After an excellent run of Email from the AFL, we are wrapping up with this week with a piece by the 1966 AFL Rookie of the Year, Bobby Burnett. In 14 games his rookie season, Burnett rushed 187 times for 766 yards and four touchdowns. He also caught 34 passes for 319 yards and another four touchdowns. Burnett was voted to play in the AFL All-Star Game, and was named AFL Rookie of the Year.AFL – You came to a Bills team that was deep in veterans. Did any of the older guys take you under their wing or act as a mentor to you?
BB – Jack Kemp and Billy Shaw were especially helpful to me. Jack always told people later in our lives that I was the toughest football player he played with. I don’t know about that, but that sure was nice of him to say. I sure miss him. Hall of Famer Billy Shaw once told me that if I wanted to make all pro and Rookie of the Year, get on his backside and follow him through the hole. I took that to heart and I did make those things. He was an incredible player and even more, a better person. Harry Jacobs was also someone who showed me how to be a pro on and off the field.
AFL – Two years prior, the Bills had one of the greatest back in the game with Cookie Gilchrist. What kind of pressure was there, if any to fill his shoes?
BB – Coming from Arkansas and down there we didn’t get much news or television games on the Bills. I really didn’t know much about him until I came to the Bills. I heard some incredible things and saw him on film, and he was a beast and a totally different kind of player from me. I really didn’t feel any pressure as the players made me feel really welcome and I just went out and played a kids game that I had been playing since the 5th grade. It was fun to me and I was just being myself and not trying to be someone else. I couldn’t believe I was really getting to play.
AFL – You went to the expansion Bengals in 1968. Talk a bit about the challenges of not only trying to come back from an injury, but also joining a brand new team in a new town?
BB – I was never healthy the time I was there. I just never could play, which was disappointing, but I just kept trying to get myself healthy. I never recovered from that injury ever. I now have a new knee with a knee joint replacement. I was never the player I was before I had the devastating injury. I had a total dislocation of the knee-joint and virtually everything in my knee was torn up, plus my tibia was completely broken. The doctor told me it was his worst knee injury he had ever worked on.
AFL – What is the most amusing thing that you experienced during your time in the AFL?
BB – The first time that us rookies played in New York City, we did a little site seeing together and got lost. To see us running down streets, jumping on and off the subway and trying to understand what people were saying in giving us directions when we were from the south and could not understand anything anybody said to us… And we had to get back for dinner on time or we would get fined. We all four sprinted into the room with five seconds to spare and we all got a standing ovation from the team. The trash talking that went on was always pretty funny and Big Tom Day kept the whole team in stitches all the time with his rants and stories. What a great person he was.
AFL – What was your single proudest moment in professional football?
BB – The proudest moment was when I was in New York at CBS headquarters the night they announced the “Rookie of the Year” award. The voting was between Mike Garret and myself. Mike had gotten the Heisman the year before and I just knew he was going to get it. When they announced me, I almost fell off my chair. I was so proud for myself but more proud of my teammates, as they really supported me and worked really hard for me, and they were all very proud of me. I can’t tell you how wonderful that night was and I had the biggest smile you ever saw. It had to have lasted at least a week.
AFL – What team/opponent did you feel was the most challenging to you personally? Conversely, which did you feel you had your greatest success against?
BB – By far the most challenging was the Patriots and on the other side, I had great success against San Diego and the Jets.
AFL – What was the most difficult part of leaving professional football? Missing the camaraderie of your teammates? The adulation of the fans? The transition into the “real world?”
BB – I had to leave much earlier than I, or anyone else, would have ever thought. I never recovered from my knee injury, and not being able to play was very hard to accept. I really missed the locker room, the trips with my teammates and playing the games were really fun. Seeing my teammates continuing to play when I couldn’t was mentally devastating.
AFL – What was the hardest collision that you were ever involved with on the field?
BB – The hardest hit was Alex Karras of the Detroit Lions. He hit me so hard I got a hip pointer right through my hip pads and I wore the thickest hip pads in the game.
AFL – Who were the one offensive and one defensive player that you saw during your career that most impressed you? Why?
BB – Lance Alworth was so beautiful to watch. He was so fast and did everything so effortlessly. Billy Shaw also, on offense, as a lineman. Linemen never get the credit they deserve. I don’t think I would have had any success if it weren’t for him and my other lineman teammates. On defense was the Patriots middle linebacker, Nick Buoniconti. He was so fast, and really hit, and he gave me fits, as did the entire Patriots defense.
AFL – What did you do in your years post-football? What kinds of things are you doing now?
BB – After my career, I went straight into the real estate business. I started my own business when me and a couple of friends bought a Keller-Williams franchise in 1999. We have built this business as one of the most successful Keller-Williams franchises anywhere in the country.
AFL – If you could give current professional football players any single bit of advice, what would it be?
BB – Always remember that you didn’t get to where you are today without a lot of people helping you. Always be humble and grateful that you are getting to play the greatest game on the face of the earth today. Be kind to your fans as they truly adore you, and always live like they are watching you everyday. Don’t embarrass your mother, and never take the game home with you. Leave it on the practice and game field. You are truly blessed to be able to play this game that everybody wishes they could play. Give thanks everyday because it could end tomorrow.
AFL – Any other comments that you would like to make?
BB – If I was 25 years old, and had my good knees, and the Denver Broncos said, “we need you to play,” I would be a blur because I was going so fast to get there. This is a very small fraternity of men that get to play, if not for just a very short time in the scheme of things. “Go Bills” and “Go Broncos.”
Bobby Burnett #21
Buffalo Bills & Denver Broncos