but there wasn’t a hell of a lot of difference.

 

TT – Did you play a role in the merger of the AFL and the NFL?

 

SG – I think I did.  I think I did.  As a matter of fact, I have talked to Esther about this so often.  It was going to be a nip-and-tuck battle, and the National Football League we had a meeting.  American League and the National League met and we couldn’t get together for some unknown reason.  It was just impossible, like the Israelis, we couldn’t get together.  The National Football League people, Chuck Noll and five or six of them got up and walked out of our meeting because they weren’t happy with the way things were going.  I went to Chuck Noll and half a dozen of the people that were on the National Football League and tried to get them back in the meeting.  Pete Rozelle came to the meeting and we discussed merger at the time and I played a major role in keeping them together, getting them together.  But hell, it was so long ago.

 

TT – So many of the players have told me that Rough Acres was their most successful training camp.

 

SG – They hated it.  I guess they did.  It was great.  It was a great experience for us.  Hood can tell you more about that.  It was a real fine experience.  Lousy food, snakes all over the place, God Almighty.  It served its purpose.

 

BH – You used to have me make champagne.  Do you remember that?  That was salt water with lemons.  We called it the champagne break.  That was pre-Gatorade.

 

SG – That was even before Gatorade.

 

TT – Why didn’t you do more of those retreat-style camps more often?  Where you got away from everything.

 

SG – Well, we couldn’t find the spots, as a matter of fact.  There were very few areas that were conducive to pro practice and players.  We had …

 

BH – We were at USD and went from there to Rough Acres and then we went from Rough Acres after that one year we went to Escondido.

 

SG – Escondido, oh yeah.  But then we went to the University of California.

 

BH – Then we went to University of California San Diego after that.

 

SG – That was our best training camp.

 

BH – They still are there…  Oh, I missed one.  We went from Escondido to Irvine, University of California Irvine.  That was a wonderful training camp.  That was a good training camp.

 

SG – We bounced around, couldn’t settle down to a real good training camp.  But we had enough good areas that weren’t too bad for us.

 

TT – During that 1963 year Tobin was quarterbacking most of the time.

 

SG – Yeah, he started us off.

 

TT – Did you have to rearrange your plays at all because of the weakness of his arm?

 

SG – No, we threw short with him.  But he was good for us.  He didn’t throw too long, but he was accurate as hell, just accurate as hell.  Hell of a player.

 

BH – Quite a leader too.

 

SG – Oh yes he was.  He was fine.  Well-experienced.

 

TT – The Chargers went to the division championship five times in the first six years of the AFL.  What made that ‘63 team better than the other teams?

 

SG – Well, personnel-wise.  You’re talking about Keith Lincoln, you’re talking about Lance Alworth, you’re talking about…we had some top, Ernie Wright.  We had some top players.  There were no bad players among them.  They were all pretty good.  Ernie Wright was terrific.  Ernie, I got him out of Ohio State.  But I think…John Hadl and Ron Mix, my God, we just had outstanding players.  They could play today.  The only problem we would have probably would be defensively because we’d be too small.  You gotta be 300 pounds to play defense this day and age.  But we could play pretty well today.

 

TT – When you went into the ‘63 championship game against the Patriots, Keith Lincoln had one of the best playoff games in history.  Did you plan on using him that much in that game?

 

SG – Oh yes.  He’s the best we had.  We couldn’t play without him.  He’s just a great player.

 

TT – But did you center the offense that day just around him?

 

SG – Oh, pretty much so.

 

TT – What was your game plan going into it?

 

SG – Well, it was play action passes as a matter of fact and motion.  We probably started out with more motion than any other club in the league, because they usually “dogged” (blitzed) a hell of a lot.  And when you dog, you change your coverage.  So we forced them to change coverage and that’s truly what happened in that ball game.  The fact that they were forced to use motion and when they did, that’s when we really got to them.

 

TT – A few more questions on your offense.  How did you attempt to use the tight end in your offense?  You used it a lot differently than most coaches did at that time.

 

SG – Well, we used it as a key receiver and blocker.  It was a combination of blocker and key receiver.  (Dave) Kocourek was made to order for that because he could block and catch the ball.  He was of reasonably good size, not very big, but reasonably good size.  He was a heck of a player.

 

TT – How much of your offense do you think you personally designed and how much do you think you got from another coach?

 

SG – Oh God, I don’t know what we got from another coach.  But I think most of our stuff was homemade.  I didn’t mind stealing anything from anybody if it would help us.  That’s just about what it amounts to in this business.  Watch these successful clubs.  Anything that they have that’s good, that you think you can use, just grab it.  Forget it.

 

TT – Many of your players have told me that you stretched the defenses with your passing game.  Can you explain that to me?

 

SG – Well, what we did was widen our outside ends.  So often you see these outside ends, wide receivers are awful tight.  Now that confines the area behind them.  What we did is move them out.  That gave us a lot of passing room, a lot of receiving room in there.  That gave us the width of the field and we threw long because we had Lance Alworth and stretched the field straight away.  So we just stretched the field horizontally and vertically.  There are some clubs that do that now.  No major deal there.

 

TT – How were you able to take advantage of when they widened the hash marks on the field?

 

SG – Well, it was great because when they split the field up it gave us seven areas.  We call that the Field Balance Theory, where were going to have a guy between the sidelines and the numbers, were gonna have a guy on the numbers, were gonna have a guy inside the numbers, then were gonna have another guy in the middle of the field.  Well, you don’t have enough people to handle all of those areas, but at least we’ve got good balance if we’ve got half the areas.  Control half the areas, we’ve got a hell of a passing game going.  But we call that Field Balance Theory and it’s very important to our passing game because if we widen them out, we had areas behind them, we had areas to the inside.  If we went deep we had the field to throw into.

 

TT – How has the game opened up offensively since your time with the Chargers?

 

SG – Well, anymore the game is a game of looks.  In fact, I talked to Dick Vermeil this morning.  They won last week.  We decided a long time ago that pro football is a game of looks.  You take one play and you run that one play ten different ways as against ten plays.  What we’ve done is simplify the whole process by spreading the field and creating these areas that we can throw into.  But it helps us in throwing into those different areas.  Field Balance Theory.  If we can get a guy in every one of those areas, then we can control the field.

 

TT – How do you think you influenced today’s West Coast Offense?

 

SG – Well, I think that we’ve influenced it because number one, we have created a good short passing game, which is important.  We got backs and ends that can run and catch, that’s the key thing.  You gotta have a guy that can catch a football and run with it after they catch it.  That’s the 49er theory.  So that’s basically what it’s all about.

 

TT – So it’s really as much pulling certain types of personnel.

 

SG – That’s right, and then having guards who can run and block, trap and block.  That’s essential.  So that’s about what it’s all about.  We’ve been successful throwing the ball because we used a mirrored system.  We put two guys the same distance and the guy that’s open will get the ball.  If we widen two guys out there and if one is open we’ll get it to him.  If there isn’t anybody open, that’s where our tight end comes into effect.  He’s in the middle getting free somewhere.

 

Todd Tobias runs the blog Tales from the American Football League where this article was originally published on November 7, 2011.

 

Broncos Stun Lions in First Preseason Game Between AFL-NFL Teams (1967)

The merger between the NFL and AFL, that was agreed to in 1966, was implemented in phases. In the first phase, following the ’66 season, a game was played between the champions of the two leagues (now known as Super Bowl I). For 1967, there was a common draft of college talent between the two leagues, and while they would still play separate schedules until 1970, interleague preseason games could be scheduled. While at one level the contests were mere exhibition games that counted for nothing in the standings, to the participants they meant a great deal. In particular, the AFL players were determined to prove their mettle against the clubs from the older NFL.

Such was the case as the AFL’s Denver Broncos hosted the NFL’s Detroit Lions at University of Denver Stadium on August 5, 1967. The Broncos, a club that had never produced a record above .500 in any season and had gone 4-10 in ’66, hardly seemed likely to fare well against any NFL team. Under new Head Coach Lou Saban, who had led Buffalo to back-to-back championships in 1964 and 1965 before coaching for a year at the University of Maryland, the team was in the process of being revamped. Gone were key veterans that Saban deemed unfit for taking part in a rebuilding effort like split end Lionel Taylor, safety Goose Gonsoulin, and guard Jerry Sturm. Most notable among the newcomers was the rookie first draft choice out of Syracuse, halfback Floyd Little. Denver had lost its first preseason game against the second-year Miami Dolphins by a score of 19-2.

The Lions also had a new head coach in Joe Schmidt, at age 35 and only two years removed from his Hall of Fame career as a linebacker. Detroit had gone 4-9-1 in 1966 and was also in transition. Defense had long been the team’s strong suit, and they still had a strong veteran core of defensive tackles Roger Brown and Alex Karras, linebackers Mike Lucci and Wayne Walker, and safety Dick LeBeau. Veteran QB Milt Plum was recovered after missing half of the season due to injury and was being challenged by Karl Sweetan, who had performed creditably as a rookie in his absence. Their top three picks in the draft had added HB Mel Farr from UCLA, CB Lem Barney of Jackson State, and Tennessee LB Paul Naumoff.

There were 21,288 fans in attendance for the Saturday evening contest. Neither team was able to mount much offense in the first half. Playing inspired football, the Broncos defense kept the Lions offense out of the end zone; the closest Detroit penetrated was to the Denver 36 yard line. Safety Lonnie Wright made two big plays, intercepting a Sweetan pass at his own 20 and then batting down a long Detroit pass in the end zone to stop another drive.

Following a 56-yard pass play from QB Scotty Glacken to flanker Al Denson, Errol Mann kicked a 35-yard field goal that staked the Broncos to a 3-0 lead (while Mann failed to make it to the regular season with Denver, ironically, he eventually ended up kicking for the Lions for 7 ½ years).

The key play of the game occurred on a 4th and 11 situation at the Detroit 44 in the third quarter. Denver punter Bob Scarpitto ran instead of kicking and picked up 28 yards and a first down at the Lions 16 yard line. Six plays later, FB Cookie Gilchrist bulled into the end zone from a yard out and the Broncos led by 10-0.

Detroit finally scored in the fourth quarter as Plum threw a 15-yard touchdown pass to WR Bill Malinchak. That was it for the Lions, and Mann’s second field goal of the game from 32 yards out capped the scoring at 13-7 in favor of Denver.

On the bus after the game, Roger Brown of the Lions moaned “The Denver Broncos…it didn’t happen!” But Coach Schmidt summed up by saying, “I want to pay tribute to the Denver team. And, if the other AFL teams show as much desire, there will be many other surprises in the preseason inter-league competition.”

While the Broncos went on to defeat the Vikings, 14-9, and the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs thrashed the Chicago Bears by an astounding score of 66-24, the NFL teams won the remaining contests and had an overall record of 13-3 in the 1967 interleague preseason games.

For all of the excitement and heightened expectations, the Broncos still ended up at the bottom of the AFL’s Western Division with a 3-11 record. Detroit finished the ’67 regular season with a 5-7-2 tally that ranked third in the Central Division of the NFL’s Western Conference.

 

Keith Yowell runs the blog Today in Pro Football History where this article was originally published on August 5, 2010.

 

Let’s Get It On

Alex Karras was an Iowa Hawkeye. He almost won the Heisman in 1957.  This is rare for a lineman.  Only one other lineman came in second in the voting.  That was John Hicks of Ohio State in 1973.  The year before, Karras helped lead the team to its first Rose Bowl.  They went 9-1 in the Big Ten.  But if you’d ask Alex, his biggest college win was the season finale in 1956 versus Notre Dame.  Iowa beat them 48-8.  The Karras clan grew up not far from Notre Dame and they hated them with a passion.  That 1956 Notre Dame team won only twice.  Nonetheless, all purpose back Paul Hornung was the Heisman winner.  1957 was also a year that Chevy pumped out a classic.  Ford may have outsold Chevy that year, but hot-rodders would later revere the Chevy.  And Jimmy Hoffa took over the Teamsters that year.  George Meany responded by kicking the International Brotherhood out of the AFL-CIO.  Robert F. Kennedy was out to get Hoffa after serving as lead counsel for the Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities in Labor and Management.

 

Vince Lombardi couldn’t get a head coaching job in the college ranks.  He felt administrators were prejudiced against an Italian like him.  So he became the offensive coordinator of the New York Giants.  The pros were having some fun of their own.  In 1958, the championship game went to sudden death for the first time and the Colts beat New York on Alan Ameche’s TD.  It has been called the Greatest Game.  What impact did it really have?  Well, Lamar Hunt wanted to own a sports team.  He couldn’t decide between baseball (in Branch Rickey’s proposed Continental League) or football.  He wound up starting his own league.

 

Jack Kemp was on the Giants taxi squad in 1958.  He was cut after the season then washed out of the Canadian Football League.  He was going to hang up his cleats, but Hunt’s AFL opened for business the next year and Kemp got another chance.  Rosey Grier did play in that game along with Frank Gifford, Andy Robustelli, Sam Huff, Charlie Connerly, and others.  And although New York lost the title game, the coordinators went on to head coaching jobs.  Tom Landry returned to his home state of Texas to take over the expansion Cowboys.  Lombardi went up to moribund Green Bay.

 

Ernie Barnes didn’t have the pedigree of such college stars as Hornung, Karras, or Cannon.  He was a fat, unathletic kid who liked art until a gym teacher inspired him to take up football.  He was good enough to get drafted by the Washington Redskins.  They repudiated the pick when they found out he was black.  The Redskins wouldn’t integrate until RFK forced them to.  Forget the morality of that policy for a moment.  Barnes played for a historically black college.  Prejudice is one thing.  Stupidity is another.  He would wind up on the Chargers along with Jack Kemp and the two would become friends.

 

Karras went on to the Detroit Lions and had a great career despite losing a year due to a suspension for gambling and only appearing in one playoff game.  He was a jack of all trades.  He tried his hand at the shot put, wrestling, and acting.

 

George Plimpton was Walter Mitty with a typewriter.  He practically invented participatory journalism.  Plimpton wrote Out of My League about facing an all-star baseball lineup.  In 1963, he went to the Detroit Lions training camp to play Jack Kemp’s role of last string quarterback.  The result was Paper Lion.  Karras was on that team, but he was suspended for gambling.  The previous preseason, Karras rode back to Detroit from a game in Cleveland in a party bus with gangster Anthony Giacalone. This led to an NFL investigation into player gambling that wound up in fines for his teammates who bet on the title game and suspensions for Karras and Paul Hornung.

 

Jimmy Hoffa was put away in 1964, thanks, in part to the testimony of Edward Grady Partin.  He was a baaad man.  Partin helped tamper with a jury that acquitted Hoffa.

 

After their glory days, the Giants fell on hard times and their players dispersed to other teams.  Sam Huff went to Washington.  Rosey Grier joined the Fearsome Foursome frontline in LA that included Merlin Olsen, Lamar Lundy, and Deacon Jones.  Jones had a mean head slap, which, before the league outlawed it, befuddled opposing o linemen.  He also coined the term quarterback sack; like he was looting the defeated city of Johnny Unitas.  He also sang R & B with a band called Nightshift.  They would go on to become War and would sing about society and politics with a funky beat.

 

In 1968, LBJ declined to seek another term and the race for the Democrat nomination was wide open. RFK decided to run, but Sirhan Sirhan assassinated him after the California primary.  Rosey Grier was his bodyguard.  Grier, decathlete Rafer Johnson and George Plimpton wrestled Sirhan to the ground.  Plimpton was an old college chum of RFK.

 

One of Karras’ Lion teammates was Lem Barney.  Barney and Mel Farr befriended Motown star Marvin Gaye.  Gaye was depressed by the death of his duet partner Tammi Terrell and decided that he wanted to become a wide receiver.  No word on whether or not he was inspired by Plimpton.  He got Barney and Farr to help him work out and beef up.   The pair of Lions wound up singing backup on “What’s Going On.”  Gaye wanted to become more relevant and recorded that song against the wishes of studio head honcho Berry Gordy.

 

Meanwhile, Barnes’s football career ended quietly and he returned to painting.  His work was described as neo-Mannerist.  He had an exhibition called The Beauty of the Ghetto, which was hosted by Jack Kemp along with Ethel Kennedy.

 

Ben Davidson was the first mustachioed football player and this was years before the Oakland A’s became the Mustache Gang.  He did some acting.  He appeared in the football game at the end of the movie M*A*S*H.  CBS would adapt it to television after their rural purge of such comedies like Green Acres and The Andy Griffith Show.  They were looking for more seriocomic shows.  Gary Burghoff was the only actor from the movie cast who reprised his role in the TV show.  Alan Alda got the lead part as Hawkeye Pierce.  He broke through by playing the role of Plimpton in the movie adaptation of Paper Lion.

 

Besides, M*A*SH, CBS also added some shows by Norman Lear to their lineup.  Most notably, All in the Family looked at the blue collar Bunker family from Queens.  It spawned some spin-offs like The Jeffersons and MaudeMaude begat Good TimesGood Times introduced America to Jimmy Walker.  (I had a “Dyn-O-Mite” t-shirt as a lad.)  The show featured a painting by Ernie Barnes called “Sugar Shack.”  Marvin Gaye liked it so much that he’d go on to use it for the cover of his album I Want You.

 

Epilogue

Karras would appear in Blazing Saddles and later on in the sitcom Webster.

 

Jimmy Hoffa was last seen in 1975.  Word is that Anthony Giacalone killed him.  There used to be whispers that his body was in the end zone of Giants Stadium.

 

Edward Grady Partin died in 1990.  One of his honorary pallbearers was Billy Cannon.  Cannon was the 1959 Heisman winner and would later go to federal prison for counterfeiting.