Chargers great Keith Lincoln dies at 80

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Keith Lincoln, a Chargers running back who in the 1963 American Football League Championship Game put on one of the greatest postseason performances in pro football history, has died at the age of 80.

Drafted in 1961 by both the Bears in the NFL and Chargers in the AFL, Lincoln decided to stay close to his Southern California home and go to the Chargers, and he quickly developed into one of the AFL’s best all-around players.

In 1963 he was chosen an All-Pro and led the Chargers to the AFL Championship Game, where they played the Boston Patriots. Although the Patriots had the AFL’s top defense that year, they had no answer for Lincoln, who had 13 carries for 206 yards and seven catches for 123 yards in a 51-10 victory. His 329 yards from scrimmage are still the most in any postseason game in professional football history.

It was just an amazing performance; I still remember it,” Chargers Hall of Fame tackle Ron Mix told the San Diego Union-Tribune on Saturday. “It wasn’t just that championship game. The truth was, his career was a highlight film.”

The next year the Chargers again made the AFL Championship Game, and Lincoln again appeared poised for a big day, gaining 58 yards from scrimmage and kicking an extra point after the Chargers scored a touchdown on their opening drive to take a 7-0 lead. But on the Chargers’ second possession, Bills linebacker Mike Stratton leveled Lincoln with a tackle so hard it became known as “The hit heard ’round the world.” That hit broke Lincoln’s ribs, knocking him out of the game, and the Chargers lost 20-7.

Although Lincoln’s career was never the same after that, and some observers felt he never fully recovered from the injury, Lincoln was always a good sport about it, even attending a Bills event to honor Stratton in 2011 and autographing pictures of the hit to raise money for the Wounded Warrior Project.

Lincoln’s highlights included a 91-yard reception in 1961, the AFL’s longest reception that year, an 86-yard run and a 76-yard run in 1962 and 1963, the AFL’s longest runs in each of those years, and a 103-yard kickoff return in 1962, the AFL’s longest return that year.

Born in Michigan, Lincoln went to high school in Southern California and then attended Washington State, where he started out as a quarterback but then became a runner, receiver, kick returner, defensive back, kicker and punter. He surprised people at his high school by passing up a scholarship offer at UCLA to go to Washington State, something he recalled in 2018 as “the greatest choice I’ve ever made” in large part because he met his wife, Bonnie Jo, there. Last year Bonnie Jo told that Keith impressed her with his “snazzy, 1955 Chevy convertible” and his confidence in pulling up to a stop sign and asking for her phone number as she passed by on the sidewalk.

After retiring as a player, Lincoln worked as an assistant coach at Washington State, and then became the school’s director of alumni relations, a job he held for 25 years.

In 1995, Lincoln reflected on his playing career, which also included two AFL All-Star Game MVP awards, and said he was proud that he stepped up in the biggest moments.

“I always seemed to have my best games in the playoffs or all-star games,” he said. “There’s nothing more fun than playing in the big game.”

9 responses to “Chargers great Keith Lincoln dies at 80

  1. Lincoln and Lowe as the running backs, Tobin Rote as the QB, with John Hadl ready to step in. I was really young in that era, but I do remember that the AFL was SO much more fun to watch than the stodgy old NFL. That same year, 1963, the Bears played the Giants for the NFL title in a game that was a “defensive battle” snoozefest.

  2. “But on the Chargers’ second possession, Bills linebacker Mike Stratton leveled Lincoln with a tackle so hard it became known as “The hit heard ’round the world.” That hit broke Lincoln’s ribs, knocking him out of the game”

    Which now adays would have drawn a 50k+ fine on Stratton and quite possibly flag and ejection

  3. My earliest Pro Football memories on B&W TV: Keith Lincoln’s performance against our Patriots, and Y.A.Tittle bloodied in Chicago, and Richie Pettibon’s game-sealing INT in the endzone.

  4. harrisonhits2. I was at this game on my 14th birthday Jan 5th. My parents bought me a ticket. It was a blowout with both Keith Lincoln and Paul Lowe ran wild. Keith Lincoln was not out of the game since he even scored in the 4th quarter. Final was 51-10. 318 yards rushing and 308 passing for The Chargers. It was a game I will never forget. Might be one of the greatest championship games for one player. Lincoln 206 rushing and 123 receiving. My mother was a model and danced with Keith one time around 60 years ago. Probably went to 100 games over the years.

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