Art Powell: Pro Football's forgotten Inconvenient Truth
When the Pro Football Hall of Fame finalists were revealed in a one-hour television special on NFL Network December 27, Seniors wide receiver finalist Art Powell was allotted only the fraction of a second it took to say his name in the 58th minute of the program.
Yet even that is far more than the almost total lack of recognition during the 55 years since Powell played his last game in 1968. And many are surprised that he leapfrogged more recognizable names in recent months to be one of the three Seniors finalist players.
Suddenly Powell is one of four or five 2024 Hall of Fame wide receiver finalists, including Modern Era stars Andre Johnson, Torry Holt, Reggie Wayne and returner Devin Hester, who sometimes played wide receiver.
This is reminiscent of an infamous Hall of Fame wide receiver bottleneck about a decade ago involving Cris Carter (Class of 2013), Andre Reed (2014), Tim Brown (2015) and Marvin Harrison (2016). That bottleneck needed to be cleared to make way for Terrell Owens (finalist 2016, 2017, 2018) and Randy Moss (2018), both inducted in 2018.
Now selectors are again struggling to rationalize how to handle the traffic jam of pass-catchers. Who goes in? How many at a time? When? The wide-receiver controversy dominates selector conversation in meetings and otherwise.
Powell’s path to induction is different. As a Seniors candidate he will require only an 80 percent "yes" vote from the 50 selectors, and his consideration has no impact on any of the other finalists. It is not a rubber-stamp process, as we learned when wide receiver Bob Hayes was rejected as a senior finalist in 2004 and returned for consideration in 2009, when he was inducted.
But even by the most objective considerations, Powell clearly stands at the front of this group based on his demonstrably superior impact on the game statistically, socially and historically.
That such an obvious choice took this long to properly acknowledge is a curiosity of human inclination exacerbated by extended social stress. The reasons are at once simple and complex.
Simple? Powell became a forgotten man largely because he predated ESPN and the NFL Network by decades. He was never acknowledged in those dramatic video productions that created memories and defined history. He was a superstar from a black-and-white era whose heroics were never produced in living color.
Complex? Even when he was active, Powell represented an inconvenient truth during America’s Jim Crow era. When injury forced his retirement, the memory of his greatness was too quickly dismissed. Perhaps it was set aside, subconsciously, or conveniently, to avoid the discomfort caused by his insistence on social awareness.
Through it all, Powell remained a consistently elite-quality athlete and, despite ubiquitous misconceptions to the contrary, an exemplary manifestation of social responsibility both during his playing career and after.
Athletic greatness was a family tradition
Arthur Louis Powell was a tough man who didn’t suffer fools or condone inequities. He was one of nine siblings in a legendary San Diego sports family, literally the genesis of his athletic greatness.
Powell’s back story began the year he was born in 1937, just before his family moved from Dallas to San Diego.
His father, Elvin, at about 6-3, 220, was insanely athletic. He was a tennis champion, scratch golfer, a standout in the Negro baseball league and toured with Satchel Paige's barnstorming team. As a Black man, Elvin was unable to participate in major sports leagues or events in Texas. So, with the KKK threatening to seize his land, he moved his growing family from Dallas to San Diego. Elvin emphasized that his children should never accept segregation.
Oldest brother Charlie earned 12 letters in five sports at San Diego High. He signed with the St. Louis Browns at 17 years old (played with minor league Stockton Ports), before considering an offer from the Harlem Globetrotters. But, ultimately, he signed with the San Francisco 49ers at 19, still the youngest player in NFL history.
As a rookie, Charlie Powell sacked Detroit quarterback Bobby Layne 10 times in one game—then the two went drinking late into the night. Charlie eventually moved full time into his favorite sport, boxing. He became the No. 5-ranked heavyweight boxer, with wins over big-name fighters and a loss to a guy named Cassius Clay, three fights before Clay became Muhammad Ali and beat Sonny Liston for the world heavyweight championship.
Art’s brothers also included multisport stars Ellsworth and Jerry, meaning he probably faced his toughest competition in his own backyard. So it should have been no surprise when he became one of the most prolific wide receivers in pro football history, after ten years with the Philadelphia Eagles, New York Titans (Jets), Oakland Raiders, Buffalo Bills and Minnesota Vikings.
Art Powell’s place in Pro Football History
By the time a knee injury forced him to retire in 1968, Powell had seared his name in pro football history with marks that still stand 55 years since his last game, such as:
● No. 2 in touchdowns per game (.77), behind only Hall of Famer Don Hutson (.85)
● No. 4 in frequency of touchdowns per catch (one every 5.9 catches), behind only Hall of Famers Paul Warfield (5.03) and Tommy McDonald (5.89)
● No. 7 in yards receiving per game (76.6). Two players ahead of him are still active. All six ahead of him played in this century, under liberalized rules to promote passing. The only player in the top 15 active before the one-chuck rule in 1978 is Hall of Famer Lance Alworth (No. 12), who averaged almost 11 yards fewer per game than Powell.
Often, numbers and stats are a curiosity. But Powell's show him among the top seven players in three important statistics in a league that is more than 100 years old. This rare, if not unique, context cannot be ignored.
As one of the most explosive receivers of his era, Powell caught 479 passes for 8,046 yards and 81 touchdowns in 105 games at wide receiver. Despite playing only seven healthy seasons during the AFL’s ten-year history, Powell ranked No. 3 in AFL records for receiving yards, behind only Hall of Famers Alworth and Don Maynard. Powell posted five seasons with at least 1,000 yards receiving and two more above 800.
In those seven seasons before blowing out a knee, Powell averaged 65 catches for almost 1,100 yards and 11 touchdowns a season. And those were 14-game seasons with legalized mugging of wide receivers.
Yet it wasn't until 2023 that he progressed far enough to be discussed by the Pro Football Hall of Fame Seniors Selection Committee — a half century since becoming eligible and eight years after he passed away.
Was this a byproduct from recognition of a need for social justice being espoused throughout the country and the league?
Whatever the reason, his rapid advance was a surprise at each level as he made it through a cutdown from 12 semifinalists to three player finalists.
Dazzled at every level
Let's dive deeper into Powell's incredible career and seek answers to why he disappeared from pro football's consciousness for so long.
At about 6-3, 212 pounds with a track sprinter's speed, Powell was ahead of his time as an unstoppable force on the field.
"He was a quiet man whose actions spoke volumes," said former All-Pro cornerback Fred "Hammer" Williamson, who was an opponent and teammate. "He was feared. If he played with these current hands-off rules...oh my gosh, Powell would dominate. He was not someone you trifled with on or off the field. Did I say he was feared?"
Art acknowledged that he probably was difficult to deal with on and off the field much of the time. His resolute demeanor often left little room for easy, casual interaction. He was portrayed in the media as a troublemaker and found it difficult to warm up to many players, including teammates.
“All I wanted to do was be a football player, period,” Powell said. “All this other stuff was dumped in my lap. What people failed to realize is, I tried to live the American dream. I reached for the sky. But I refused to have somebody tell me I couldn’t go where I didn’t belong.
“They called me a clubhouse lawyer. That's silly, I'm a loner. I hardly ever have a buddy on a team. I don't expect kindness. I hate the guys on the other teams. I don't joke with them. I'm a poor loser."
Regardless of his mindset, Powell's athleticism on the field was a thing of beauty, unless you were a defensive back.
His impatient ascent in football was dazzling, especially given that he played just one season of college football but still led the nation with 40 receptions. He attracted attention from the Globetrotters, à la brother Charlie. Bored and almost broke, Powell wrote to the Canadian Football League where he could play for pay.
Still 19 years old, Powell signed with the Toronto Argonauts in 1957 and split 10 games between the Argos and Montreal Alouettes, where he averaged 19 yards a grab and scored three touchdowns.
Finally eligible for the NFL's draft, held in December 1958–January 1959, Powell was taken by the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles, ostensibly as a wide receiver, and he signed a contract laden with incentives for catching passes.
Madden: They screwed him
Powell didn't collect a penny of incentive money. The Eagles never played Powell on offense, not a single down. He was relegated to backup safety and kick returner. He made the best of it with three interceptions, two fumble recoveries and finished No. 2 in the NFL in kick returns.
“They screwed him,” recalled John Madden, talking about the Eagles’ treatment of Powell. The future Hall of Fame coach was an Eagles rookie teammate with Powell and talked about him several times during annual bus rides to the Indianapolis Combine, when the subject inevitably turned to Powell not being in the Hall of Fame.
“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,” Madden said. “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. He was really something.”
Powell's relationship with the Eagles turned bad when he refused to play in a 1960 preseason game against the Washington Redskins in Norfolk, Va. It would be the first of four times Powell boycotted a pro football game because of segregation, an action that was frowned upon in most parts of the country.
Before that game, he learned the Eagles' Black players could not stay in the team hotel with their white teammates. Although several teammates initially said they would join him in a boycott, Powell stood alone when the time came. He took heat from the media and fans — and the Eagles cut him. He was blackballed by NFL teams.
“We were told colored ball players — that was the language in those days — would not be allowed to stay with the rest of the team in the hotel,” Powell said. “I chose not to play. The other African American ball players said they weren’t going to play either. But they did play … It cost me my job.”
Powell said his action angered not only his white teammates, but also Black players.
“They thought you were putting them out in front of a situation they didn’t want to deal with,” Powell said. “So I pretty much kept to myself. I didn’t look for someone to side with me. You just made choices, and in my gut, I thought I made the right choice.”
Enter the more progressive American Football League, in its first season.
New York Titans coach Slingin’ Sammy Baugh was a Hall of Fame quarterback who knew a wide receiver when he saw one. Powell signed with the Titans, and Baugh put him at wide receiver. Barely a week after being released by the Eagles, Powell caught four touchdowns against the Buffalo Bills.
In 1960, Powell caught 69 passes for 1,167 yards for the Titans and led the league with 14 touchdown catches, an average of one a game. This was the first time in football history that two teammates, Powell and Don Maynard, each gained 1,000 yards receiving. After they did it again in 1962, the Titans’ financially troubled owner Harry Wismer tried to cash in, thinking he could auction Powell to the highest bidder.
Powell thought otherwise. He didn't appreciate paychecks being late or bouncing. And when the league took over the faltering team, Powell knew he did the right thing by playing out his contract. He went home to Toronto and his wife, Betty, his most significant reward for time spent in the CFL. While considering his future, the Bills actually coaxed Powell into signing a contract. But the Bills did not submit it to the league because of concern it would cost them compensation. There was plenty of confusion about Powell’s actual status amidst Wismer's disgraceful conduct that included a bogus auction in New York.
Davis: One of greatest who has ever played. . .
Al Davis was happy to clear up the confusion. When he was hired in late December,1962, as the Oakland Raiders' 33-year-old rookie head coach, Davis knew about Powell’s ability. He saw it as an assistant coach with the San Diego Chargers while doing film cutups of the Titans.
After becoming the Oakland Raiders head coach, the first thing Davis did was call Powell in Toronto.
“He told me he’d bought a plane ticket and for me to pick him up at the airport,” Powell said. “My wife and I took Al to dinner. We went back to our apartment, and he told me how he was going to give me a chance to stretch out and show what kind of receiver I could really be. Being the salesman that he is, when he left, he had a signed contract with my name on it.”
It was quite a sales pitch by the young coach who was taking over one of the worst teams in football after a 1-13 season in 1962. Numerous teams were clamoring to get Powell. But Davis arrived back in Oakland on December 31, signed contract in hand, ready to hail in a very new year, and a new era, for the heretofore woeful Raiders.
Considered a bold and even bombastic move at the time, this signing was a harbinger of many historic moves Davis would make.
That 1963 season quarterback Tom Flores returned from a year away due to tuberculosis and teamed with Powell and running back Clem Daniels to lead the Raiders to a 10-4 record. That 1963 record marked the biggest one-season turnaround in American professional team sports history.
Davis, Powell: mutual admiration
Powell led the league with 1,304 yards receiving and 16 touchdowns. The Raiders were No. 1 with 31 touchdown passes. Again, these were 14-game seasons when running backs were the big stars.
“Art has more understanding of what I’m trying to with the aerial game than any end I’ve ever been associated with,” Davis said near the end of that season.
Spin forward to 2006 and Davis, by then a Hall of Famer himself, fondly recalled his season as a rookie head coach with Powell.
"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…His first year for me he carried us. He caught 16 touchdowns…The difference between Powell and T.O. was that Powell took a stand for a cause."
Even before Davis said that, Powell recalled Davis with fond appreciation in 2004.
"Al Davis knew about my stand on social matters," Powell said. "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."
Powell stands his ground against segregation
The first challenge was an Aug. 23, 1963 preseason game against Powell's former team, renamed the Jets, in Mobile, Alabama's Ladd Memorial Stadium.
"We weren’t going to stay together as a team,” Powell said. “They were going to rope off a section for the Colored fans to sit in, and the Colored fans wouldn’t be able to use the bathroom. So this was my first big challenge with Al Davis, but it turned out it wasn’t a challenge at all.”
After meeting with Powell and teammates Bo Roberson, Clem Daniels and Fred Williamson, Davis moved the game to Oakland.
"Al never put another game in the South during the time I was with the Raiders," Powell said.
In January of 1965 the AFL All-Star game was scheduled for New Orleans.
"We get there and can't get a cab from the airport," said Powell. "We're told we have to call for a Colored cab." There were numerous other issues. A bouncer told one Black player that if he entered the bar he would be shot. Killed.
"There were 22 Black athletes on the two all-star teams," Powell said (some accounts cite only 21). "Before I know it they are all at our hotel and it must be 3 or 4 in the morning. And we have a meeting.”
They decided to leave the city. Powell was mindful of being burned in Philadelphia by teammates who reneged on plans to boycott, leaving him alone in the act.
“I did not want to take a leadership position,” Powell recalled. “After my experiences in Philadelphia I didn’t trust the other players on what they would say later. So to protect myself I wrote up a paper that said everyone in this room is here voluntarily and nobody has been coerced and I made them all sign it.”
And they all left town.
By the time Powell landed in New York, on a layover to Toronto, the game had been moved to Houston, thanks to Davis and several team owners.
Despite his great relationship with Davis, Powell asked to be traded closer to Toronto after the 1966 season, saying he wanted to be near his business interests, which was at least partially true.
Davis didn’t want to trade Powell, but later confided that he thought Art believed Betty would be more comfortable living in her hometown, Toronto. That is where they were wed in 1957, believing mixed-race marriages were illegal in the U.S., which was true in many states. And that is where Betty's family lived.
The Raiders traded Flores and Powell to Buffalo in exchange for quarterback Darryl Lamonica. Art later wished he stayed with the Raiders. But in 1967 he moved with Betty to Toronto and commuted to Buffalo. Lamonica led Oakland to Super Bowl II, a loss to the Green Bay Packers. Powell, whose career realistically ended that 1967 season with a knee injury, agonized watching from the stands the Raiders’ SBII loss.
"I just know we would have won if I stayed in Oakland," he said. Powell attempted to play with Minnesota in 1968, but couldn’t overcome the knee injury and retired, ending one of the greatest careers by a wide receiver in pro football history.
Walsh: important chapter in pro football history
"Art Powell's career is an important chapter in pro football history," said Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh, who was a fellow San Jose State alum and an assistant coach with the Raiders in 1966.
“As a player he was far before his time,” Walsh said of Powell. “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.”
Tom Flores knew Powell both as an opposing college cornerback (College of Pacific vs. San Jose State) and as the Raiders quarterback who threw most of the great receiver's pro touchdowns.
"He was hard to cover before the catch and even harder to tackle after. He was a difference-maker,” said Hall of Famer Flores, a former Raiders head coach and himself a pioneering minority in pro football. "You must have people speak out and not just speak up, but they have to be active. They have to walk the walk and talk the talk…That's what Powell did."
But Powell's actions during historic social upheaval in America negatively impacted his legacy and overshadowed his standing as one of the elite wide receivers in the game.
He was shunned for marrying a white woman in 1957, although it was the start of a marvelous relationship that lasted 58 years until his death in 2015. And, as early as 1960, he was ridiculed for taking a stand against segregated games in the Jim Crow South.
As Walsh and Flores said, Powell was ahead of his time — before John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised gloved fists at the 1968 Summer Olympics and even before the 1967 Cleveland Summit where several African American sports heroes, including Jim Brown and Bill Russell gathered in support of Muhammad Ali.
Powell himself believed his social stand would hurt his sports legacy, but did what he thought was right. Before passing in 2015, Powell said his only regret was that he may not have made a difference.
"There was a whole social movement going on at the time and it's way bigger than you," he said. "Art Powell didn't create those situations, and if he had never existed, those situations were still going to happen…The challenges that were before me were social challenges. They were personal and they were important. 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."
That 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.