Countdown to Canton: Winston Hill carries the flag for the AFL
Fifty years later, the AFL still can’t get the respect that those Super Bowl victories by the New York Jets and Kansas City Chiefs should have earned the league.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame will have a Centennial Class in 2020 – a special group of 15 players, coaches and contributors chosen by a blue-ribbon committee asked to sift through 100 years of football and find the best candidates who slipped through Canton’s cracks.
The AFL wound up splitting the four Super Bowls before the merger with the NFL and the Miami Dolphins quickly emerged in the 1970s as the dominant team of the combined league. There were great players in the NFL in the 1960s and great players in the AFL.
Nineteen of the 22 players selected to the first team NFL all-decade team for the 1960s have been enshrined in Canton. But only nine of the 22 players selected to the first-team AFL all-decade squad for the 1960s have been enshrined, and two of them went in as senior candidates after their 25-year windows of eligibility expired, guard Billy Shaw and linebacker Nick Buoniconti.
The AFL should have been a gold mine for the Centennial committee. Guard Ed Budde (Chiefs), defensive tackle Tom Sestak (Buffalo Bills), wide receiver Charley Hennigan (Houston Oilers), defensive Rich Jackson (Denver Broncos) and offensive tackle Winston Hill (Jets) all deserved discussion that had been denied them by the Hall’s selection process to this point. But only Hill survived the cuts for a spot among the 20 player semifinalists for the Centennial class.
And he looms as one of the most deserving candidates.
The fledgling AFL was in a scramble to compete with the established NFL in the early 1960s. By and large, the big names from the big schools still preferred the established league. But where the AFL was finding an edge was the small black schools of the South. Campuses like Florida A&M, Grambling, Morgan State, Texas Southern and Winston-Salem became fertile ground for AFL talent scouts. The Jets found Hill at Texas Southern, signing him as an undrafted free agent in 1993.
Hill became an elite player in the AFL, going to the league’s All-Star Game four consecutive seasons to close the 1960s decade. He remained an elite player in the NFL, going to the Pro Bowl each of his first four seasons after the merger.
Hill was the blind-side pass protector of Joe Namath with the Jets. He was a former high-school tennis champion so his footwork helped keep pass rushers off his quarterback. In 1967, when Namath became pro football’s first 4,000-yard passer, the Jets allowed only seven sacks.
But Hill also was a hammer in the run game, using his 6-4, 270-pound frame to open holes for one of the AFL’s best rushing attacks in Matt Snell and Emerson Boozer. The Jets bludgeoned one of the NFL’s best defenses for 142 yards in the Super Bowl III victory over the Baltimore Colts.
“I’ve been telling reporters for a long time that Winston Hill is a great offensive tackle,” Hall of Fame coach Weeb Ewbank said after that Super Bowl. “And (in the Super Bowl) he proved it. When he blocks he doesn’t just a get a stalemate with the guy he’s on. He blows him out.”
Hill was as durable at his position as he was efficient there. In his 15 seasons he missed only one game, at one point starting 174 in a row. He passed away in 2016 at the age of 74.
So it will be Hill and Hill alone who will be carrying the banner for the AFL in the Centennial Class. The Hall has some catching up to do with the AFL and Hill would be a great place to start.