June 26, 2017

Old Pros

Joe Namath is now 70. So is Gale Sayers.

It’s a bit odd to think of these football legends as being the same age. Sayers seems like a generation older than Namath, not a day older.

The memories of Gale Sayers are black and white. NFL highlights of the “Kansas Comet” are of him dancing through the mud at Wrigley Field, twisting, turning and sprinting his way toward another touchdown in a game that his Chicago Bears likely lost and certainly in a season in which they were left home at playoff time.

In Sayers’ seven seasons the Bears notched just two winning campaigns and no postseason appearances.

Namath, however, played in a splash of color, joy and success.

Clad in green with a carefree smile, our image of “Broadway Joe” is him lounging by the pool in Miami before leading the New York Jets to a shocking upset of the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III in Miami more than forty-four years ago.

It was his greatest and, some might fairly say, only glory. But it’s not fleeting. Like your girlfriend’s ass, it only grows larger as time goes by.

Namath also lives endlessly in his commercials, broadcasting and, um, acting. Remember him as “C.C. Ryder?” If he and Ann-Margaret had made a baby the kid would either be Queen of England or Prince of Google.

When the Chicago Bears won their first and, to date, only Super Bowl during the 1985 season they honored past Bears players who had never known such success, including Gale Sayers.

But on the day the Bears won that Super Bowl the biggest cheers in the New Orleans Superdome might have been for Joe Namath.

Before Super Bowl XX kicked off the MVP of each previous Super Bowl was honored on the field as a hit song from that year was blasted throughout the dome. The first honoree was Green Bay Packers legend Bart Starr who won the first two MVPs and the song was about as incongruous as a Speedo on a penguin – “The Age of Aquarius.”

Namath was next. The crowd went crazy and the song was as fitting as Namath’s smile was genuine – “Mrs. Robinson.”

Maybe if Sayers had played quarterback he would be remembered for a sunny day in Miami and not muddy days in Chicago.

Both Namath and Sayers began their pro careers in 1965. Namath was drafted by the AFL’s Jets and the NFL’s St. Louis Cardinals and, we know, chose the Jets.

Sayers was taken by the Bears whom he chose over the AFL’s Kansas City Chiefs who went on to play in the first Super Bowl, win the fourth, and remained a top team through 1971, Sayers’ last season in Chicago.

Namath, always living in the glow of that Super Bowl win, soldiered on with the Jets well into the 70s, enjoying some good seasons but mostly not so good as he battled injuries and played on bad teams.

In 1977, he went to the Los Angeles Rams and, fittingly, made his final appearance on a Monday night, after having played in the very first “Monday Night Football” game seven years earlier. On October 10, 1977 Namath’s Rams lost in Chicago to the Bears. He threw four interceptions including one to Doug Plank on what would be the last pass of Namath’s career.

By ’77 Sayers was already in the Hall of Fame.

Namath was inducted in 1985.

Joe Namath and Gale Sayers never met on the football field. Imagine if they had played on the same team. No. 12 drops back to pass, avoids a sack and zips a screen pass to No. 40 who dodges a tackle and sprints toward the goal line.

Sayers scores and is hoisted on his teammates’ shoulders. Namath kisses a cheerleader.

Such a moment would have played well in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles or Kansas. Joe and Gale live without it, though, likely thankful for the success they did have and the cheers they still hear.

They played football, went to college and made a living. They didn’t have to drive a truck, sling shit or fight in Vietnam.

They were two of the lucky ones. Lucky old men.

 

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.

 

Book Review: Sayers: My Life and Times

Gale Sayers tied an NFL record with six touchdowns against San Francisco. But that’s not where his autobiography begins. “Sayers: My Life and Times” by Gale Sayers with Fred Mitchell starts with the most devastating play of the Hall of Fame halfback’s career. While Sayers is most-remembered for his six-touchdown game or as Brian Piccolo roommate, it’s also true that he played a mere 68 games.

Read “Sayers: My Life and Times” because:

1. “The Kansas Comet” learned how to savor the good times.

Sayers frowns on the scripted end zone celebrations we see today, but even he had to do a little dance after his sixth touchdown in the Bears’ 61-20 romp over the 49ers on Dec. 12, 1965. Don’t worry, coach George Halas kept him humble. ‘“You had a great game,”’ Halas said and left it at that. (31, Sayers) Halas had more to say when he presented Sayers at his Hall of Fame induction in 1977. Sayers was 34, the youngest player ever inducted at the time. Personally, Sayers is more proud of the computer supplies company he co-founded in 1982. Since its inception, Sayers Computer Source boasts revenues surpassing $150 million.

2. Sayers chose to move forward.

To become a successful businessman and family man, Sayers realized he couldn’t dwell on his football career that was cut short. At 25 years old, Sayers was at the peak of his game. In 1968, a direct blow to his knee put him on a path to early retirement three years later. Following a second knee injury, Sayers admits that he looked forward to pain killers. But he also had a healthy fear of them. He couldn’t remain on them, he decided, nor would he feel sorry for himself. Instead, following football, he returned to the stockbroker job he occupied part-time during his playing days. He also took Dale Carnegie classes to overcome a stammer.

3. Honesty reigns in this autobiography. Sayers shares freely about his coach, to his teammates, to his struggles after football.

Sayers acknowledges that Halas had a reputation for racial discrimination and being cheap. However, the 1965 Rookie of the Year refuses to say anything but positive remarks about the father figure in his life. Those who criticize Halas’ spending might not realize “Papa Bear” paid for all of Brian Piccolo’s hospital bills (more than five hundred thousand dollars) in addition to college educations for Piccolo’s three daughters.

Speaking of his former roommate, Sayers recalls how reporters would ask the pair about the black and white dynamic. “If you’re asking me what white Italian fullback from Wake Forest [I’d want as a roommate] I’d say Pick.” (42)

Similar to how Sayers used to move effortlessly, this book flows smoothly. Grab your chance to read about a Chicago Bears legend.

Sam Miller is a graduate of the University of Illinois where he worked with various teams in sports information and received the Freedom Forum – NCAA Sports Journalism Scholarship for his achievements. At the University of Illinois, Miller regularly wrote feature stories about the football team. He has also served as communications intern for the Angels’ Triple-A affiliate. Prior to that, he worked as a communications intern for USA Basketball and as an associate reporter for MLB.com.