When I think of the great San Diego Chargers’ teams of the 1960s, I start with Hall-of-Famer Lance Alworth, them move immediately to running back where you had your choice: Keith Lincoln or Paul Lowe.
Both could beat you, and both often did.
Frankly, I never understood why Lowe wasn’t in the Pro Football Hall of Fame because, as someone who caught on to the AFL early, I thought he was one of the most dynamic, fluid and electrifying backs of his time.
Apparently, so did a lot of others.
He was named to four All-AFL teams. He was a league MVP. He was the AFL’s Comeback Player of the Year. Twice. He led the league in rushing in 1965. He twice led it in rushing touchdowns. He holds the AFL record for all-time rushing average at 4.9 yards a carry. He was a two-time AFL champ. He was a Super Bowl winner with the Kansas City Chiefs. And he’s a member of the All-AFL team, the Chargers’ Hall of Fame and the Chargers’ 40th and 50th anniversary teams.
What he is not is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and I get it now. His 4,995 yards rushing and 38 touchdowns don’t command the attention of its voters. Nor will his 1,045 yards receiving, a figure that 12 individuals bested this season.
But to appreciate Paul Lowe was to see him … and, yes, he passed the eye test. He wasn’t just an accomplished running back; he was a extraordinary one, the ideal complement to Lincoln. Where Lincoln was a durable, all-around back who was solid between the tackles, Lowe was an explosive, breakaway threat — a long-strider quick to the hole and with speed to score from anywhere.
“Because he played on the same team with Lance Alworth and in the same backfield with Keith Lincoln, Lowe is often overlooked,” said former Hall-of-Fame voter Nick Canepa of the San Diego Union-Tribune and a lifelong resident of the city. “But he wasn’t overlooked when he played. He was a terrific ‘climax back’ and a great return man.”
He has that right. In fact, in Lowe’s very first game with the Chargers — a 1960 preseason opener vs. the New York Titans — he took the opening kickoff 105 yards for a touchdown. It was a glimpse of what was to come, with nobody in the AFL rushing for more yards from 1960-66 (4,892) and only Abner Haynes having more rushing TDs (44).
But that’s where his career basically ended, with Lowe carrying only 42 times in the three seasons that followed.
“The stats aren’t great,” said Canepa, “but until L.T. (LaDainian Tomlinson) came along, he was the Chargers’ all-time leading rusher. And he was faster than just about everybody he played against.”
Canepa is right again. Lowe didn’t accumulate big career numbers, but there’s a catch: He was part of an offense where there were playmakers everywhere, including Alworth, Lincoln, John Hadl, Tobin Rote, Don Norton, Dave Kocourek, Jacque MacKinnon and, later, Gary Garrison … and only one ball to go around.
“His career numbers are not what they could have been with another team,” said San Diego resident and AFL historian Todd Tobias of talesfromtheamericanfootballleague.com, “because the Chargers had so many weapons — and (Sid) Gillman used them all. But Lowe was a threat to break a long run every time he touched the ball.”
But there’s another reason his numbers are diminished: His career was relatively short. But so what? With the Hall of Fame now willing to consider abbreviated careers (see Terrell Davis), Lowe’s candidacy should be in play. He holds the pro-football record for most games (six) with 100 or more yards rushing on no more than 14 carries. He holds the Chargers’ record for the longest run from scrimmage (87 yards) and was the AFL’s second-leading rusher of all time. And that rushing average of 4.9 yards? Only two of the NFL’s top 31 career rushing leaders — that is, backs with 10,000 or more yards rushing — have higher averages: Jim Brown (5.2) and Barry Sanders (5.0).
Both not only are in the Hall of Fame but were first-ballot choices.
As I said, Paul Lowe flunks the longevity test, with a relatively short career of 78 starts. But Terrell Davis made it to Canton on 77 starts, and Kenny Easley on 87. All I know is that when Paul Lowe played, there were few better in the AFL or NFL … and shouldn’t that qualify him for Hall-of-Fame consideration?
I think we all know the answer. So let’s start talking.