(This article has been updated)
Mike Stratton, two notches above incidental as a Tennessee football Volunteer but an all-time great with the Buffalo Bills, died this morning of heart complications. He was 78.
Stratton had been in failing health. He fell a few weeks ago, suffered a fractured hip and had been working at rehabilitation. He encountered a setback, had trouble breathing and died at UT Hospital.
“Mike Stratton was as good a man as God ever put on this earth,” said ex-Vol and longtime friend Jack Kile. “He was very strong and very quiet. He didn’t say much but whatever he said, you could take to the bank.”
Stratton was a Tennessee end in 1961. He was drafted in the 13th round by the Bills. He played 156 games in the pros.
Stratton is survived by his wife, Jane, and four children: Michelle Kenley from Columbia, Tennessee; Melissa Stratton, Knoxville; Michael Stratton, Maryville; and Melanie Patterson, Jacksonville, Florida. A memorial service will be scheduled later. Obituary info here.
The Stratton story goes back to Tellico Plains, 1957, big blond senior, 6-3 and 205, established in basketball and finally a starter in football. He almost had to be. He was the biggest and fastest on a squad of 18.
Mike laughed when asked about being recruited for college.
“If a college recruiter ever came to Tellico Plains, nobody saw him.”
He didn’t recall receiving even a football questionnaire from UT.
“I did get a basketball letter from Kentucky. I answered all the questions and sent it back. I never heard any more.”
Tellico coach Bill Spurling solved the problem. On the day before signing day, the coach and player showed up uninvited at the UT athletics department. Spurling told a secretary they had come for a scholarship and wouldn’t be leaving until they got one.
That was a new approach. The secretary took the message to the coaches. There was a long delay. Eventually, Ken Donahue came out.
“Coach Spurling repeated his words, the key one being scholarship,” recalled Stratton.
Donahue went away without saying a word. George Cafego came out with scholarship papers in hand.
Stratton was a sophomore end on Bowden Wyatt’s 1959 team. He didn’t play much.
“I think I was the only player on the bench who didn’t get in the Chattanooga game. I was really upset.”
Stratton’s junior season was better. He was second team. He caught a pass for six yards and a touchdown against Tampa.
Stratton was a senior starter. He had always wanted to be the next Buddy Cruze and he got Cruze’s number 86 but he was not the second coming of Buddy. Mike had nine receptions, 142 yards, touchdowns against Georgia Tech, Kentucky and Vanderbilt.
“I learned to be friends with tailbacks. We didn’t throw many passes but when we did, it was the tailback doing the throwing.”
The Buffalo Bills saw greater potential. They invested $11,000.
Stratton never forgot the phone call. Coach Lou Saban said the Bills had drafted him. He invited Mike to meet him at the Knoxville airport to sign. Mike borrowed a teammate’s car.
“Coach Saban was pleasant but businesslike. He offered me $9,000 for the 1962 season and $1,000 bonus if I would sign right then.
“Glenn Glass had given me some tips about negotiations. I decided to try one. I told the coach that if he would raise the offer to $10,000 and give me the other $1,000 as a cash advance, I said I would sign. Without a moment’s hesitation, Coach Saban said OK.”
Stratton wondered if he had sold himself short.
The Bills turned Stratton into a linebacker. He played 11 seasons. He made the Pro Bowl six times. He is on the Buffalo wall of fame. He was elected to the Bills’ 50-year team. He had one of the great hits in pro football history.
He is a legend in western New York. Everybody remembers the hit.
In the 1964 AFL championship game against San Diego, the great Keith Lincoln was about to catch a pass. Mike and the ball arrived in about the same instant. Lincoln did not get up. He had a rib problem.
The “Hit heard around the world” took on a life of its own. Fans were convinced that it decided the championship game. Some said it became the cornerstone of Buffalo’s development as a franchise.
“I never wanted to be known as a one-hit wonder,” said Stratton. “But when people asked about that tackle, I always smiled.”
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