State Your Case: Charlie Hennigan


A 1961 photo of Houston Oilers Charles Hennigan.(AP photo/ho)

You can say Bob Hayes changed the way the game is played with his speed. You can say Charley Taylor changed the way the game is played with his power. And you can say Jerry Rice changed the way the game is played with his precision and grace.

But no wide receiver changed the way the game is played like Charlie Hennigan.

Never heard of him, have you? No reason you should. He’s not in the Hall of Fame. He’s never even been a candidate for the Hall of Fame, with zero appearances on the ballot as a semifinalist or finalist. Charlie Hennigan and his impact on football have been lost in the pages of history.

Hennigan went undrafted out of Northwestern (La.) State in 1958, then washed out of the Canadian Football League after a one-month stint with the Edmonton Eskimos in 1958. His football career appeared at an end until the American Football League came along in 1960, and Hennigan hitchhiked from his home in Louisiana to Houston to try out for the Oilers.

Not only did Hennigan make the Oilers as a rookie; he started and caught 44 passes from future Hall-of-Famer George Blanda for 722 yards and six touchdowns. He scored the first touchdown in franchise history on a 43-yard reception in the season opener against Oakland, and the Oilers went on to win the inaugural AFL championship.

But Hennigan was just warming up to the pro game. In his second season, he caught 82 passes for 1,746 yards and 12 touchdowns in a 14-game season. He averaged 21.3 yards per catch and 124 yards per game as the Oilers won back-to-back AFL titles.

Hennigan caught 100 yards in passes in 10 of Houston’s 14 games that season. That record stood for 34 years before Michael Irvin posted 11 100-yard games for the Cowboys in 1995 in a 16-game season. Hennigan’s three 200-yard games that season still remain an NFL record 53 years later. His 1,746 yards receiving was another record that stood for 34 years before Rice broke it, also in 1995, with 1,848 yards for the 49ers.

In 1964, Hennigan caught 101 passes for an AFL-leading 1,584 yards and eight touchdowns. Those 101 receptions remained an NFL record for 20 years before Art Monk caught 106 for the Washington Redskins in 1984 in a 16-game season.

Hennigan’s impact was obvious. The NFL was a three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust league in the 1960s. The AFL introduced the forward pass to football audiences – but it was Hennigan who transformed the forward pass into a weapon.

Hennigan went to LSU initially on a track scholarship and was not allowed to play football. So he transferred to Northwestern State where he could play football as well as run track. And track speed is what Hennigan flashed as an AFL receiver, routinely catching 50-, 60-, 70- and 80-yard touchdown passes from Blanda. And Hennigan did it in an era of physical, bump-and-run coverage when receivers had to fight for every inch of space in their routes — not like today’s NFL where defensive backs can’t look at receivers, much less touch them.

“No man can cover him,” Blanda said back then. “He has the finest moves in the league.”

Hennigan wound up playing only seven seasons before a series of concussions plus knee issues ended his career. He wound up with 410 career receptions and a franchise-record 51 touchdowns. He averaged 16.6 yards per catch and went to five AFL All-Star games.

Does Charlie Hennigan belong in the Pro Football Hall of Fame? When it takes decades for Hall-of-Famers Michael Irvin, Art Monk and Jerry Rice to break your receiving records, you belong in the conversation. Hennigan deserves to have his candidacy debated and discussed. He certainly passed the eye test – both on the field and in the record book.

“Some of my records still exist,” said Hennigan by phone from his Louisiana home. “But if I was going to get in, it should have been by now. Lance Alworth played at the same time as me and he’s already in. It would be a wonderful thing for my family. But…that was a long time ago.”

A very long time ago. But it’s never to late to recognize greatness.

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15 Comments

  1. Mike avolio
    January 12, 2016
    Reply

    No question Charlie should be in…another great ignored by the voters…

  2. JB
    January 12, 2016
    Reply

    He should absolutely be in!

  3. Becca
    January 12, 2016
    Reply

    It’s not just that he held and still holds Absolutely Amazing records. But it sounds like he was also one hell of an athlete. Anyone who knows anything about football knows who Jerry Rice is. When it takes an athlete like him to break your record, then you deserve all the recognition you can get. In this case, nomination and induction into the Hall of Fame!

  4. miram
    January 12, 2016
    Reply

    No doubt Charlie “the horse” Hennigan deserves to be there.

  5. miram
    January 12, 2016
    Reply

    Charlie “the Horse” Hennigan so deserves to be there. Amazed the NFL can’t figure that one out.

  6. miram Hennigan
    January 12, 2016
    Reply

    Charlie “The Horse” Hennigan certainly deserves to be there. Obviously the NFL hasn’t a clue about talent.

  7. Chris Garbarino
    January 12, 2016
    Reply

    The Antonio Browns and Calvin Johnson’s of today couldn’t put up their video game type numbers in Charlie’s era when you had guys like Fred “The Hammer” Williamson hanging on them for the entire route. Charlie’s call to Canton js long overdue

  8. Donna Smith Ammons
    January 13, 2016
    Reply

    An honor that is past due! Charlie Hennigan has been overlooked! Let’s right this wrong! He certainly has earned A HALL OF FAME nod!!!

  9. Ken Stewart
    January 13, 2016
    Reply

    Charlie certainly deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. Not only was he a great player but is a person of charcter

  10. Alton Barillier
    January 13, 2016
    Reply

    With all the things he accomplished, I feel he is a very deserving candidate .Sadly he now suffers from the many hits he took in playing a sport he loved.

  11. Steve Hennigan (Charlie's son)
    January 14, 2016
    Reply

    Thanks for the great article. The numbers really don’t lie. Ironically sportswriter John McClain from Houston is on the HOF senior ballot committee and has refused to see the contribution and incredible numbers that my father achieved for professional football. I’ve compared his numbers to those of other HOF receivers and his are better than most already there.

    • Rick Gosselin
      January 14, 2016
      Reply

      I believe Charlie was a victim of an AFL prejudice early on and once he slipped through the cracks in the 1970s, he became lost in the abyss that is the senior pool. He certainly had a career that deserved to be discussed and analyzed well before now.

  12. bachslunch
    March 12, 2016
    Reply

    Charlie Hennigan certainly was a fine WR, at least for about five of his seven years. Whether he was ultimately better than Art Powell and Lionel Taylor, two other great neglected early AFL WRs, is a good question. Both had slightly longer and somewhat more productive careers than Hennigan, and one needs to take into account Powell’s sizeable edge in lifetime TDs and Taylor’s sizeable edge in number of catches. Plus of the three, Hennigan played with the best QB of the bunch — and when one considers that Taylor put up the numbers he did with one of the worst collection of QBs in history throwing to him, that’s a major plus in his favor.

  13. leonard hagan
    January 14, 2018
    Reply

    yes he is a hall of famer

  14. leonard hagan
    January 14, 2018
    Reply

    there are several AFL hall of famers that need to be enshined

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