Who are the 10 best AFL players not in Canton? Grayson, Chiefs dominate poll
The NFL celebrates its 100 anniversary this year. So how come nobody celebrates the 50th anniversary of the league’s merger with the AFL? Wait a minute. Somebody does.
In recognition of the merger, the Talk of Fame Network initiated the “AFL Call for the Hall,” a month-long exercise to recognize the 10 best AFL players not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
It wasn’t easy. It took nearly four weeks, involved 15 judges, 52 preliminary candidates and 20 finalists and didn’t conclude until a tiebreaker for the last two spots went down to the last vote.
That was Monday.
There was a four-way tie for the ninth and 10th positions, and it wasn’t settled until the 15th vote was submitted this week. What’s important is that it was settled, and now we have what we were looking for -- the top 10 AFL players NOT in Canton, as decided by a 15-member board of selectors.
A drum roll, please:
OG Ed Budde (Kansas City, 1963-76). He played left guard for the Chiefs for 14 years, a tenure longer than anyone in franchise history other than punter Jerrel Wilson. He was a two-time AFL champion, seven-time AFL all-star/NFL Pro Bowler, first-team member of the all-time AFL team and someone who never missed a game in nine straight seasons. He was also the first offensive lineman … ever … chosen as Offensive Player of the Week by the Associated Press. So why isn’t he in Canton? Good question. Buffalo’s Billy Shaw is the other starting guard on the all-time AFL team, and he’s in the Hall. Budde has never been discussed as a finalist. He was, however, named to the Chiefs’ Hall of Fame.
LB Larry Grantham (N.Y. Titans/Jets, 1960-72). One of the Jets’ leading tacklers during his career there, he was a 10-time All-AFL pick, played in eight AFL all-star games and was a critical part of a defense that shocked Baltimore in Super Bowl III, 16-7. As co-captain, he called the defensive signals that frazzled Earl Morrall and the Colts. Undersized at 6 feet, 200 pounds, he could do just about everything. Rush the passer. Drop into coverage. Stack the middle. Get to the edge. You name it. “Pound for pound,” said former teammate Gerry Philbin, one of our 20 finalists who didn’t make the last cut, “he was the best player on the Jets.” In his 13-year career, Grantham had 43 takeaways – still a franchise record – and 31 sacks. Like Budde, he was named to the all-time AFL team and was chosen to the Jets’ Ring of Honor in 2011.
DB Dave Grayson (Dallas Cowboys, 1961; Dallas/Kansas City, 1961-64; Oakland, 1965-70). The all-time AFL leader with 47 interceptions, Grayson holds the league record for the longest interception return at 99 yards. But he was more than a stellar defensive back. He led the AFL in kickoff returns in 1961 and was second in 1962-63. Traded to Oakland for Fred “The Hammer” Williamson, Grayson made his greatest impact with the Raiders. Before he arrived, the club had a .353 winning percentage in five seasons. In his six years there, they were 61-18-5 and went to three straight league championship games. OK, so it wasn’t all Grayson. But he helped, moving from cornerback to safety in 1967 to make room for Hall-of-Famer Willie Brown. Grayson was a two-time league champion, four-time first-team All-Pro and six-time AFL all-star – three times with the Texans/Chiefs and three times with the Raiders. He also was named to the all-time AFL first-team.
WR Charlie Hennigan (Houston, 1960-66). Another two-time league champion, Hennigan was a five-time AFL all-star and member of the all-time AFL team. He scored the first touchdown in Houston Oilers’ history on a 43-yard pass from George Blanda and followed one year later with 1,746 yards in receiving, a pro record that stood for 34 years. “No man can cover him,” Blanda said then. He was right. Three years later, Hennigan led the league with 101 receptions and finished his Houston career with a franchise-record 51 touchdowns. He set the AFL record for most yards receiving in a game (272) and tied Hall-of-Famer Lance Alworth, Lionel Taylor and Sid Blanks for most catches (13) in a contest. He still holds the record for most games in one season with 200 or more yards receiving (3) and had a mark of 10 100-yard games stand for 34 years until Michael Irvin broke it in 1995. Irvin did it in 16 games. Hennigan did it in 14. When Alworth was asked last weekend to cut our list of finalists to 10, he made Hennigan his first choice.
DE Jerry Mays (Dallas/Kansas City, 1961-72). A first-or-second-team All-AFL choice in eight of his first nine seasons, Mays played in six AFL all-star games at two different positions – two at defensive tackle and four at defensive end. Then, in the first year of the merger, he was named to the Pro Bowl. He played in 147 consecutive games (including the playoffs), never missing a contest, and was a three-time AFL champion. A team captain in Super Bowls I and IV, he was the spiritual leader of a marvelous Chiefs’ defense that shut down Minnesota in Super Bowl IV, 23-7. Like most of the others on this board, Mays was named to the all-time AFL team (one of nine Chiefs included) and is a member of the Chiefs’ Hall of Fame. “I loved the AFL,” he once said. “It was part of me. I was AFL from start to finish.”
WR Art Powell (Philadelphia, 1959; N.Y. Titans, 1960-62; Oakland, 1963-66; Buffalo, 1967; Minnesota, 1968). At 6-feet-3, 210 pounds, Powell was a rarity for a wide receiver in the 1960s. He had size, strength and speed, and it showed in his productivity. A big-play threat, he averaged 16.8 yards a catch, produced five seasons of 1,000 or more yards and had 81 career TDs – including a personal-best 16 in 1963, his first season with the Raiders. But there's more. Much more. He ranked third in AFL receiving yards, behind only Don Maynard and Alworth. Both are Hall of Famers. He was second in yards per game, behind only Alworth. He ranked third in catches, behind Lionel Taylor and Maynard. And he was second in TDs, behind Maynard. “Art Powell was a touchdown machine,” said NFL historian John Turney of Pro Football Journal. “That was his calling card.” Named All-AFL six times, Powell twice led the league in receiving yards and twice in receiving touchdowns. He, too, was chosen to the all-time AFL team.
DT Tom Sestak (Buffalo, 1962-68). A six-time All-AFL choice, Sestak was the cornerstone of a defense that took the Bills to four straight playoffs and two league championships. A unanimous All-AFL pick in 1963-65, he and his teammates made history by holding opponents without a rushing touchdown for 17 consecutive games in 1964-65. During the 1960s, only six defensive linemen were unanimous all-league picks for three or more straight seasons – Bob Lilly (5), Merlin Olsen (4), Willie Davis (3), Gino Marchetti (3), Deacon Jones (3) and Sestak. The first five are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Sestak has never been discussed as a finalist. A first-team member of the all-time AFL squad, he was chosen to the Bills’ 50th anniversary team and was a finalist for the NFL’s 100 anniversary squad.
OG Walt Sweeney (San Diego 1963-73, Washington, 1974). Named to all-star teams and Pro Bowls for nine consecutive years, the 6-foot-4, 256-pound Sweeney was so intimidating that Merlin Olsen once said he’d “rather sell used cars” than play against him each week. Sweeney was durable, playing in 181 of 182 games (he missed the last due to a knee injury that ended his career), and he was successful – going to three straight league championship games with San Diego. But he was more than an accomplished lineman. He was so good at kickoff coverage that former Hall-of-Fame voter Nick Canepa of the San Diego Union-Tribune called him "the best special-teams player I ever saw." Nevertheless, he is known best as an offensive-line leader for a Chargers’ team that gained more yards than any AFL or NFL franchise in the 1960s and scored the third-most points. Sweeney is a member of the all-time AFL team and the Chargers’ 50th anniversary squad.
WR Lionel Taylor (Chicago, 1959; Denver 1960-66; Denver 1967-68). His best move happened off the field, and it was at the beginning of his career. Rewind the videotape to 1960, and you find Taylor leaving the Chicago Bears, where he played his first eight games as a linebacker, and signing with the AFL Denver Broncos. A gamble? Nope. More like an awakening. With a new franchise, he had a new position – wide receiver – and he flourished. Taylor five times led the AFL in receptions, was the first pro receiver to produce 100 catches in a single season (1961) and from 1960-65 averaged 84.7 receptions a season – then the highest six-year total in pro football history. A five-time All-AFL choice, he averaged a whopping 102.9 yards receiving per game with Denver. Curiously, he is the only member of this group not named to the all-time AFL team.
OT Jim Tyrer (Dallas/Kansas City, 1961-73; Washington, 1974). Perhaps the most decorated member of this group, Tyrer checked all the boxes needed to reach Canton: He was an eight-time all-AFL pick. He was a seven-time AFL all-star and two-time All-Pro. He was a three-time league champion and Super Bowl IV winner. He was also the 1969 AFL Offensive Lineman of the Year and first-team choice on the all-time AFL squad. Together with Ed Budde, Tyrer comprised a devastating left side of Kansas City’s offensive line that opened so many holes in Super Bowl IV that the Chiefs ran over, around and through Minnesota for 151 yards on 42 carries. Tyrer should be a Hall-of-Fame candidate, and he was. In fact, he’s the only member of this group who was a finalist. That happened in 1981, and it never happened again. Two possible reasons: One is Chiefs’ fatigue. There are eight members of the 1969 Super Bowl team in Canton (not including coach Hank Stram and owner Lamar Hunt). A more likely explanation is his death. Tyrer was part of a 1981 murder-suicide, killing his wife before killing himself at the age of 41.
As you can see, the group leans ever so slightly to offense, with six of the 10 winners from that side of the ball. It also tilts to the Midwest. Kansas City led all teams with three members (offensive linemen Ed Budde and Jim Tyrer and defensive end Jerry Mays), though it’s more like three-and-half. Cornerback Dave Grayson, known best for his play with the Oakland Raiders, spent four years with the Texans/Chiefs.
The Raiders were the only other team with more than one selection. They had two, Grayson and Art Powell.
So what else? Keep reading:
-- Dave Grayson led all candidates. He had 12 of the 15 votes, more than any of the 20 finalists and one ahead of runners-up Ed Budde and Lionel Taylor.
-- Three of four wide receivers made it. The only finalist who did not was Gino Cappelletti. With three representatives, wide receiver was the most popular position – appropriate for a league known for its wide-open offenses.
-- There are no quarterbacks. John Hadl was the only finalist, and he lost in a runoff for ninth and 10th with three others. Hadl missed out by one vote.
-- There are no running backs, either. Three were finalists, but Cookie Gilchrist, Paul Lowe and Clem Daniels split the votes so evenly that none made it.
-- Offensive linemen were popular. There were three finalists (Ed Budde, Walt Sweeney and Jim Tyrer), and all were winners. In fact, all were among the leading vote getters.
This task started on June 6 with a preliminary ballot of 52 players – 31 on offense, 19 on defense and two specialists – punter Jerrel Wilson and kicker Jim Turner. Voters were asked to narrow the field to 20 finalists, which they did within a week. There were 11 offensive players, eight on defense and one specialist (Wilson). Then voters were asked to cut the field in half and were given two weeks. That proved more difficult, with a tiebreaker necessary to extend the deadline.
Though five Hall-of-Fame voters were involved, this task has nothing to do with the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It is not authorized or endorsed by the Hall and may never be mentioned by it. It is a Talk of Fame Network poll. However, it was done with Canton in mind. Too many former AFL players have been overlooked by Hall-of-Fame selectors, with former Chiefs’ star Johnny Robinson an example. One of the best safeties in pro-football history, Robinson waited 48 years after retirement (2019) to reach Canton. This is simply an exercise to do for other AFL luminaries what Canton has not – and that’s give them recognition.
Our thanks to the 15 voters who participated in the “AFL Call for the Hall” and made this possible. Five are Hall-of-Fame voters: Rick Gosselin, Ron Borges, Ira Miller, Ira Kaufman and John McClain – all members of the Hall’s senior committee. Five are league historians: John Turney, Todd Tobias, Chris Willis, Ken Crippen and TJ Troup. Then there’s Hall-of-Famer Art Shell; former Rams’ executive Bob Wallace; former Denver Broncos’ VP of corporate communications and current team historian Jim Saccomano; former Chiefs’ assistant public-relations director Doug Kelly; and NFL Network historian Elliot Harrison. I’m grateful for their participation and support. This could not have happened without them.