Here's a chance to give former AFL stars the recognition they deserve

Paul Lowe photo courtesy of L.A. Chargers

Clark Judge

As a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, former Buffalo guard Billy Shaw is an anomaly. He’s the only inductee to serve his entire career – start to finish -- in the American Football League.

That's an accomplishment for Shaw. But for the Hall? Not so much.

Let me explain.

Shaw is certainly deserving of Canton. He was a marvelous player. But he isn’t the only only AFL luminary who should be considered for Canton. So should Charlie Hennigan. And Paul Lowe. And Tom Sestak, Cookie Gilchrist and Abner Haynes.

They went start to finish in the AFL, too, and are Hall-of-Fame worthy. In fact, they’re all members of the all-time All-AFL squad, first or second teams. But they’re not only not in Canton; they’ve never been considered.

None was ever a finalist.

The reason? I can’t say. I wasn’t a voter when they were eligible as modern-era candidates. But I do know this: The Hall has been accused of an anti-AFL bias that I once believed unlikely. Then I watched the candidacy of former Kansas City safety Johnny Robinson’s languish for nearly five decades before hearing his name called, and I joined the conspiracy theorists.

There are so many AFL stars like Robinson who played the bulk of their careers there and who deserve more than they’ve gotten from Canton voters. Yet they still can’t gain the attention they should, and I offer the Centennial Class of 2020 as an example. When the panel that chose the class announced its 20 finalists, only one former AFL star was included: Former Jets' tackle Winston Hill.

He was later one of the 10 inductees.

But there was no mention of guys like Hennigan or Sestak. Or Walt Sweeney and Ed Budde. Or Otis Taylor, Gino Cappelletti, Dave Grayson, Art Powell and George Saimes. They’re Hall-of-Fame worthy, too, with all but Cappelletti members of the all-time AFL team. Yet not one has been discussed as a finalist.

Granted, there are 14 players from that team who were enshrined, and that doesn’t sound that all that bad, right? Compare it to the NFL’s all-decade squad from the 1960s -- the era when the AFL operated before margining with the NFL – and you find that it’s not what it seems. It’s exactly half the number (28) of 1960s’ all-decade choices.

So why the disparity? It’s no secret that some voters viewed the AFL as an inferior league and didn’t treat its players equitably. I don’t know about that, either. I wasn’t in the room. What I do know is that the two leagues were 2-2 in Super Bowls, and that sounds equal to me.

Nevertheless, look what happened to Johnny Robinson. The guy was a three-time AFL champion, a six-time AFL All-Star, AFL interception leader, 1970 Pro Bowler (NFL) and first-team All-Pro and Super Bowl IV champion. A resume like that makes someone a first-ballot choice today. Robinson’s problem was that he didn’t play today. He retired following the 1971 season, then waited 49 years before the Hall’s senior committee opened the doors to Canton.

I’m sorry, but that’s wrong. Something must be done, and the Hall’s not about to do it. Someone else must.

I nominate this site.

Discouraged by the number of former AFL stars ignored and/or forgotten by Canton, we’ve resolved to make something happen for them. We’re putting together a committee of 10-12 voters – some Hall-of-Fame selectors; others NFL/AFL historians – to do what the Centennial Class panel did earlier this year: Name 10 players to be enshrined.

We did it earlier this year with the Centennial Class, naming 10 inductees our committee thought worthy of induction, and figured: Why not try it again? So we will.

Now, before we go farther, let’s make a few things clear. First, nothing about this is sanctioned by or related to Canton. This is OUR list of the 10 most qualified individuals for the Hall. Second, it includes only players who spent the majority of their careers in the AFL. And, third, we will enlist the help of readers for a preliminary list of candidates. You suggest them; they’re included.

Like the “blue-ribbon panel” that chose the Centennial Class, our group will make its first cut to 20 finalists, then select the 10 most worthy players from there.

There will be no induction. There will be Gold Jacket dinner. And there will be busts. But there will be recognition, something the AFL seldom gained from Canton.

So when does this happen? Immediately. I’ve already asked selectors for suggestions for a preliminary list to be published next week. The 20 finalists will follow, with those names likely due the first week in June and our 10 winners named shortly afterward.

I know, it’s not the real deal, but at least it’s something. When I wrote a story last week on former Buffalo linebacker Mike Stratton – another all-time All-AFL pick – it struck me as sad that he died in March without having his case discussed by Hall-of-Fame voters. Then I looked at other AFL stars and realized he was hardly the exception.

So this is a chance to address an oversight … an error … a wrong … whatever you want to call it.

Look, Pro Football Hall-of-Fame voters have a near-impossible task, each year trying to choose one or two seniors from a backlog of qualified candidates. We know that. But we also know it's the Pro Football Hall, not the NFL Hall.

Tell that to anyone who starred in the AFL.

We're not going to get anyone in Canton with this vote. But, with your help, we can get them something they've been missing.

Attention. It’s about time.

Comments (8)
No. 1-3

I can only speak for the #Bills players I know - mostly through films - but here's the ones that I think deserve a serious study: Tom Sestak, Cookie Gilchrist, George Saimes, Mike Stratton and Elbert Dubenion.

Also, do we hear about coaches? I mean, Stram is in, Al Davis is in - and both deservedly so. Do we chat on a Saban?

There's going to be a lot of discussion here and I encourage fans of any of the AFL teams to point out their guys.

2 Replies

Clark Judge
Clark Judge


Surprised you didn't mention Butch Byrd, Rich.


He's there, too. My bad!

brian wolf
brian wolf

The Obvious ...

Jim Tyrer
Walt Sweeney
Dave Grayson
Art Powell
Ed Budde
Bob Talamini
Otis Taylor
Abner Haynes
Butch Byrd
Charlie Hennigan
Gino Cappelletti
Tom Sestak

Other AFL Greats ...

Paul Lowe
Cookie Gilchrest
Chris Burford
Clem Daniels
Goose Gonsoulin
Mike Stratton
Jerry Philbin
Jack Kemp
John Hadl

brian wolf
brian wolf

Kemp has lousy statistics ... but what a winner, winning two of five championship games ...

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