In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the San Diego Chargers had one of the most exciting teams in the NFL.
Head coach Don Coryell’s “Air Coryell” offense made stars out of Dan Fouts, Chuck Muncie, John Jefferson, Charlie Joiner, Wes Chandler, and Kellen Winslow.
Winslow himself was a freak of nature.
Built more like a receiver, Winslow’s 6’5”, 250-pound frame and tremendous speed allowed him to outrun and outleap defenders.
During his nine-year career, Winslow twice led the NFL in receptions and helped take San Diego to the brink of a Super Bowl in 1980 and 1981.
At 6-foot-5 and 250-pounds, few tight ends in the 1980s were more of a force than the @chargers Kellen Winslow, a member of the NFL's 100th Anniversary All-Time Team. #GoldJacketSpotlight pic.twitter.com/vYeXLx2JWQ
— Pro Football Hall of Fame (@ProFootballHOF) February 8, 2023
His 1980 season was one for the record books as Winslow set new standards for the tight end position.
Since retiring, NFL teams have been consistently searching for the “next Kellen Winslow.”
This is his story.
Chess Aficionado Becomes a Football Player
Kellen Boswell Winslow Sr. was born on November 5, 1957, in East St. Louis, Illinois.
— Pro Football Hall of Fame (@ProFootballHOF) November 5, 2013
Although he had the size to be a great athlete, Winslow didn’t have much use for sports when he was growing up.
By the time he reached East St. Louis High School, Winslow was absorbed in a different game, namely chess, which he played every moment he could.
Winslow and his friends loved the competition so much that they had shirts printed that read “Chess Nuts.”
Hope they don’t let tutors do their class work. … Did you know Mizzou great Kellen Winslow played chess instead of football until his senior year in high school? https://t.co/2J8gb7jK9C
— Richard Parrish (@4RichardParrish) February 13, 2019
Meanwhile, East St. Louis’ coach and PE teacher, Cornelius Perry, begged Winslow to try out for football.
“You belong on a football field whether you know it or not,” Perry once told Winslow.
The tall, lanky teenager would only laugh and return to the chess board.
When he wasn’t at school, Winslow had a good part-time job at UPS that he believed would someday turn into a career.
Finally, after years of begging and speaking to Winslow’s parents, Coach Perry finally coaxed Kellen into joining the football team.
“I didn’t play high school football until my senior year,” Winslow recalled. “Up till then, I was kind of a nerd. I was in the chess club and had an after-school job with UPS.”
“I was gonna have him one way or the other, even if I had to hit him across the head,” Perry said.
Winslow is Recruited
During his one and only year on the prep gridiron, the learning curve was steep, but the 6’3” Winslow eventually used his first love, chess, to “see” movement on the football field.
“Once I finally got out on the practice field, I didn’t know what I was doing—I was pretty green,” said Winslow. “But my chess knowledge actually helped me figure things out.”
After getting the hang of the sport, Winslow did well enough that he attracted the attention of several local colleges.
The University of Missouri and head coach Al Onofrio expressed interest and Winslow accepted a scholarship offer to play for the Tigers.
Years later, Winslow was asked what he would have done with his life had he not gone out for football.
“I’d be a supervisor at UPS,” Winslow said. “I was already a supervisor at 16. I would have gone on to community college.”
Slow Start as a Tiger
As a freshman in 1975, Winslow was still figuring out his chess moves on the field and only had one reception for 12 yards.
During his sophomore year in 1976, Winslow was becoming more aware of his role on the team and caught 16 passes for 240 yards and a touchdown.
His stats may not have been anything special, but Winslow proved to be a mismatch in upsets against some big-name programs.
In the first week of the season, Missou beat eighth-ranked USC in Los Angeles by three touchdowns.
83 Days Until Missouri Football Kickoff
Kellen Winslow – TE – East St. Louis, IL – 1976-1978 pic.twitter.com/s87pdEWKO2
— Nate Edwards (@NateGEdwards) June 8, 2014
Two weeks later, the team slipped past second-ranked Ohio State followed by a ten-point victory over number three Nebraska.
In 1977, the Tigers won only four games but Winslow was consistent, netting 25 receptions for 358 yards and three scores.
After the season, he was named to the All-Big Eight Conference team.
While he was becoming a reliable playmaker on the field, off the field Winslow was a favorite of fellow students and professors alike.
Even as his name became known throughout campus, Winslow remained grounded and he looked out for the best interest of his classmates.
“What was important is the influence he had on so many of the other students, not just football players,” Missouri English professor Walter Daniel said. “He was able to have a kind of peer relationship with everyone. He majored in counseling, and he used that to help other athletes who were floundering.”
As a senior in 1978, Winslow learned the offense of new head coach Warren Powers and the Tigers surprised more top-ranked teams.
The first week of the season saw the Tigers traveling to South Bend, Indiana to play number five Notre Dame.
Missouri escaped with a 3-0 win.
During the final game of the season against second-ranked Nebraska, Winslow had 132 receiving yards and a touchdown to upset the Cornhuskers, 35-31.
Then, the 8-4 Tigers faced LSU in the Liberty Bowl and came away with a 20-15 victory.
By then, Winslow had become a game-changing tight end.
NFL scouts flocked to his games and saw the now 6’5”, 250-pound Winslow blow by defensive backs and juke linebackers.
83 Days until Missouri Football Kickoff
Kellen Winslow – TE – 1976-1978 – East St. Louis, IL pic.twitter.com/aXFltPCV7A
— Nate Edwards (@NateGEdwards) June 11, 2017
He caught 29 passes for 479 yards and six touchdowns that year while becoming a consensus All-American and a member of the All-Big Eight Conference team.
Winslow was invited to play in the East-West Shrine game and the Senior Bowl and found that his name was rising fast on many NFL team draft boards.
First Round Pick
When San Diego Chargers head coach Tommy Prothro resigned after the first four games of the 1978 season, the team hired former St. Louis Cardinals head coach Don Coryell to take over.
Coryell led the Chargers to an 8-4 record (9-7 overall) and renewed optimism among the residents of San Diego.
Before the 1979 NFL Draft, Winslow believed he was going to become a new member of the Cincinnati Bengals who had the third overall selection.
However, the Bengals fooled everyone and picked Washington State quarterback Jack Thompson.
”That threw everything out of whack,” Winslow said. ”I had assumed I was going to Cincinnati, but when they took the Throwin’ Samoan, I didn’t know what to think. And then I kept being passed over.”
Winslow continued to drop in the first round until Coryell and his staff helped orchestrate a trade with the Cleveland Browns.
Kellen Winslow TE
First Round Pick Missouri 🐯
Consensus All American
CFB and NFL Hall of Fame pic.twitter.com/KbrXJdnWJF
— CFB Home (@CFBHome) July 10, 2022
Now that they had the 13th pick, San Diego grabbed Winslow to play alongside veterans John Jefferson and Charlie Joiner.
”It isn’t often,” Gene Klein, the Chargers’ owner, said at the time, ”that you get the best player in the draft without your team having the worst record.”
“We could have had two of the greatest tight ends in the history of the NFL,” Rutigliano said.
Winslow played in seven games during his rookie year, although the Chargers didn’t know quite how to use him.
Coryell used his tight ends to primarily bring plays to the huddle and Winslow usually lined up next to the tackle and blocked.
Winslow was also used for short to medium pass plays and he caught 25 passes for 255 yards and two scores.
76. Kellen Winslow, tight end – Chargers (1979-1987.) Missouri. pic.twitter.com/SZWOfdIcdE
— Hansen Hillmer (@HansenThrillmer) June 12, 2015
Then, just as he was getting into a rhythm, Winslow injured his leg and was lost for the year.
When San Diego’s 12-4 season ended with a playoff loss to the Houston Oilers, Coryell and his staff returned to the drawing board.
Coryell was used to sleek receivers, but Winslow was something different.
He was athletic, tall, and had freakish talent.
One coach offered to turn Winslow into an All-Pro tackle but was overruled.
1.- In 1980, the San Diego Chargers became the first team in NFL history to have three 1000-yard receivers in a single season (John Jefferson, Charlie Joiner and Kellen Winslow). Joe Gibbs was the offensive coordinator. #HTTR #CoachGibbs pic.twitter.com/BiwG5wl3CA
— David Menassé (@Frekiwolf) November 24, 2017
Joe Gibbs, San Diego’s offensive coordinator, noted that Winslow was being misused as a blocker who had difficulty clearing linebackers.
“He had a tough time getting off clean, and we felt we had to do something,” recalled Gibbs. “So Ernie, Don, our O-line coach, Jim Hanifan, and I said to ourselves, ‘Maybe the thing to do is take him off that line of scrimmage and start moving him all over the place.'”
The coaches were about to find out just how well their plan would work.
Winslow Leads the NFL and Breaks Records
The Chargers were a good team in 1979 even with Winslow missing most of the year with an injury.
In 1980, the team was even better with Winslow in the lineup.
Quarterback Dan Fouts had John Jefferson and Charlie Joiner to pass to and sprinkled in some runs with Chuck Muncie, who came over from New Orleans during the year.
The wildcard for Coryell and the offense was Winslow, who was used much differently than he was in 1979.
As writer Don Smith said, “Kellen sometimes lined up as wide receiver, slot back, man-in-motion and even on occasion at halfback. The defense never knew from where he was coming from or where he was going.”
Using his size, speed, and San Diego’s unorthodox offense to his advantage, Winslow hauled in an NFL-best 89 catches for 1,290 yards and nine touchdowns.
Happy 65th bday to Hall of Fame tight end Kellen Winslow! Winslow made 5 Pro Bowls in the 80s. Led NFL in receptions in both 1980 & 81. 1980-81 averaged 89-1183 & scored 19 TD. In 9 games in 1982 went 54-721-6. 1983 was at 88-1172-8. Caught 13 passes in playoff game in 1981. pic.twitter.com/Qy9ZXJQv6M
— Scott F (@TheFrizz87) November 6, 2022
His reception and yardage total set new NFL records for tight ends in a season and Winslow’s 1980 yardage total stood as a league record until 2011.
Those numbers brought Winslow his first of four All-Pro recognitions and the first of his five Pro Bowls.
Not to be outdone, Jefferson led the league in receiving yards (1,340) and receiving touchdowns (13) that year and Joiner had 1,132 yards of his own.
— Retro Sports (@RetroSports411) August 17, 2017
San Diego finished the regular season 11-5 and defeated the Buffalo Bills in the Divisional round before the Oakland Raiders ended the Chargers’ season with a 34-27 win in the AFC Championship.
Winslow Repeats in 1981
Coryell and his Chargers kept their feet on the gas pedal in 1981 and led the NFL in offense with 29.9 points per game.
Winslow led the league in receptions for the second year in a row with 88 and had 1,075 receiving yards and a career-high ten touchdowns.
In just his third year as a pro, Winslow was already one of the best tight ends in football and was rapidly becoming one of the best of all time.
OTD 1981: #Chargers Dan Fouts fires a single-game career-best 6 TDs, while Kellen Winslow snares an NFL single-game record-tying 5 TD receptions in a 55-21 win over Oakland. pic.twitter.com/ydPSSjY8c5
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) November 22, 2021
During a Week 12 contest against the Oakland Raiders, Fouts found Winslow five times for touchdowns, which tied a league record for touchdowns in a single game.
“When I’m at my absolute best, I feel very relaxed,” Winslow said. “I’m laughing, having a good time. I feel smooth, loose, and confident. It doesn’t matter who is defending me. If it’s one guy, he’s at a disadvantage. If it’s two, they’re at a disadvantage. When I’m on, it’s a long day for the defense.”
After the Chargers went 10-6 during the regular season, they were scheduled to face the Miami Dolphins in Florida for a Divisional playoff game.
Winslow was about to cement his legacy.
The “Epic in Miami”
It may have been early January of 1982, but the weather in Miami was near 80 degrees at kickoff and the humidity felt like an oven.
Before the game, the talk in the media was how “Air Coryell” would fare against the Dolphins’ “Killer B’s” defense.
By the end of the first quarter, the “B’s” had all but wilted, as receiver Wes Chandler ran a punt return 56 yards to the house and the Chargers scored 24 total points while shutting out Miami.
Wes Chandler scores on a 56-yard punt return TD against the Dolphins in the "Epic in Miami" AFC playoff game in 1982. The 1st-quarter score put the Chargers up 10-0 as they would be in fight for it's life for the entire game to squeak out a 41-38 win. pic.twitter.com/RPvO4Z8lDt
— nflpastplayers (@nflpastplayers) February 9, 2023
That shifted the momentum back to the Dolphins, who scored 17 unanswered points to cut San Diego’s lead to 24-17 at halftime.
Early in the second half, Miami tied the game at 24-all and everyone watching knew the game would have an intense finish.
Winslow was tired and was suffering from a shoulder injury and a split lower lip, but he wasn’t about to give the game away.
“We knew it the night before,” said Winslow months later. “You’re in Miami. Dolphin country. Shula country. The whole scenario. Plus the fact that we went up, 24-0, and then they tied it up. I saw people all over the country in front of their televisions saying, ‘See, I told you so, they’re just a flashy passing team.’ I know I didn’t want to be part of that.”
On San Diego’s next possession, Fouts found Winslow for a 25-yard touchdown to re-take the lead.
Miami countered with two consecutive touchdowns.
Then, the Chargers had the ball at the Dolphins’ nine-yard line and Fouts dropped back to pass.
He threw in the direction of Winslow but overshot his tight end.
There's a reason they call it the EPIC in Miami.
— NFL (@NFL) April 30, 2020
Thankfully, running back James Brooks played heads-up ball and caught the pigskin for the game-tying touchdown.
Winslow Saves the Day
Miami had less than a minute left to work with, but that was all the time their offense needed.
Strock took the ‘Fins downfield and kicker Uwe von Schamann lined up for a 43-yard field goal to win the game.
Milliseconds after von Schamann’s kick, Winslow used his tall frame and fingertips to deflect the ball.
— NFL (@NFL) October 5, 2019
That made the kick fall well short and sent the contest into overtime.
”For all the receptions and all the yardage,” he said, ”I got more satisfaction out of blocking the field goal. It was something I’d never done before. It had always been a dream of mine.”
In overtime, San Diego had a chance to score first, but kicker Rolf Benirschke missed a 27-yard field goal.
Minutes later, it looked like von Schamann would be the hero as he lined up for a 34-yard attempt.
However, his kick was blocked again—this time by Chargers defensive end Leroy Jones.
With both teams sucking wind, Winslow did everything he could to affect the outcome of the game.
“I have a very insecure feeling,” Winslow recalled. “I felt that we could not move the ball unless I was on the field. Even as a decoy. Which I was, a lot of the time. People started going with me no matter where I went. I was too tired to do anything if I got the ball, but they didn’t know that.”
On San Diego’s next possession, the team scratched and clawed their way to the Dolphins’ 10-yard line.
Benirschke lined up for a 29-yard field goal and the Chargers prayed for the game to end.
“Kellen was done,” Fouts said in 2021. “Before that, Wes Chandler got the wind knocked out of him, so he’s out of the game. Then on (Charlie’s) play (before the field goal attempt), he landed on the football and it knocked the wind out of him, so he’s out of the game. So dang it, we had to kick that field goal! That was it! We had nobody else!”
Mercifully, Benirschke’s kick was good and San Diego won 41-38.
After the contest, many players from both teams could be found laying on the turf, gasping for air.
Winslow, who had caught a then playoff record 13 passes for 166 yards and a score, was carried off the field by two of his teammates.
Today in 1982, Kellen Winslow catches 13 passes and blocks a field goal as the Chargers defeat the Dolphins 41-38 in a battle forever known as the "Epic in Miami." pic.twitter.com/bhrgjgT6K3
— Super 70s Sports (@Super70sSports) January 2, 2018
Even with his legendary reputation secure, Winslow downplayed his performance in the game.
“I guess it was the most dramatic game I’ve ever played,” Kellen offered, “but I don’t think it was the best game I’ve ever played.”
One week later, San Diego traveled to Cincinnati to face the Bengals in the AFC Championship game.
The Chargers went from playing in extreme heat to negative nine degrees in southwest Ohio.
In the days leading up to the game, Winslow was candid about his team’s chances.
“…if we don’t win Sunday (against the Bengals),” he said, ”that blocked field goal (against Miami) won’t mean anything at all.”
Having left their hearts and souls in Miami, the Chargers never had a chance and lost, 27-7.
Winslow scored the only touchdown of the game for San Diego.
— Ken Gelman (@kengfunk) August 15, 2017
After the Super Bowl that season, Winslow was named co-MVP of the Pro Bowl.
1982 & 1983
The 1982 season was shortened to nine games due to the NFL Players Strike, but San Diego still finished 6-3 and qualified for the playoffs.
Winslow paced the Chargers’ top-ranked offense and caught 54 balls for 721 yards and six scores.
San Diego Chargers – Kellen Winslow, John Jefferson, and Dan Fouts pic.twitter.com/bOilFzKvR9
— OldTimeHardball (@OleTimeHardball) June 24, 2021
In the first round of the playoffs, Winslow snagged consecutive touchdowns in the fourth quarter against Pittsburgh to help San Diego win 31-28.
The following Sunday, the Chargers traveled to Miami again, but this time there were no theatrics and the Dolphins won easily, 34-13.
In 1983, Winslow hauled in 88 catches for 1,172 yards and eight touchdowns but couldn’t help his team as San Diego went 6-10 and missed the playoffs.
Winslow is Injured
Through the first seven games of the 1984 season, Winslow was off to a fast start and had already accumulated 55 receptions.
80 days until 2023 #NFL Draft in Kansas City, MO. And # of @ProFootballHOF TE Kellen Winslow, 541 rec., 45 TD rec., 5-time Pro Bowler, 3-time All-Pro in 9 seasons w/#Chargers @kellenwinslowsr@JulesForTheBlue @PfgVibe #NFL pic.twitter.com/Si57uJ6efa
— Russell S. Baxter (@BaxFootballGuru) February 6, 2023
Assuming he kept up that pace, pundits speculated that he would top 100 receptions easily by the end of the season.
That notion ended when Winslow seriously injured his knee during a Week 8 game against the Los Angeles Raiders.
The injury was so gruesome that the doctor performing the surgery on Winslow’s knee noted that it looked like “spaghetti….like a couple of mop ends.”
Dr. Losse also said, “The ligaments had almost an explosion-like appearance, it was a very, very severe knee injury.”
Without Winslow, the Chargers suffered and ended 1984 with a 7-9 record.
Winslow Slowly Recovers
Winslow returned in 1985, but it was evident to teammates and opponents that he wasn’t the same player he was before the injury.
That season, Winslow started six games and had 25 receptions for 318 yards and didn’t catch a touchdown pass for the first, and only, time in his career.
San Diego went 8-8 in 1985, then started the 1986 season 1-7 before Coryell was fired and replaced by Al Saunders.
Winslow got back on track and started every game, leading to 64 receptions for 728 yards and five scores.
— AFL Godfather 🏴☠️👓🏈 (@NFLMAVERICK) October 1, 2021
Under Saunders in 1987, the Chargers went 8-7 (the season was reduced due to another player’s strike).
Winslow returned to the Pro Bowl for the first time since 1983 when he caught 53 passes for 519 yards and three touchdowns.
Believing that he was not the player he was before his knee injury, Winslow retired after the season.
Stats and Legacy
During his career, Winslow totaled 541 receptions for 6,741 yards and 45 touchdowns.
Howie Long and Kellen Winslow exchange pleasantries in another uneventful Raiders vs. Chargers game. pic.twitter.com/2Vg7Unb4Eb
— SportsPaper (@SportsPaperInfo) October 5, 2021
The single-season records for a tight end that he set in 1980 have since been surpassed.
Winslow was a five-time Pro Bowler, a four-time All-Pro, and twice led the NFL in receptions.
He has since been named to the NFL’s 1980s All-Decade Team and the league’s 75th and 100th Anniversary All-Time Teams.
Winslow is a member of the Chargers Hall of Fame.
Second Career in Athletics
In 1995, Winslow was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
— Pro Football Hall of Fame (@ProFootballHOF) February 11, 2023
Winslow then became an athletic director at Central State University in Ohio from 2008-2012.
He also led athletics at Lakeland University in Wisconsin for two years before becoming the AD at Florida A&M University in 2014.
Winslow is the father of Kellen Winslow II, who was a 2004 first-round pick by the Cleveland Browns.
Winslow II has since been arrested numerous times on rape and sexual assault charges.
In 2021, he was sentenced to 14 years in prison.
Winslow Sr. is still regarded as one of the prototype tight ends in modern NFL history.
However, try as they might, not every team has been lucky enough to find a tight end who has Winslow’s talent.
“If I defined the position, then he redefined it,” Mike Ditka (whose single-season reception record was broken by Winslow in 1980) said. “There’s only one Kellen Winslow every 50 years.”