Mike Stratton, an unsung end on a single-wing team at the University of Tennessee who became one of the most famous players in Buffalo Bills history, died Wednesday of heart complications. He was 78.
Stratton had been in failing health, according to media reports in Knoxville, Tenn. He had suffered a fractured hip in a fall a few weeks ago and was in rehabilitation when he developed difficulty breathing and was taken to a hospital, where he died.
A six-time selection for the American Football League All-Star game and a two-time All-Pro, Stratton was selected to the Bills 50-year anniversary team, and his name went on the Wall of Fame at New Era Field in 1994.
Still, Stratton is best known for his hit on San Diego Chargers fullback Keith Lincoln in the 1964 AFL championship game at War Memorial Stadium.
Stratton, covering the right flat, drove his shoulder into Lincoln just as the Chargers back was collecting a pass from quarterback Tobin Rote. Not only did it cause an incompletion, the hit put Lincoln out of the game with broken ribs and inspired the Bills. The Bills trailed, 7-0, at the time but rallied for a 20-7 victory.
Standing out on pass defense was not unusual for Stratton. He played 142 games for the Bills from 1962 to 1972, starting most at right linebacker. He made 18 interceptions, returning one for a touchdown in 1963. He also had two touchdowns on fumble returns.
He never missed a game until the 1970 season, when he was out of the lineup for five games. Ironically, Stratton's last season in the NFL was with the Chargers in 1973, and he was still picking off opponent passes. He had three that season.
For a man who became famous in football for one of the game's most vicious and effective hits, Stratton was the opposite off the field. He was a soft-spoken, modest and pleasant, the epitome of what a true Southern Gentleman is supposed to be.
His hometown was Tellico Planes, Tenn. It's in the mountains of Eastern Tennessee, south of Knoxville, on the road to Atlanta. The 2010 census listed Tellico Plains' population as 880, and that was more than 50 years after Stratton left to go to become a Tennessee Volunteer. Tennessee did not recruit Stratton. He recruited it.
“If a college recruiter ever came to Tellico Plains, nobody saw him.” Stratton told Knoxville News-Sentinel sports writer Marvin West.
Tennessee didn't even send him a routine football questionnaire. Stratton's high school coach took charge of matters, bringing Stratton to the football offices in Knoxville and practically demanding a scholarship for his player.
After some hard sell, George Cafego, a legendary Vol player and assistant coach, entered the room with scholarship forms in hand. Stratton signed and played three seasons with the Vols as an end in what was still the limited substitution era of college football. Most players had to play both offense and defense.
Stratton hardly played as a sophomore, even in the annual rout of Chattanooga. He caught one pass as a junior for a touchdown and three of his nine receptions as a senior went for touchdowns.
Despite those unimpressive college credentials, Lou Saban, in his first year as Bills head coach, selected Stratton in the 13th round of the AFL draft. Saban had an eye for talent and could project the college players of that era into pro specialists. Later in the same draft, he selected McNeese State's Tom Sestak, who some insist is the best defensive tackle in Bills history.
Saban arranged to meet Stratton at the Knoxville airport.
“Coach Saban was pleasant but businesslike. He offered me $9,000 for the 1962 season and $1,000 bonus if I would sign right then," Stratton told West in their interview.
Stratton held out for $1,000 more, and Saban agreed.
In an interview with The Buffalo News in 2015, Stratton talked of how much he enjoyed playing in the Bills' defense directed by Joel Collier.
"It was fun to play defense, especially with the four down linemen we had and the defensive backs," Stratton said. "We’re in between, and the linebackers had a ball. The defensive line we had was the best in the league."
Stratton's big hit came in the 1964 AFL title game, but the 1965 AFL championship in San Diego, a 23-0 Buffalo victory, was a defensive masterpiece that Stratton enjoyed at least as much.
"That was one of the good memories for certain in my career. To shut them out, we were very proud of that," Stratton said.
"We had several defenses we ran in that game," Stratton said. "If they ran certain formations on my side of the field, I would try to go out and take the quick inside pass away from their receiver. So that would give the defensive backs time to find out where the receiver was going and have a better chance of covering them. And it gave the line a little more time to get pressure.
"Our defensive coach Joe Collier decided that we would give them a little different looks. One time we had everyone on the defense up on their feet. No one was down in a three-point stance, and I think (Chargers quarterback John) Hadl came up to the line and thought, 'What was going on?' And they had to call time out to avoid a delay of game penalty."
In the 1964 title game, Stratton was ready for the momentous play on the swing pass to Lincoln.
"They ran it a couple times, so when I saw it again, I turned my back to the quarterback, took a few steps to the wide receiver and turned back to the quarterback," he told The News. "I went back for Lincoln and saw they were throwing to him. I just put my head down and tried to get him. I was trying to get there just as he caught it or after he caught it."
In the modern era, the tackler might stand over his victim and taunt. Not in 1960s football and certainly not Mike Stratton.
"I just got up and went back to the huddle. We were getting ready to break the huddle and Lincoln was still down," he remembered.
Over the years, Stratton was asked countless times about the “Hit Heard 'Round the World.”
In all his modesty, Stratton answered reluctantly.
“I never wanted to be known as a one-hit wonder,” Stratton told West. “But when people asked about that tackle, I always smiled.”