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Looking Back: Billy Vessels
OU's first Heisman Trophy winner was perfect combination of speed, power and guts

Toughness was a common component of basically every Bud Wilkinson-coached Oklahoma football team. During an era when collegiate rosters were brimming with military veterans and older, more mature players, fortitude and perseverance often trumped raw talent.

While Billy Vessels came in on the heels of the World War II transition in 1949, he would have found a place in Oklahoma's lineup no matter who was positioned atop the depth chart.

Vessels wasn't just fast, agile and strong — he was mean, at least when he strapped on his helmet and cleats. When he wasn't running around or through opposing defenses, the 6-foot, 190-pound halfback was dishing out punishment as a hard-hitting cornerback on the Sooners' defensive unit.

“Billy was the ultimate two-way player,” said J.D. Roberts, who blocked for Vessels on offense and played alongside him on the OU defense during the 1951 and 1952 seasons. “He was very fast and Billy was one tough son of a bitch. And I can say without a doubt that he was the best all-around football player I ever played with.”

Vessels may have been rough and tumble out of necessity after spending of portion of his teenage years living on his own in the small town of Cleveland, Okla. His parents moved to Oklahoma City when Vessels was only 16, leaving the youngster to fend partly for himself — with occasional help from a handful local families.

Quite possibly the saving grace for Vessels was the fact he discovered his athletic talents early in life, and used sports as a way to excel in school and learn valuable life lessons. He earned all-state football honors two straight years as both a junior and senior at Cleveland High School, catching the eye of Wilkinson who came to respect Vessels' independent spirit and gritty determination.

And the legendary OU coach was also impressed with Vessels' versatility and immense talents when it came to football.

Rarely one to single out individual players for praise, Wilkinson once told longtime OU sports information director Harold Keith this about Vessels:

“Billy was a remarkable athlete. He was the first player that I had ever been around who was the fastest man on the field and also the toughest. Those two things don't normally go together. Vessels was just unbelievably strong and tough. And totally dedicated and a truly great football player.”

During his three seasons at Oklahoma — including one that was limited to three games due to a knee injury — Vessels was one of the most dominating players in college football.

As a sophomore in 1950, he rushed for 938 yards and 13 touchdowns while helping lead the Sooners to their first-ever national championship. He scored OU's only two TDs in a 14-13 victory over Texas that propelled the Sooners to a perfect 10-0 regular season. It was the lone loss that year for the rival Longhorns.

Later that fall, Vessels again played a huge role in a critical win over Nebraska, rushing for a school-record 208 yards in front of a record Owen Field crowd of 54,000 fans.

Then after suffering a season-ending knee injury at Texas the following fall, Vessels returned for form as a senior when he finished second nationally with 1,072 rushing yards and 18 TDs.

“His senior season, he was just unreal,” Wilkinson told Keith. “He could do everything. He is one of the classic examples of what athletics will do for you.”

During that memorable senior campaign in '52, Vessels’ performance vaulted him into the national spotlight, as he topped the 100-yard mark in seven games, including a 195-yard effort in a heartbreaking 27-21 loss to Notre Dame.

At season's end, Vessels was named the outstanding player in the country by the Associated Press and the United Press International. He also became the first OU player to earn the Maxwell Trophy and ultimately, the Heisman Trophy.

Prior to Vessels bringing the Heisman back to Norman, only three other winners had played at schools located West of the Mississippi River.

“When Billy had the ball, you couldn't tackle him — and when opposing players had the ball, he was like a heat-seeking missile. He would lay you out,” teammate Eddie Crowder once said. “He had the unbelievable physical ability to just do anything that the situation demanded — run with the ball, block, throw, catch, kick, play defense. He could do anything when it came to football.

“And he did it all so unselfishly. He was a true team player and a guy you wanted to have in your locker room every day.”

Due to the fact freshmen were not eligible to play on the varsity during that period, Vessels ultimately played in only 24 games for Wilkinson's Sooners. But he made the most of his touches, producing 2,085 rushing yards and 32 TDs on the ground.

He also threw for 327 yards and five scores and had almost 400 receiving yards and two TDs. He returned kicks and punts, and was a ferocious defender.

The ensuing spring, Vessels was taken in both the NFL draft and Canadian Football League draft, but opted to go north and play for the Edmonton Eskimos. As a rookie, he earned CFL player of the year honors and stayed one more season before serving a short stint in the U.S. Army.

When he was discharged, Vessels returned to football and played one final season with the Baltimore Colts. But he no longer possessed a passion for the game, so he retired in 1957.

“What the Heisman did was to give me opportunities,” said Vessels. “It was up to me to take advantage of them.”

And that he did.

After football, Vessels went into the real estate business and land development in Florida, where he settled with his wife Suzie. The couple eventually had three children — Jane, Chase and Lance.
Vessels served on the South Florida Coordinating Council as well as Florida's Pari-mutual Commission.

Although he lived 1,400 miles away from where he grew up and earned his fame as a football star, Vessels never allowed his heart to stray too far away, especially where the Sooners were concerned.

“Billy was a small-town kid and he never forgot his roots,” said 1969 Heisman winner Steve Owens. “I grew up wanting to be like Billy Vessels, but I never had his speed. He was such a great player and someone I admired and always looked up to. When I won the Heisman, he flew in from Florida and spent two days with me in my hometown of Miami (Okla.).

“He may have been a pretty rough character when he played football, but he was humble and never anything but a gentleman when it came to our relationship and the way he treated people. We became great friends over the years. He represented the University of Oklahoma very well, as well as the Heisman Trophy winners. He was all class.”

Vessels would return to Oklahoma from time to time to take in a game or see old friends. In 1974, he became the four OU player inducted into the National Football Foundation & College Football Hall of Fame, joining Forest Geyer, Claude Reeds and his friend and mentor Bud Wilkinson.

In November 2001, Vessels died of heart failure at age 70.

The following year, the town of Cleveland renamed its high school football stadium after its favorite son, and OU unveiled a statue of Vessels as park of the campus' Heisman Park area in 2008.

Almost 70 years have passed since a lightning-quick kid with curly hair and a chip on his shoulder showed up on OU's doorstep and helped spearhead a football dynasty that is still thriving today.

(Editor's Note: This story appears in the 2017 Heisman/Playoff Issue of Sooner Spectator, on sale in December. To subscribe, call 405-364-4515)