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When We Were Champions: Jerrel Wilson

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Considered one of the greatest punters to ever play the game, Jerrel Wilson played fifteen seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs, the most by any player for the franchise. He was a member of the Kansas City Chiefs Super Bowl winning team in 1969.

Wilson was drafted by the Chiefs in 1963, during the tussles between the AFL and the NFL. A draftee could go with the upstart AFL or the well-established NFL, if he got drafted by both leagues. Considering the fact the Chiefs were in the "inferior" league, it's amazing how their 1963 draft went down.

The Chiefs first choice was DT Buck Buchanan. Their second first round pick was G Ed Budde, then they drafted T Walt Rock, DE Don Brumm, T Daryl Sanders, LB John Campbell and DB George Saimes before getting LB Bobby Bell in the seventh round.

Forget the success of the Chiefs' 2008 draft. There were two Hall of Fame players taken by the Chiefs in 1963.

Jerrel Wilson was an 11th round selection from Southern Mississippi.

Lamar Hunt said this in retrospect about the 1963 draft, "Sometimes it works out that way. There was a lot more ad-libbing in those olden days. There were a lot more mistakes, too."

Jerrel Wilson certainly wasn't a mistake. He racked up impressive numbers in his time with the Chiefs. Here are a few records:

  • Played more seasons than any player in team history

  • His 203 games played are the second most for any player in franchise history

  • A franchise-record 1,014 punts during his career

  • Highest average yardage in a career with 43.6

  • He and one other player own the NFL record for most seasons leading the league in punting average with four (1965, 1968, 1972 and 1973)

He found at least part of his success lied in getting underneath his opponent's skin, as shown in this story related to us by Doug Kelly in 2005, just days after Wilson's death from cancer.

Sensing that Jerrel might’ve lost a few yards, rookie head coach Paul Wiggin brought in a number of contenders for Jerrel’s job in 1975.

Jerrel’s response? "Well, the way I got ‘em thinking," he later recalled, "was to ask ‘em if they were inhaling or exhaling when they hit the ball." The mental gymnastics soon meant all the candidates for his job were waived long before the regular season.

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In addition to being a punter, Wilson's versatility (See, that phrase can work!) exemplified the type of athlete playing in the NFL at that time. He played center at Southern Miss and even played running back early in his career with the Kansas City Chiefs. He rushed twenty-two times in his career for fifty-three yards.

That ability to play three or four distinct and separate positions on a football field must have been difficult but much easier thirty or forty years ago than it would be today. Complicated playbooks, volatile team chemistry and the athletic ability of the opposing team are all barriers to the "Iron Men" of the past. (I have to admit getting the phrase "Iron Man" to describe playing both offense and defense from Necessary Roughness)

Kelly Bradham also told a story about Wilson shortly after his death. This is from the Daily Mail & Herald-Tribune out of Nevada, Missouri:

The nicest thing Wilson ever did for me, or my family I guess, came in 1971. He knew that my mother was an ardent Chiefs fan and after one game he reached into his locker and produced a box. "Here," he said, "is a birthday present for your mom." It was a football autographed by the entire team, which includes five Hall of Famers. The only Hall of Famer whose name is missing is that of Hank Stram. I still have that ball at home in the den and my mother, another cancer victim, cherished it all her life.

Vic Purvis, a teammate of Jerrel Wilson's at Southern Miss, took us back to the days of the Southern Miss. campus in the early 1960s with this story about the man nicknamed "Duck" and "Thunderfoot".

"I'll never forget when he showed up at school in a red, souped-up Corvette convertible," Purvis says. "Man, it was a pretty car, and most of us had never seen anything like it. I told him, 'Jerrel, man, I'd love to go for a ride in that car.'"

Wilson told him to get in. They pulled up at a stoplight on Highway 49, near the entrance to USM. Wilson revved the engine.

"You hear that?" he said to Purvis, as if something wasn't right.

Purvis said no.

Wilson revved the engine several more times, leaning forward as if to hear more closely. Then, Purvis leaned forward.

And then, Wilson floored it.

"I almost flew out of the car," Purvis says. "I look at Jerrel and he's laughing like a maniac. I look down at the speedometer and we're going 140 in no time. I said a prayer to myself, 'Lord, if you'll let me get out of this car in one piece, I'll never get back in it as long as I live."

140 MPH? Laughing like a maniac? Behavior like that gets you a nickname and a sit down in NYC with Roger Goodell (Chiefs players were waving shotguns on the picket line in 1987 for crying out loud). The NFL is a monstrous beast today but you have to admit, there is an unmistakable tug to the past when you hear stories like that.

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Wilson's rambunctious ways were vaguely reinforced by an article with a rather dark tone that a KCChiefs.com columnist wrote a few weeks after Jerrel Wilson passed.

Today’s sports scene is often written up as a "loss of innocence"; a judgment which admittedly depends for its effect on how innocent you thought athletes were 40 years or so ago. All athletes are innocent to a degree, but too many of today’s players seem to act in a way that it will be their lot in life to continue to live in much the manner they have after their playing careers are over. The plain and awful truth is even if you are able to have what passes for a long career in sports you will likely spend the majority of your life looking for some other way to make living.

I have to admit to being uneducated about the life and times of Jerrel Wilson before this but I'd love to hear from anyone who may be able to fill us in on the above quote and it's meaning. I feel like the "real" Jerrel Wilson lies indescribable between pages of text and computer screens.