December 3, 2009

1961: Charley Hennigan Has Third 200-Yard Receiving Game of Season

The Houston Oilers, defending champions of the AFL, looked as though they wouldn’t defend their title very effectively when they got off to a 1-3-1 start in 1961. However, after owner Bud Adams dismissed Head Coach Lou Rymkus and replaced him with Wally Lemm, the team caught fire. On December 3, they hosted the top team in the Western Division, the San Diego Chargers, at Jeppesen Stadium. The result was a convincing 33-13 win, spurred by four George Blanda touchdown passes, three of them to flanker Charley Hennigan.

Hennigan was one of the key offensive performers behind Houston’s success, and on this day he caught 10 passes for 214 yards. It marked his third 200-yard game of the season, on the way to accumulating an overall pass receiving yardage record that would last for 34 years.

It hardly seemed likely that Hennigan would become a successful pro football player when he arrived at the team’s first training camp in 1960. He had drawn scant attention from the NFL when he came out of Northwest Louisiana in ’59, and had played briefly in Canada. Hennigan was teaching high school Biology in Jonesboro, Louisiana when he decided to take a shot at the new pro football league and signed with the Oilers. Fast but thin at 6’1”, 187 pounds, he didn’t do much in training camp or the preseason, but gained an advocate in assistant coach Mac Speedie, the former star end for the Cleveland Browns who coached the Houston receivers.

In the 1960 season opening game, Hennigan scored the first touchdown in team history on a 43-yard pass play from Blanda and had four catches for 85 yards in the first half – and then suffered a separated shoulder that required surgery and kept him out of action for three weeks. He came back to catch 44 passes for the Oilers in ’60, and did much more in 1961.

The team may have started slowly, but Hennigan didn’t as he went over a hundred yards in each of the first seven games, and twice went over 200 yards with a high of 272 yards on 13 receptions on October 13 at Boston. Two weeks later he caught 9 passes for 232 yards at Buffalo.

In all, Hennigan ended up with 10 hundred-yard games on the way to a season total of 1746 yards on 82 receptions (a 21.3 average gain) with 12 touchdowns (his three against the Chargers were his single-game high). The yardage total was finally exceeded in 1995 by both Jerry Rice of the 49ers (1848) and Isaac Bruce of the Rams (1781), and of course they did it in a 16-game season as opposed to 14. Oddly enough, Hennigan was even shut out in one game in ’61.

Hennigan and split end Bill Groman, who caught 50 passes for 1175 yards and 17 touchdowns (equaling the record at the time, held by Don Hutson and Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch) helped the Oilers to accumulate a team record 4392 yards through the air (not exceeded until 1980 by the Chargers). QB Blanda threw for 3330 of those yards, with a then-record 36 TD passes.

While Hennigan’s yardage total was eventually exceeded, the three 200-yard games in a season have not. Nor have the seven consecutive hundred-yard performances, although that was tied by Michael Irvin of the Cowboys in 1995, when, with 11, he also became the only NFL receiver to exceed Hennigan’s 10 hundred-yard games in ’61 (three others have also had 10). Granted, the level of competition in the AFL in 1961 was not on a par with the NFL or as high as it would be in just a few more years, but the numbers remain impressive decades later, when rules changes have significantly opened up the passing game.

Houston ended up winning nine consecutive games under Coach Lemm to finish the season, compiling an overall 10-3-1 record to again place first in the Eastern Division. They faced the Chargers, 12-2 and easily the best team in the West, in the AFL Championship game, which the Oilers won by the surprisingly low score of 10-3.

While Bill Groman’s numbers dropped off significantly after ’61, Hennigan remained one of the AFL’s best receivers and again led the league in pass receiving yards in 1964 (1546), the same year that he set a record with 101 receptions.