It didn’t take long for Billy Vessels’ teammates to learn he was unique.
The track star from Cleveland, Oklahoma, was as good as any halfback in the old Big 7 Conference as just a sophomore, his former teammate Merrill Green says. The rest of the country remained in the dark on the special talent until Oklahoma football earned its first opportunity to play on national television against Notre Dame on Nov. 8, 1952.
Green, now in his 80s, struggles to recall much of the classic meeting between the Sooners and Fighting Irish. Green played opposite Vessels at halfback, but he knocked himself out of the contest after blindsiding a Notre Dame defender on a Vessels touchdown run. He’s certain, however, it was that game that won Vessels the 1952 Heisman Trophy.
“In 1952, there wasn’t that many televisions, but if you had one, you were watching Oklahoma play Notre Dame, and Vessels was the star,” said Oklahoma football historian Mike Brooks. “That really propelled him.”
Vessels was doing all of this in the infancy of Oklahoma football’s rise to national prominence.
Before Vessels, Oklahoma had neither a national championship nor a Heisman Trophy to its name. The kid from Cleveland helped the Sooners accomplish both, despite only playing two full seasons in Norman.
Vessels lifted Oklahoma to its first national title in 1950, rushing for 870 yards and 13 touchdowns. His junior season was curtailed by a knee injury, but he returned the next year to rush for a career-best 1,072 yards on 167 attempts and scored 17 touchdowns.
The Notre Dame game was the crown jewel of his Heisman-winning season — the season that earned Vessels’ real estate within Norman’s Heisman Park five decades later.
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Even if the term had yet to enter anyone’s vernacular, the showdown between the Sooners and Irish was Vessels’ Heisman moment.
He gashed the Irish defense for 195 yards rushing on 17 carries and three touchdowns. A massive media contingent was present in South Bend to see Oklahoma, with as little history as it had, carve up a Notre Dame team that had already claimed seven national titles and three Heisman winners by the time the two programs met for the first time in 1952.
“Notre Dame had such an aura about them,” Brooks said, “and the Sooners go to South Bend and we go toe-to-toe with Notre Dame.”
Vessels did everything he could to put Oklahoma in front, producing all 21 of his team’s points that day. The first came when quarterback Eddie Crowder found Vessels open for a 28-yard touchdown reception on a play-action pass. On the next score, he took a handoff from OU’s 38-yard line, busted through a hole and left every defender looking at the No. 35 on the back of his crimson jersey as he sprinted toward the end zone.
His final highlight was a 47-yard rushing score. Crowder pitched to Vessels, who avoided one tackle in the backfield, tight-roped the right sideline past two more defenders and cut back across to the center of the field to score.
It was the perfect culmination of a big stage and a great player, who took advantage of the spotlight. The only downside to Vessels’ historic day?
Oklahoma lost 27–21.
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Vessels will always be remembered as the speedy running back who tore up the Fighting Irish, but he was much more to Oklahoma.
Vessels was as tough physically and mentally as they come.
Among his 327 career carries at Oklahoma that totaled 2,084 yards, one play stands out to Green. He best recalled a defensive play from Vessels’ shortened junior season when Oklahoma faced William & Mary.
Green cannot forget the image of Vessels, who played both sides of the ball at Oklahoma, delivering a devastating hit to an opposing player and leaving the other guy hospitalized.
“I can still see (his) helmet when he hit the guy,” Green said.
The intense nature of Vessels’ playing style helped ignite Oklahoma’s ascension into a college football power. Vessels’ intensity and discipline were a result of his upbringing in the coal-mining region of northeast Oklahoma. He experienced a troubled home life, living by himself for parts of his childhood after his parents left him to move away from Cleveland. A bronze statue of Vessels now resides in the town of 3,222 people in front of the Cleveland Event Center on North Gilbert Avenue.
His humble beginnings and difficult relationship with his family did not deter him from paving a path to the University of Oklahoma in 1949. Freshmen weren’t allowed to play on legendary Oklahoma coach Bud Wilkinson’s varsity squad at the time, but he would soon immortalize his name along with the sport’s elite as a gifted football player who transcended his time.
“I suspect from all the guys I played with … he’d probably be the only the one that today I could assure you would play today as well as anybody else,” Green said. “He was a very good-sized guy, as well as a great runner. One of the toughest guys physically and mentally that you’d ever be around.”
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All of what made Vessels an outstanding player was hard to come by in one halfback. Toughness. Quickness. He was purely unmatched.
That well-roundedness was adored by Wilkinson, who guided Oklahoma to its first three national championships.
“Wilkinson just loved Billy Vessels,” Brooks said. “Wilkinson stated many times (that) Billy Vessels was the only player that he ever had that was the fastest player on the team and also the toughest player on his team.”
His intense approach to football led him to an illustrious collegiate career that ended with a trip to New York. It was there the senior halfback from Oklahoma carried a wide grin as he shook hands with the president of the Downtown Athletic Club and accepted his Heisman Trophy.
For those who followed the sport at the time, it was no surprise to see the dominant back take home the coveted award.
Former Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer was still in high school when Vessels was tearing up defenses. He knew of the talented Vessels from flipping between Oklahoma and Tennessee football games on his car’s battery radio every Saturday in Crossett, Arkansas.
He continued to see Vessels pop up at his local movie theatre when he’d go to a double feature to catch a Western. Switzer remembers seeing the Oklahoma halfback rip off runs against Nebraska on Movietone News — a now-defunct newsreel that ran in theaters for decades until the early ‘60s — on the black-and-white movie screen.
Switzer was still a little under two decades away from coaching a pair of Heisman Trophy winners himself. But he fondly remembers the stud halfback Vessels, who died at the age of 70 in 2001.
Vessels was a good man and a great football player, from what Switzer recalls. He was drafted with the No. 2 overall pick in the NFL Draft in 1953, but opted to go for the big money at the time and play a season in the Canadian Football League before eventually taking a crack at the NFL.
He also served his country in the U.S. Army, along with Green. The former Oklahoma teammates became close during the time at Fort Sill. It was there Green came to better understand Vessels and the mentality that helped him shape an unforgettable legacy.
“He was a very amicable, very easy to get along with, very easy to know, very much a part of the team, very encouraging,” Green said. “But he was tough. He was very tough. On the field as well as off. He had a lot of strong discipline about him, and a very determined football player.
“He was very unique. He was cut a little different from the rest of them.”