The American Football League and HBCUs, Part I
By Michael – Louis Ingram, Editor – in – Chief
(Editor’s Note: The following is part of the research compiled for the book “FOUR QUARTERS OF SOUL” written by myself and Prof. Fred Whitted…)
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-whuppin’ 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…
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 match-up 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 Jeppensen 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 minimum number of catches, Warren Wells owned the average yards per catch record by a clear margin at 23.1 (on 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 was 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 Oakland 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 less touchdowns scored; but his intangibles don’t seem to merit enough attention, even in the media capital of the world.
Next time: Defense and Specials
always outnumbered…never outgunned.