State Your Case: Buffalo never forgot LB Mike Stratton; so why has Canton?
He had “The Hit Heard ‘Round the World,” and, no, his name wasn’t Bobby Thomson.
But like Thomson, who produced “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” he did it for a New York pro sports franchise. And, as happened with Thomson, it was the defining moment of his career.
Any idea whom we’re talking about? If you said former Buffalo Bills’ linebacker Mike Stratton, skip the final. You aced the exam.
Stratton was the guy who dropped San Diego’s Keith Lincoln in the 1964 AFL championship game with “The Hit Heard ‘Round the World” – a blow that did more than sideline Lincoln and lead Buffalo to a 20-7 victory.
It launched a franchise.
I’m serious. Talk to anyone in or around the 716 or 585 area codes, and they’ll cite Stratton’s tackle as one of the greatest plays in Bills’ history
‘It’s still the play that people who weren’t there or weren’t alive when it happened know what it is,” said former Hall-of-Fame executive director Joe Horrigan, who was at the game.
Rewind the videotape, and you’ll know, too.
With San Diego ahead 7-0 in the first quarter, quarterback Tobin Rote lobs a soft swing pass to Keith Lincoln, who circles to the left flat as he slips out backfield. But as he reaches for the ball, Lincoln is crushed by an onrushing Stratton, who drives his right shoulder into Lincoln’s chest, catapulting the Chargers' star two yards backward as he crashes to the ground.
He suffers cracked ribs, exits the game and the Chargers wilt.
“That hit and that win,” said former Bills’ quarterback Jack Kemp, “put Buffalo on the major-league sports map.”
Unfortunately, the linebacker behind both seldom gains recognition beyond that one tackle, and that’s a shame. Because Mike Stratton produced more than one memorable play. He produced one memorable career. He was a six-time AFL All-Star, including three times as a consensus choice. He was named to the AFL's All-Time second team. He's a member of the Bills’ 50th anniversary team. And he’s on the Bills’ Wall of Fame.
"By all accounts," said AFL historian Todd Tobias of Talesfromthe AmericanFootballLeague.com , "he was excellent. A very sound performer and solid hitter."
From 1962 to 1972, Stratton played 142 games for Buffalo, mostly at right linebacker, and never missed a contest until the 1970 season. More importantly, he anchored a defense that, one year after “The Hit Heard Round the World,” shut out the Chargers in the 1965 AFL championship game, 23-0.
Now think about that: The Bills were 24-5-1 in 1964-65 (including the playoffs) and surrendered just seven points in consecutive championship game victories. Yet nobody on their defense – not Stratton or defensive tackle Tom Sestak or cornerback Butch Byrd – gets serious consideration from Canton.
Stratton has never been a finalist or semifinalist. Neither has Sestak, who’s on the All-Time AFL first-team, or Byrd, an All-Time AFL second-teamer.
“Mike was the player the guys rallied around,” said Horrigan, who once was a Bills’ ball boy and whose father was their public-relations director. “He was the one on the defensive side of the ball that pulled everybody together. And that was the most consistent defense in the AFL at the time.”
The 1964 Bills were a balance of good offense and great defense. On offense, they led the AFL in total yards, total passing yards and total points. On defense, they set an AFL record by allowing just 915 yards, or 65.5 per game. They also led the league in fewest points allowed (242), yards (3,878), first downs (206), rushing touchdowns (4) and sacks (50).
Good, huh? Their defense the following year was its equal ... if not better. It allowed a league-low 226 points, led the AFL with 32 interceptions and again surrendered a league-best four rushing TDs. In fact, between Week Six of the ’64 season and Week Eight of 1965 season – including the playoffs --- the Bills did not allow one rushing TD. They didn't allow a 100-yard rusher for 17 straight games those two seasons, either.
Yet nobody from that defense has the Hall’s attention, and don’t ask me why. When I consulted NFL historian John Turney of Pro Football Journal, he described Stratton as “one of those all-around linebackers ... right up there with the Chuck Howleys and Chris Hanburgers.”
Hanburger is in the Hall. Howley should be.
And Mike Stratton? Sadly, he passed away in March. As you might imagine, high in his obituary was a recitation of one play in his NFL career. It’s identified as closely with Stratton as Steve Atwater’s 1990 stop of Christian Okoye is with the former Denver safety.
Except there’s a difference: Atwater is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Stratton is not.
Yet for all the acclaim “The Hit Heard ‘Round the World” gained – and rightly so – Stratton produced another play in the ‘64 AFL championship game that had a bearing on its outcome. It happened late in the first half with the Chargers, down 13-7, driving to the Buffalo 15. But the threat stopped there, with Rote intercepted by – who else? -- Mike Stratton on a play San Diego coach Sid Gillman later described as a turning point.
“I never wanted to be known as a one-hit wonder,” Stratton once said. “But when people asked about that tackle, I always smiled.”
The Pro Football Hall of Fame may have forgotten Mike Stratton, but Buffalo hasn’t. Nor should it.