Born on March 22, 1931, in Cleveland, Oklahoma, the state's first Heisman Trophy winner was drawn to football at an early age. With little stability in his home life, Billy "Curly" Vessels found his niche on the football field. When his parents and older brother moved to Oklahoma City, Vessels, at age fourteen, refused to go. He stayed with various families in Cleveland, doing odd jobs to earn spending money. The townspeople paid his bills. He claims to have been raised by the town.
Robert H. Breeden, then publisher of the Cleveland American newspaper and later a state senator, took the young man under his wing and began taking him to University of Oklahoma football games. After meeting Coach Bud Wilkinson, Vessels decided to attend the university.
He broke into the Sooners's starting backfield as a sophomore in 1950. His most memorable performance of that year came in the Oklahoma-University of Texas game when, with 4:45 remaining, he made a touchdown run to give Oklahoma a 14-13 victory over the Longhorns. In 1951 Vessels, along with Eddie Crowder, Buck McPhail, and Frank Silva, formed the starting backfield. Unfortunately, Vessels injured his knee during the 14-7 loss to Texas A&M University, and he missed the final five games of the season.
Vessels spent the summer of 1952 running barefoot in the sand along the Arkansas River near Cleveland to rebuild his knee and recapture his spot in the Oklahoma backfield. The Sooners were 5-0-1 before traveling to South Bend, Indiana, to play the University of Notre Dame. In the first football game ever to be televised nationally, Oklahoma lost 27-21. Vessels's performance, which included running forty-four yards for one touchdown and sixty-two yards for another and catching a twenty-seven-yard pass for a third, won him the 1952 Heisman Trophy. His All-American running-back statistics for 1952 were 1,072 rushing yards, 209 passing yards, and eighteen touchdowns.
After his collegiate career ended, Vessels played professional football for a year with the Canadian Football League's Edmonton Eskimos, where he won the Schenley Award as the top professional Canadian football player. After a one-year stint as an officer in the U.S. Army, he returned to professional football with the Baltimore Colts of the National Football League. He played with the Colts one year and left professional sports because he remembered Coach Bud Wilkinson's advice, "When it ceases to be fun, don't play."
Vessels then entered the real estate business in Coral Gables, Florida, where he resided with his wife, Suzanne, and three children, Jane, Chase and Lance. He served on the South Florida Coordinating Council, which represented Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties, and spent many years on Florida's Pari-Mutual Commission, which regulates horse and dog racing and jai alai. In 1974 Vessels was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame. Billy Vessels died November 17, 2001, in Coral Gables.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: J. Brent Clark, Sooner Century: 100 Glorious Years of Oklahoma Football, 1895-1995 (Coal Valley, Ill.: Quality Sports Publications, 1995). Bill Libby, Heroes of the Heisman Trophy (New York: Hawthorn Books, Inc., 1973). John D. McCallum, Big Eight Football (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1979).
Clyda R. Franks
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