On March 13, 1967, which was a day prior to the first combined AFL/NFL draft, disgruntled FB Keith Lincoln was dealt to the Buffalo Bills for DE Tom Day and a second-round draft choice.
Lincoln was accurately described by Buffalo Head Coach Joe Collier as a “fine runner, a strong blocker, a real good receiver and the type who is tough in the clutch.” His relations with Chargers Head Coach Sid Gillman having become strained, Lincoln’s stated desire was to play for the Bills or Oakland.
The 6’1”, 212-pound Lincoln, who turned 28 prior to the ’67 season, described his style as “heading for the goal” and “running over people to get there”. Known for his versatility, the native Southern Californian had gone to Washington State as a quarterback and was converted to running back. Often compared to New York Giants great Frank Gifford as an all-purpose halfback, he was chosen by the Chargers in the second round of the AFL draft (and fifth round by the Bears in the NFL draft) and used primarily on defense as a rookie with the Chargers in 1961, seeing only sporadic action on offense. However, when star HB Paul Lowe went down for the year in 1962 with an injury, Lincoln got his chance at halfback and rushed for 574 yards with a 4.9 yards-per-carry average. Adding in other yardage that included a 103-yard kickoff return, he gained 1280 yards in all and, along with the four touchdowns he scored, also threw for two more TDs on option passes.
Lowe, who was back with the team in 1963, was faster and, with Lincoln being the more versatile back, Gillman shifted him to fullback, despite his protests that he was too small for the position. The tandem of Lowe and Lincoln proved to be outstanding, especially in a ’63 season in which Lowe rushed for 1010 yards and Lincoln 826. In the AFL Championship game against the Patriots, it was Lincoln putting on perhaps the most spectacular postseason performance in pro football history as he gained 206 rushing yards on just 13 carries and caught 7 passes for another 123 yards. He scored two touchdowns and San Diego demolished the Patriots by a score of 51-10.
The running back pairing was still effective in 1964 as the Chargers again won the Western Division, but in a key play in the title game against the Bills, LB Mike Stratton hit Lincoln hard as he was gathering in a pass and knocked him out of the contest with broken ribs. Buffalo went on to win the game and, in 1965 and ’66, injuries became more of a factor with Lincoln. In those two seasons combined, he carried the ball just 132 times for 516 yards (3.9 avg.), although he caught 37 passes for 640 yards (17.3 avg.) and a total of 10 touchdowns – most of that production came in the latter year. Lincoln missed significant time with a hamstring injury in 1966.
Meanwhile, the Bills had won the AFL’s Eastern Division in each of the three previous seasons, winning the league title in 1964 and ’65. HB Bobby Burnett was the Rookie of the Year, rushing for 766 yards and gaining another 419 on 34 pass receptions. Veteran FB Wray Carlton had 696 rushing yards, so Lincoln was really obtained to add depth as the club stockpiled veteran talent to try to regain the Championship and proceed to the Super Bowl in 1967.
The player they had to give up to the Chargers was 31-year-old Tom Day, 6’2” and 262, who started his pro career with the NFL Cardinals in 1960 before moving over to the Bills in ’61. Originally a guard on offense, he moved to defensive end and received second-team All-AFL recognition in both 1965 and ‘66. Known for his boisterousness on the field, he had been part of an outstanding unit in Buffalo and Coach Gillman, seeking to upgrade the defensive line, quickly opened up a starting spot by dealing DE Bob Petrich to the Dolphins. With the second round draft choice, the Chargers picked DB Bob Howard from San Diego State.
Lincoln joined QB Tom Flores and split end Art Powell, obtained from Oakland for backup QB Daryle Lamonica, and PK Mike Mercer as key veteran acquisitions by the Bills, and ended up accomplishing the most with a team that, instead of soaring to the top, fell to 4-10. Burnett suffered through an injury-plagued season and Lincoln started at halfback, where he led the club in rushing with 601 yards on 159 carries (3.8 avg.) and four touchdowns and caught a career-high 41 passes for 558 yards and five more TDs.
Lincoln gained a season-high 81 rushing yards on 13 carries in an opening-week win over the Jets and had 90 yards on three catches in a loss to San Diego. He was selected to the AFL All-Star Game for the fifth time.
It proved to be the last hurrah for the all-purpose star, who was let go by the Bills during the ’68 season and finished up back with the Chargers where a broken leg suffered on a kickoff return ended his eight-year career. It was a dismal ending for one of the AFL’s most electrifying stars who gained 5633 yards from scrimmage and added another 1360 yards on kick returns while scoring a total of 40 touchdowns and passing for another five TDs. He was even San Diego’s placekicker for a time in 1964, although with far less satisfying results.
For San Diego’s part, Tom Day suffered through a disappointing injury-plagued season and returned to Buffalo for one last year in 1968. Bob Howard went on to play eight seasons at cornerback for the Chargers and intercepted 21 passes before moving on to the Patriots and Eagles. Competitive but blocked from the top of the Western Division by the Chiefs and Raiders, the club didn’t reach the AFL title game again after 1965 and, following the merger, did not make it to the postseason until 1979.