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The flanker who catches too many passes

When poor Charley Hennigan set a pro record of 101 receptions last year his own Houston Oiler coaches sighed: they wanted fewer catches and more scores. As this season opened, Charley was trying to please

Back in the early '50s when Elroy Hirsch was catching all those passes for the Los Angeles Rams, everybody knew he had a dimple in his chin and was called Crazylegs and could look suspiciously sincere while reciting classic movie dialogue ("Gee, honey, you're swell to wait for me until after our big game with the Packers. I'm the luckiest guy in the whole world to have a girl like you and a keen bunch of fellows as my teammates"). When Raymond Berry came into prominence at Baltimore, what fan was not aware that Raymond was nearsighted, had one short leg and laundered his own football pants? If you did not know at least that much about two of professional football's finest receivers, you were less than serious about the game.

But what do you know about Charley Hennigan? In their best years Hirsch caught 66 passes and Berry caught 75. Last year Charley Hennigan caught 101 for an alltime professional record. Charley who? It is likely that, outside the eight American Football League cities, more people could identify the foreign minister of Togo than Charley Hennigan. And yet there it is, attested and incontrovertible: Charley Hennigan caught more professional passes in one season than any other man has ever done.

The unconvinceables of the National Football League dismiss Hennigan's record, as they did the earlier one of the Denver Broncos' Lionel Taylor, for the reason that it was set in the AFL. That, to those NFL castle-keepers who are reluctant to admit they have competition in the country's most exciting action sport, means that Charley Hennigan—"Charley who?" they say over prosciutto and melon at Pete Rozelle's Sutton Place apartment—was running pass patterns against Shirley Temple. But the truth is that AFL defensive backs have improved hugely in the last few years, both in talent and in sophistication, and Hennigan's record was made in 1964, not in 1960. Anybody who catches 101 passes in 14 games has done something remarkable, even if he caught them against Smith College. It is not easy to go out in the backyard and catch 101 passes lobbed by your fat neighbor.

The strangest thing about Hennigan, though, is not that he is so little known in Quincy or Pascagoula. It is that his own coaches wish he would not catch so many. One factor that contributed to Hennigan's record, other than his ability to avoid defensive backs, was Houston's shabby season. The Oilers lost 10 games. "When you're behind as much as we were, you throw the ball. When we threw it, we threw it to Charley," says Sam Baugh, who was the Oilers' head coach last year and now is an assistant to Head Coach Bones Taylor. The Oilers certainly did. They—mostly Quarterback George Blanda—threw it to Hennigan 268 times.

Taylor, who was a flanker for the Washington Redskins and caught the passes of Baugh and Eddie LeBaron, regards Hennigan's record with skepticism. "If they had ever thrown me 300 passes in one season and I only caught 150, I would think I was terrible," Bones says. "The only way to rate flankers is on touchdowns produced. If a flanker catches 60 passes he ought to get 15 touchdowns, one touchdown for every four or five passes he catches. Hennigan got only eight touchdowns last year. The big reason was that we had no running game. We had to throw to Charley for first downs that we couldn't get by running. But I'll promise you Hennigan won't catch any 100 passes this year. If he does we're out of luck."

Last Sunday against the New York Jets at Rice Stadium before a perspiring crowd of 52,680—an AFL opening-day record—Taylor realized his intention of diversifying the Oiler offense. Hennigan, who has a pulled muscle in his left thigh, had his pattern called just three times. Two of these passes were intercepted, and the third was stolen by a teammate, Willie Frazier, for a touchdown. The Jets were double-covering Houston's wide receivers and leaving the tight end, Frazier, man for man, with the result that he caught two more touchdown passes as Houston won 27-21. "Next week maybe the tight end will be shut off and Hennigan will be open," said Quarterback Don Trull, who threw all three touchdowns and seems to have taken over the job from Blanda.

Blanda, who played 10 years for the Chicago Bears in the NFL and then sat out a bit before signing as quarterback with the Oilers in their first season, has been throwing to Hennigan since Charley was a frightened and rather aged rookie. This may be news to the public but, to Blanda, Hennigan is a transcontinental celebrity. "Anybody who knows anything knows about Charley, except here in Houston, where he doesn't get the publicity he deserves," Blanda says. "There's all-pro guys in this league who made it because they get more ink than Charley. Hennigan has moves, fair speed, quickness and agility, but he doesn't have the hands. The thing he does is get open. He reminds me a little of Jim Dooley [former Bear end], except that Charley is half a second faster in the 100, and he has the moves of Johnny Morris, except that Charley is three inches taller. Charley has that extra something that makes him catch a ball that is thrown too far."

The manner in which Hennigan catches the ball has been vigorously criticized. He prefers to cradle a pass, bending over the ball like an anxious mother, hugging it to his stomach and wrapping his arms around it. After a busy afternoon Hennigan's chest and stomach are the color of rare beef. Hennigan defends the method on the reasonable ground that it works. When he first reported to the Oilers as a 25-year-old biology teacher from Minden, La., where they make boilers and dump-truck beds, he could not have caught a cricket if it had hopped into his uniform bag. He expected to be dismissed at any moment. But the Oiler end coach of that first groping year was Mac Speedie—now head coach at Denver—and Speedie saw something in the tall, thin, nervous ex-paratrooper. Charley had gone to LSU one year on a track scholarship before moving on to Northwest Louisiana State, where he was a 170-pound dive halfback whose job was to block for Charley Tolar, now the Oiler fullback. "I've heard that somebody said Mac Speedie was the only pro end coach who ever earned his salary," says Hennigan. "I'm not qualified to talk about that, but he's the reason I'm in the game. Everybody else wanted to cut me. He told me if I went, so did he." Hennigan caught the first Oiler touchdown pass in 1960, and Blanda threw it.

Since then Hennigan and Blanda have been reliant companions. They have had the awareness of each other's tendencies that is vital between quarterback and receiver. "George is a leader," Hennigan says. "He has that aloofness, that hairline ability a leader must have for making people want to go with him but not letting them intrude. He knows where I'm going to be when he calls a pattern. In our first game I ran a post pattern and was covered and broke to the outside. George threw the ball where I was supposed to be, but I wasn't there and it was intercepted. He told me I should never break a pattern again unless he was in trouble or something—and I haven't. A receiver's job is to get where the quarterback thinks he's supposed to be and to get there fast. You don't diddle around with a lot of fakes unless you have to. If you come out running a lot of fakes and the other side is in a zone you look like a clown anyhow."

Hennigan's faking is good—so good that when San Diego Coach Sid Gillman gave Lance Alworth several reels of film on the AFL's better receivers to study, Alworth threw away the rest and merely watched Hennigan.

In five years Hennigan has refined his feints, but he makes them conform to the situation. His specialty is the sideline pattern, and he relies on recognizing the defense immediately, so as to know how best to arrive at his appointed location. If a cornerback is backpedaling, Hennigan likes to come straight at him, crowd him, feint and go. If the cornerback is standing with his feet pointing in and looking through the flanker toward the quarterback, as the Jets' cornerbacks do, Hennigan will give the man a move toward the inside, then break outside while the cornerback is trying to untangle his feet. Hennigan also talks to the cornerbacks. "They know I'm not going to maim them, and I want them not to maim me," he says. "If a defensive back is bad with his knees, hitting late, somebody will get him sooner or later. We hit hard, but why not be friendly about it? With a rookie, though, you can't get much conversation, because he's too scared. So you give him a superior smile to let him know you'll have him out of the league right away."

When Hennigan finished at Northwest Louisiana he played briefly in Canada on a team that used a two-fullback offense and utilized the flanker to throw option passes and block the linebacker on sweeps. That did not wear well with Hennigan. "But I did learn there was such a thing as a flanker," he says. "Until then I'd never heard of the animal." Back in Louisiana he taught high school biology and then drove to Houston with Tolar for a trial with the Oilers. In his pocket Hennigan carried his teacher's paycheck—$270.62 for a month's work. "It was tough in camp, hot and with 130 guys, and people fainting, but whenever I wanted to quit I pulled out that paycheck and looked at it and started hustling again," he says. "Those years I laid out of the game didn't hurt me much. I'm 30, but I have just five years of pro scars. Most 30-year-old players have 10 years of scars."

Hennigan got into a contract dispute with the Oilers this season when he asked for a raise over the $21,000-per-year three-year contract he signed last year. If the Oilers had yielded to his argument that rookies were being paid much more than a proven athlete who had caught 101 passes, professional football would have fallen into anarchy. "I wanted more money," Hennigan says. "When you've lived close like I have, you're afraid of going back to living close. But I don't blame the club." When he can no longer make his moves, Hennigan, who has a master's degree in elementary education, will leave football to fish and to teach and to live on his farm in Louisiana. What he wants this year is to catch half as many passes, score twice as many touchdowns and, from his relatively safe place at the flank, watch Houston's running backs scramble through for the first downs that used to rest in Hennigan's cradled arms. "A flanker on a team that has a good running game is on vacation," he says, "except that this league's defensive backs have gotten so much better and I seldom see single coverage anymore. But one thing I really like is to recognize a weak-side blitz and then hear the quarterback recognize it, too. He'll audible a deep pattern for me, and I know all I have to do is beat the cornerback man for man and we have a touchdown." In that moment of joy, when he is running free, it does not matter that the folks in Chillicothe know about Elroy Hirsch's dimple but not about Hennigan's blue eyes.