Saturday, 3 August 2019

KEITH LINCOLN & THE CHARGERS: A TRIBUTE

It's hard for anyone now to get an idea of what the San Diego (nee Los Angeles) Chargers did to football in the early 1960s. Keith Lincoln's death at 80 reminded of that, because Lincoln, along side Lance Alworth, were the glamorous face of the exciting Chargers team, with their lightning bolt uniforms and helmets and Sid Gillman's passing concepts, that seemed to shine a bright sunny light on football. They were both movie-star handsome, and had the Chargers stayed in LA I don't doubt they would have been offered acting careers: if Merlin Olsen, Roman Gabriel and Fred Dryer of the Rams, could, why not?

Lincoln played for the Chargers from their second year, 1961, through 1966, when they were probably the best team in the AFL. And boasted a number of my favourite players. Their defense had the original Fearsome Foursome, before the LA Rams stole the term: Ron Nery, Bill Hydson, Earl Faison and Ernie 'The Big Cat' Ladd. The first game I ever saw Faison he wreaked havoc from the end position; I was in awe of him from then on. I had already watched Ladd wreak havoc in the wrestling ring. Their O line had the best pair of tackles in the NFL in Ernie Wright and Ron Mix 'The Intellectual Assassin'. Mix, the first of the dominant tackles from USC remains one of the top half-dozen or so of all time (see him, 74, leading Lincoln in the picture bottom right. The tight end was Dave Kocurek. Alworth, known as Bambi, would be the third receiver on the all-century team, alongside Jerry Rice and Don Hutson. They had Jack Kemp, then Tobin Rote and finally John Hadl at quarterback. Hadl and Alworth, with their single-bar helmets, Alworth wearing 19 and Hadl 21, were cool beyond words. And they had Paul Lowe at halfback, which meant Lincoln (6-1 215) nominally played fullback, and the two shared carries.

The Chargers 1963 team, who beat the Patriots 53-10 for the AFL title, were probably the best AFL team until at least 1966. In fact they would have been a tough matchup for the NFL champion Bears. Lincoln was the MVP of that title game. He rushed 13 times for 206 yards and a TD. He caught 7 passes for 123 more yards and another TD. The total yardage record was broken with the aid of overtime by Ed Podolak, the rushing mark by Eric Dickerson two decades later. He also completed an option pass for 20 yards.

Lincoln came from California, but went to Washington State as a quarterback. He was soon moved to halfback, where he held school records for rushing and punting, and threw for 511 yards and 8 TDs on options. He would have been, just a few years earlier, a single-wing tailback. His nickname was 'the Moose of the Palouse,' Palouse being the farming area encompassing the southeast part of Washington and parts of Oregon and Idaho. After his career he moved back to Pullman, eventually becoming an alumni director.

In 1964 the Chargers lost to the Bills (and Jack Kemp, whom Gillman had let go by trying to sneak him through waivers) and Lincoln was knocked out of the game by Buffalo line-backer Mike Stratton. It was a swing pass, and Lincoln had bobbled the ball when Stratton laid him out with a hit often likened to Chuck Bednarik's on Frank Gifford, the AFL's 'hit heard round the world'. Lincoln left the game with bruised ribs, though a week later he came back to take the MVP trophy home from the AFL All-Star game.

The Chargers success seemed to flip on that moment, but really it was a combination of things. Gillman lost his defensive mastermind, Chuck Noll, to the NFL's Colts, who became a great defensive team in the late 60s. Al Davis, another Gillman assistant, was turning the Raiders into an upstate version of the Chargers, with even more emphasis on the deep game. The Chiefs and Jets were building strong teams. But Gillman also had an edgy relationship with some of his players, especially those who wanted more money. Ladd and Faison both held out and were traded to Houston; they were both becoming less effective due to injuries. Lincoln wanted out too; after an off-year in '66, in 1967 he was traded to Buffalo even up for all-league defensive end Tom Day. He had an excellent season with the Bills, rushing for 'only' 601 yards but catching 41 passes for 558, a 13.6 yards per catch, and five TDs. But he was hurt in '68, released by the Bills and played briefly for the Chargers again before retiring.

Lincoln was first team all-AFL in 1963 and 64, and an all-star for five years, 62-67, except 1966. That twice all-league/five all-star record matches up well with the 'official' all-AFL team, which has Clem Daniels (2/4) and Lowe (2/2) as first-team running backs, and Abner Haynes (2/3) and Cookie Gilchrist (3/4) but not Lincoln. It' a tough call, especially because both Cookie and Lincoln were both fullbacks, but I'd be tempted to list the two as my first-teamers. I like to imagine them together on the same Buffalo team. But I think Lincoln is really only a border-line Hall Of Famer, especially because, like baseball's Roger Maris, he's remembered for one big game above all else.More likely he will remain in the Hall of the Very Good, and first teamer on the all glamour football squad. And he will remain in my mind as part of the most exciting football team of my youth, and the kind of All-American triple threat football player who doesn't seem to really exist, without the hype, these days.

And I was somehow pleased as well as touched to discover that Lincoln is survived by two sons, named Lance and Keith.

1 comment :

Unknown said...

The author perfectly captures what it was like--for a kid in his early teens--to discover Keith Lincoln and his Charger team. #22!