Oklahoma Sooner Legend: Billy Vessels

Tim BondCorrespondent IMay 31, 2009

Billy “Curly” Vessels was born on Mar. 22, 1931 in Cleveland, OK.

At an early age, Billy found his niche in football, due to a very unstable family life. When he was just 14 years old, his parents and older brother decided to move from Cleveland to Oklahoma City, Billy refused to move with his family.


After his family moved, Billy bounced from friends house to friends house until Robert H. Breeden, then publisher of the Cleveland Newspaper and later Oklahoma State Senator, took him under his wing. That is when Billy Vessels started to see the Oklahoma Sooners in action and decided that is where he was going after he graduated high school.


Billy attended the University of Oklahoma from 1949-1952. However, he did not break into the starting backfield until his Sophomore season at OU.


In 1950, Billy Vessels helped lead the Sooners to their first ever national championship. He rushed for 938 yards on 152 carries and 13 touchdowns. He averaged 6.2 yards per carry.


In 1951, Billy Vessels injured his knee in the second game against Texas A&M. He would miss the rest of the season and his future was grim at that point.


In 1952, Billy worked hard to return to the starting lineup for the Sooners. That summer, back home in Cleveland, OK, he would run barefoot on the sand banks of the Arkansas River to rebuild his knee. The hard work paid off too.


That season, Billy Vessels rushed for 1,072 yards, 17 touchdowns, on 167 carries. He averaged 6.4 yards per carry.


However, he did more than just that. The 5-0-2 Oklahoma Sooners traveled to South Bend, IN to play Notre Dame. In the first ever nationally televised game, Vessels rushed for two touchdowns and caught a third against the Fighting Irish. His rushing touchdowns went for 44 yards and 62 yards, respectively. His touchdown reception was for 27 yards.


Though Oklahoma lost the game 27-21, Billy's performance launched him into greatness forever. Later that season he would be named the winner of the Heisman Trophy, an award honoring the Most Outstanding College Football Player of that season.


Life after Oklahoma was filled with just as much excitement. 


In 1953, he was drafted No. 2 overall in the NFL by the Baltimore Colts, but he did not join the Colts after they drafted him. He decided instead to join the Edmonton Eskimos of the Canadian Football League. Where he played only one season, winning the Schenley Award for the best CFL player.


It was not until after a one year stint as an Army Officer, when Billy Vessels would return to football. This time to play for the Baltimore Colts.


Like his CFL career, he ended his NFL, and football, career after just one season. The reason was because of what he remembered coach Bud Wilkinson taught them, “When it ceases to be fun, don't play.”


Billy Vessels then moved to Coral Gables, FL where he took up real estate.


While living in Coral Gables, Billy began serving on the South Florida Coordinating Council, which represented Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach Counties. He also spent many years on Florida's Pari-Mutual Commission, which regulated horse and dog racing, and Jai Alai betting and wagering.


In 1974, Billy Vessels was elected into the College Football Hall of Fame.

On Nov. 17, 2001 Billy Vessels died in Coral Gables, Florida at the age of 70 years old.


In September 2003, Cleveland, OK High School renamed their football stadium, “Billy Vessels Memorial Stadium” in honor of this great Sooner Legend.


On Sept. 9, 2005, the University of Oklahoma dedicated a heroic sized statue of Billy Vessels on the east side of Oklahoma Memorial Stadium.  The statue was the first of four current statues honoring the Oklahoma Players that have won the Heisman Trophy. The park is appropriately named, "Heisman Park."


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