Jerry Sullivan reflects on passing of Bills Wall of Famer Mike Stratton

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FILE – In this Oct. 29, 2018, file photo, New Era Field is prepared before an NFL football game between the Buffalo Bills and the New England Patriots. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes, File)

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (WIVB) — Mike Stratton was one of the best defenders ever to play for the Buffalo Bills, a six-time AFL all-star and three-time all-Pro who played 11 years at linebacker in Buffalo. 

But Stratton, who died on Wednesday at age 78 of heart complications after a recent fall, was best known for a single play, a tackle so resounding and significant that it has been known as the “Hit Heard ‘Round the World’ for more than half a century.

The Bills were trailing the Chargers, 7-0, early in the 1964 AFL title game at War Memorial Stadium when Stratton crushed Lincoln the instant he received a short pass, driving his shoulder into the San Diego star and knocking him out of the game with cracked ribs. 

Without Lincoln, the Chargers were unable to mount any semblance of offense the rest of the day and the Bills prevailed, 20-7, for the first of their two consecutive victories over San Diego in the AFL championship. 

I interviewed Lincoln for a column in January of 1992 — a few days before the Bills would beat the Broncos in the AFC title game — a game that would be remembered for another singular play by a linebacker, Carlton Bailey. 

Stratton was sharp and emotional that day when he spoke by home from Nashville in his native Tennessee. He had vivid memories of playing in the old Rockpile for the Bills in their early glory days. 

“I have a picture of looking in the stands,” he told me said, “and everyone being wrapped up four bundles deep. I see everyone’s breath in the crowd, and snow piled up all around the field. And no artificial turf. Yes, I can see a lot of things.”

He could still see the big play unfolding in front of him that day after Christmas in 1964. 

“Keith Lincoln was a very slashing type of runner. They ran him on several plays between the tackles early that day and he gained some good yardage. I remember thinking whether we had a way to stop him.”

Lincoln had gained 43 yards on his first three carries that December afternoon. Stratton remembers the Chargers sending their running backs out on many short pass patterns in concert with the wideouts. If the linebacker came up toward the line, Tobin Rote threw to the wide receiver. If he dropped back, Rote dumped off to a running back, most often Lincoln.

“I remember being very concerned about which one to cover,” Stratton said. “I didn’t want to be caught in the middle . . . so I stayed in a state of constant turmoil.”

It was on the Chargers’ second possession when Stratton dropped back to pick up a wideout and realized the play would be going to Lincoln in the short zone.

“A light goes off in my head,” he said that day in ‘92. “I said, ‘If you’re back here, they’re going to dump it to him.’ I started racing back toward the line as fast as I could go, and fortunately, I arrived at the same time as the ball did.”

Lincoln wasn’t as fortunate. The hit left him in a heap on the field at War Memorial, with the Buffalo crowd roaring. San Diego’s star back was done for the day. So was his team.

“We didn’t know how long he’d be out,” Stratton said, “but when he did leave, we thought, ‘Maybe they won’t run that play as successfully anymore.’ “

I called that play an “essential piece of local football legend,” something Bills fans pass on to future generations. His passing, no doubt, will offer older fans a chance to tell younger Buffalo football watchers about the biggest hit in team history. 

No Bill has ever been remembered so much for a single winning play. People were still asking Stratton about the Lincoln play a half-century after it happened. It didn’t matter if they were unaware of what a fine linebacker he had been for 11 years in Buffalo.

“A lot of people remember,” he said. “I don’t ever get tired of hearing about it. At times, you would certainly like to be remembered for more than one thing. But if they remember you for only one thing, at least you’re happy to be remembered.”

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