State Your Case: Tom Sestak


 (Photo courtesy of the Buffalo Bills)

By Clark Judge

Talk of Fame Network

To the long list of former stars deemed unqualified for the Hall of Fame because of careers shortened by injuries, we add Tom Sestak. The former Buffalo Bill was one of the best defensive tackles in pro football history and maybe the best defensive lineman in AFL history, yet he’s not in Canton.

The reason? Simple: Longevity. He didn’t have it.

It’s a hurdle that far too many Hall-of-Fame worthy candidates can’t conquer. I’m talking about guys like Sterling Sharpe and Kenny Easley. And Abner Haynes, Joe Klecko, Gene “Big Daddy” Lipscomb, Rich “Tombstone” Jackson and Tony Boselli. Now, of course, there’s Terrell Davis, a 2015 finalist for the Hall.

But before them there was Sestak, and it’s hard to believe he’s never been discussed as a finalist. But you better believe.

A converted tight end, he started at defensive tackle from his rookie year in 1962 until knee injuries forced his retirement following the 1968 season. At 6-feet-4, he had the size and strength to dominate offensive linemen, which he did so regularly he was named to four consecutive AFL All-Star teams and was the cornerstone of a defense that catapulted the Bills to four straight playoffs and two straight AFL championships.

“I don’t know if the Bills have ever had a better player,” said former Buffalo punter and linebacker Paul Maguire. “He was absolutely superb.”

In 1964 and ’65 the Bills’ defense held opponents to no rushing touchdowns for 17 consecutive games, and, make no mistake, that wouldn’t have happened without Sestak – a guy so big and strong former Buffalo Evening News columnist and sports editor Larry Felser once said “he would make Superman look like a ballet dancer.”

I don’t know about that. What I do know is that Sestak was so dominant that during the 1960s only six defensive linemen were unanimous all-league choices three or more years. Sestak was one of them. The others were Merlin Olsen, Deacon Jones, Gino Marchetti, Bob Lilly and Willie Davis, and tell me what separates them from Sestak.

Uh-huh, they’re in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Tom Sestak is not, and there are a couple of reasons why.

One is that he played his entire career in the AFL. Quick now, tell many how many Hall-of-Famers played their entire careers in the AFL. Try one: Former Buffalo guard Billy Shaw. Yet when the AFL considered the merits of merging with the NFL in 1965 it was former Jets’ owner Sonny Werblin who called  Sestak “as good a football player as there is in the country.”

The other explanation, of course, is longevity. Sestak played seven seasons with the Bills, though, in reality, it was more like five. Knee injuries kept him from practicing the last two years and were such a handicap that his playing status was always in question.

His play, however, never was. He was a sure tackler, a dominant pass rusher and a team leader. And when Tom Sestak was healthy, there were few defensive tackles who played the position better.

And I mean ever.

That’s why Tom Sestak is in the AFL Hall of Fame. And he should be. But he should also be a candidate for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

No, I don’t know if he’d make the final cut, but I’d sure like to see him discussed. But that’s an honor he’s never been extended … and probably never will. And it’s more than a shame. It’s downright wrong.

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Next Levy, DeBartolo back to familiar roles for Hall of Fame weekend


  1. July 15, 2015

    Here are some Pro Football Hall of Famers and their NFL longevity:

    Gale Sayers: 7 years
    Ernie Nevers: 6 years
    Paddy Driscoll: 6 years
    Arnie Weinmeister: 6 years
    Ed Healey: 6 years
    Doak Walker: 5 years

    There are more; these are the ones that come to mind.

    Evidently “short longevity” only keeps American Football League players out of the “pro football” Hall of Fame.

    • Rick Gosselin
      July 16, 2015

      That’s why we write these State Your Cases — to shine a light on deserving players whose careers have been overlooked by Canton for whatever reason.

  2. Mike Metzler
    July 15, 2015

    I grew up in Western New York in the 1960s and even then as an early fan I could tell there was no one else in the AFL playing up to the level that Tom Sestak established. I remember several times teams would double and triple teaming Sestak on running plays piling on top of him, yet you’d see an arm thrust out from the bottom of the pile to grab the ankle of the running back as he was passing by. Amazing strength! On passing plays his arms must have looked as high as goalposts to opposing quarterbacks. The flow of plays tended to be directed away from Sestak, yet he still got more than his share of sacks chasing down QBs from the backside. In his prime there was no one better. I would have loved to have seen him chasing down Frank Ryan or laying some wood down on Jim Brown in a 1964 Super Bowl.

  3. bachslunch
    March 13, 2016

    Agreed that Sestak has a good HoF case, as good as any other Senior eligible DT. Angelo’s observation above, however, needs significant qualifying. All but Sayers from his list played from the 20s through the 50s, when short careers were far more common among HoF members than afterwards. And voters still tend to make short career exceptions for RBs (Sayers, Campbell, and likely Terrell Davis) though not for players at other positions such as WR (Del Shofner, Sterling Sharpe), OT (Tony Boselli so far), D-line players (Sestak, Earl Faison, Tombstone Jackson), or DB (Kenny Easley). This encompasses both NFL and AFL players.

  4. Gary B
    March 21, 2018

    Late to the game here but simply stated- DESERVING!

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