Voted NFL defensive rookie of the year in 1972 and a three-time Pro-Bowl selection, Willie Buchanon was a fleet-footed cornerback who could blanket wide receivers and also fill holes against the run. In a recent conversation, he reminisced about the Packers of the 1970s, substitute teaching in the offseason and how four interceptions in a game makes an opponent immediately interested in your services.
Buchanon was selected seventh overall out of San Diego State and started all 14 games in '72, recording four interceptions and three fumble recoveries and also returned a blocked field goal 57 yards for a touchdown. The Packers were NFC Central champions at 10-4 and went to the playoffs, the No. 1 pick was recognized as one of the league's most impressive rookies and his NFL career was off to a rollicking start.
In 1973, however, Buchanon would only play in six games before breaking his left leg, and Green Bay would slip to 5-7-2. The Packers wouldn't post another winning season until 1978 at 8-7-1, but the team didn't return to the postseason. He also broke the same leg in 1975 after just two contests.
"We called those years the gray zone," he said. "We weren't winning world championships in a place that had won them. There was turnover and some turmoil in the organization those days with the staff. When I look back and see what we went through, I understand now. The fans were always great, there are no better fans in the world, and I enjoyed playing there. As a player, I had my better years there."
Buchanon was consistently among the club's top players. He had 21 career interceptions in his career and returned two for touchdowns. He was voted to the Pro Bowl in 1973, '74 and '78, when he led the NFL with nine interceptions.
"By 1978, we had some potential," Buchanon said. "We had drafted Ezra Johnson and Mike Butler the year before, two big ends. We had some young linebackers and our secondary was intact. There was a good nucleus on defense and we were having fun."
It was also Buchanon's last season in Green Bay. After negotiations broke down, he played out the option year of his contract and was traded to San Diego.
The Chargers coveted Buchanon after he tied an NFL record with four interceptions and returned one 77 yards for a touchdown in a 24-3 victory at San Diego on Sept. 24, 1978.
Chargers' head coach Tommy Prothro was relieved of his duties the following day, replaced by Don Coryell, Buchanon's college coach. San Diego sent a seventh-round choice in 1979 and No. 1 pick in '80 to the Packers for the cornerback.
"I really wanted to stay, but I wanted to play for a little more than they wanted to pay and that season I had really shown what I could do," Buchanon said. "I had seven years in Green Bay and my contract came up, and I think after that game the Chargers said, 'Let's get him on our side.'"
For Buchanon, it was a homecoming. He grew up in Oceanside, a suburb of San Diego. In the offseason during his tenure in Green Bay, to make extra money he would return to California to serve as a substitute teacher, teaching every grade and also working as a graduate assistant at San Diego State.
"I have a degree in education, so I'd come back to San Diego, thaw out and teach school," he said. "We had to work because we couldn't afford not to, so I was a long-term substitute with the school districts."
Buchanon spent four years with the Chargers, starting 57 games and adding seven interceptions and seven fumble recoveries. They were the glory years of "Air Coryell," as San Diego made the playoffs each year and advanced to the AFC Championship in 1980 and '81. He retired following the 1982 season.
Since his playing career ended, Buchanon has been a successful real estate broker in San Diego. He has five agents selling residential properties as part of Buchanon and Associates, and he markets residential and commercial properties.
"I had always been fairly involved with real estate and I figured if I was going to purchase property, I might as well become a broker instead of paying a commission," he said. "In 1981 I was credentialed. I worked for several companies before I started my own firm."
Buchanon is proudest of his community involvement. For 28 years, he has hosted an annual golf tournament, originally created to fund the salary of a baseball coach at Mira Costa Junior College. The focus then changed for several years to support underfunded prep sports programs.
The Buchanon Youth Foundation was founded in 2007 to create a sports park in Oceanside, named after his father, Mance Buchanon, Jr.
"It's 28 acres, for soccer mainly, and it can have 15 games going on at the same time," Buchanon said. "It's something I'm proud of. I'm having fun. I've been blessed to do a lot, and I always said if I had an opportunity to do something to help out, I would. So that's what I'm trying to do."
Buchanon's son, Will, followed his father's path to the NFL, but on the other side of the ball. He was a wide receiver at USC and played briefly for Oakland in 2006 and also had stints on the practice squads of Kansas City and Carolina.
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