You can say Bob Hayes changed the way the game is played with his speed. You can say Charley Taylor changed the way the game is played with his power. And you can say Jerry Rice changed the way the game is played with his precision and grace.
But no wide receiver changed the way the game is played like Charlie Hennigan.
Never heard of him, have you? No reason you should. He’s not in the Hall of Fame. He’s never even been a candidate for the Hall of Fame, with zero appearances on the ballot as a semifinalist or finalist. Charlie Hennigan and his impact on football have been lost in the pages of history.
Hennigan went undrafted out of Northwestern (La.) State in 1958, then washed out of the Canadian Football League after a one-month stint with the Edmonton Eskimos in 1958. His football career appeared at an end until the American Football League came along in 1960, and Hennigan hitchhiked from his home in Louisiana to Houston to try out for the Oilers.
Not only did Hennigan make the Oilers as a rookie; he started and caught 44 passes from future Hall-of-Famer George Blanda for 722 yards and six touchdowns. He scored the first touchdown in franchise history on a 43-yard reception in the season opener against Oakland, and the Oilers went on to win the inaugural AFL championship.
But Hennigan was just warming up to the pro game. In his second season, he caught 82 passes for 1,746 yards and 12 touchdowns in a 14-game season. He averaged 21.3 yards per catch and 124 yards per game as the Oilers won back-to-back AFL titles.
Hennigan caught 100 yards in passes in 10 of Houston’s 14 games that season. That record stood for 34 years before Michael Irvin posted 11 100-yard games for the Cowboys in 1995 in a 16-game season. Hennigan’s three 200-yard games that season still remain an NFL record 53 years later. His 1,746 yards receiving was another record that stood for 34 years before Rice broke it, also in 1995, with 1,848 yards for the 49ers.
In 1964, Hennigan caught 101 passes for an AFL-leading 1,584 yards and eight touchdowns. Those 101 receptions remained an NFL record for 20 years before Art Monk caught 106 for the Washington Redskins in 1984 in a 16-game season.
Hennigan’s impact was obvious. The NFL was a three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust league in the 1960s. The AFL introduced the forward pass to football audiences – but it was Hennigan who transformed the forward pass into a weapon.
Hennigan went to LSU initially on a track scholarship and was not allowed to play football. So he transferred to Northwestern State where he could play football as well as run track. And track speed is what Hennigan flashed as an AFL receiver, routinely catching 50-, 60-, 70- and 80-yard touchdown passes from Blanda. And Hennigan did it in an era of physical, bump-and-run coverage when receivers had to fight for every inch of space in their routes -- not like today’s NFL where defensive backs can’t look at receivers, much less touch them.
"No man can cover him," Blanda said back then. "He has the finest moves in the league."
Hennigan wound up playing only seven seasons before a series of concussions plus knee issues ended his career. He wound up with 410 career receptions and a franchise-record 51 touchdowns. He averaged 16.6 yards per catch and went to five AFL All-Star games.
Does Charlie Hennigan belong in the Pro Football Hall of Fame? When it takes decades for Hall-of-Famers Michael Irvin, Art Monk and Jerry Rice to break your receiving records, you belong in the conversation. Hennigan deserves to have his candidacy debated and discussed. He certainly passed the eye test – both on the field and in the record book.
"Some of my records still exist," said Hennigan by phone from his Louisiana home. "But if I was going to get in, it should have been by now. Lance Alworth played at the same time as me and he's already in. It would be a wonderful thing for my family. But...that was a long time ago."
A very long time ago. But it's never to late to recognize greatness.