Former Chiefs great Sherrill Headrick dies at 71

Linebacker Sherrill Headrick was an AFL original.

Teammates called him “Psycho” because of his fearless style of play and reckless style off the field. And his ability to play through pain was legendary.

But Headrick, one of the most colorful characters during the formative years of the Chiefs franchise, died Wednesday after a long battle with cancer. He was 71.

Headrick, inducted into the Chiefs Hall of Fame in 1993, was a five-time AFL All-Star and the franchise’s starting middle linebacker in the 1962 and 1966 AFL championship games and the first Super Bowl.

“He was a fantastic football player,” said former Chiefs tight end Fred Arbanas. “Sherrill was so quick, most of the offensive linemen couldn’t get to him.”

Headrick was a fixture in the middle of the defense during an era in which middle linebackers dominated games.

Green Bay had Ray Nitschke. The New York Giants had Sam Huff. The Boston Patriots had Nick Buoniconti. The Dallas Texans and later the Chiefs had Sherrill Headrick.

“He was such a wild man, people didn’t realize he was such a student of the game,” Arbanas said. “Teams would come out in different formations, and Sherrill knew exactly where the ball was going to go.”

Not only was Headrick tough against the run, but he also had 14 career interceptions, returning three for touchdowns. He blocked a 42-yard field-goal attempt by Houston’s George Blanda late in the fourth quarter of the 1962 AFL title game, an epic won by the Dallas Texans 20-17 in two overtimes

The most remarkable aspect of Headrick’s career was his ability to play despite debilitating injuries. Headrick, 6 feet 2, played at slightly more than 200 pounds during his career, and some of that weight was over his belt. Still, he played in the franchise’s first 110 games before missing three games late in 1967, his final season in Kansas City.

Until then, a fractured thumb, sprained back, two hemorrhoid operations and even a cracked vertebra failed to keep him out of the lineup.

Headrick’s most frightening injury occurred in 1960, when he collided with a receiver during pre-game pregame warm-ups at Houston. Though his neck hurt, Headrick played the game, and two days later he learned he had cracked a vertebra. But he played the next week at Denver.

“That’s why they called him Psycho,” quarterback Len Dawson said. “Who would play with a broken neck?”

Headrick had a simple explanation for playing through the pain.

“Back then, we had only 33 players on the roster,” Headrick said at the time of his induction into the Chiefs Hall of Fame. “If you got hurt, someone would take your job. I had a lot of injuries, but fortunately not any I couldn’t play with.”

The injuries took their toll, and during the last 10 years of his life, arthritis made it difficult for Headrick to walk. He attended the last few Chiefs Alumni Weekends in a wheelchair.

“I’ve been a cripple for years,” Headrick said at his Chiefs Hall of Fame induction. “People ask, would you do it again? I would have liked to have made more money, but it was the most enjoyable thing in the whole world to me. Playing with all the guys, playing in the first Super Bowl, most people don’t accomplish nearly as much in sports.”

Headrick nearly didn’t survive the Texans’ first training camp in Roswell, N.M. He had a slight back injury and did not practice for several weeks. Headrick probably would have been released after the final exhibition, but starting middle linebacker Ted Greene was held out of that game because of an injury, and Houston kept gaining big yardage with a trap play.

“Hunter Enis, who also was my quarterback at TCU, was on the phones and kept telling the coaches to put Sherrill in,” Headrick recalled. “He knew I could stop it. They put me in, I stopped it, and if it wasn’t for Ted Greene being hurt ”

He remained in the lineup until 1967, when the Chiefs drafted Willie Lanier and Jim Lynch and let Headrick go to Cincinnati in the 1968 expansion draft.

“The new linebackers got bigger, stronger and faster,” Headrick said. “I never did.”

Headrick performed well in Cincinnati before suffering a slipped disk during a tackling drill. He retired after the 1968 season.

Headrick played college football at TCU but left after his junior season and spent 1959 in Canada. While working in the west Texas and New Mexico oil fields during the off-season, he became one of the first players to sign with Lamar Hunt’s team in 1960, though he wasn’t sure whether he had joined the Texans of the upstart AFL or the expansion Cowboys of the NFL.

Both teams were recruiting players with Texas backgrounds, and Headrick received a contract from “Dallas” that offered a $500 signing bonus. Headrick, thinking the offer was from the Texans, called minority investor Don Looney and told him he wanted $1,000.

“They told me, ‘We haven’t sent out the contracts yet,’ ” Headrick recalled. “Then they sent one with a $1,000 bonus, so I was one of the first players to sign with them.”

One of his off-the-field passions was playing bridge, and Headrick became a master bridge player, competing in tournaments and giving bridge lessons.