Countdown to Canton: Winston Hill carries the flag for the AFL

Photo courtesy of the New York Jets

Rick Gosselin

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.

Comments (7)
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rewing84
rewing84

what helps him is he has no afl competition this time and also he is wayyy better than jimbo covert

bachslunch
bachslunch

Fine write-up, Rick. I’d be fine with Winston Hill getting in the HoF. His honors are solid at 1/8/allAFL and the limited amount of film study done on him at Ken Crippen’s site grades him out well.

Jim Tyrer is of course the best AFL OT not in Canton, but his unfortunate baggage seems to have kept him off the final 20 list. If he’s not getting in this route, he’s out for good, looks like.

brian wolf
brian wolf

If anyone knows about protecting a QB with pass blocking, its Weeb Ewbank.

Before winning four championships as a head coach, including an AFL title, Ewbank was perhaps the first celebrated offensive line coach with the Cleveland Browns, helping build the pass protection that enabled Otto Graham and fellow offensive linemen, Frank Gatski and Lou Groza to make the HOF.

When Ewbank went to the Baltimore Colts, as Head Coach, he once again prioritized the importance of his offensive line, knowing that a throwing QB, who could stand tall in the pocket, would be the key to his teams success.

Despite being skinny, and not much of a runner, Ewbank found his QB in young Johnny Unitas.

With Buzz Nutter, Art Spinney, George Preas, Alex Sandusky and Dick Szymanski, giving Unitas excellent protection, Ewbank also drafted his first Superstar lineman, Jim Parker.

After two back to back world championships, Ewbank was dumped by the Colts after the 1962 season. Ewbank fled to the AFL in 63, and helped rebuild a bankrupt team in New York.

Winston Hill was drafted by the Baltimore Colts in 1963, but despite potential, he was having problems blocking Ordell Braase, his teammate in training camp. Let go by the Colts, Hill went to the NY Jets on the recommendation of HC Don Shula, a decision he would later regret.

When Ewbank and owner Sonny Werblin decided to draft Joe Namath in 1965, they knew with his recent knee injury, that surgery was needed immediately. Despite successful surgery, the team doctors told Werblin, Ewbank and Namath that four seasons was all they thought his knee could hold up for.

The EXPECTATIONS for protecting Namath and his huge contract, were enormous, but while Joe was attracting headlines with his lifestyle, Winston Hill was protecting his blindside on game day. In Namaths first seven seasons, he was sacked on average around 20 per year, and in 1969 with Hill leading the way, the Jets beat the Colts for the Super Bowl Championship. Hill shut out his former teammate, Braase, while leading a great rushing attack as well.

In my mind, the only things keeping Hill out of the HOF, were the play and accolades of fellow OT, Jim Tyrer, who mostly run blocked for the Kansas City Chiefs, and ALSO deserves HOF induction, and the lightening fast throwing release of the football from Joe Namath.

What other reasons could there be ? Even if Hill was accused of holding alot from former opponents, so what ?

With Namaths ability to draw paying fans into the SEATS, he was essential to BOTH leagues, which is one reason they merged in the first place, because a talent like him wasnt coming cheap.

Do the right thing voters and finally put Winston in this Hall Of Fame.

Rasputin
Rasputin

The better argument for Hill is that he played 8 years in the NFL and made 4 of his 8 Pro Bowls in that league, so he's not just "an AFL guy". The AFL winning a couple of SBs at the very end of the decade doesn't prove that the two leagues were on par for the entire 1960s. You still have the previous 8 years to account for. Don't forget that the NFL team trounced the AFL team in the first two Super Bowls, with Vince Lombardi saying that the best AFL team wasn't as good as the top few NFL teams.

The AFL was a league entirely made up of expansion teams in 1960. You'd have to have no respect for the NFL whatsoever to treat their accolades and stats completely equally. Even SBs III and IV only showed that the best AFL team had finally gotten to the point where it could compete with and beat the best NFL team in a game, not that the average AFL team was as good as the average NFL team. It wasn't.

In 1970, the first year of regular season interconference play, former AFL teams went a dismal 19-38-2 against NFL teams and didn't even win the new AFC title. For what it's worth NFL teams also won most of the preseason 1960s games played between the two leagues. Contrary to your article, it was the old NFL Colts and Cowboys who quickly won titles following the completed merger, Dallas crushing Miami 24-3. Then the Dolphins won a couple. Then the Raiders. That was it.

From 1970 until 1997 the only former AFL franchises to win Super Bowls were the Dolphins and Raiders, accounting for 5 of the 27 years. The other 22 SBs were won by the old NFL Cowboys, Colts, Steelers, 49ers, Redskins, Bears, Giants, and Packers.

That's only slightly less meaningful to NFL vs AFL debates than the 68/69 SB wins are to the question of relative league strength in 1965, a year before the merger process started and a common draft was instituted.

Respect the AFL. It had great players and even some great teams at times. It's a story of an upstart competing fiercely and earning its place in the top pro league.

But don't lay the AFL boosting on too thick. Keep perspective.

brian wolf
brian wolf

Thank You to the voters and members of the Blue Ribbon Panel for electing the great Winston Hill to the Pro Football Hall of Fame Centennial Class of 2020 !!!!

Though I am disappointed that Drew Pearson and Chuck Howley have eluded induction, Hill is a great, though long deserved, surprise.


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