The American Football League and HBCUs – Conclusion
By Michael – Louis Ingram, Editor – in – Chief
PHILADELPHIA (BASN/basnnewsroom.com) We now continue our piece on the presence and importance of historicall Black Colleges and Universities in their tipping the balance of power for the fledgling AFL…
In our first part we focused on the offense – here we present the defense and special teams performers:
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 franchise 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 were it 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 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 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 arch-rival 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 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 wicked 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.
“FOUR QUARTERS OF SOUL” can be purchased online at http://www.blackheritagereview.com
always outnumbered…never outgunned.