Last week, I made the argument that Hall of Fame safety Ken Houston was the greatest safety in Redskins history, edging out the late Sean Taylor. Jim Gehman thought my argument could use a bit more anecdotal support, and sent me a few excerpts from his book Then Gibbs Said To Riggins: The Best Washington Redskins Stories Ever Told that he felt might work. I also dug up some rarely-seen old Ken Houston images to accompany the text, because why not.
(For those who have posted suggesting Todd Bowles and Alvin Walton be added to the list … I hear you. Bowles was one of my favorite Redskins as a kid, and Walton was an amazingly hard hitter. Take it up with Fatpickled, who wrote the original poll. No matter what, though, neither of those guys approaches Houston’s accomplisments.)
The rest of this text is from Gehman’s book, which you can buy here.
Five for One
Ken Houston always seemed to be linked to big numbers. During six seasons with the Houston Oilers, the strong safety collected 25 interceptions, nine of which he returned for touchdowns. An NFL record four of those trips to the end zone occurred during the 1971 season when he led the AFC with nine interceptions.
Just two seasons later, the Redskins made a big trade by sending five players – Mack Alston, Mike Fanucci, Clifton McNeil, Jeff Severson, and Jim Snowden – to Houston for Houston. “I don’t think any player is really ready to get traded. Houston was home. I’m from east Texas,” said Houston. “I admired the Redskins. If I would have had to pick a team to be traded to it would have been Washington, [but] I was a little nervous.
“I just didn’t think and still don’t think that I was worth that many players. And the guys in the National Football League, I don’t think they had too much respect for guys in the [old] American Football League. They expected, I think, some kind of a superman, which they didn’t get.”
What they did get was a star safety who had an obvious nose for the ball and was also a hard-hitting tackler. But even with those talents and the success he enjoyed with the Oilers, Houston still had to prove he belonged on the field once he got to Washington.
“What I learned to respect about the Redskins and [head coach] George Allen was that even though he had traded for me, he didn’t just put me on the squad,” Houston said. “I had to earn my way to the starting unit. That was a little bit difficult because I’m thinking, ‘Wait a minute. He traded for me and I’m a starter and now I’m going to be a second-team player?’ They had Roosevelt Taylor and Brig Owens at safeties [during training camp] until Taylor broke his arm. Then they moved Brig to the free [safety] and left me at the strong [safety].”
Houston began paying dividends during his first game with the Redskins, when he intercepted San Diego quarterback Johnny Unitas twice in the season-opening 38-0 victory.
Only One Thing Missing
With the Redskins for eight seasons after he was acquired from the Houston Oilers in 1973, Ken Houston finished the first seven campaigns with trips to the Pro Bowl.
And while he was considered by many NFL followers as the premier strong safety in the game at that time, Houston did not feel that he was a natural. But instead, he felt that he evolved into becoming a star at the position. “In college [at Prairie View A&M], I was an offensive center and a middle linebacker, so I had the ability to hit and I was used to playing inside with the linemen. So I didn’t have any fear of having to go up against those guys,” said Houston. “But because of my quickness, I adapted well to having to play against a tight end even though it was a position I had to learn the rest of my career because I only started playing the strong safety position in my rookie year of pro ball [1967 with Houston].
“I think [being successful as a strong safety] was a combination of the size that I had and the quickness along with the ability to play inside.”
Houston did not have many opportunities to play in the postseason for Washington. With only three playoff appearances – in 1973 against Minnesota, in 1974 against the Los Angeles Rams, and in 1976 versus the Vikings again – each time the Redskins were one and done. Disappointed that he never played in a Super Bowl? “I didn’t think about it that much at the time because you always think that you’re going to play in one,” Houston said. “I would have loved to have gone to a Super Bowl. I think that’s probably the one thing in my career that’s missing, not having a Super Bowl ring. I’m not jealous, but I see guys with those big rings, and I wish that I had earned one.”
What Houston did earn was a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. A 14-year veteran, he finished his career with 49 interceptions, 24 collected as a Redskin, and was enshrined in 1986. “It was a very fast weekend. You have to go back the next year to enjoy what happened. I think the thing about the Hall of Fame is the older you get, the more you realize how important it is in your life,” said Houston.
“I made it on the first ballot and I was thinking this is the way it always is. But you see guys that have been out [of the league] for 20 to 25 years and barely getting in. You realize how lucky you are with all of the players who are out there. A lot of guys meet the requirements of being in the Hall of Fame, but they only pick so many. Every year you’ve got a new crop coming out, so it scares you to death once you look back at it. It’s not important in the scheme of life, but in terms of football, it’s the most significant award you can get.”
Thanks again to Jim Gehman for the text; go ahead and get your copy of Then Gibbs Said To Riggins: The Best Washington Redskins Stories Ever Told here.
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