Former Oilers reflect on 50-year history of franchise

Sunday, November 22, 2009 at 11:24pm

HOUSTON _ As his Tennessee Titans come back to their original home for a visit Monday night, owner Bud Adams has made the weekend a special event for members of the original Houston Oilers.

At least one member of those original Oilers team used the occasion to state his case for the old American Football League and himself getting their just due some 50 years later.

As part of the half-century anniversary of the formation of the AFL, Adams is hosting an “Oilers Weekend of Champions,” which kicked off Sunday night with a reception and banquet, followed by team photo of the 1960 and 61 AFL champion Oilers team and attending Monday night’s game against the Houston Texans at Reliant Stadium.

Former receiver Charlie Hennigan was one of those original Oilers on hand, and said he would like to see the AFL begin to get the respect it never got back in the early 1960s and, in some ways, said it still doesn’t today.

Hennigan’s point is that only one player who played his career exclusively in the AFL before the merger, former Buffalo Bills guard Billy Shaw, is currently enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

There are many, ranging from former Oilers quarterback George Blanda, who was here for the festivities, but was battling a fever Sunday night, to Joe Namath and others from the AFL in the Hall. But all of them spent at least a portion of their career as NFL players before and/or after the merger.

Hennigan said he believes his accomplishment, put together over the first seven years of the AFL’s existence merit consideration for the Hall of Fame.

“It may be a sign of selfishness, but yes I do [believe I should be in the Hall of Fame],” Hennigan said, “and I’ll tell you why.

“As far as I know, among the receivers I do know, not one AFL receiver that played in the AFL only is in there, and we had people like Art Powell, Otis Taylor. We had some tremendous years when the NFL was three clouds and a pile of dust.”

For the record, Hennigan, now 74, was the first man in pro football history to catch 100 passes in a season, hauling in 101 in 1964, and also set a record with 1,746 yards receiving in 1961 that stood alone until modern era receivers Jerry Rice and Isaac Bruce eclipsed the mark in 16 games. Hennigan did it in 14 games, and actually needed only 12 to surpass the then-NFL record set by Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch in 1951.

In just seven AFL seasons, Hennigan finished with 410 catches, 6,823 receiving yards and 51 touchdowns, averaging 16.6 yards per reception.

“Frankly, they called us pass-happy guys. We weren’t by today’s comparison,” Hennigan said. “I don’t think we got our due as a league.”

Perhaps not, but Adams made sure the players are getting their due from him this weekend. Not only were the original Oilers members on hand, but also many other franchise greats from both Houston and Nashville were to attend Sunday night. That group included Hall of Famers Mike Munchak, Bruce Matthews and Warren Moon as well as recent Titans stars Eddie George and Frank Wycheck.

“I think it’s really good that Bud is doing this. It helps us keep track of each other,” said Bill Groman, another standout receiver from those original teams.

There was memorabilia that each attendee was to autograph from Oilers helmets to posters and photos. Some of those were for Adams to display at his home and office, and others were to be given to the attendees themselves as keepsakes.

Many of the original Oilers said they loved seeing the original Oilers jerseys back in circulation for the 50th anniversary.

“I thought it was kind of neat to see some of it. The ones they wore were the very first year with the script [numbers]. The very next year, they went to the square-type numbers,” Groman said.

Groman, who also played for Denver and Buffalo, said he even got a kick out of seeing the Broncos’ vertical-striped socks and brown and yellow color scheme brought out of he mothballs.

Defensive back Tony Banfield liked seeing the old Oilers digs in the spotlight as well again.

“It was a great idea. I don’t know who came up with it, but it was good for us old-timers to see,” Banfield said.

Banfield was one who keeps up with the Titans even though they left Houston 13 years ago, and he said it helps that he grew up near Nashville in Russellville, Ky.

“I was raised about 50 miles north of Nashville in Kentucky, so for that reason, I followed them. Plus, they were the Oilers to us,” Banfield said. “I watch about every Titans game I can get.”