Orange Watch: Syracuse star Walt Sweeney should be Hall of Fame semifinalist

Walter Sweeney
Walt Sweeney with the San Diego Chargers in 1963. Photo Credit: AP Photo

Item: During this 100th anniversary season of the NFL now heading to its playoff portion of the schedule this weekend, the league has been celebrating the greatest players, coaches, and achievements in the sport. For the 2020 Hall of Fame class, the NFL is honoring a specially conceived “Centennial Slate” class of 20 members. Five will be enshrined from a list of 25 modern era semifinalists announced on Nov. 26. For this year only, 15 additional enshrines will be comprised from the 38 “Centennial” semifinalists announced Dec. 19. That group will consist of 10 players, three contributors and two coaches. Unfortunately, there is one ex-Syracuse player missing from that 20-player list.

Among the great tradition and history of Syracuse football is that some of the top players in the history of the sport donned an Orange uniform. An amazing seven of those players, plus the great Al Davis, have been memorialized at the Hall of Fame’s Canton, Ohio locale, and others with Syracuse backgrounds (Dwight Freeney) will be inducted in the future.

With eight Hall members, Syracuse proudly stands tied for fifth among all colleges (with Alabama, Miami, and Pittsburgh), trailing only Note Dame (13), Southern California (12), Ohio State (10) and Michigan (9). That’s some company.

When the final 20 names of players on the “Centennial Slate” were announced a couple of weeks back, it was hard to argue with who was on the list, but it was also easy to argue with an obvious omission; former Orangeman Walt Sweeney.

Playing along both the offensive and defensive lines, but primarily a guard and sometimes a tight end under Ben Schwartzwalder from 1960-62, Sweeney, who died at age 71 in 2013, was named one of 44 members of Syracuse’s All-Century team in 1989.

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And he was good enough to be selected with the second overall pick in the 1963 AFL Draft (the NFL and AFL did not combine drafts until 1967) by the San Diego Chargers. He was also an eighth-round pick of the Cleveland Browns.

Opting for the AFL, Sweeney did not take long to make an impact on the Chargers as they won the championship his rookie year, and lost the title game in both 1964-65. For the next nine seasons, 181 consecutive games played, he was named to the AFL or NFL Pro Bowl on the offensive line (he finished his career in 1974-75 with the Washington Redskins).

Nine. Straight. Seasons. A Pro Bowl player, and not considered for induction in the Hall of Fame?

The obvious reason why is that Sweeney, long saddled with drug and alcohol addiction during and after his playing days, was outspoken in his displeasure of how the NFL handled off-the-field problems of its athletes, mental and physical, as a result of playing the combative and vicious sport. Fined by the league for his drug use late in his career, Sweeney later in life served as a drug counselor in San Diego.

Around the time of his death in 2013, Sweeney’s biography was published. It was titled “Off Guard” co-written with San Diego-based author Bill Swank. As recounted by longtime San Diego Union-Tribune columnist Nick Canepa, in the book’s forward, Sweeney made clear he likely would never be enshrined in the Hall of Fame because of his loud voice and longtime substance abuse.

“It’s tough to get invited to the party,” Sweeney wrote, “when you’ve (urinated) in the punch bowl.”

Here’s hoping time will eventually heal those wounds, and Walt Sweeney will one year be enshrined posthumously in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

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Brad Bierman
About Brad Bierman 679 Articles
Now in his sixth decade of covering SU sports, Brad was sports director of WSYR radio for eight years into the early 1990s, then wrote the Orange Watch column for The Big Orange/The Juice print publication for 18 years. A Syracuse University graduate, Brad currently runs his own media consulting business in the Philadelphia suburbs. Follow him on Twitter @BradBierman.