By Dr. Ken 


By choice, I was an “AFL guy” from the inception of the new league in 1960 and until its merger with the National Football League.  New York born and bred, I was by all accounts a Giants fan but I had so many favorite players and year-to-year teams for numerous reasons that it was rather easy for me to cheer loudly for the underdog American Football League. I loved the Redskins feather helmets, Don Bosseler, and Johnny O; I thought the exceptionally rough but usually stumbling Steelers with John Henry Johnson, Myron Pottios, and Ernie Stautner were terrific; I admired the precision and success of Jim Taylor and the Packers. I had specific fullbacks I would attempt to copy or emulate throughout high school and included both AFL and NFL greats like Charley Tolar, Taylor, Keith Lincoln, and Bill “Boom Boom” Brown. When the NFL-AFL merger was announced, it did nothing to cool my ardor for the game of football, nor my penchant for supporting various teams in any one season. My loyalties were however, put to the test as the first 1966 AFL – NFL World Championship Game approached.


Now of course, we know this end of the professional season game as The Super Bowl and there aren’t large enough capital letters to convey the monster that this game has grown into. With only 61,946 spectators in attendance at the inaugural inter-league match-up, the mammoth Los Angeles Coliseum looked rather sparsely populated. If the football fans of the nation weren’t yet taken in by the entire “event” of the occasion, I was sufficiently hooked on the importance of the game to be extremely excited.


Forrest Gregg and Jim Taylor of the Packers on the move against the Chiefs in Super Bowl 1

When most fans, even those from my generation, think about the Kansas City Chiefs and the early Super Bowl years, they most often visualize a great defense featuring linebackers Willie Lanier, Bobby Bell, and Jim Lynch standing behind the bulk of Buck Buchanan, Curly Culp, Jerry Mays, and Aaron Brown. It’s easy to forget that the ’66 defense, which also included Bell, Buchanan, Mays, and Brown, had stars that were perhaps a bit lost to history relative to the lauded ’69 defense, yet extremely effective. One Chiefs player seemingly lost to all but the most ardent AFL fans is linebacker Sherrill Headrick and even now he is frequently noted more for his various anecdotal exploits than his rugged and consistent play.

Most high school offenses of the 1950’s and early ‘60’s were fullback oriented. With many coaches having switched from the 1940’s Single Wing that was dominant on both the high school and college levels, the T and Split-T Formations became the standard. As it has seemingly been since the advent of high school football, the “best athlete” would often be the team quarterback  but by the mid-1950’s, it was common to find the strongest or toughest boy placed at fullback, and have him rotate to linebacker on defense during the days of two-way football. Thus many college coaches would recruit a disproportionate number of fullbacks and convert most of them to other positions, including offensive and defensive guards, or full time linebackers.


 Fullback Sherrill Headrick, number 40 was an All District choice at Fort Worth North Side High School

Headrick was an effective high school fullback on a mediocre Fort Worth, Texas North Side High School team that struggled through a 4-6 1955 season. The senior fullback and linebacker earned All District recognition, but among the future pros like Don Meredith, Joe Robb, and Buddy Humphrey that were named to the All State Team, and more heralded Texas high school players like “Wahoo” McDaniel, Jack Spikes, and Don Floyd, he was somewhat overlooked.


At local Texas Christian University, Headrick made up for any perceived lack of ability by quickly establishing a reputation as a punishing player. At offensive guard and linebacker, he again may have been overlooked by many due to the All American play of line mate Don Floyd but by the conclusion of his junior season in 1958, he was firmly established as an All Southwest Conference performer and potential pro. Finishing 8-2-1 and with the Soutwest Conference crown, the Frogs took their number ten national ranking into the Cotton Bowl against the sixth ranked Air Force Academy and battled to a hard-fought 0-0 tie. TCU head coach Othol “Abe” Martin looked at the potential of his ’59 squad with Floyd, Headrick, and tackle Robert Lilly up front and future pros Jack Spikes and Sonny Gibbs in the backfield and believed he would have a winning group. The 8-3 Horned Frogs did indeed do well in ’59 with a number seven end-of-year ranking but they did it without Headrick. Earning a reputation as a passionate and somewhat reckless player on and off the field, Headrick was credited by all of his teammates as being a true student of the game. His penchant for studying film and opponents continued into the pros where teammate Fred Arbanas stated “He was such a wild man, people didn’t realize he was such a student of the game. Teams would come out in different formations, and Sherrill knew exactly where the ball was going to go.” Unfortunately, he was not as passionate about his school related work and succumbed to academic problems, leaving TCU and playing the 1959 season as a defensive tackle with the British Columbia Lions of the Canadian Football League.


Headrick, #69, was an All SWC guard and linebacker for the highly ranked Horned Frogs


With the formation of the American Football League in 1960, Sherrill Headrick was a natural for the new league and signed with the Dallas Texans. In his eight seasons with the Texans and Kansas City Chiefs, he was one of the most highly respected players in the AFL. All AFL in 1960, and an AFL All Star in ’61, ’62, ’65, and 1966, he was a starter his entire Texans/Chiefs career that included the Texans 1962 championship team and the Chiefs Super Bowl 1 squad. His blitz and block of a late game George Blanda field goal attempt undoubtedly prevented a loss and led to the double overtime 1962 championship game victory.  At 6’2” and an admitted heaviest weight of 208 pounds, he was stout against the run, covered a wide area on the field, and was absolutely fearless. He was so effective in 1962 that many experts later considered him perhaps the best linebacker in all of professional football during that season. While his fifteen career interceptions (one in his final, 1968 season with the Bengals), what Texans/Chiefs head coach Hank Stram described as Headrick’s “great instincts for a middle linebacker,” and what all agreed was an uncanny ability “at picking up tendencies and tips expressed by offensive teams” made him a star, it was his fearlessness and ability to suppress physical pain that truly set him apart.

Headrick’s “double mask” configuration was also utilized by other Chiefs players


Headrick’s many injuries did not deter him from missing games and these included sprained ankles, significantly injured knees, fractured cervical vertebrae, compound fractures, and infected gums. Despite whatever “injury of the week” he had to deal with, he would go through his pre-game vomiting ritual and proclaim himself ready for action. Compound fractures in his hands or fingers, which by definition included bones protruding from his torn skin, were taped and then ignored. Suffering two fractured cervical vertebrae in a pre-game collision, he ignored the pain, played, had an official diagnosis of the broken bones in his neck after the game, yet was again a starter for the following week’s contest. When quarterback Len Dawson joined the squad for the 1962 season, he said to Headrick, “You played with a broken neck, you’re psycho.” That was enough to lead to Sherrill’s permanent nickname “Psycho” and his abandoned play and impervious resolve to play with whatever pain he felt, reinforced his nickname and reputation throughout the league.

Headrick wore his “three bar” mask as a Texans and Chiefs middle linebacker

Headrick described his willingness to ignore any physical discomfort or outright, “would-make-anyone-else scream” pain with the explanation that “back then, we had only thirty-three players on the roster. If you got hurt, someone would take your job. I had a lot of injuries, but fortunately not any I couldn’t play with.” Of course, he forgot to add that almost any other human being would have, through the course of nine years of injury, succumbed to at least a few of them!


In 1968 the Cincinnati Bengals chose Headrick in the expansion draft and he played his final professional season with them until a lumbar disc injury prevented him from continuing his football career. He later stated that “I’ve been a cripple for years. People ask, would you do it again? I would have liked to have made more money, but it was the most enjoyable thing in the whole world to me. Playing with all the guys, playing in the first Super Bowl, most people don’t accomplish nearly as much in sports.” Physically limited, Headrick worked in a number of industries and was always popular on the autograph circuit, with a reputation as one of the most accessible and accommodating of former AFL or NFL players. Sherrill Headrick remained a monument to toughness and resiliency until his unfortunate passing at the age of seventy-one from cancer. Yet, even to this day, “Headrick stories” abound throughout the NFL, all related to his unbelievable physical style of play, underrated standing among that era’s linebackers, and his toughness, something just not seen in today’s game. For many fans, especially those with deep-rooted NFL loyalties, the first AFL - NFL World Championship Game was an opportunity to see American Football League players like Headrick and others of his ability, compete on a true national stage.