An Interview With Keith Lincoln

When I was kid in the early 1960’s I used to watch the late Sunday afternoon upstart American Football League game.  The San Diego Chargers with their fabulous uniforms and wide open offense quickly became my favorite team. My favorite San Diego Chargers player was Keith Lincoln who I thought the sun rose and set on.  On July 27 Keith Lincoln died from congestive heart failure.  Lincoln was 80 years old and spent the last couple of years in poor health. When I first heard the news regarding Lincoln’s passing my first thoughts were, “Oh no … another childhood favorite is gone.”  Then out of nowhere some happiness creeped into my thoughts. I started thinking about all of the great football and enjoyment he brought to me and so many other people. Keith Lincoln was electric. He was the kind of football player you would never forget. In 1988 when his former teammate QB Jack Kemp came through Fort Myers during his presidential run I was lucky enough to be at Kemp’s rally. During a separate meet and greet before the rally I wished Kemp good luck and asked him, “How’s Keith Lincoln doing?” Kemp got a big smile on his face and said, “He’s doing great. He lives out in Washington these days.” Lincoln is one of the superstars of the AFL, that receives very little credit today for his accomplishments.  Lincoln was drafted by the Chargers in 1961, and quickly became one of the most versatile Chargers ever to put on the powder blue and gold.  Lincoln played tight end, defensive back and kicked a bit before settling into a regular position at fullback.  Teamed with speedster, Paul Lowe, Lincoln helped give the Chargers an awesome ground game to go along with Sid Gillman’s aerial attack. Keith Lincoln might be gone but his legacy will live on.

Brandon Rose, PFRA

The following interview with Keith Lincoln is from the late 1990’s handled via telephone by Todd Tobias from Tales From the AFL …

AFL – Going into the championship game with Boston, how did Gillman plan on using you specifically?  Do you recall?

KL – I think basically the same, to be honest with you.  I don’t think that maybe it was his intent, if it was, he didn’t express it, that maybe he was going to use me a little bit.  I think really that we went in with a typical game plan and what ever happened and was working, you certainly go back to it.  The big thing he did, Todd, was that we played them twice during the regular season and they were a very good football team.  They had an excellent defense.  What Sid did was he put in motion for our championship playoff game, for the championship game.  Back in that era, Sid was very innovative and we did a lot of different things.  We were stretching the field and doing this that you hear about today, that wasn’t in vogue.  Well, there wasn’t motion as you look at it today.  Now you see all this motion and the three receivers to one side, this type of thing.  That was not in vogue back then and what Sid did was put motion in.  This caught Boston completely off guard.  What it did is it just gave us that little advantage, it froze them for that split second and really made some things happen for us.

AFL – Now that wasn’t something that he’d used much previously in the year?

KL – That’s exactly right.

AFL – OK.  Was there something that Boston did, specifically that caused him to put that in or was it something that he designed on his own and thought would catch them off guard?

KL – Well, Sid’s the one to answer that.  I think, really, like I said, that Sid was very innovative.  He was on the cutting edge of offense and defense and always looking at new methods.  I just think Sid was looking at them and said to himself, “Hey, this is something that we can do that might give us a slight advantage.  It might upset them a little bit.”  That’s as far as I can go with that.  But the motion back then was not something that you would expect to see.

AFL – So there really wasn’t any, he didn’t plan on using you any differently than he would have any other game, it just happened…

KL – I can’t answer that.  I would like to say, and this is a tough thing for me to say and I want you to take it correctly.  But if I have any pride as an athlete, I have taken pride in that I truly believe that probably I was as versatile as any back that ever played in the NFL.  Because I could run, I could block, I could catch, I could kick, I could throw, I could do those things.  And Sid took advantage of that.  And that’s all it was.  Like I say, we opened up with this and got right out of the box.  It froze them.  We broke some big plays and the momentum was on our side.  I mean, you never say “it’s over with,” but literally in a quarter-and-a-half we had complete control of the game.

AFL – Boston did a lot of blitzing that year, sending Nick Buoniconti, one of their middle linebackers.  Do you recall anything that Sid might have brought up the week prior or during that game, how he would try and neutralize the blitzing?

KL – Blitzing was nothing new and we know that.  It depends on what you have called, whether you go into a three-step, a five-step drop by your quarterback, what you are going to do, are you going to have a moving pocket, or whatever.  And you always have responsibilities. Of course, I as a running back, had a responsibility at times for Nick Buoniconti or one of the other linebackers.  The other side of that is if you think there is a tendency and you know what they’re going to do, then you go with what you call a “hot receiver” or you key.  And I know if we’ve got everyone blocked up front, say it’s Nick Buoniconti or someone is a person I’m responsible for, and the quarterback knows that and I know that.  Well this time instead of blocking him, if I just slip out and take a pass in the flat or something, the next nearest person that can cover me is quite a few steps away because they’re tied up with other responsibilities and other receivers.  That’s one way you try to offset a blitzing team.  As an example, if you have a screen pass called, you’d love to have them blitzing to the side of the screen.  Because the back to receive the screen goes out there and just nips the back, slides away from him, and you’ve got the whole rush by you and it makes for a great screen pass.  So if you can predict some of those things and know tendencies it can be to your advantage.

AFL – One question about that team in general, the Chargers in the first six years of the AFL went to the championship game five times.  What do you think made that ‘63 team so much better than the others?

KL – I could reverse the question and say, “why didn’t we win two or three of the other ones.”  I was disappointed in the fact that we didn’t win more.  I think we were fairly evenly matched, but always felt that we had the better club, but just didn’t get the breaks.  We didn’t make the crucial play at the right time, that kind of thing.  We had good football teams.  Maybe the difference is that it all came together for us.  As you know, you’ve got to do it on both sides of the ball.  Not only does your offense have to have a good day, and make few mistakes, but the defense has to give you good field position and stop the opposition too.  I think we were and that in the other games, it just didn’t come to fruition that we won the game.  On the other side of it, the unique thing to me that sticks out, and I don’t want to belabor it, was that the game plan did bring motion in which was something different for us.  Could we have beaten them without that?  The answer is probably yes.  Would we have beaten them as much as we did or as easily we did?  The answer is probably no.

AFL – Regarding Tobin Rote, he came in ‘63.  Tobin was a great quarterback and field general from what I understand from other ball players, but didn’t have as strong an arm as some would have liked.  Was there any real compensation for that, anything that you guys had to do out of the ordinary to compensate for the weakness of his arm?

KL – You’ve put your finger on the post of Tobin Rote.  Tobin Rote was like a coach on the field.  It was like having Sid Gillman out there.  He really had that…he was a wiry old veteran.  He had the experience, he could read defenses, he had all those things going.  He had good leadership skills.  But was he past his prime?  Yes, because at one point in his career, Tobin was an awfully good runner.  He maybe ran for as much yardage, or more yardage, than any quarterback for a couple years in the NFL.  But that skill was beyond him and his arm wasn’t as strong.  But what he did with that, mentally, he could read a defense and he’d put a little more air under the ball.  He’d let Alworth or someone run underneath it, or he’d get rid of it a little bit quicker.  But I think it was Tobin’s command and sense of the game plan and what we’re trying to do.  What Sid wanted to implement, going against tendencies, anticipating what might be there, he had a huge advantage in that.  But no, other than that, you might go out there and run a pattern and the ball might not be there as quickly as you wanted, but most times Tobin would adjust and he’d throw it earlier than most quarterbacks or something like that.  Put a little more air under it.  But no, we didn’t make any major adjustments for him.

AFL – Go back to training camp in 1963.  Can you tell me about the Rough Acres Ranch?

KL – Todd, that was out in the middle of nowhere.  It was unbelievable.  Certainly it was hot.  If memory serves me, we had rattlesnakes and different things around there.  But it was a good place to get in shape.  The fields were to laugh at from the standpoint that they just came out and mixed sawdust in with the sand.  It was a camp where there were very few, if any, distractions.  Like I say, it was where you could really concentrate on football.  I personally liked the weather like that.  I never had a weight problem, but you could really get in shape.  There is no way you can drive yourself enough in the off season to be in game shape, so you need that preseason.  But it was very Spartan existence out there.

AFL – Do you think that you guys having to suffer through that brought about a different type of camaraderie that maybe you didn’t have on the other teams?

KL – That’s…Todd, that’s exactly what I was going to say.  Could you do the same thing somewhere else?  Yeah, probably.  But it was almost like a kid going to camp.  You don’t have the TV, you don’t have this, you don’t have your friends calling, you don’t have that, so you have your total attention on what’s going on.  I think that’s important.  And I think the chemistry and the team unity that comes out of something like that, I mean, and we were a fairly close team anyway for the years I was there.  We really cared about each other and knew the wives and the family and probably the in-laws and the whole damn thing, the grandparents.  We were involved with each other.  But I think that really helped us build that, and that additional time that you were literally forced to interact with each other.  I think there’s plusses to that.

AFL – Why do you think the Chargers never went back to something like that.  I know they couldn’t go back to Rough Acres because the place kind of got torn up a bit, but why do you think they didn’t take on that kind of attitude with other camps and go away?

KL – You know, I really don’t know.  To be honest with you, I cannot answer that.  I really do believe there is some benefits to it.  I mean, you have to have some realism in the thing, too.  I think there’s a lot to be said if you can isolate it somewhat.  I really do.  Camp for everybody, but in particular for the rookies and new players coming in, that’s an intense time.  There’s a hell of a learning curve there.  The new technology, the whole thing, getting your timing down, and I think the fewer distractions you have, the better camp you’re going to have.

AFL – One last question regarding those Charger teams.  You guys came under a lot of racial conflict when you went to other cities, Houston, Atlanta.

KL – Racial?

AFL – Yes, where you guys weren’t allowed to stay in certain hotels, some of the black players weren’t allowed to.  How did that work out?  Can you explain that situation to me?  The feeling on the team, things like that.

KL – Well, it doesn’t seem like it was that long ago, but Todd, it was ugly.  My first experience with it, to put it in chronological perspective for you, was my senior year.  We played an 11th game back then and Washington State, we went down and played the University of Houston.  And they wouldn’t let the African-American or black players stay with us.  They ended up putting them in private homes.  You just can’t believe something like that.  I went K-12 in Los Angeles.  I went to a big school and probably 40-50%, were minorities.  So back then, in fact in my life, I’d never seen anything like that.  Back then, and we’d go to, it was the Dallas Texans at that time, which are now the Kansas City Chiefs, but we would go and traditionally we’d go to the movie theater the night before as a team.   There we’d get on the bus to go and they’d let us in.  If they didn’t let us in the front, we’d go in the back where ever they said, but then we’d have to get in a balcony that there were no other people in.  And I remember this one that we were in the balcony and maybe in the second balcony and we’re all up there watching the movie and a young couple came in, a guy with his date.  So they asked us to move back one more balcony.  And they would not let our African-American players go to the concession stand.  I remember going down there and buying a bunch of popcorn and different stuff and bringing it back up.  It was just ludicrous.  It was unbelievable.  It really was.

AFL – What about some of the stances that the team took.  I’ve spoken with some of the African-American players, Faison and Westmoreland and Ernie Wright and guys like that.  I know you guys refused to play, I believe it was Houston, for a game.

KL – New Orleans, for an all-star game.

AFL – What was the whole feeling like, from the whole team.  I’ve talked to some of the African-American players, like I said, but I’d like to get the stance from some other guys as well.

KL – Well it was just unbelievable to me.  It was mind-boggling.  I had never experienced anything like this, like I say, K-12, I didn’t know the difference between Chicano, Latino, African-American, Black, whatever.  And I was always involved in sports and certainly it was a rainbow coalition where ever I was and when ever I played sports.  And my friends, whether it was in school or out of school, I just didn’t understand this.  I had not literally been exposed to this.  And I was just totally shocked that you could do something like that.  And the reality of the thing is when it’s slammed in your face you sit there and say, “how in the hell can this happen to my friend?  How can this happen?”  I know you can never sense what another person is feeling, completely, but I mean I was just as shocked and offended and embarrassed and certainly felt sorry for them.  How in the hell can anyone be treated this way?  So I was very supportive and I’m sure the other white players on the team were very supportive of doing whatever.  Moving the all-star game out of there, that was absolutely the right thing to do, as far as I’m concerned.  Hell, I don’t need to go to the show if that’s going to be the attitude, the hell with them.  Let’s not go to the show.  If we all have to go out and sleep in the tent, let’s sleep in the tent, but let’s not put up with this kind of baloney.

AFL – One last question regarding Gillman, something that I probably asked last time, but would like to get on tape.  What were Gillman’s greatest contributions to the game.  Both for you personally and for the game in general.

KL – I literally believe without any reservation that Sid Gillman is in the top elitist group, where there is a handful of coaches you can name.  If you’re asked to name the all-time best coaches, Sid had to be in that group.  I told you before he had a great partner in Esther, his wife.  She epitomized what a coach’s wife should be and the relationship she had not only with the players, but the player’s wives, the community, the whole thing.  She was wonderful.  Sid did a lot of things right in my mind and particularly in retrospect.  I think to be successful you have to surround yourself with good people.  He did that from a coaching standpoint.  There’s no question historically that’s proven.  You look at people that served on his staffs and they’ve gone on to be very successful coaches, successful people.  That’s the key, he had good coaches.  He was a hard worker.  He was dedicated.  He expected that out of his coaches and his players.  He was very innovative, always looking for change, always looking for improvement, this type thing.  You knew as a player when you got in there that he was a good evaluator of talent and he was good at development and he was going to develop it and expose and take advantage of all your talents.  You knew that going into a game that as far as your game plan and that, it was going to be competitive.  It was going to be good.  So, you had to have, without question, faith that when you went out on that football field you could be competitive and you were going to have the best game plan and advantage going that anyone could put together.  He just did that.  I think Sid really had true feelings for his players.  It’s a tough business.  The toughest thing you can do is call on the telephone, “Hey, you’re traded.” “We have to cut you,” or “You have to do that.”  I think Sid had a soft spot in his heart for all his players.  I think he is a giant among coaches.  I truly do.

AFL – Great.  Thank you, I appreciate your time very much.

KL – Anytime.

Remembering Nick Buoniconti

On July 30th Boston Patriots and Miami Dolphins all-time great LB Nick Buoniconti passed away after a battle with dementia. Buonicionti was 78 years old. He was an integral part of the famed Miami Dolphins “No Name Defense” and the only member of that defense to be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I am fortunate enough to have seen Nick Buoniconti play many times going to Miami Dolphins games since 1968. Below is a terrific article giving props to Nick Buoniconti who as great a football player he was he was an even greater person off the field. Long live his memory.

Brandon Rose, PFRA

Nick Buoniconti’s first football injury happened before he even reached the playing field. Racing off to practice with Springfield’s South End Spitfires as an 8-year-old, he tripped over the shoulder pads he was carrying, broke an arm, and was out the rest of the year.

And the next season? “No one scored a point against us all year,” he told the Globe’s Will McDonough in 1966. “I played middle linebacker right from the start and I’ve been there ever since.”

A Pro Football Hall of Famer, and an AFL All-Star for the Boston Patriots in the 1960s, Mr. Buoniconti went on to help lead the Miami Dolphins to a pair of Super Bowl victories, including the one that capped 1972’s legendary undefeated, untied season.

In retirement, he became just as renowned for his advocacy on behalf of those who, like himself and his son Marc, were hobbled by football injuries. Mr. Buoniconti, who two years ago publicly offered to donate his brain and spinal chord for chronic traumatic encephalopathy research, died Tuesday at home in Bridgehampton, N.Y. He was 78. A cause of death wasn’t immediately available.

“I’m not half the man I used to be,” he said through tears at a November 2017 news conference, during which he called for more research into the effects of CTE, an incurable, degenerative neurological disease that has been linked to the repeated head blows football players experience.

“I don’t do this for myself,” he said that day, by then using a wheelchair to get around. “I do it for the thousands of others who will follow me.”

Mr. Buoniconti had already used the clout of his football fame to draw public attention to the sport’s injuries.

In 1985, his son Marc was paralyzed while playing football for The Citadel. In the ensuing years, as a founder of the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis and The Buoniconti Fund, Mr. Buoniconti helped raise some $500 million to support spinal cord research at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine.

“My dad has been my hero and represents what I have always aspired to be; a leader, a mentor, and a champion,” Marc said in a statement. “He selflessly gave all to football, to his family, and to those who are less fortunate.”

Growing up in Springfield, Mr. Buoniconti was a star player at Cathedral High School, from which he graduated in 1958. He received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame in 1962 and was picked in the 13th round of the American Football League draft by the Boston Patriots.

At 5 feet 11 inches and not much more than 200 pounds in his college years, Mr. Buoniconti was thought by many to be too small for professional football. “I now think size is overrated,” he told the Globe’s McDonough in 1966, well into his AFL career.

Mr. Buoniconti helped lead the Patriots defense from 1962-68, and was twice named to the Pro Bowl while playing for the Dolphins from 1969-76. He retired that year as a six-time All-AFL selection and a member of the All-AFL 10-year anniversary team.

“He was a Hall of Fame player on the field, but more importantly, a Hall of Fame person off it,” Patriots owner Robert Kraft said in a statement. “As an undersized, overachieving linebacker, he quickly became a fan favorite in Boston, and he remains one of the most iconic homegrown players in franchise history.”

In a statement, Pro Football Hall of Fame president and chief executive David Baker noted that Mr. Buoniconti had led Miami’s fearsome “No-Name Defense,” and indeed had lived his life “with grit, determination, courage, and compassion. Nick’s contributions off the field were even greater than what he did on it. He lived a life of honor.”

Born Dec. 15, 1940, Nicholas Anthony Buoniconti Jr. was a son of Nicholas Buoniconti Sr. and Pasqualina Mercolino, who was known as Patsy. His parents ran an Italian bakery.

Though Mr. Buoniconti was a star athlete in Springfield, “I didn’t want to go to Notre Dame because I thought I wasn’t big enough,” he said in the 1966 interview.

“I was the smallest guy on the field,” he recalled, adding that during his first night at college, “I remember sitting in that room and asking myself: ‘What am I doing here?’ ”

His worries were for naught. He became a team captain and an All-American at Notre Dame. And he didn’t set aside studies upon joining the Patriots, graduating from Suffolk University Law School in 1968.

“I was bitter when I left Boston,” he told the Globe in 1978. “I had just passed the Massachusetts Bar exam and a week later I was traded to Miami.”

The trade proved beneficial, though, bringing him two Super Bowl rings. He led a Dolphins defense that allowed only a single touchdown in each title contest. Miami defeated the Washington Redskins, 14-7, for the 1972 title and the Minnesota Vikings, 24-7, the next season.

After retiring, Mr. Buoniconti was a player agent, president of US Tobacco, and a cohost of HBO’s “Inside the NFL.” He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2001.

It was in 1985, when Marc was paralyzed, that Mr. Buoniconti dedicated himself to advocating for medical research.

“He made a promise to me that turned into a revolution in paralysis research,” Marc said in his statement. “We can best honor his dedication and endless commitment by continuing with our work until that promise is fulfilled and a cure is found.”

And then Mr. Buoniconti’s own football injuries caught up with him. Those included at least 10 concussions as a player, among them one in the 1972 Super Bowl that “knocked me silly.”

In a 2017 interview with Sports Illustrated, he spoke frankly about the decline of his basic abilities. “I feel lost,” he told the magazine. “I feel like a child.”

After his own dementia diagnosis, he dedicated himself anew to research, including ensuring that his brain could be studied after he died.

In the November 2017 news conference, he said he hoped his donation to Boston University’s CTE Center, the Concussion Legacy Foundation, and the VA Boston Healthcare System would help researchers better understand the link between head impacts in sports and brain damage.

“Nick courageously fought the greatest battle of his life against a devastating and untreatable neurodegenerative disease that was most likely CTE or chronic traumatic encephalopathy,” the CTE Center said in a statement Wednesday. “Nick pledged to donate his brain to the BU CTE Center and established a research fund with his wife, Lynn, to accelerate research on the diagnosis, care, and treatment for CTE.”

Mr. Buoniconti leaves his wife, Lynn; four children, Gina, Nick III, Marc, and Justin; his former wife, Terry; two brothers, Robert and Peter; and four grandchildren. Plans for a memorial service were not immediately available.

Mr. Buoniconti, who coauthored the book “How to Play Defense” with former Dolphins teammate Dick Anderson, collected numerous awards over the years for his civic leadership, along with several honorary college degrees.

He was named to the halls of fame for the Patriots and the Dolphins, and had served on many corporate boards.

In 1966, he recalled the advice he had been given, words that guided his determination to keep playing: “I don’t care who you are or how good you are — somebody’s going to knock you down. The important thing is to not stay there.”