One of the superstars of the AFL, that receives very little credit today, is Chargers running back, Keith Lincoln. 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. The following interview was held via telephone in 1998, when I was researching my master’s thesis.
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
Ah, Keith Lincoln…aside from Lance Alworth, my favorite A.F.L. San Diego Charger…and not just because he wore #22 (my birthdate)…he could do it ALL: played DB before he was switched back to FB, could throw the option pass, could catch/run like the dickens (what does that mean, exactly?), ran back kicks, even place-kicked for awhile for the Bolts! And that championship game in ’63…wow! Seen only a few since, in almost 50 years, have a day like his that day!…and, because I was 10,…I wanted to BE him!!! (and terribly sorry to see his career end the way it did, on his return to the Chargers, when he broke his leg on that kickoff return…a horrible way to go out for one of the All-Time Greats of the team…AND the A.F.L.!!!)
I just couldn’t get used to Lincoln wearing #9 on his return to SD. But loved his style of play and what I really thought was cool back then was that he wore his hip pads with the top part outside of his shirt. The only player I saw do that. It made him special in my mind.
Franco Harris wore his pads outside, also. But quite frankly, I think Keith was the better all-around player …
Up until 1966 the Oldest of the “Old Guard NFL”, The Chicago Bears found themselves in a position of being unable or unwilling to sign various Draft Picks, loosing draft picks to other NFL and AFL Teams. In 1961 the Bears lost both their 4th and 5th draft picks the the Chargers, Ernie Ladd and Keith Lincoln. They also lost Bill Brown to the Vikes and a year prior Don Merdith to the Cowboys. Other Bears picks lost to the AFL include, Jim Nance, Bobby Burnett, Jim Tyrer, Sid Blanks, Dan Connors, Frank Pitts, Steve De Long, Terry Owens and Goldie Sellers.
While it is impossible to say with complete certainty how the Bears would have fared if they had suceeded in those signings, that would have complemented Dick Butkus, Gayle Sayers and Mike Ditka, what is certain, is the during that period “The Monsters of the Midway” The Chicago Bears fell from grace and the sport of Football was both beneficiary and the ultimate victor, as for the first time Football topped Baseball in popularity, thanks in part to the AFL’s success in signing players away from the NFL, and keeping coaches and staff in tact and NBC sports and Charlie Jones sure didn’t hurt.
In 1956 Keith was mostly set to be the next great USC running back, he was a senior at Monrovia playing his final days, eager to make the next step and follow in the footsteps of Jon Arnett and CR Roberts. The recruitment issues that Keith faced in 1956 with the two local powers to include UCLA is prior to the start of the 1956 season Jon Arnett and UCLA’s Ronnie Knox were found to have been in violation of the policy that restricts compensation. As a result Arnett served a four game suspension, that many believe cost him the Heisman and Ronnie Knox all but left the UCLA program. The other issue was competition, Randy Meadows, Micky Flynn and Bill Kilmer. Of the players to include Arnett and Knox, Flynn was considered superior. Flynn attended USC and in 1957 played frosh football and at the end of the semester left school for awhile and football for good. that same year Kilmer goes to UCLA and Lincoln left the LA scene for near obscurity in the Paloose only to emerge back in the LA/ San Diego market a relative unknown to young fans. Lincoln is the all-time AFL leader with 390 combined single offensive play yardage in the five offensive statistic categories, rushing, receiving,punt return, kick off return and passing.
Lincoln’s high school days ran smack in the the middle of 1950’s, 1954-57, and the greater Southern California, now megalopolis, both logistically and with people, from Santa Barbara to San Diego became an AFL landmark. Some of the AFL players from the area that played high school during the mid fifties,include:
Jack Kemp, Paul Lowe, Art Powell, Keith Lincoln, Ron Mix, Charlie McNeil, Lee Grosscup, Ernie Zampese, Dick Harris, Willie West, Luther Hayes, Chuck McMurtry, Ken Gregory, Gary Campbell, Gerry McDougall, and others that were multi sport stars to include NFL and Major League Baseball’s Don Buford Dorsey, Bobby Knoop Montebello, Bill Kilmer Citrus/ Azusa, CR Roberts Oceanside, Earnell Durden Mnaual Arts LA, Tom Modzelewski Venice, Deron Johnson San Diego, Keith Hubbs Colton (Ken’s older brother.) Woodrow Perry Jordan (Fletcher’s younger brother) Ron McBride South Gate, Bill Face San Marino Stanford, Jerry Mollett Van Nuys/USC, Jim and Steve Hannifan Covina, Gerry McDougal LB Poly, Bates and Levingston USC, The McKeever twins Mount Carmel, Robert Curry & Tony Lorick Fremont, Dick Norman Lynwood, Mickey Flynn Anaheim and Randy Meadows, Jack Trumbo, Pete Yoder and Dallas Moon Downey to mention a few.
Great stuff, as always, Tom. I’m curious as to how James “Jetstream” Smith fit into the SoCal high school sports scene during the same period. I have been able to get in contact with him, and should be interviewing him soon for the blog.
Jet Stream with Joe Lewis attended LA Jordan HS and later attended Compton College, Joe Lewis played five NFL seasons 1958-62 with the Steelers, Colts and Eagles. All through that period the area was loaded with exceptionally talented people and a few played football, Some made the pros and obviously a number of equally or more talented athletes who were injured or stopped playing to go to work, or for what ever, never did.
Todd, When Jet Stream was at Jordan the star all around athlete was Earl Battey, who later would catch for the Minnesota Twins in the World Series against the Dodgers. Battey and San Pedro HS Willie Naulls were the best basketball players in the city then. Jordan also had a strongman shotputter Don Everage, Don became the first LA City prepster to top 61′. Later Don would join the LA Striders and team with Meredith Gourdine, George Rhoden, George Brown and fellow shotputter Otis Chandler, yes the Otis Chandler heir to the LA Times and later the publisher of the newspaper.
My question to Jet stream is did he play club football in LA and if so on what team? The Mustangs, Spoilers, Jack rabbitts and Eagle Rock AC all had teams. Brady Keys at one time played for Eagle Rock AC. On the Eastside was the Jackson League with Saturday games played at Jackson HS The “bad boys” school on Camoulous a block south of Whittier Bl, Former Dodgers great Willie Davis who lived nearby in the Estrada Courts would sometimes play and he tore up the league. “Cool Papa” Bell may have been able to turn out the light and get in bed and pull the covers over his head before the light went out, but he couldn’t run and jump like Willie.
Thanks Todd . Good interview. So sorry Sid let Keith go in 1969. Keith had a very good preseason that year and many were surprised Keith was not a player that year. He wore #9 to celebrate his 9th year as Dickie Post wore #22 while Keith was in Buffalo. Keith is the most versatile athlete in Charger history.
Lincoln may be the most versatile athlete in Chargers history that played offense, and fallen sake to argument. Charlie McNeil at Compton Centenial HS played both ways at Tackle and with his twin Ennis made first team All CIF 4 A. Paul Lowe was also a member of that Apaches team and made the All CIF third team. A few years later Charlie is making 1st team All AFL setting records in the Chargers secondary that still stand. Kenny Graham in high school at Santa Monica was considered the best running back and wide receiver in the nation and was All Pro in the secondary. Lincoln’s ability to run, catch, kick and pass was without peer and its that eye popping play making and kicking ability, that allows him and others to claim him the title of not only being the Chargers most versatile, Lincoln could make a strong case, but with argument from the likes of Spec Sanders that he was the most versatile player in pro football history. Only the great Ollie Matson who topped 400 All Pyds in the five offensive categories mentioned in a previous comment, top Keith’s 390 yds, ironically Keith’s 390 is tied by another local Jon Arnett. Bobby Mitchell and Gayle Sayers are third and fourth or fifth in the category.
keith was my first football hero, i was playing midget football i loved watching him play, he should be in the hall of fame, he is in the chargers hall but should be in the nfl hall after all they did merge
Great article. Keith Lincoln is my favorite Charger of all time. I started following the Chargers when I was 7, Dad and I attended a number of the games at Balboa Stadium during that epic 1963 season.
I was fortunate to be at Washington State from 1959 to 1964, and to not only get to watch Keith play for two of his college years, but to also live in the same fraternity, Phi Kappa Tau. Later, when he was the Alumni Director at WSU, we had many conversations at games and other events. He was the person who suggested to me that our son not play youth football, since 12 and 13 year olds do not have the physical strength at that age and therefore the risk of serious injury is too great. I have always been thankful for that advice. There have been few players that I enjoyed watching as much as Keith. At WSU he ran from halfback, passed on halfback pass plays, punted, received and ran back punts and kickoffs! He was maybe the last triple threat FB player at the college level.
I was encouraged to write this today because the Chargers just upset Cincinnati in the playoffs on the 50th anniversary of their only championship victory.
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