The Art of Relevance: Powell’s pioneering impact on football and society

Presented by Frank Cooney

This is a close look at a man who was one of the very best wide receivers in pro football history — far ahead of his time. He made a spectacular impact on the field and significant social statements off the field. 

Art Powell’s accomplishments are worthy of being celebrated in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and beyond. Ask anybody who saw him play in the 1960s, long before ESPN and 24/7 NFL Network. Hell, mostly before color television. He was unforgettable.

First some background

As part of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee, we first mentioned Powell as a prospect more than 30 years ago. Responses were curious. Among terms used were “surly” and “troublemaker.” Clearly, it was the wrong time for a responsible discussion about a man who was, by his own admission, more defiant than compliant, which should not matter but somehow did. 

Since then, we researched deeper and talked with teammates, opponents and several Hall of Fame coaches who knew him well. They unanimously agreed he definitely belongs in the Hall of Fame but acknowledged his greatness as a player was overshadowed by his social activism.  

A few times before his death in 2015 we talked with Powell. He knew what he accomplished on and off the field and believed the importance of his deeds might dissipate amidst the explosion of events in football and in society. 

“I’m at peace with it all,” he said in his usual calm demeanor. “I sought the American dream and was able to pursue it because of my ability to play football. I saw injustice in this country and I took action. I know I made enemies, but honestly that was not important. Did any of it make a difference? I hope so, but I’m not sure.”

Coach and general manager Al Davis of the Oakland Raiders poses on December 17, 1963 in Oakland, Calif. on practice field with six of his players who have been named to the Associated Press 1963 All-Star team of the American Football League. From left: defensive halfback Tommy Morrow and Fred Williamson, linebacker Archie Matsos, halfback Clem Daniels, center Jim Otto and end Art Powell. 

On field production among best in history

Today — 55 years since playing his final pro football game in a league now more than 100 years old — Powell remains No. 2 in history for most touchdowns receiving per game. In his 105 games at wide receiver, Powell’s 81 touchdown catches put him at .77 per contest. That is second only to the legendary Don Hutson (.85). Yes, well ahead of such honored stars as Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, Marvin Harrison, Jerry Rice and any others one might mention. 

Powell is the only player on that list not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. 

Art Powell with the New York Titans in 1960.

With more than a century of pro football data dutifully logged, Powell still stands eighth in most yards receiving per game at 76.6 yards per (counting players with at least 100 games). Think about it, eighth among the thousands who gave it a try. The seven men ahead of him — Julio Jones, Calvin Johnson, Antonio Brown, DeAndre Hopkins, Torry Holt, Tyreek Hill and Marvin Harrison — play or played recently, in the era of liberalized rules favoring the health and well-being of receivers. Only one player from his own era is close to Powell: Lance Alworth (75.5), also in the Hall of Fame.

Powell ranked third in AFL history in receiving yards, behind only Don Maynard and Alworth, both Hall of Famers.

But he trails no pro football player as a man of courage and conviction. During the volatile 1960s, Powell was as fearless in the face of racism and segregation as he was going across the middle of the field, where he dominated defenders.

“Art was way ahead of his time in a lot of ways,” said Hall of Fame coach Tom Flores, who knew Powell both as a defender who tried to cover him in college and a quarterback who threw most of the great receiver’s pro touchdowns. “He was hard to cover before the catch and even harder to tackle after. He was a difference-maker.” 

Indeed. When Al Davis became head coach of the Oakland Raiders in 1963, the first career personnel move he made was to sign Powell. It was a seemingly simple act, but at the time Davis defied contemporary convention and flew in the face of loosely defined rules of conduct. This was a theme Davis repeated often.

Biggest turnaround in sports history

That season Flores returned from a year away with tuberculosis and teamed with Powell to lead the Raiders — and that still little-known rookie head coach — to a 10-4 record. After a 1-13 record in 1962, that was the biggest turnaround in professional team sports history. Powell led the league with 1,304 yards receiving and 16 touchdowns as the Raiders finished No. 1 in the league with 31 touchdown passes.

In only four seasons with the Raiders, Powell caught 254 passes for 4,491 yards, a 17.7-yard average, with 50 touchdowns in 56 games.

Think back to an era with only 14-game seasons in a league that featured running the ball and encouraged legalized muggings on receivers. If you can’t remember, ask somebody who can. Google “brutal” and you might see an old black-and-white YouTube video of a pro football game in the 1960s and ’70s.

Against that background, Powell caught 479 passes for 8,046 yards (16.8 per catch) and 81 scores. He had five seasons with at least 1,000 yards receiving, and two more within 200 yards of that benchmark. As a member of the New York Titans, he paired with Maynard to become the first teammates to catch 1,000 yards each in the same season. They did it twice (1960, 1962).

(No sound) Art Powell playing for the Oakland Raiders

Yet Powell’s career in American football was a curious one. It technically began in 1959 when the Philadelphia Eagles drafted him in the 11th round (123rd overall), ostensibly as a wide receiver, out of San Jose State. Actually, Powell played for the Spartans only in 1956, when he led the nation with 40 catches for 586 yards and five touchdowns receiving and added 182 yards rushing.

He then spent two years in the Canadian League, where he disliked playing three ways — offense, defense, special teams — and was glad, at first, to be drafted by the Eagles.

Misused by Philadelphia Eagles

Despite Philadelphia listing Powell as a wide receiver in the draft and signing him to a contract with financial incentives based on catching passes, he never played a single down of offense. Eagles receivers already included veteran Pro Bowl star Tommy McDonald and popular Pete Retzlaff.

So what did the Eagles do?

“They screwed him,” recalled John Madden. The future Hall of Fame coach was an Eagles rookie teammate with Powell. We talked about Powell several times during our annual bus rides to the Indianapolis Combine. 

“They had him returning kicks and punts and playing defense so there was no way he earned a penny of that incentive money as a receiver,” Madden said. “But he was one hell of an athlete, a big tough guy who could do a lot of things. So he was second in the league in returns and made some big interceptions. He was really something.”

“…he was one hell of an athlete, a big tough guy who could do a lot of things. He was really something.” – John Madden

Powell’s Oakland teammate Fred “Hammer” Williamson insists Powell is one of the greatest talents in football history and would be dominant in modern football.

“Art was a big, tough, smart man who commanded respect on and off the field,” recalled the former pro cornerback-turned-film star, who answers his phone these days in a deep-toned voice with one word, “Hammer!”

“Opposing teams respected him, but opposing players feared him, and with good reason,” Williamson said. “He was one tough man, on and off the field. He was not somebody you wanted to trifle with. Ever. Anywhere. He was a quiet man whose actions spoke volumes. Let me repeat, he was feared. If he played today with these current hands-off rules, oh my gosh, Powell would dominate.”

At 6-3 and about 213 pounds, Powell was larger than pro receivers at that time. And he was faster than most with a 100-yard time of 9.6 seconds (40-yard times came much later). This was long before big speedy Hall of Famers such as Terrell Owens, Randy Moss, Calvin Johnson and others. 

Now is time to consider Powell for Hall of Fame

Powell also made an early stand against segregation. His actions predated those of other noted athletes during the socially active ’60s — the gloved fists raised by Tommy Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics; the 1967 “Cleveland Summit,” attended by Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Bill Russell, Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul Jabbar)

Most of them are remembered with statues, plaques or documentaries. Powell wasn’t a joiner and most of his social acts were solo, and he fully expected the memory of his deeds to evaporate over time.   

We are in the midst of a resurgence of social awareness, in and beyond sports. While conditions remain far from totally acceptable, there is a more enlightened overall understanding. So now is the time, however overdue, for that responsible discussion on Powell’s Hall of Fame credentials, without them being somehow diminished by his socially conscious actions. 

We already outlined the argument for Powell’s inclusion in the Hall based solely on his on-field brilliance, per the selectors’ only guiding rule.

Still, his courage to confront tumultuous situations so long ago helped push pro football to a place of improved tolerance and some semblance of enlightenment. Surely such significant contributions should serve to burnish his Hall of Fame credentials.

Powell began fight for racial equality in 1960

After being oddly deployed only as a defender in 1959, Powell refused to play in a 1960 preseason game against the Washington Redskins in Norfolk, Va. He learned the Eagles’ Black players could not stay in the team hotel with their White teammates. Although several players initially said they would join him in a boycott, Powell stood alone when the time came. He took heat from the media and fans.

“I refused to have somebody tell me I couldn’t go somewhere and didn’t belong somewhere,” Powell recalled years later. “So I did what I did. I thought others were with me, but it didn’t happen that time. I expected consequences…Immediately you are bucking certain people in the establishment, and they don’t like it. From that stories build. You become something you’re not. I was suspended. I was blackballed in the NFL”

But in 1960, the NFL was not the only pro football league in the country. It was the first year of the American Football League, which had a more enlightened view in a lot of areas.

Within hours of being cut by the Eagles, Powell signed with the New York Titans of the fledgling AFL. Their head coach, Hall of Fame QB Slingin’ Sammy Baugh, knew a wide receiver when he saw one. Less than a week after leaving the Eagles, Powell started a preseason game at wide receiver against the Buffalo Bills and caught four touchdowns.

It was in that 1960 season with the Titans that Powell and Maynard became the first pair of wide receivers on one team to each gain more than 1,000 yards receiving, as Powell led the league with 14 TD catches.

But Powell saw a challenge on the 1961 preseason schedule, when the Titans played the Houston Oilers on August 25 in Greenville, S.C. 

Powell explains stand against segregation

Powell suited up but sat out the game and didn’t even try to involve other players because of his experience in Philadelphia. He recalled the incident in a 1992 story by T. J. Simers in the Los Angeles Times.

“I get to New York and I’m just there to play football and mind my own business,” he said. “But while I’m there they schedule a game in Greenville, S.C. We get to the airport, and it’s my first experience with white and colored water fountains.

“The general manager comes up to me and says I’m in charge of the black athletes and that we’ll be going somewhere else. The white players took a bus to the hotel and they send us off to the boonies. If they were making a movie, this would have been the place—hanging moss trees, dirt roads and flies bigger than your fist. You wouldn’t send your worst enemy to stay in a place like that.

“So I didn’t play. I told the general manager and coach I wouldn’t play. I said I didn’t think that was team spirit. I said you can’t tell me I’m a part of the team, then put me somewhere and not make me a part of the team until I get back to New York.”

Powell became a headline once again. Reporters found anonymous sources willing to take potshots at the football player who had chosen to buck the system. Opinions were formed.

“People who didn’t know me,” Powell said, “thought they knew everything about me. I ran into a reporter from San Diego a few years ago and he said, ‘As an athlete, you were as good as they come; as a person, I didn’t like you.’ And I said, ‘As an athlete that’s the only thing you’re supposed to judge about me. As a person, you don’t know me.’”

Unusual contract with Raiders changes history

After a 1962 season when Powell and Maynard again each gained more than 1,000 yards receiving, Titans owner Harry Wismer was strapped for money, as usual. The league already took over team financials to make sure players were paid. The team would soon be sold to Sonny Werblin, but in early 1963 Wismer was trying to auction off Powell to the highest bidder.

Powell figured he already played out his option and went home to Toronto to be with his wife, Betty, whom he said was the best thing that happened for him during his two-year stay in the Canadian Football League. The Titans’ turbulent situation in New York was a circus and unseemly to Powell, a focused and serious man when it came to matters of importance. 

“I didn’t think not getting paid on time was funny,” Powell recalled of that situation during an interview in 2012. “I was debating whether to sign with Toronto or Buffalo. Wismer had no rights to me. I had business possibilities up there, and Betty was from Canada.”

Powell’s status as a player was unclear to many.  Enter Oakland Raiders new 33-year-old head coach Al Davis, eager to clear up any confusion.

“It was just before New Year’s Eve going into 1963, and I got a call from George Ross, sports editor of the Oakland Tribune,” said Powell. “He said Al Davis was the new head coach with the Oakland Raiders and wanted to talk. I thought Davis was still an assistant with the San Diego Chargers. So Al Davis talked to me on the phone.

“He told me he’d bought a plane ticket and for me to pick him up at the airport,” Powell said. “My wife and I took Al to dinner. We went back to our apartment, and he told me how he was going to give me a chance to stretch out and show what kind of receiver I could really be. Being the salesman that he is, when he left, he had a signed contract with my name on it.”

It was the first personnel move Davis made with the Raiders, and possibly the most impactful. In retrospect, that is saying a lot.

“Al Davis knew about my stand on social matters,” Powell said. “He knew I was against segregation. He knew I boycotted games. He knew I lived in Canada because as a mixed-race couple it was more comfortable than living in the States. He knew all of it. It wasn’t that he didn’t care. He cared, understood and agreed. He would later prove that when challenges arose.”

Challenges arose quickly when Powell saw the Raiders were scheduled to play his former team, renamed the New York Jets, in an August 23, 1963 preseason game at Ladd Memorial Stadium in Mobile, Alabama.

“We got information that we weren’t going to stay together as a team,” Powell said. “They were going to rope off a section for the Colored fans to sit in, and the Colored fans wouldn’t be able to use the bathroom. So this was my first big challenge with Al Davis, but it turned out it wasn’t a challenge at all.”

Davis met with Powell, Bo Roberson, Clem Daniels and Fred Williamson. He then switched the game to Youell Field in Oakland.

“Al never put another game in the South during the time I was with the Raiders,” Powell said.

“I’ve heard about African-American kids playing baseball who don’t know who Jackie Robinson is. If that’s the case, no one is going to know who Art Powell is.”

Art Powell

Powell tests Civil Rights act of 1964

But the challenges persisted, and the consequences became major national news. President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on July 2, which said, “All persons shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations of any place of public accommodation, as defined in this section, without discrimination on the ground of race, color, religion, or national origin.”

Just six months later, in January of 1965, the AFL All-Star game was scheduled in New Orleans, a city that was trying to get an NFL expansion team. Turns out, New Orleans couldn’t even host the All-Star game, which almost derailed attempts to get its own team.

Again, Powell’s account in his 1992 interview with Simers in theTimes:

“We get to New Orleans for the All-Star game and we can’t get a cab from the airport,” he said. “We’re told we have to call for a colored cab… 

“Now I’m upset, but on purpose I went up to my room and I had dinner. Later I run into some of the guys and they are all complaining about the way they’re being treated. I kept out of it, but about 1:30 in the morning I get a call in my room and guys are telling me they were down on Bourbon Street and people wouldn’t let them in, and they had guns pulled on them.

“I said we might as well all get together and talk about this. There were 22 black athletes all together on the two all-star teams, and before I know it they are all at our hotel and it must be three or four in the morning. And we have a meeting.”

The players adjourned from that meeting and agreed as a group to leave New Orleans and not play in the All-Star game.

“I did not want to take a leadership position, and after my experiences in Philadelphia I didn’t trust the other players on what they would say later,” Powell said. “So to protect myself I wrote up a paper that said everyone in this room is here voluntarily and nobody has been coerced and I made them all sign it.

“I said I would never get stuck being the bad guy again, but as it turned out I still got blamed. I got blamed for being one of the leaders, but I wasn’t. I was just one of the guys. I was just taking care of myself, and I had made up my mind that I wasn’t going to play in the game.”

By the time Powell landed in New York, on a layover to Toronto, the game had been moved to Houston thanks to actions taken by Davis and several other team owners. 

By 1966 Powell was at his peak as a player but was bothered by treatment from Oakland neighbors who didn’t warm to his interracial marriage. Powell also had business opportunities in Toronto and told Davis he wanted to be traded to a team near there. 

Davis tried to talk him out of it, but seeing it was fruitless, made a deal that sent Flores and Powell to Buffalo. In return Davis received his favorite kind of football player, strong-armed quarterback Daryle Lamonica, aka “The Mad Bomber.” In 1967 Lamonica threw 34 touchdowns as Oakland went 13-1, won the AFL Championship and played in the franchise’s first Super Bowl, although it wasn’t named that at the time.

In Buffalo, Powell injured his knee in 1967 and played only six games. He attempted a comeback with Minnesota in 1968 but retired after one game.

Bill Walsh speaks during his enshrinement into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, July 31, 1993

Walsh, Davis: Powell’s career is of historic importance

Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh knew Powell as a fellow alum at San Jose State and as a receivers coach with the Raiders in 1966.

“Art Powell’s career is an important chapter in pro football history,” Walsh said. “As a player he was far before his time. He would have been a sensation in any era. Art was his own man and fiercely independent. He was not afraid to voice his opinions and to take a stand.”

In August of 2006 Al Davis was listening to a conversation about Terrell Owens. He changed the subject.

“I wish I could take you all back to 1963,” Davis said. “I had one of the greatest players who has ever played this game and he was tough to handle. He was the T.O. of his time. And he was great. His first year for me he carried us. He caught 16 touchdowns. His name was Art Powell…The difference between Powell and T.O. was that Powell took a stand for a cause.”

Powell understood his position in the context of the era in which he lived, as he said in the interview with Simers:

“There was a whole social movement going on at the time and it’s way bigger than you…But there’s pro and there’s con to what’s happening and somebody is made to be a bad guy. Art Powell didn’t create those situations, and if he had never existed, those situations were still going to happen.

“I know I put my career on the line and I know what happened in those years had an impact on how people looked upon me. So be it; it was my choice. The challenges that were before me were social challenges. They were personal and they were important. I chose to challenge them while others chose not to challenge them. I made a lot of people angry at the time, but I question if I made an impact. 

“I’ve heard about African-American kids playing baseball who don’t know who Jackie Robinson is. If that’s the case, no one is going to know who Art Powell is.”

And that is why Art Powell belongs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His historic accomplishments on the field, as well as off it, should be amplified, celebrated and remembered forever.

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