New York Titans Leon Burton

leon burton

Leon Burton get separated from the ball by the Los Angeles Chargers Charlie McNeil.

I’ve always been intrigued by professional athletes that have very short athletic careers.  There are a host of reasons that an athlete may have an extremely shorts career – injury, no opening at a position, etc. – but occasionally the reason is not overtly apparent.  Such is the case with the New York Titans Leon Burton.

I recently stumbled across the article below by Joe Healey, on the AZ Family website, and was impressed by Burton’s one-year AFL career, which was outlined in the final paragraph of the story.   After taking a bit closer look, I found that Burton had an excellent single season on the special teams, and today would have likely made millions as a “return specialist.”  In 1960, Leon Burton led the AFL in kick off returns (30) and yardage (862).  He finished second in the league in return average at 28.7.  Burton returned two kick offs for touchdowns, and also returned 12 punts for 93 yards.  But then he was gone. 

I learned that Leon Burton was inducted into the Arizona State Sports Hall of Fame in 1978, the Greater Flint Hall of Fame in 1987, and the Greater Flint Afro-American Hall of Fame in 1990.  Nice accomplishments for a guy who played just a single season of pro ball.  I’m going to dig around a bit, and see what else I can find on the elusive Leon Burton!

Arizona State has had its fair share of phenomenal playmakers on the gridiron, and during the late-1950s, few players were as dynamically lethal with the football than running back Leon Burton.

Burton came to ASU by way of Flint (Mich.) Northern High School, where he was an all-state football running back and city record-setting track athlete.

His livelihood and athletic future were almost severely compromised by an automobile accident in 1954. However, Burton was able to recover and enroll at Arizona State College in 1955.  By the time his four years were through, Burton would contribute record-setting performances in both football and track and field.

The 5-foot-9, 172-pound Burton showed no rust in his early days wearing maroon and gold as he was named the Border Conference Freshman of the Year after rushing for 694 yards and 10 touchdowns, along with a stellar average of 10.2 yards-per-carry.

Burton’s immense abilities shined early in his freshman season of 1955.  In the season’s third game against the San Diego Navy, Burton rushed for five touchdowns—a school record he still shares with two fellow Sun Devils.

Later in the year, in a blowout Sun Devil victory over Hardin-Simmons, he posted jaw-dropping total of 243 rushing yards on only five carries.  At the time, the effort broke Wilford “Whizzer” White’s single-game mark and today stands as the second-best single-game rushing effort in ASU history.

Though injured through parts of his sophomore year, Burton still chipped in five touchdowns for the season.

Back to full health for the 1957 campaign, Burton submitted a spectacular effort on a national scale and one of the premier rushing seasons any Sun Devil running back has ever compiled.

The nation’s leading rusher and scorer with 1,151 yards and 96 total points scored (16 touchdowns), Burton set an NCAA record in 1957 with an average of 9.62 yards per carry. In terms of Sun Devil lore, Burton became the second known 1,000-yard rusher in school history, joining White’s incredible 1950 season.  Making his numbers additionally impressive is that Burton was not the sole focus of the Sun Devil running game as eventual ASU Sports Hall of Fame member Bobby Mulgado also occupied the backfield that year.

An All-Border Conference selection in 1957, Burton was a driving force for ASU’s historic undefeated squad that year in head coach Dan Devine’s third and final season at the helm for the Sun Devils.

As a senior in 1958 under first-year head coach Frank Kush, Burton paced the Devils once again in rushing despite a general dip in productivity compared to his junior year. In all, he collected 642 total rushing yards with 11 total touchdowns on 108 carries and though his rushing total was nearly split in half from the previous year, he again garnered All-Border Conference recognition.

As a whole, Burton posted a career average of 8.03 yards-per-carry, one of the top marks in NCAA history. Burton also recorded 2,994 career rushing yards, at the time ranking him second behind White in school history and currently placing him fifth all-time at ASU.

He also ranks second all-time at ASU in career rushing touchdowns (34) and third in total career touchdowns (42) and also tallied 12 career 100-yard rushing games.

Burton was drafted in the eighth round of the 1959 NFL Draft by the San Francisco 49ers but opted to play in Canada one season before returning to play for the AFL’s New York Titans.

In his debut season with the Titans, Burton showed the same game-breaking blasts he exhibited for four years in Tempe.  In 1960, he was the AFL leader with two kick return touchdowns, ranked second in the league in kick return average (28.7) and also had a 101-yard kick return for a touchdown, the second-longest kick return in the AFL that season. He also rushed for 119 yards and a touchdown as a rookie.

Burton was inducted into ASU’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1978.

Todd Tobias (790 Posts)

Todd Tobias's interest in the American Football League began in 1998, when he wrote my master's thesis about Sid Gillman. He created this site to educate and entertain football fans with the stories of the American Football League, 1960-1969. You can follow Todd and get more AFL history on Twitter @TalesfromtheAFL.


15 Responses to New York Titans Leon Burton

  1. Jeff says:

    Any of you know why he only played the one season for the Titans?

  2. Todd Tobias says:

    Frankly, I’d like to find that out as well. I’m doing some digging to see if I can locate Leon Burton and talk with him about his Titans memories.

  3. Tom says:

    It had to be a bitter pill for Leon to swallow, sitting on the sidelines watching former Border Conference Hardin Simmons Dewey Bohling play, Bohling like Head Coach Sammy Baugh were fellow Texans. Bohling was a serviceable enough back, but nothing of the likes of a Leon Burton.

    There are few things as destructive to the career of an athlete that was always a starter and now find themselves playing behind a guy that they know they are superior to and your friends and teammates tell you the same and there is nothing you can do to change it.

  4. billd says:

    Leon had very good stats in 1960. I agree with Tom. Bohling not in the same class as Burton. Leon was 25 his rookie year, and like a lot of early AFL players played in Canada one year.. Maybe he felt it was time to move on.
    The picture of Leon being tackled by Charlie McNeil brings to mind the recollection of Bob Petrich in Charging Through The AFL about Charlie taking it to Bill Cannon. Great picture.

    • Tom says:

      billb I agree it is quite a photo, hits like that, his age and the fact that he didn’t go back to the CFL and previous serious injury as a result of a car accident says something,

      One has to love the old Border Conf and the NCAA annual yardage rushing leaders (11 in 17 years) it produced, Rudy Mobley, Wilton Davis, Fred Wendt, Willford White, Art Luppino twice, Burton Pervis Atkins, Bob Gaiters and Jim “Preacher” Pilot twice . Burton and Dan Devine had a Michigan connection Devine before ASU was a “Biggie” Munn assistant at Michigan State where he coached Frank Kush during the Spartans 1952 NCAA Championship season.

  5. Kevin Carroll says:

    Enjoyed the great photo of Burton and McNeil. I wasn’t aware of Leon Burton’s impressive career at ASU. Undoubtedly, Burton was stellar, but Dewey Bohling was no slouch either. Bohling too was an All-Border Conference halfback for Hardin-Simmons in ’57 and ’58. In those days Hardin-Simmons non-conference foes included the likes of LSU (with Billy Cannon), Arkansas and Mississippi. While Burton played in Canada in ’59, Bohling at age 19, no kidding, age 19, was trying to make it with the Steelers. Bohling sustained a severe concussion in camp from a blindside block by Guard John Nisby that left him unconscious for three days and hospitalized for nine. Steeler coach Buddy Parker cut Bohling (as well as future Oiler Charley Tolar) to keep Tom “The Bomb” Tracy. Bohling spent the second half of the ’59 season on the Chicago Cardinals’ taxi squad. Bohling did all of the place-kicking at Hardin-Simmons which is another reason Baugh asked him to join the Titans. (Baugh also extended invitiations to former Hardin-Simmons ‘ players “Hayseed” Stephens and fullback Pete Hart.)
    Bohling led the Titans in rushing in 1960 and had numerous receptions out of the backfield. When both Titan quarterbacks Al Dorow and Stephens were knocked out of the game against the Oilers in the Polo Grounds, Bohling played quarterback. At one time during his high school years, only one man, Al Oerter, threw the discus farther than Bohling.

    • Tom says:

      Your wonderful and enlightened comments concerning Bohling got me to looking into him a little bit and discovered that there are two very different birth places attributed to him Hebron Ne and Athens Oh, what is not disputed is that he attended Highland High School in Albuquerque NM the high school that produced PFHOF Tommy Mac Donald and sacramento Kings owner Gavin Maloof.

      His birth year may also be in despute but is consistent on PF Ref.com databasefootball.com and nfl.comas August 22, 1938.

      The inherent danger and lack of space led the CIF SS in Southern Cal after 1932 to disband the Discus and the event finally reemerged in 1962 a near 40 year absence. Northern and Central Cal High Schools continued the event and during the years of the Southern Cal High Schools absence the likes of PFHOF John Henry Johnson 1949 Pittsburgh HS, Wayne Crow “Raiders” 1955 and 1956 Cochran HS, 1959 Ron Snidow Redskins San Rafael HS and three years after the South reestablished the Discus “1964” Bill Staley Bears and Bengals all were State Champs in the Discus throw.

  6. Kevin Carroll says:

    Tom, I stand corrected. Bohling was 20 years of age, not 19, when he reported to the Steelers training camp in July of 1959. He was, in fact, born in Hebron, Nebraska, not Athens, Ohio, on August 22, 1938. Bohling confirmed both facts for me last evening in a phone conversation.

    • Tom says:

      Kevin,
      At that age it must have been both exciting and intimidating for Bohling, on the subject of hospital stays (there is a great photo in the Los Angeles Public Library site of Frank Tripucka resting in the Good Samaritan Hospital in LA a day or so after being knocked unconscious during the 1948 Irish vs Trojan game played in the Coliseum.)
      Nisby was a tremendous player and Steeler mainstay.

      I was unawares of Tolars’ time with the Steelers, another reason we should all give thanks to you the AFL, Todd and the contributors to this site. Parker should have kept Tolar, what a gift he was to the AFL, a guy born to carry the football, When you consider the punishment that running backs take, the early end to Bohling and Burtons careers must be taken as a blessing in disguise.

      The CFLpedia frame set alphabetical list of players omits Leon Burton, the site comes with a disclaimer that it is a work and progress, I wonder if Burton wasn’t cut before the regular CFL season began, or if it is an over sight.

      Wayne Crow is Lindon Crows’ younger brother

      I written on this site before about Charlie McNeil, his twin brother Ennis and Paul Lowe were high school teammates. Charlie and Ennis were book end Offensive Tackles at Centennial HS and opened holes for Lowe. Later the twins played at Compton College for legendary coach Tay Brown as members of the Compton 8, of which the LA Times has done articles.

  7. Jim Axelrad says:

    243 yards on 5 carries? Does anyone know the details from that game?

  8. I love the history these commenters are providing. I’d never heard of Leon Burton, or that other guy–Dewey Bohling. That took some serious courage and determination to go Bohling to try out for the Steelers when he was 19.

    As for Leon Burton, we’ve got a story in the making. He sounds like he had some speed. I’d like to see some footage of him, if there’s any out there. I’m looking forward to any future article that gets written on him.

    • I semi-butchered one of my sentences, and I missed the correction on Bohling’s age. Let me say it again: That took some serious courage and determination for Bohling to try out for the Steelers when he was 20.

      I keep thinking maybe I’ve heard of Leon Burton, but I’m probably thinking of Leon Bright, a running back for the New York Giants in the early ’80’s.

      This is the 14th comment on an article about a little-known player named Leon Burton. Like I said, we have a story in the making. 243 yards on 5 carries? UNREAL ! ! ! Like Jim Axelrad, I’d like to know the details of that game. I’m wondering what kind of potential Burton might’ve had as a pro football running back if he’d kept playing.

      I really would like to see some footage of Burton, both college and pro. With his speed and his moves, I’m curious to see how his running style compares with the styles of more prominent players known for their playmaking, like Paul Lowe, Gale Sayers, Chris “Lightning” Johnson, and Michael Vick.

      This is a player very few people know about, and the curiosity factor is running high.

  9. Ellen burton says:

    My grandad.. The nfl thought he was too small so he was released . He played in Canada for awhile and then local football teams but ended his career.

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