Hall of Fame Surprise: Art Powell Is Named Senior Finalist
REMEMBERING PRO FOOTBALL'S FORGOTTEN SUPERSTAR
Former standout wide receiver Art Powell, who helped launch the Raiders' dynasty in 1963 with a rookie 33-year-old coach named Al Davis, is a senior finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame's class of 2024.
Powell is one of three senior finalists selected from a semifinal class of 12 on Tuesday, August 22. The other senior finalists are Randy Gradishar, a prolific linebacker from the Denver Broncos' Orange Crush era of the 1970s, and Steve McMichael, a key tackle on the Chicago Bears' stifling defenses of the 1980s.
Powell's selection was a surprise considering it was his first time as a semifinalist and the first time he was discussed by any HOF committee in the 50 years of eligibility. He leapfrogged two wide receivers who were previously semifinalists, Otis Taylor of the Kansas City Chiefs and Sterling Sharpe of the Green Bay Packers.
Their popularity was driven by years by videos of great performances — Taylor from 1965-1975, including a memorable Super Bowl game; and Sharpe playing 16-game seasons from 1988–1994. They were in a lot of highlight videos with Taylor catching passes from Hall of Fame quarterback Len Dawson and Sharpe from Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre. Both are certainly Hall of Fame-worthy players.
But Powell's career was seldom remembered despite sensational performances because he retired in 1968 without playing in a postseason game, and his last healthy season was actually 1966.
ESPN and NFL Network just don't air a lot of video from that era.
Most immediate impact in Raiders storied history
Powell was Davis' first transaction after signing with the Raiders just after Christmas of 1962. Powell was either a free agent or on the trading block by the Titans, which was unclear. Powell was a hot commodity after three great seasons with the New York Titans, two with more than 1,000 yards receiving. The Buffalo Bills actually signed him, but did not submit the contract to the league for fear of owing compensation.
In the first of many bold moves by Davis with the Raiders, he flew to Toronto, dined with Art, his wife, Betty, and their infant daughter. The rookie coach of perhaps the worst team in pro football (1-13 in 1962) convinced Powell that he would be a superstar in the Raiders' new vertical offense.
"Salesman that Al Davis was, he returned home that night with a contract that had my name on it," Powell said years later. And Powell did indeed become a superstar. In fact, Powell had the most immediate impact of any player Davis would ever sign in the storied history of the Raiders.
Biggest turnaround in annals of American team sports
In 1963 Powell led the league with 1,304 yards receiving and 16 touchdowns — in a 14-game season. The Raiders improved from 1-13 to 11-4, marking the biggest turnaround in one season by an American pro sports team. This was a tale seldom if ever told by ESPN or NFL Network. Despite Powell statistically searing his name among the top ten wide receivers in football history, his story faded from view.
Yet, it begs the question: How good would Davis' first team have been without Art Powell?
So, when the 2024 HOF Senior finalists were announced, there was predictable surprise among fans and even a lot of the media who were unfamiliar with Powell's sensational career.
What's next: The Pro Football Hall of Fame’s full 50-person Selection Committee will consider the three Seniors — along with 15 Modern-Era Players and a Coach/Contributor — when it meets to choose the entire Class of 2024 early next year.
Each of the Seniors Finalists would be elected to the Hall if he receives at least 80 percent approval in the up-or-down balloting at that meeting.
Last week, the Hall’s Coach/Contributor Committee chose coach Buddy Parker as its Finalist for the Class of 2024. He also would be elected if he receives 80 percent approval at the full selection meeting.
Here are some of the reasons why Art Powell belongs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Powell's key stats rank among best in pro football history
Powell's statistics are particularly remarkable because he last played 55 years ago in a league that is now more than a century old. He played during 14-game seasons in an era when defensive backs legally mugged receivers.
The league has tightened restrictions on defenders, citing safety issues. However another desired result is to open up passing games. If that was their goal, the league only needed more Art Powells.
He currently stands:
● No. 2 in TD Catches per game (81 in 105 games at WR) — .77 (behind only Don Hutson)
● No. 4 in Frequency of TDs — (one every 5.9 catches) — behind only Don Hutson, Paul Warfield and Tommy McDonald
● No. 8 in yards receiving per game (76.6) but was No. 1 for more than 20 years before rules changes protected receivers from contact. The seven men ahead of Powell on this list all played after the turn of the century under liberalized rules favoring the physical well-being and prolific production of receivers. Four were active in 2022 or are available free agents as of May 2023: Jones, Brown, Hopkins (recently signed) and Hill.
Before looking at top ten lists for each of those categories, below is a chart that shows Powell's actual data and then a chart by noted football historian John Turney that extrapolates the statistics into 16-game seasons.
Looking at Powell's already impressive statistics in the context of potential 16-game seasons shows that he might have gained 9,172 yards receiving and scored 92 touchdowns—and that's allowing for the greater amount of contact receivers of his era had to deal with. Former teammate, opponent and defensive back great Fred "Hammer" Williamson believes without question Powell would have put up even more impressive numbers were he to play in the modern NFL: "If he played today with these current hands-off rules...oh my gosh, Powell would dominate," Williamson contends.
TD catches per game: No. 2 in Pro Football History
Now 55 years since playing his final pro football game in a league more than 100 years old, Art Powell remains No. 2 in history for most touchdowns receiving per game. In his 105 games at wide receiver, Powell's 81 touchdown catches put him at .77 per contest.
That is second only to the legendary Don Hutson (.85). Yes, well ahead of such honored stars as Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, Marvin Harrison, Jerry Rice and any others one might mention.
On the Top Ten list, Powell is the only eligible player not inducted into the HOF.
The List — TD Catches per game
Hall of Fame players indicated in green
1. Don Hutson, 85.34% (99 TD catches 116 games) from 1935 to 1945: HOF
2. Art Powell, 77.14% (81 TD catches in 105 games) from 1959 to 1968 (eligible 50 years)
3. Randy Moss, 71.56% (156 TD catches in 218 games) from 1998 to 2012: HOF
4. Terrell Owens, 69.86% (153 TD catches in 219 games) from 1996 to 2010: HOF
5. Marvin Harrison, 67.37% (128 TD catches in 190 games) from 1996 to 2008: HOF
6, Davante Adams, 65.41% (87 TD catches in 133) from 2014-current; (Active)
7. Jerry Rice, 64.99% (197 TD catches in 303 games) from 1985 to 2004: HOF
8. Dez Bryant, 63.02% (75 TD catches in 119 games) from 2010 to 2020: (ineligible)
9. Lance Alworth, 62.50% (85 TD catches in 136 games from 1962 to 1972: HOF
10. Calvin Johnson, 61.48% (83 touchdowns in 135 games) from 2007 to 2015: HOF
Frequency of TDs: No. 4 in Pro Football History
Powell is fourth in pro football history in frequency of touchdowns, with one every 5.9 catches, behind only Don Hutson, Paul Warfield and Tommy McDonald.
The List: Frequency of TD catches (WRs, minimum 400 catches)
Hall of Fame players indicated in green:
1. Don Hutson (1935–1945): Catches per Touchdown: 4.92, TDs: 99, Catches: 488 HOF
2. Paul Warfield (1964–1977): Catches per Touchdown: 5.03, TDs: 85, Catches: 427 HOF
3. Tommy McDonald (1957–1968): Catches per Touchdown: 5.89, TDs: 84 Catches 495 HOF
4. Art Powell (1959–1968): Catches per Touchdown: 5.91, TDs: 81 Catches: 479
5. Jimmy Orr (1958–1970): Catches per Touchdown: 6.06, TDs: 66 Catches 400
6. Wesley Walker (1977–1989): Catches per Touchdown: 6.17, TDs 71 Catches 438
7. Randy Moss (1998–2010): Catches per Touchdown: 6.29, TDs 156, Catches 982 HOF
8. Lance Alworth (1962–1972): Catches per Touchdown: 6.38, TDs: 85, Catches: 627 HOF
9. Nat Moore (1974–1986)L Catches per Touchdown: 6.89, TDs 74, Catches: 510
10. Mark Clayton (1983–1993): Catches per Touchdown: 6.93, TDs 84, Catches 582
Yards receiving per game: No. 1 before rules changes
With more than a century of pro football data dutifully logged, Powell still stands eighth in most yards receiving per game at 76.6 yards per (counting wide receivers with at 100 games).
The seven men ahead of Powell on this list — Julio Jones, Calvin Johnson, Antonio Brown, Marvin Harrison, DeAndre Hopkins, Torry Holt and Tyreek Hill — all played after the turn of the century under the protection of liberalized rules favoring the health, well-being and production of receivers. Four were active in 2022 or are available free agents as of May 2023: Jones, Brown, Hopkins and Hill.
Only Powell and Lance Alworth (75.5, 1962–1972) played before the one-chuck rule was enacted in 1978, the first of several changes that limited a defender's contact on a wide receiver.
The List: Yards receiving per game (mInimum 100 games at WR)
1. *Julio Jones (155 games, 2011–2022): 87.9 yards per game
2. Calvin Johnson (135 games, 2007–2015): 86.1 yards per game
3. *Antonio Brown (146 games, 2010–2021): 84.22 yards per game
4. Marvin Harrison (190 games, 1996–2008): 82.7 yards per game
5. *DeAndre Hopkins (145 games, 2013–2022): 77.9 yards per game
6. Torry Holt (173 games, 1999–2009): 77.4 yards per game
7. *Tyreek Hill (108 games, 2016–2022): 77.2 yards per game
8. Art Powell (105 games, 1959–1968): 76.6 yards per game
9. Jerry Rice (284 games, 1985–2004): 75.6 yards per game
t-10. Andre Johnson (193 games, 2003–2016): 74.9 yards per game
t-10. Lance Alworth (136 games, 1962–1972): 74.9 yards per game
*Notes: Julio Jones played for the Tennessee Titans in 2022 and as of May 2023 is a free agent. Antonio Brown quit during the 2021 season with Tampa Bay, missed 2022 but is angling to sign as a free agent for the 2023 season. DeAndre Hopkins played the last four seasons for Arizona and opens 2023 with Tennessee., who cut him May 2023. He is a free agent actively seeking another team. Tyreek Hill is active with the Miami Dolphins. Odell Beckham Jr. did not play in 2022, but signed with the Baltimore Ravens for the 2023 season. From 2014–2021, OBJ averaged 76.7 yards receiving per game, which would be a tenth of a yard better than Powell, but going into the 2023 season Beckham has not yet reached the 100-game minimum.
Hall of Famers and peers insists Art Powell belongs in Canton
"You must be an elite player to be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and Art Powell was not only elite in his era but among the very best ever to play the game. He made an impact in every game he played." — Hall of Fame general manager and personnel expert Ron Wolf.
"Art Powell's career is an important chapter in pro football history. As a player he was far before his time. He would have been a sensation in any era. Art was his own man and fiercely independent. He was not afraid to voice his opinions and to take a stand.” — Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh, a San Jose State alum with Powell and an assistant coach with the Raiders in 1966.
"I played against Art when I was with Denver and he was a wide receiver. I had a chance to cover him quite a bit and one of his best routes he ever ran was the post-corner. All guys had problems with that because they didn't know him. The thing about it also was his size. He was one of the big guys and tough guys when he was with the Raiders. Mr. Davis went and got him out of Canada. Small corners had a problem with him because of his height and speed. He wasn't a blazing speed guy, but he had enough speed to beat you, get behind you, and his size helped him. When I came to the Raiders, I think we were here one year together before he retired. I enjoyed playing against him. He was a great ballplayer, and he had been to some of the games these past few years and [it was] always good to see him. He'll be remembered as a Raider forever." — Hall of Fame cornerback Willie Brown.
"They screwed him. They had him returning kicks and punts and playing defense so there was no way he earned a penny of that incentive money as a receiver. But he was one hell of an athlete, a big tough guy who could do a lot of things. So he was second in the league in returns and made some big interceptions, one he returned 95 yards. He was really something." — Hall of Fame coach John Madden, Powell's rookie teammate with the Philadelphia Eagles who signed him to incentive-laden wide receiver contract and played him only as DB and returner:
"I wish I could take you all back to 1963," Davis said. "I had one of the greatest players who has ever played this game and he was tough to handle. He was the T.O. of his time. And he was great. His first year for me he carried us. He caught 16 touchdowns. His name was Art Powell…The difference between Powell and T.O. was that Powell took a stand for a cause." — Hall of Fame coach Al Davis, whose first significant personnel move after joining the Raiders was to sign Powell.
"He had range and he was more like today's big wide receivers that could go deep. He was just a great athlete. He had great body control, tremendous abilities to go up and catch the ball or reach down and make all the necessary turns down the field and he was just a great player. Art and I had great seasons [1963–66] together, very productive. He caught a lot of my passes. The day I threw six touchdown passes, he caught four of them. That was quite a day for him. He was the start of the big receiver. In those days, most receivers were small and when we drafted Biletnikoff, Art was there, and they complemented each other. Art was just unique in a time when receivers…there weren't a lot of guys like him." — Former Raiders quarterback and two-time Super Bowl winning coach Tom Flores on his time as Powell's teammate.
"Art was a big, tough, smart man who commanded respect on and off the field. Opposing teams respected him, but opposing players feared him, and with good reason. He was one tough man, on and off the field. He was not somebody you wanted to trifle with. Ever. Anywhere. He was a quiet man whose actions spoke volumes. Let me repeat, he was feared. If he played today with these current hands-off rules, oh my gosh, Powell would dominate."— Star cornerback Fred "Hammer" Williamson, who played against and with Powell.
"So I'm a new guy on the team and just trying to keep my job. I'm not big, I'm not fast, but I am confident. And there is Art Powell who is big and fast and tougher than hell. Amazing talent. He scored 23 touchdowns in two years, and I get three. Years later when I made the Hall of Fame, I thought of that. I'm honored for sure. But how have they passed on Art? Some things cannot be explained."— Hall of Fame wide receiver Fred Biletnikoff, a Raider teammate in 1965–66.
Powell on his social activism and his stands against segregation
Powell's father, Elvin, moved the family from Texas shortly after Art was born in 1937 to escape the Jim Crow laws that persecuted Black Americans. As they resettled in San Diego, Elvin emphasized to his nine children that they should stand up and speak out against segregation.
Art boycotted or threatened to boycott four games in his pro football career, which drew negative reactions in the early 1960s, well before the famous 1967 Cleveland Summit in support of Muhammad Ali and the gloved-fist tribute by Tommie Smith and John Carlos in the 1968 Summer Olympics.
Powell was cut by the Phiadelphia Eagles after a preseason boycont in 1960. He was then blackballed by the NFL. With the New York Titans in 1961 he boycotted another preseason game due to segrated hotels. In 1963 the Raiders were scheduled to play the N.Y. Jets (formerly the Titans) in a segregated stadium, but after Powell and three teammates talked to Al Davis the game was moved to Oakland.
The most famous incident came during the 1965 AFL All-Star game in New Orleans, where 22 black players agreed to leave town the first night after being refused cabs and other services. Many indeed left town and then hurried back when Davis and other team executives moved the game to Houston.
Powell discussed the stances he took and the impact they had on his career, and reflected on his legacy:
“I refused to have somebody tell me I couldn't go somewhere and didn't belong somewhere. I expected consequences…Immediately you are bucking certain people in the establishment, and they don't like it. From that stories build. You become something you're not. I was suspended. I was blackballed in the NFL.
"Al Davis knew about my stand on social matters. He knew I was against segregation. He knew I boycotted games. He knew I lived in Canada because as a mixed-race couple it was more comfortable than living in the States. He knew all of it. It wasn't that he didn't care. He cared, understood and agreed. He would later prove that when challenges arose and he stood up and did what was right.
“There was a whole social movement going on at the time and it's way bigger than you…Art Powell didn't create those situations, and if he had never existed, those situations were still going to happen. I know I put my career on the line and I know what happened in those years had an impact on how people looked upon me. So be it; it was my choice. The challenges that were before me were social challenges. They were personal and they were important. I chose to challenge them while others chose not to challenge them. I made a lot of people angry at the time, but I question if I made an impact."
"I've heard about African-American kids playing baseball who don't know who Jackie Robinson is. If that's the case, no one is going to know who Art Powell is."
And, along with his superior game performances, is why Art Powell belongs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His historic accomplishments on the field, as well as off it, should be amplified, celebrated and remembered forever.