clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Horse Tracks: American Football League’s first star player passes away.

New, comments

You may not have heard of him, but without him the Denver Broncos may not have existed for long.

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

image via

On Sunday, the American Football League’s first star, Billy Cannon, passed away at the age of 80. The former Heisman winning LSU halfback (and later fullback and tight end) helped lead the Houston Oilers to back-to-back AFL Championships in the fledgling league’s first two years. Cannon would later win another AFL Championship in 1967 with the Oakland Raiders, but would go on to lose Super Bowl II against the Green Bay Packers.

What’s truly remarkable about Billy Cannon isn’t so much what he accomplished on the field, but in how he came to play for the Oilers.

After being coerced into signing a bizarrely structured contract with the Los Angeles Rams of the NFL, the AFL’s Houston Oilers and their owner, Bud Adams, tracked Cannon down and convinced Billy to sign with them for double what the Rams had offered (with a less confusing structure to the contract).

As you can imagine, there was a legal battle that ensued and the NFL lost partially because the contract the Rams had Cannon signed had only been partially countersigned by the NFL Commissioner, Pete Rozelle. The other reason the NFL lost was because the NFL had been shady with how they convinced Billy to sign with the NFL.

“Not withstanding his prowess and agility on the gridiron, he is not an astute businessman. He is exceptionally naive for a college senior and a provincial lad untutored and unwise in the ways of the business world,” the judge ruled.

So what does all this have to do with the Denver Broncos?

In the early 1960’s there were winners and losers when it came to the bidding war for players between the AFL and NFL. The Oilers, Jets (following their change in ownership and name from the Titans), and Chiefs were flush with cash and could sign the big name college prospects to keep the league in contention with the NFL. The Denver Broncos, on the other hand never signed their first overall pick until the two leagues merged and held a common draft (enter Broncos legend Floyd Little) in 1967.

Billy Cannon was the biggest name in college football at the time. Were it not for him, other collegiate studs would never have considered defecting to some upstart league. It was a major validation for the Broncos sister franchises and the AFL to be able to convice players to play for the new league. Although the Broncos didn’t have any success of their own in this battle, they were legitimized by the leagues efforts on the whole... and it all began with Billy Cannon signing with the Houston Oilers.

There is a terrific book on just how wild the competition was between the warring leagues. Players being kidnapped, babysat, hidden from the rival league and just about anything you could imagine went down in the epic battle to sign players. If you’re at all interested in this stuff, check out Going Long by Jeff Miller. With first-hand accounts by the players, owners, and executives that lived through it, it’s an invaluable read for football history honks. Plus, it’s got a lot of great stuff in it about the early days of the Denver Broncos. Worth checking out, indeed.


Mason's Mailbag: Getting set for OTAs
OTAs get under way this week, which also means the duel for No. 2 QB between Paxton Lynch and Chad Kelly will begin percolating.

WATCH: NFL worlds collide as ILB Brandon Marshall meets WR Brandon Marshall
At long last, the linebacker and wide receiver came face to face.

Broncos think contract will motivate Shane Ray – ProFootballTalk
The Broncos surprised outside linebacker Shane Ray this month when they informed him they won't be picking up the fifth-year option on his rookie contract. They hope that surprise turns into a wakeup call.

LSU and AFL star Billy Cannon dies at 80 – ProFootballTalk
Billy Cannon, a legendary Heisman Trophy winner at LSU who would later become an all-star in the American Football League, has died at the age of 80. Cannon is best remembered for his career at LSU, where he led the Tigers to the national championship in 1958 and won the Heisman Trophy in 1959.

Vikings hope to extend Barr, Diggs, Hunter – ProFootballTalk
Before the Vikings splurged on quarterback Kirk Cousins, coach Mike Zimmer spent time pushing back against the kind of cap-busting move that would make it hard to keep the team's young core players in place. The Vikings apparently will be trying to do both.

Saskatchewan Roughriders put Trent Richardson on suspended list – ProFootballTalk
Johnny Manziel is headed to the CFL to try a comeback with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats at the same time that another former Browns first-round pick has landed on his CFL team's suspended list.

AAF will play mainly on Saturdays, with some Sundays – ProFootballTalk
As the Alliance of American Football systematically unveils the locations and coaches of its initial eight teams (five of each have been disclosed so far), more details about the new professional football league have emerged. Via, Arizona State A.D.

Adrian Clayborn injured quad during offseason workouts – ProFootballTalk
With Phase 3 of the offseason program soon to begin in most NFL cities, the chances of a player injury will increase. Of course, the injury risk already was there during the less intense portions of the program. Mike Reiss of ESPN.

J.J. Watt of Houston Texans will pay for funerals of Santa Fe High School shooting victims
Texans star J.J. Watt has offered to pay for the funerals of those who were killed in Friday's school shooting near Houston.

Patriots Owner Robert Kraft Deposed In Colin Kaepernick Collusion Case
Robert Kraft’s friendship with Donald J. Trump has raised eyebrows in light of his heavy criticism of the league and owners who permit taking a knee during the national anthem. On Friday, New ...

Junior Galette says he has offers, but may retire – ProFootballTalk
Linebacker Junior Galette has not signed with a team for the 2018 season and he may not be signing with anyone either. In a post to his Instagram account, Galette says he's been offered deals with three teams but has not signed any of them because he's not sure he wants to continue playing footba...

Johnny Manziel isn't guaranteed starting CFL job, will have to beat out Jeremiah Masoli -
Hamilton Tiger-Cats coach June Jones says Manziel has a long way to go

Richard Sherman on Reuben Foster: We all makes mistakes but 'I think he's going to be fine' -
Sherman's 49ers teammate will find out next week if he'll stand trial on domestic violence charges

Aaron Rodgers has a plan to convince the Packers to keep him around into his 40s -
Rodgers recently reiterated his intention to play at least another six seasons

Here's how Bills rookie QB Josh Allen responded to Jalen Ramsey's trash talk -
The Jaguars cornerback isn't the only AFC defender looking forward to facing the Bills' first-round pick