The American Football League and HBCUs
By Michael – Louis Ingram, Editor – in – Chief
The National Football League enjoys the level of popularity that it does due to two important historical moments: The “sudden death” 23- 17 victory by Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts over the New York Giants (when they were actually based in New York!) and the Super Bowl III 16 – 7 upset of the Colts by the New York Jets as the upstart American Football League (AFL) proved they were ready for prime time.
However, since we know things run in threes, we have included that third most important facet – the subsequent azz-whupping by the Kansas City Chiefs – and their very HBCU – laden roster; which laid the Minnesota Vikings to rest in Super Bowl IV 23- 7.
This victory was proof that the fledgling league had in 10 years not only caught up but surpassed the established NFL; and that the AFL was producing a superior on-field product expedited the NFL’s absorbing them in the “merger.”
The key, of course, was the wealth of talent from HBCUs which filled rosters throughout the League. Men like Lloyd Wells (Kansas City), Al Davis and Bill Nunn, Sr. (who built the juggernaut which would become the Pittsburgh Steelers in the newly realigned American Football Conference) scouted, recruited and reinforced the philosophy of “best man plays” – for the most part, anyway…
Beat writers who had covered NFL teams had a hate on for the newcomers and many of them were quite anal in not acknowledging many of the AFL stars, while also allowing their own petty prejudices to poison their reasoning for not recognizing the greatness of many of those with AFL pedigrees…
To truly understand the weight of this impact, we are going to lay before you. Our All – HCBU American Football League Pre- Merger Team because many have never seen these great players and when you see where most of them are you won’t be surprised as to why those teams were successful!
We are restricting our notations here to those HBCU players who were on AFL rosters by the merger and formal conference realignment in 1971…
We are also not including those players who have made the Pro Football Hall of Fame, since Buck Buchanan, Larry Little, Willie Brown, Elvin Bethea, Curley Culp, Emmitt Thomas, Ken Houston, Charlie Joiner, Willie Lanier, Art Shell and Gene Upshaw are already accounted for:
QB – Eldridge Dickey, Oakland Raiders, Tennessee State
WR – Otis Taylor, Kansas City Chiefs, Prairie View A&M
WR – Warren Wells, Oakland Raiders, Texas Southern
OT – Winston Hill, New York Jets, Texas Southern
OT – Sherman Plunkett, New York Jets, Maryland Eastern – Shore
OG – Doug Wilkerson, San Diego Chargers, NC Central
OC – Ernie Barnes, San Diego Chargers, NC Central
TE – Richard Caster, NY Jets, Jackson State
TE – Raymond Chester, Oakland Raiders, Morgan State
RB – Emerson Boozer, New York Jets, Maryland – Eastern Shore
RB – Clemon Daniels, Oakland Raiders, Prairie View A&M
FB – Hewritt Dixon, Oakland Raiders, FAMU
DL – Verlon Biggs, NY Jets, Jackson State
DL – Ernie “Big Cat” Ladd, San Diego Chargers, Grambling State
DL – Jim Lee “Earthquake” Hunt, Boston /New England Patriots, Prairie View
DL – Rich “Tombstone” Jackson, Denver Broncos, Southern University
LB – Pete Barnes, Houston /San Diego, Southern University
LB – Garland Boyette, Houston Oilers, Grambling State
LB- Al Beauchamp, Cincinnati Bengals, Southern University
DB – Johnny Sample, NY Jets, Maryland – Eastern Shore
DB – Ken ‘Snake’ Riley, Cincinnati Bengals, Florida A&M
DB – Jim Marsalis, Kansas City Chiefs, Tennessee State
SS – Jim Kearney, Kansas City Chiefs, Prairie View A&M
FS – George Atkinson, Oakland Raiders, Morris Brown
PR – Speedy Duncan, San Diego Chargers, Jackson State
P/PK – Gene Mingo
Scout – Lloyd Wells (Kansas City Chiefs)
Impact on Offense
The wealth of talent from the HBCUs did more than force the hands of the more conservative NFL; it thrust the superiority of the Black Athlete right in the League’s face.
Prior to 1960, a Black quarterback would know in advance that his future at the professional level would not be taken seriously at that same position. While Tom Flores would become pro football’s first Latino starting QB, the drums had to beat resoundingly loud for one Eldridge Dickey, who we will speak of in greater depth later in this book.
First up of a one/two punch of Field Generals from Tennessee A&I (now Tennessee State) Dickey’s talent was so undeniable that he would be the very first Black QB ever drafted in the first round. Al Davis, head coach, and owner of the Oakland Raiders had the eye for discovering talent, but ultimately lacked the vision to follow through on his mission of creating the ultimate matchup nightmare for the opposition.
While some may know Ken Stabler led the Raiders to the first of their four Super Bowl titles, only a few remember that Dickey was drafted ahead of Stabler; and that he was moved to WR because Davis was, frankly, too afraid to be aggressive when it came down to being progressive.
Although Davis’ input into the league was felt due to his intervention in the League’s All-Star Game incident in 1965 (where he helped facilitate the move to Rice University’s Jeppesen Stadium in Houston after New Orleans would not properly receive Black players there) the move to WR would destroy Dickey before his career could properly begin.
Davis’ actions would have a Ripple Effect in Kansas City (their staunchest rival) and Denver (who had been the doormat of the AFL, yet was the first team to have a Black starting QB – definitely not by choice – in Marlin “The Magician” Briscoe)
Sadly, due to the efforts of super scout Bill Nunn, Sr. with the Pittsburgh Steelers, this would repeat itself as “Jefferson Street” Joe Gilliam, a late – round draft selection out of Tennessee State, would fall prey to a similar betrayal during his ascension to becoming the starter in Steel City.
The O – Line
Ernie Barnes would gain notoriety as an artist on canvas, but he was a pioneer in being the first Black center in football, a position deemed too cerebral in terms of responsibility for a black player. His NC Central teammate, Doug Wilkerson, was an artist on the gridiron. Wilkerson would carve out a career as one of the best technicians at his position.
Sherman Plunkett was one of the first naturally big – boned brothers playing along the offensive line. Listed as a couple biscuits short of 340 pounds (considered average for a tackle nowadays), Plunkett likely played at 30 to 40 pounds heavier than that at Maryland State (later changed to Maryland – Eastern Shore).
Out of everyone on this team, however, no one player had a more pivotal role in the League’s overall success than Winston Hill, whose job was to merely the most important asset in the AFL – Joe Namath’s spindly knees.
While Namath was far from the League’s best player, his high profile status and success in the League’s largest market provided exposure the senior League could not ignore. Hill, along with Hall of Famers Shell and the Chargers’ Ron Mix were considered the very best in the League at their tackle position; and the Tower of Power from Texas Southern (along with the five other HBCU contributors) helped bring home the League’s legitimacy to the status quo in Super Bowl III. That Hill’s #75 has not yet been retired by the Jets is further testament to the deliberate ignoring the depth of great talent the League tapped into via the Black schools.
Backs & Receivers
The AFL’s appeal was a wide – open style with constant downfield passing, which grabbed the attention of fans long before fantasy football was an idea in anyone’s head. While San Diego’s Lance Alworth, New York’s Don Maynard, and Oakland’s Fred Biletnikoff made it to Canton, the Hall should make room for at least one more from this era in the Kansas City Chief great Otis Taylor.
At 6’3’ and 210 pounds, the long – striding Taylor was the prototype for receivers to come like Terrell Owens, Cris Carter, and Randy Moss. Taylor provided yards after the catch long before it was a statistic; and was a more than adequate blocker. Strong at the point of contact, Taylor brushed off jams at the line of scrimmage with ease, and he thrived in the Bump – and – Run Era of the Late 1960s /Early 1970s.
Nowadays, fantasy football enthusiasts salivate over receivers averaging over 15 yards a catch; but what if I told you the record for most yards per catch was held by an HBCU grad?
I know who you might be thinking, but remember the time frame we’re talking about here. Whatever history wants to say about how great Alworth was, the true deep threat of the American Football League was Warren Wells.
The Oakland Raiders were the Green Bay Packers of the AFL in that they made no bones about their approach against an opponent. The Packers ran their vaunted Power Sweep for Paul Hornung, Jim Taylor, and Philander Smith’s own Elijah Pitts – everyone knew it was coming, and they would run it until you stopped it.
Oakland lined up Biletnikoff and Wells outside – and dared you to stop them. Wells’ deep speed punished defenses because he also had great hands; and cleared out serious real estate for his teammates while QB Daryle Lamonica, known as “The Mad Bomber” would fire at will against everyone with the blessings of Al Davis and his Matchup Philosophy.
Until the rules had been changed regarding a minimum number of catches, Warren Wells owned the average yards per catch record by a clear margin at 23.1 (in a career of 158 receptions).
In 1969, Wells was the most dangerous receiver in football; 1260 yards and 14 touchdowns on only 47 receptions for a mid – boggling average of 26.8 yards per catch! Can you imagine those numbers in the era of the fantasy freaks? With no opposition at the line of scrimmage, Wells would average at least 10 yards more per catch.
I am convinced that if the Minnesota Vikings had seen Warren Wells instead of Otis Taylor in Super Bowl IV, the result (loss) would still have been the same; with only lightning doing the damage instead of Taylor’s thunder.
Back in the day, tight ends were big – or fast, but never both; with the exception of the great John Mackey.
Morgan State’s Raymond Chester and Jackson State’s Rich Caster were added to that exceptions list during their time in the League. At 6’5”, 230 pounds and a great motor, Caster was the first positional tight end to be utilized also as a wide receiver, as his speed and size were put to great advantage when Namath and other Jets quarterbacks remembered to get him involved early in the game.
Although slightly shorter than Caster, Chester, another first round find by Davis, would prove to be a great added component to Davis’ Matchup Ball with the Raiders. Chester would be on board for a ring in Super Bowl XV when Oakland defeated the Philadelphia Eagles, and as a four-time Pro Bowler should’ve merited immediate attention when he became HOF – eligible.
It’s easy to see how the Raiders were so effective in the AFL days once Davis took control. Their backfield of Hewritt Dixon and Clem Daniels helped to make them the most formidable team during the League’s existence.
Dixon, who played tight end at Florida A&M, was converted to fullback and was (along with Denver’s Cookie Gilchrist and Boston/New England’s Jim Nance) among the elite power backs in the League as a three-time All – Star. Like all of Oakland’s backs, Dixon was just as effective out on a pass pattern, showing soft hands and a nimbleness belying his 235-pound frame.
Before Roger Craig put his multiple skills on display, the West Coast had already seen his skills in the person of Clemon Daniels. Coming into the League with Dallas in 1960 (later Kansas City), Daniels didn’t get to really shine until a trade to Oakland the next year, where he merely dominated.
From 1963 (as league MVP and consecutive Pro – Bowl selection) to 1967, Daniels was the Raiders’ best option of attack. While the numbers may not jump out at you (5,138 yards rushing, 3314 yards receiving on 203 receptions and 54 touchdowns) Daniels was the tailback prototype for the Allie Sherman offense with the New York Football Giants from the early – mid-1960s (which many give false credit to Bill Walsh for creating).
Additionally, Daniels was named to the League’s All – Time Team. Fitting, since he was the best back in the League – by far.
Emerson Boozer has throughout his career, done the dirty work while others basked in the moment. He was a complete back who could not only run and catch, he blocked with gusto and destroyed blitzing linebackers while helping his teammate Winston Hill protect Joe Namath’s fragile knees.
Boozer’s toughness and tenacity survived a knee injury of his own as he still became a two – time Pro Bowler and Super Bowl champion with the Jets. His career rushing numbers are only three yards fewer than Daniels’ total, and Boozer has two fewer touchdowns scored; but his intangibles don’t seem to merit enough attention, even in the media capital of the world.
D – Line
The Denver Broncos had the worst career record of all the AFL teams pre – merger; it wasn’t so much not finding talent, it was who they kept. While HOF talent like Willie Brown languished in Denver before leaving (and Marlin Briscoe denied an opportunity to continue at QB) one had to question what Broncos’ management had to be thinking when it came to the team’s future. One spot where they did get it right was after scooping up the undrafted Jackson off of Oakland’s roster in 1967.
Jackson would go on to provide his own personal reign of terror as the most feared Bronco on the team. At 6’3” 255, Jackson played inside and out along the D-line, even playing some linebacker (utilized at that position by the coaching staff after no doubt seeing the effectiveness of Willie Lanier and Bobby Bell in Kansas City).
Just as with HOF tailback Gayle Sayers, Jackson’s career was dramatically altered by a knee injury. Just as with Sayers, Jackson dominated at his position; but being in a League where their media did a piss – poor job of touting anyone not playing in New York and wearing white shoes, Jackson has been cheated out a genuine chance to have a proper case made for him.
Jim Lee Hunt was one of the AFL’s treasures, and a living embodiment of the HBCU mantra of “mobile, agile, and hostile.” At just under six feet and 255 pounds, Hunt was also one of the fastest linemen in the league – and maintained his speed while remaining one of the AFL’s true Pit Bosses throughout his pre –and – post-merger career.
Another undrafted stud who passed up the NFL for the new League in 1960, Hunt’s ability to disrupt in the pit at tackle and end not only led to fumbles, it led to fumble recoveries. Nicknamed “Earthquake” because teammates said the ground shook every time he rushed the passer, Hunt led the entire league in fumble recoveries (142) and his #79 jersey was retired by the Patriots as a member of their team Hall of Fame.
In the early part of pro football’s modern era, a true big man with stats comparable to present day players is hard to find. Not so in the case of former Grambling Tiger Ernie “Big Cat” Ladd.
Standing at 6’9” 315, Ladd was not only a Pit Boss, he looked the part when he entered the League in 1961. As a member of the Chargers line, he provided a wall few offenses could run or pass around. A four – time All – League performer, Ladd led the Chargers D to four championship games, winning it all in 1963.
Due to hassles from management, Ladd took his other part – time vocation, “rasslin” – to full-time status. Ladd parlayed it into a very lucrative career as the first Black villain in pro wrestling, actually becoming a member of World Wrestling Entertainment’s Hall of Fame.
Ladd played longer than Jackson, and if not for San Diego attempting to screw him and minimize his worth, Ladd could well have celebrated a Super Bowl IV victory with his Tiger alum Buck Buchanan in Kansas City.
Can you imagine – given the pedigree of that Chiefs team, the possible defensive alignment of Ladd and Buchanan as a true Tandem of Terror with Curley Culp, all – pro Jerry Mays; with Willie Lanier hiding behind them – and Emmitt Thomas, Willie Mitchell, Jim Marsalis and Jim Kearney feasting on turnovers?
Experiencing similar financial issues was Verlon Biggs. In spite of being an impact player for the New York Jets, the 6’4” 275 pound Biggs felt cheated by management re compensation for performance; and likely had a good argument after All – league status in three of his first four years after his debut season in 1965.
Leaving the Jets for Washington and George Allen’s “Over the Hill Gang” in 1970, Biggs would become an integral part of Allen’s defense, gaining a conference title and facing the undefeated Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl VII.
As they had since the formation of the League, talent clashed with notions of intelligence when it came to the Black athlete.
Willie Lanier came into the league playing a position previously denied Black players because middle linebacker was the “Quarterback of the Defense” – and only thinkers need to apply.
Lanier would merely dominate at his position. As Ernie Barnes set the table for HOF Dwight Stephenson years later in Miami at center, Lanier helped front offices with a come to Jesus moment in considering Black talent in the middle.
Entering the NFL as an MLB with the St. Louis Football Cardinals, Boyette did not get sufficient run (no starts over two seasons) so he went to the Canadian Football League and played for the Montreal Alouettes two seasons before being welcomed to the AFL by the Houston Oilers, where the 6’1” 238 pound Boyette would be a two – time Pro Bowler in his seven years there.
Pete Barnes would play alongside Boyette for a couple seasons out of his 11-year career after coming to the Oilers in 1967 out of Southern University. The 6’1” 240 pound Barnes, along with Boyette and the great George Webster (Michigan State) formed the first Black starting linebacker corps in all of pro football.
As the League’s success led to expansion, front offices were now starting to pay attention to adhering to “best man plays” – so the fledgling Cincinnati Bengals selected the rangy Beauchamp out of Southern, hoping they would follow a similar path to success as the Raiders and Chiefs.
The 6’2” 235 pound Beauchamp did not disappoint. He became a solid starter and played nine seasons on the Bengals’ left side.
Among those mentioned who have yet to be given proper consideration, probably the most egregious oversight is Johnny Sample. While everyone was gushing over “Broadway Joe” Namath, Sample had brought leadership, toughness, and something the Jets did not have – a championship pedigree.
The 6’1”, 200 pound Sample had helped the Baltimore Colts win the NFL Championship in 1958 in the “Greatest Game Ever Played.” His physical presence and deft hands aided him in snagging 41 interceptions in addition to significant contributions on special teams as a punt and kick returner.
When it came to Super Bowl III, all Sample did was keep the fleet Willie Richardson and Jimmy Orr in check as the Jets’ secondary defeated a confused Earl Morrall and John Unitas – and won the second most important game in football history.
Sample was also the first player from an HBCU to be on the College All – Star Game squad back in the day when the assembled roster would play against the reigning NFL Champion. Given his statistics and ability to lift up the play of his teammates, Johnny Sample should have long entered Canton – and the Hall of Fame.
Cincinnati, Ohio paled in comparison to New York City’s high profile; but as a new team back then, Cincinnati’s franchise got League Leftovers (via an expansion draft) as well as the Common Draft now shared by the two conferences.
For Ken Riley (to many fans of HBCU ball, the original “Snake”) out of Florida A&M University, it would prove to be a bittersweet premise.
While Bengals’ architect Paul Brown was lauded for moving Riley to cornerback, he deliberately ignored the fact Riley had led his Rattlers to a conference title – at quarterback.
Having already committed to a scrub named John Stofa (whose career as a starter would last less than 10 games), Brown made no bones about Riley being the wrong color – so much for commitment to winning; but, in fairness, Brown’s unwillingness to pull the trigger and give Riley a shot was no different (and likely more merciful) than the mental screw job Eldridge Dickey received from Al Davis in Oakland.
A natural leader, Riley would start as a rookie at right side cornerback; and would anchor the Bengal secondary for the next 15 fifteen years. In spite of flashier players who would have moments or even seasons of brilliance, Riley remained his steady, reliable self, earning four Pro Bowl selections – and a club record 65 interceptions.
While the numbers alone warrant consideration, what is disturbing is the lack of support Riley received from beat writers either refusing or preoccupied with other players (Anthony Munoz is the only Bengal player currently in the HOF) to put any effort in making a case for Snake to enter the Hall.
In the present day of hype – makes – right journalism, players like Riley let their actions on the field speak for them; with the beat writers providing the translation. The marked lack of encouragement to propel Ken “Snake” Riley lies at the feet of the parasites that by their silence, showed contempt for his technical skill and leadership ability.
We would be remiss to not include another innovator who made his mark in the AFL. As a rookie out of Tennessee State, Jim Marsalis had speed, skill – and attitude.
In the Matchup Wars between Kansas City and their archrival Raiders, Kansas City needed a secondary that could withstand the sustained vertical onslaught of Oakland’s offense.
Having been beaten to the punch for Dickey in the 1968 Draft (more on that later), Kansas City didn’t hesitate in selecting the 5’11” 180 pound Marsalis as a first – round selection.
Marsalis would prove to be feisty, crafty, and by using his hips and forearms to disrupt the timing between passer and receiver downfield, created the term “bump – and – run” with his technique. In spite of only two interceptions his rookie year, Marsalis took on the opposition’s ace receiver; and with the ability to cover and tackle in the open field, Marsalis, unlike other more heralded corners, was a complete player.
His efforts paid immediate dividends as he was named the AFL Defensive Rookie of the Year – and KC would go on to win Super Bowl IV – and change the League’s fortunes forever.
The HBCU juggernaut being formed in Kansas City was laced with talent in every unit. In addition to Caeser Belser (Arkansas AM&N), Willie Mitchell (Tennessee State), Goldie Sellers (Grambling State), Marsalis and the Hall of Famer Thomas, super scout Lloyd Wells had assembled arguably the greatest secondary in AFL history.
Wells would lure another former quarterback, Jim Kearney, to the Chiefs after two uneventful seasons in Detroit with the Lions. At 6’2” and over 200 pounds, Kearney was immediately one of the biggest safeties in the League, operating alongside ball hawk Johnny Robinson at free safety. Kearney was a fierce hitter and put together a solid nine-year career.
Many Chiefs players contended Kearney, Otis Taylor’s QB at Prairie View, had a stronger passing arm than starter Len Dawson and backup Mike Livingston; and would prove it on occasion in practice.
Ultimately, Kansas City did not get the dynasty they hoped for, but Kearney rounded out one of the best defensive units ever assembled.
Meanwhile, back at the Raiders/Chiefs Tong Wars, in the same year Oakland would squander their number one pick by not going forward with Dickey at quarterback, they would strike gold in the seventh round by selecting the wiry George Atkinson as a return specialist and safety.
Atkinson proved to be quite skillful on specials and set a single-game record for punt return yardage (205) in his rookie year.
Atkinson’s true forte, however, was intimidation. With the reforming of the AFL into the American Football Conference, hostilities would shift from the Chiefs to the Pittsburgh Steelers (whose super scout, Bill Nunn, Sr., was following Lloyd Wells’ script). As a hellacious hitter who lusted for receivers to come over the middle, Atkinson wouldn’t hesitate to clock the crap out of a wideout or tight end; and always gave as good as he got. In spite of his reputation, Atkinson was no thug. A two – time League All – Star, he would emerge eventually as a champion in Super Bowl XI, victimizing the Minnesota Vikings.
With many to select from (Earl Christy, Noland “Super Gnat” Smith), Leslie Herbert “Speedy” Duncan is our choice due to his sheer longevity.
To maintain for 11 seasons primarily as a returner is an amazing feat. Out of Jackson State, Duncan played right corner but his main asset was his return skills. In seven seasons with the San Diego Chargers, Duncan was a three – time All-Star who became a member of the team’s 50th anniversary and HOF teams.
Mingo, while not an HBCU player, was the first Black placekicker in the League; and its first scoring champion. Last year, the Denver Broncos finally inducted Mingo into the team’s Ring of Honor.
In our initial assessment, from the evaluations of talent from Historically Black Colleges and Universities to the overall success of the League, there are at least 11 (Wilkerson, Hill, Taylor, Chester, Daniels, Jackson, Hunt, Ladd, Sample, Riley and Atkinson) who dominated at their respective positions, won personal and team awards, showed leadership in making their teammates better, and maintained their level of performance in spite of apathy from local and national media.
Copyright (c) 2016/2017 Michael – Louis Ingram all rights reserved.