The 1961 Season, Part 1

“Things Heat Up Before the AFL’s Second Season”

By ED WETTERMAN

The fledgling American Football League (AFL) survived its first season in 1960, unlike what many prognosticators had predicted.

The AFL brand of football was much more open on offense, and, coupled with some dreadful defenses, made for an exciting, fun experience for fans of the new high-scoring league.

The vaunted, well entrenched National Football League (NFL) took notice and was none too happy with the competition.

NFL league fathers felt they needed to strike back at the upstart league and decided to do so through its draft.

The AFL used a secret phone draft that began in mid-November 1960 while college teams were still playing.

Mike Ditka in his collegiate playing days

Although the AFL ran the risk of compromising the collegians’ eligibility, league administrators forged ahead with this clandestine undertaking, anyway.

Hoping to appease the colleges, the NFL moved its draft to December 27, after the close of the collegiate season.

However, just like the AFL, NFL representatives also secretly met with seniors before the end of the season.

Houston wanted to draft tight end Mike Ditka from the University of Pittsburgh, but George Halas and the Chicago Bears also wanted Ditka.

The matter was personal for Halas, who was determined not to lose Ditka to the AFL or Oilers owner Bud Adams, especially after former Bears quarterback George Blanda bolted to and starred for the Oilers, vocally criticizing Halas for telling Blanda in 1958 that he was done with football.

The Bears signed Ditka (who became a famous tight end and later Super Bowl-winning coach of the Bears) for $15,000 and a $4,000 bonus, allowing Halas to boast that he had beaten the Oilers.

Adams got the last laugh, though.

Two days later, Adams signed Chicago’s starting wide receiver Willard Dewveall, who became the first NFL player to cross over to the AFL.

Dewveall, who played his collegiate ball at SMU, had been the eighth-leading receiver in the NFL and had been named a second-team All-Pro.

An incensed Halas was furious: “Adams’ stunt is typical bush-league and characteristic of him. The biggest mouth west of the Mississippi has spoken again, and as usual, nothing has come out but hot air.” (Pirkle, 27).

Aside from their Ditka pick, the Oilers drafted 13 linemen with their first 15 picks in the 1961 draft.

Three of Houston’s first five draftees signed with the NFL, but they did sign offensive linemen Tom Goode and Walt Suggs from that group.

Patriots star Houston Antwine pursues Miami Dolphin Hall of Fame quarterback Bob Griese.

In the eighth round, the Oilers made a later-fruitful pick in 6-foot, 270-pound defensive tackle Houston Antwine, but they cut him, and he went on to play 12 seasons for the AFL’s Boston/New England Patriots and made the AFL’s All-Time team.

The complete 1961 Oilers draft docket looked like this (“Never played” usually means they never played professional football in either the AFL or NFL):

  1. Mike Ditka, TE: signed with the Chicago Bears, became a Hall of Famer
  2. Tom Goode, C: played from 1962-1970 in 113 games. Played in Houston from 1962-65, Miami from 1966-69, and ended in Baltimore in 1970.
  3. Walt Suggs, T: played from 1962-1971 in 137 games. Played entire career in Houston as left tackle and as center in 1971, making the All-AFL team each year.
  4. Bobby Walden, P: didn’t play until 1964 with the Minnesota Vikings, then finished his career from 1968-77 with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
  5. Monte Lee, LB: played for the Los Angeles Rams, Detroit Lions, and Baltimore Colts from 1961-65.
  6. Jake Gibbs, QB: never played.
  7. Dick Reynolds, T: never played.
  8. Houston Antwine, DT: cut by the Oilers, picked up by and played for the Boston/New England Patriots from 1961-71, finished career with the Eagles in 1972. Made the All-AFL Team from 1961-69. Antwine was one of the first big cuts who went on to do great things for other teams, which was not the last time Oiler fans would see this sort of thing.
  9. Ralph White, T: never played.
  10. Charley Lee, C: never played.
  11. Bob Bird, G: never played.
  12. Bob McLeod, TE: played from 1961-66 in 84 games, all with the Oilers. In 1962 and 1963, he finished in the top 10 for yards-per-reception with 17.5 in 1962 and 16.1 in 1963.
  13. Picks 13-20 were all misses. None of them ever played in the AFL or NFL.
  14. Never played.
  15. Never played.
  16. Never played.
  17. Never played.
  18. Never played.
  19. Never played.
  20. Never played.
  21. Ron Miller, QB: played in 1962 for the Los Angeles Rams. Miller started one game and threw 17 completions on 43 attempts for 250 yards, 1 touchdown and one interception.
  22. Bob Kelly, T: played from 1961-68 in 39 games. Kelly played for the Oilers from 1961-64, then the Kansas City Chiefs in 1967, and finished his career with the Cincinnati Bengals in 1968.
  23. Never played.
  24. Ken Gregory, End: played from 1961-63 in 30 games but signed with Baltimore Colts over the Oilers.
  25. Never played.
  26. Never played.
  27. Never played.
  28. John Frongillo, C: played from 1962-66 in 54 games, all for the Oilers. Played the 1964 season at left guard.
  29. Never Played. 29b. Errol Linden, T: played from 1961-70 in 134 games for the Cleveland Browns, Minnesota Vikings, Atlanta Falcons, and New Orleans Saints.
  30. Never Played.

Ultimately, only five players from the 1961 draft ever suited up for the Oilers, with the most notable being Suggs.

However, only three of the five rookies would play on the 1961 squad, as both Suggs and Goode were so fed up with hard-nosed Head Coach Lou Rymkus until they quit and went back to Mississippi during training camp, returning in 1962.

Although the upstart league still landed a few great picks like Ernie Ladd (later of professional wrestling fame and a 1966 stint with the Oilers), the NFL garnered the lion’s share of star draftees with picks like Herb Adderley, Bob Lilly, Deacon Jones, Billy Kilmer, and the great Fran Tarkenton.

Still, the Oilers and the AFL would make do quite nicely with the hand that was dealt them, although it would be far from easy for both the franchise and the league.

UP NEXT – The 1961 Season, Part 2: Off-Season Shenanigans & the 1961 Preseason

UP NEXT – The 1961 Season, Part 3: The 1961 Roster

UP NEXT – The 1961 Season, Part 4: Ain’t That a Kick – The Regular Season

UP NEXT – The 1961 Season, Part 5: The Championship Game

Ed Wetterman is a native Houstonian and lifelong Oiler fan/historian. He is a teacher, genealogist, game creator, and writer who lived and died on Sundays with the Oilers. Ed has created many games such as “East Texas University: Degrees of Horror” and written short stories such as “HellFighter,” published by Pinnacle Entertainment Group. Football has always been one of his greatest passions. He experienced the highs and the lows of being an Oiler fan, and like many others, he was crushed when the Oilers left Houston. Writing for Miss Ya Blue! gives him an outlet for his Columbia Blue love.

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