TJB Hall of Fame: Winston Hill


As the tributes to fellow inductees Joe Klecko and Don Maynard show, one of the essential functions of the TJB Hall of Fame and the primary reason for creating this exercise is to go some small way towards righting history’s wrongs. Though many feel he is deserving, Winston Hill has always been overlooked for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but there can be no argument that he doesn’t deserve recognition as a TJB Hall of Famer.

Considering Hill retired from professional football while I was just a baby, the challenge now is to do his contribution to the New York Jets franchise justice to ensure that Hill is not once again overshadowed by the rest of the 2009 class. In order to do that, we must rely on the testimonies of others.

RB Matt Snell, who ran for 121 yards and a touchdown behind Hill’s blocking in Superbowl III:

“So graceful, so beautiful to watch. Took them just where he wanted them to go. Never seemed like he was exerting himself that much. Tell me, did you ever seen [him] sweat?”

Former Packers GM Ron Wolf:

“That’s my man, bingo!” You talk about a guy whose name you never hear now, that’s him. I’d love to see the Seniors Committee propose him [for the Pro Football Hall of Fame].”

Former Jets Head Coach, Weeb Ewbank:

“I’ve been telling reporters for a long time that Winston Hill is a great offensive tackle and [in the Superbowl] he proved it. I mean when he blocks, he doesn’t just get a stalemate with the guy he’s on. He blows him out.”

Hill’s achievements speak for themselves: He played 14 seasons with the Jets and at one stage recorded the tenth longest streak of consecutive starts in NFL history (174). He went to 4 AFL all-star games and was a 4-time NFL Pro Bowler. Most importantly of all, he won a Superbowl ring and played a huge role in the big game…

This section is best enjoyed if imagined with an authoritative baritone voice over stirring orchestral music…

The Colts, labelled as the Greatest Team in Pro Football History and an overwhelming 18-point favorite were highly motivated and their defense, anchored by defensive end Bubba Smith planned to go into attack mode from the outset. The Jets, however, had other ideas.

Ewbank’s gameplan was to run away from Smith and at the right side of the Colts line, where defensive end Ordell Braase was matched up with Hill, the Jets left tackle. Five years earlier, Hill had been an eleventh round draft pick of the Colts and had been cut after having been tormented by Braase in practice. However, Hill’s performance was dominant enough to have exploded Bill Simmons’ vengeance scale, had it existed at that time.

With Namath confusing the Colts by mixing run and pass perfectly with multiple audibles at the line, the Jets enjoyed their greatest success with a play called “19-Straight”, where Snell would take the handoff and start up the middle, but then would bounce to the outside, as Hill rode his man off the line and sealed the edge. 19-Straight got Snell into the endzone for the go-ahead score in the first half, culminating a drive which began with that same play four straight times.

“Braase pretty much faded out,” said Snell, although Hill would not take all of the credit for Snell’s success. “Snell is a great runner. He doesn’t ask for much room. The mediocre backs come back to the huddle and cry if they didn’t get a hole big enough to back a truck through. I knew we could do it. We ran against the best teams in our league. What’s so special about the Colts?”

That quote underlines the confidence with which the Jets approached the biggest game (still) in franchise history. Namath had famously guaranteed victory, the players did not watch any film in the last three days prior to the game because they were so confident and it was important for them to represent the AFL with pride. “That year the Raiders had a good team, Kansas City had a good team and San Diego had a good team. And the three of them probably could have beaten Baltimore,” Hill would later say. The message was clear and undeniable – the AFL was a league to be reckoned with.

Despite this, the fact that Hill played the first half of his career in the AFL and not the NFL, hurts him in terms of Hall of Fame recognition. An 8-time Pro Bowler with a Superbowl ring is not necessarily a lock for the Hall of Fame – Harry Carson – a 10-time Pro Bowler – only recently made it after years of campaigning, for example. However, Hill is regarded by many of those old enough to have seen him play as one of the best players of his generation.

It may have hurt Hill that the Jets did not have more postseason success. There were other AFL linemen to have made the Hall of Fame – Jim Otto, Ron Mix and Billy Shaw – but his achievements fall just short of these players, although they all enjoyed most of their success in the AFL, whereas Hill, who played the second half of his career in the NFL, spans two eras, making him difficult to compare with anyone else. However, it seems fair to say that Hill has been overlooked, not just as a potential hall of famer, but also in terms of even being mentioned as one, as the debate tends to center around more recent players.

When Hill first joined the Jets in 1963, he apparently earned the name “Holding Hill”, but went to the AFL all-star game in his second season and then, after two years of being overlooked, was recognized in seven straight seasons (three as an AFL all-star and four as an NFL Pro Bowler). He was not honored in his final three seasons as a Jet, although the coaching staff apparently felt that 1974 was the best season of his career. He finished his career with a year at the Rams, but played in just three games.

Responsible for protecting Namath’s blindside, he was regarded by some as the first great pass-protecting left tackle, using his size and strength well (he played most of his career at 285, very big for a tackle at that time, although he did play a few seasons at 270). This would give Namath and his notoriously quick release sufficient time to get rid of the ball. However, even his work in this area was sometimes overshadowed by his teammates. NFL Films called center John Schmitt “perhaps the key man – and most adept man – at protecting Namath,” whereas ESPN awarded Guard Dave Herman, who played RT in the Superbowl as the real MVP of that game because he neutralized Bubba Smith, holding him to one sack.

As a run blocker, Hill was again influential, as shown by his display in the Superbowl. However, his reputation was as more of a pass protector until the latter stages of his career, moving to right tackle in 1971 and improving his run blocking to a high level of efficiency over the last three seasons. Ultimately, although he may not have been the best pass protector or the best run blocker on those talent-laden offensive lines, most experts agree that Hill was the most complete and most dominating offensive lineman in Jets history.

Off the field, Hill, who still gets involved in Jets fundraising events, was clearly an interesting and witty character, as the internet has many examples of amusing quotes from him.

After the Miami Dolphins voted him “most likely to hold” in 1975 – a sure badge of honor, somewhat reminiscent of Kobe or Lebron complaining about someone playing physical defense against them, because they couldn’t cope with it – Hill said “I never held an honest man in my life.” At the end of his career, when he went into the food business and started marketing “Winston’s Low-Cal Yoghurt”, he said ”I don’t need this extra weight anymore. Starting Sept. 1, I’m going to go on a diet to lose 40 or 50 pounds. By November, I can use ‘before and after’ pictures of me for ads.” When he hurt his foot in 1970, the notoriously tough Hill was quoted as saying “I’m looking for a name this long, Doc. (Moving his hands apart) It’s not so impressive to have a sprained toe.” Finally, perhaps his most famous quote was this:

“Of all the names I could have had that would have inspired fear. Rocky. Bruiser. My parents had to name me Winston … Winnie to everyone. I mean could you see a defensive lineman terrified because he had to go up against a Winnie?”

Before writing this article, I made a point of checking out Winston Hill in action (in the 1972 game where Namath famously out-duelled Unitas, throwing for 496 yards and 6 TDs on FIFTEEN completions…you don’t do that without good pass protection!)

Sure enough, Hill was as smooth and stylish as they say and stood out because of his size (big for an OT even then. He would usually stay comfortably in front of his man to help form a perfect pocket around Namath, despite the loss of Schmitt to an early injury. With the running game not working, the Jets practically abandoned it, which meant the Colts could send multiple pass rushers, but on the couple of occasions when Hill was beaten, he was able to recover and use his strength to knock the pass rusher off balance enough to enable Namath to get rid of the ball. Finally, on a crucial second half drive, the Jets did return to the running game and Riggins picked up 44 yards on six carries, with Hill consistently driving his man off the line. It may be a small sample size, but it was enough to make a believer out of me.

Other than this and the Superbowl itself, I never saw Hill play, but I was convinced. If there’s any justice, hopefully the Canton’s Hall of Fame selection committee will be too, one day. For now, a place in our humble Hall will have to do. Winston Hill, ladies and gentlemen…

If you’re prepared to admit to being old enough, please share your memories of him in the comments.

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