New York Giants – 1959-1960
Boston Patriots – 1961
TT – Tell me about how you came to the Chargers.
BK – In 1959, after I graduated in January of ’59, I had to go into the service because I was in the ROTC program. So I joined the Giants back in October, was activated that year, and didn’t play, but was activated. Then in 1960, somehow the word got out that I was available, as far as the New York Giants were concerned, so Al Davis called me up, had me fly to Atlanta, where he met me at a hotel there. He went through his sales pitch and this deciding factor was that instead of being paid $7,000 for the 1960 season by the New York Giants, I would be receiving $10,000 from the Los Angeles Chargers. So with the enticement of the extra money, I said, “What the heck.” So that’s how I ended up out at Los Angeles in the 1960 season.
TT – Were you concerned that the AFL might not succeed?
BK – To be honest, at that time, the money was the factor, along with the fact that Al Davis probably is one of the most successful salespersons out there in the field when he wants to sell a product. And what he was doing was selling the American Football League at that time. And at the time I was playing with the Giants, I was playing behind Kyle Rote, so I didn’t see that much action. I always felt that if I had gone over to the Los Angeles Chargers I would be able to start and play football, which was my utmost desire. The money was really the big factor, but more in lines of the idea that I would be able to play full time and make my own statement. And that’s, I think, the overriding factor of why I left the Giants and went out to Los Angeles.
TT – How did the Chargers training camp differ from others that you have attended?
BK – Well, the Charger camp, when I got out there, I thought I was in good shape for the 1960 season. I had practiced in New Orleans, over there in the humidity, and had worked out with Tommy Mason, who was going to the Minnesota Vikings that year. So I thought I was in tuned to really step in to the role of being in shape and ready to compete for the position I was there for. And when I got out there to Los Angeles where we practiced, I guess there were like 18 or 19 ends, and I was taken back by that. But what was more important though, was that when I was working out, I was losing 10 pounds a session. In the morning and the afternoon, we were in shirts then, but we went into pads later. But I was losing so much weight, and I wasn’t replacing it with anything, that I started getting symptoms of rigor mortis, to sort of exaggerate the point. But I could not move or really give it my best, so I guess after about two weeks the handwriting was on the wall that I was not in the shape I thought I was. Therefore I had lost a lot of ground as far as being competitive, as far as the rest of the group. But they called me in and said, “Well Bill, we’re going to let you go.” The Turk came visiting and said, “Bring your book.” And that was the end of the experience that I had out there in Los Angeles. When I came back, I immediately got on the phone and called Wellington Mara of the New York Giants, the owner at that time, still is. And I told Wellington that I’d made a mistake. Could I come over and Join the Giants in Fairfield, Connecticut, at that time. And he said, “Bill, we can’t promise you anything. We can’t guarantee you anything, but you’re welcome to come on out and give it a try.” I said, “That’s good enough for me.” So I reported to Fairfield and needless to say, I made the active squad when the season began and spent the 1960 season with them. And then in 1961, because of the Minnesota Vikings coming into their beginning, I was one of the three that the Minnesota Vikings chose as far as the nucleus of 36 veterans that they could draw upon, as well as the draft and anyone else they could bring in there. And that’s how I ended up going from New York to Minnesota for the third season. And then I got injured, pulled a hamstring, and couldn’t really function as far the function to keep my job. I was running first string when I got hurt, but Van Brocklin, I will always remember, came up to me. He was the coach at that time. He said, “Bill, we’re going to shoot that leg so you can get out there and practice.” I said, “Coach, I can’t do that. There’s too much of a possibility of a sustained injury that would probably end my career. It’s not worth it to me.” So after I got rehabilitated, where I could play, I went out and had a hell of a ball game in the last exhibition game. I had a good outing, and was cut the following day. It meant that they had to see that I was back in shape to play, but I was cut before I even got out there, in their mind. So I came back, stayed for about two or three weeks, and then the Boston Patriots called me up. That’s where I finished out the season. At that time, when I went to the Boston Patriots, I guess I was so out of shape that I don’t think I really capitalized on the opportunity that I had. But as I was gradually getting back into shape, to play, in the style that I was accustomed to, Lou Saban was fired. But not before he released me on Thursday. He was fired on Friday and Mike Holovak, the coach that came in as head coach then, tried to reinstate me, but I had already been deactivated on Monday or Tuesday of that week, even though I was told later. So it meant sitting out for a period of time and the season was virtually over. I said, “Gentlemen, that’s it. I’m taking off, and I’ll see you later.” So that was my third year and also my sudden burst of realization that it was time to get serious and go get a job and raise a family like I had, and chalk it up and be thankful that I had the experience and go on about life.
TT – Did you feel that Chargers camp was more difficult than others because of the large number of players trying out?
BK – Numbers becomes the important issue as far as getting in as many people as you can, to weed them out as fast as you can, to get down to the nucleus of players that you think can cut it. Not being in shape either because of the humidity or the sudden loss… We’d practice in the morning in shorts, and in pads later. I was losing 10 pounds every practice. I was 185. I’d go in weighing 175, go in the shower and just gulp down all the water I could possibly get in my system. Then I’d go out there in the afternoon and lose another 10 pounds, come in, weigh 175, try to rehabilitate. And after about two weeks of that, well really the first week, I was absolutely, almost to the point where I could barely move. I had lost so much nutrients in my body without replenishing it, that I just couldn’t recoup fast enough. Now the practices were easy because we weren’t having contact. We were more or less going through the drills and catching. It was just simple fundamentals. But it was just that with the speed that we had out there, and with the people that seemed to be in season shape that I’d already seen out there as far as the competition, I thought, “Wow.” But I always felt that I would eventually get back to where I was in shape and could compete and hold my own and be as good as anybody out there. But I didn’t have the opportunity. The only conciliation I had was that when I came back, and the Boston Patriots called me up to have me report up there, which I competed with two other ends, Bobby Towns and another gentleman that had just been cut from the Canadian League, I outperformed those two. They sent them on their way, so I stayed there for the rest of the time as far as inactive, until I got waived by Saban before he was fired. But I always felt that in being competitive, that I was sort of at a disadvantage in a way. I didn’t have time enough to really make the impression that I should have been making, had I been over there in a better physical state. The only thing that was said when the guy that called me up to go to Boston was, “Bill, they thought they released you a little bit too soon, and that maybe you should have had a second chance.” But that was all the conciliation I had, and how much truth there was in that, I have no idea.
TT – Tell me about Sid Gillman.
BK – well, I was impressed. I thought he conducted himself well. In fact, I thought everyone conducted themselves well. I didn’t have any animosity or any real serious disappointment. Because when you are out there, you can sort of see where you stand and what progress you’re making and where you sort of fit in. And at that point, I guess, in my own mind, I realized that I wasn’t really cutting it to the capacity or capability that I had. And so it didn’t come as that big of a surprise. Although it was a surprise, because when you have a shot at something like that and you’re signed up to go out and play, that you’re going to be given the opportunity to really be able to show yourself. But I didn’t have that length of time out there to do it. Now when I reported to the Giants, after I left from there, I was in the best of shape of anybody in the camp there and was head and shoulders above everybody else as far as conditioning. And I stood out like a shining star. So in a way, it was a blessing in disguise.
TT – The Chargers coaching staff had three future Hall of Fame coaches in Sid Gillman, Al Davis and Chuck Noll. Did it appear to be a knowledgeable or overly impressive staff at the time?
BK – Here’s what everyone has to be aware of. At the time, in ’59 and ’60 and ’61, the NFL was not a sport that was, in the South, as well known, until TV came into play. That made it much more interesting to the South. So when we were playing football, we were just Southern boys that when we were asked to play on a professional team, you were thrilled out of your mind. And when they offered you money on top of that, you sort of stopped and thought, “You’re paying me to play football?” We had that desire. It’s like, “We’ll pay you to let us play.” So when they offered that, it was just like a stunning, out-of-the-blue opportunity, and I was aghast at. It was just amazing. Of course I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity, so when I went into the service I took six months to get out of there so I could get up there. I had the opportunity to go into the regular army, which to this day I wonder if I’d made that choice, if I’d still be here. But I took that six-month deal, which we could do at that time. So that’s why I reported the Giants in October, so it may have been a little bit easier in ’59 to get up there and start my career in that area there. So basically, I guess what I’m saying, is that at the time that we were playing, we did not have weights, we did not work out. When the season was over, the six months we put in, we were then left to go and get part time jobs just to survive. We were not being paid enough, salary-wise, to carry us through the year. So that made it a little bit difficult for a lot of people as far as playing. Because people don’t want to hire someone that is going to be there for six months, turn around and leave, and they may or may not come back. So that made it a little bit hard on all of us as far as that goes. But without the idea of really being in tuned to the NFL personnel such as Sid Gillman, Chuck Noll and Al Davis, these were virtual strangers to us. As far as meeting and being a part of, and only the after-effect as afar as being around them, did you know that you were among greatness. And at that time the magnanimity of it, as far as where everybody was coming from in that league. So basically, that’s where I came in at it. I was a very naive ball player.
TT – How did you feel about the competition level between the AFL and NFL?
BK – I realized this, having had the Los Angeles Chargers and the Boston Patriots to draw upon, that psychologically, and maybe from an analysis, you would have to give the ground to the NFL. They had the so-called “better athlete,” as far as experience and the length of time that it had its history to create greatness and the different stars that were available at that time. But what it boiled down to is that it doesn’t matter it if is the NFL or the American Football League as far as who’s better than who, it’s the product that you put out on the field as far as an entertainment product is concerned. And when the AFL put their teams out there and they were basically competitive amongst themselves, they had a commodity that was just as entertaining as the NFL was. So, as we all saw later on, the caliber of talent was not all that different. As we competed and as Joe Namath came through and made his points, that they were pretty close as far as equal talent. So basically it boiled down to the fact that regardless of the level of competition, if you can make it all in this parity equal to, where it is a competitive battle no matter who plays who, you’ve got a saleable product. And I thought the American Football League was able to do that. And that’s where their success did come about and they were such a rival.
TT – Did any of the individual Chargers stand out as being very good athletes or players?
BK – Dave Kocourek was something that stuck out in my mind. He was a tight end. He was there and I was trying to think, Jack Kemp was there, but I don’t really remember him all that well. But as far as personnel was concerned, he would not have stuck out in my mind at that time as to who he was or the history behind him. But he was there at the same time I was. Basically, I guess other than Dave, because he was a tight end at that time, that was probably the closest one I was associated with at the time. That’s one that did stand out. Sid Gillman I can remember very well, and liked him. He was a low-key guy in my opinion and handled himself very well. I would see the Hilton’s out there every once in a while. You know, the owners. I always felt that was interesting because of their history behind them. I did have some knowledge about them. So that was always of interest. And then of course, Al Davis grew in stature and importance the longer he was in the league. And of course he was there at that time. But as he went through and has done the accomplishments that he has done, that it’s been fascinating to follow and keep up with that because I will always have the memory of how I was recruited and the experience I had with him.
TT – When you were in high school or college, was there any player that you modeled yourself after?
BK – In high school I was considered the star. It was like I set the pace and I had the people looking up at me. I went to Miami for the first year and of course I had some injuries there as far as a cartilage injury. I finished the first year with them, but they did not invite me back. So then I ended up going to Florida State, which out of the three years up there, I was able to play two years. So out of the five years of being able to play, I only got really two years under my belt because of injuries on the other three. It was one of those things that I thought I was a big shot. I will always remember that when I went to Florida State that second year, that Lee Corso was there and he was our running back. He was our quarterback and he was just sort of a jack of all trades, but one of the funniest and most humorous guys that you could ever imagine. And he would be the life of the party. That’s the way he was on the team and it was just a memorable time with him. Of course Burt Reynolds was there at the time too, when I was at Florida State. Buddy comes across the same way he does on film and in his TV programs. Just like he is on the movie set or on the TV set. So I had some good times there as far as the associations that I had. Now I always felt like in my senior year, even though I had about four touchdowns that year, that I was one of the seniors that sort of got pushed back a little bit to bring the sophomores up so that they could get more playing time and more experience. But that last year was when we played Florida for the first time in our series. That was the ’58 season. I was in that and caught two or three passes. So I have a lot of memories there, as far as where I am coming from in my collegiate days, but no one that I actually sat back and idolized. Tom Nugent was our coach at that time, and he was an innovator, if you are familiar with him. So we were fortunate there that he was of that caliber, rather than the north and south, three yards here, four yards there. We threw the ball, we put it in the air. At that time, that was sort of a novelty, I guess, back in ’57 and ’58. But I never felt like I really reached my true potential. I always regretted that, I think.
TT – Is there anything that you disliked about being a professional football player?
BK – No. And you know the interesting thing about it, after you went through preseason, when the season started, we did not put pads on until the game started. We didn’t go out and put our shoulder pads on for the warm ups, we’d go back in, and prior kick off, we’d put our pads on and get ready for combat. So when the game was over on Sunday, we’d have our Monday and we’d go back out and practice in shorts all week. The only time we’d put our pads back on was when we got ready for our game on Sunday. That was a nice, enjoyable time, as far as playing ball was concerned. You didn’t have to go out there and get your head kicked in all the time. Now you know what is really funny is that I watch the game today and I all but wonder how in the devil I ever survived back in those days.
TT – In what regards?
BK – Well, they way you’re hit. The vulnerability you have. And at that time I’d had two cartilage operations before I even got to the pros. That was sort of a curtailing problem for me. Every once in a while the knee would swell up and get stiff on me. If I didn’t keep it strong and work on the quads, I knew I was going to have trouble with it. So I always felt like it cut down on not my speed, but my mobility, maneuverability. I used to be able to cut on a dime at full speed, but I think when the body gets those g-forces on it, that torque, that the knees are just not built to take it. I think that’s where your cartilage starts to tear and the ligaments start to pop. Then when you put 50 pounds of weight-muscle on you, the body is not constructed to handle it. I think that’s why we get these high sprains, ankle sprains and all these other problems that we run into. But of course at the time that I played, there was no lifting at all. The only time that came into play was when Billy Cannon at LSU brought that into prominence and people started paying attention. “Well, maybe there is something to weightlifting and maybe it can be incorporated into the football program.” So that started in the early ‘60s and started growing in the ‘70s on up to the present time.
TT – Other comments?
BK – It’s an experience that I would never trade in a million years. I felt like I owed it to myself, and after three years of looking at where it was going, I guess I could have gone and played longer, but it was like I had caught a glimpse of what it was all about, had made my fulfillment as far as what I wanted to get out of it, and then I thought it was time to leave this paradise and get into a more practical manner of making a living. So I decided to make my departure and that’s how it all ended up. But anybody that has the opportunity, they have got to grab it and they have got to go through the experience. There’s another factor you’ll see with players like that. I saw so many players, like when I was in Minnesota, coming and going, that I was stunned at the caliber and the abilities that would certainly indicate that they were capable of playing at that level, but their confidence level, their belief in themselves… It was quite an experience to go through and see how many people did doubt their abilities or their ability y to make it. You see them leave for whatever reason and you never see them again. But it was something that was quite an experience and it has given me a lot of gratification. So I will always be thankful that I was given the opportunity and I took advantage of it. Now you all had Bud Whitehead that joined you in 1961. He went to Florida State. He was a defensive back and it was no surprise to see him up there playing for the Chargers and doing as well as he did. And I think since that time, you have had maybe 8 or 9 other people there that have been from Florida State. That’s very interesting to see who has been with the Chargers. Well, I guess with the school having started in 1947, I was about the 13th player that had the opportunity to go to the pros. And of course at that time there were only 12 teams. So I always felt honored that I had the opportunity to go to a limited number of teams in ratio to the number of athletes that were coming out of college and would have like to have gone further in their career. That was always something that I have been proud of that I was able to be a part of that.