Willie Buchanon was 'the cornerstone of all corners'

Injuries altered what might’ve been a truly singular career for Packers’ 1972 first-round pick

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CB Willie Buchanon

Team historian Cliff Christl has been writing the official biographies of the members of the Packers Hall of Fame. Those bios will be posted periodically on packers.com.

Willie Buchanon

  • Inducted: 1993
  • Cornerback: 1972-78
  • Height: 6-0; Weight: 190
  • College: San Diego State, 1970-71

Honors:

  • Associated Press NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year (chosen since 1967): 1972
  • Newspaper Enterprise Association NFC Rookie of the Year (chosen from 1964-96): 1972
  • Associated Press All-Pro Team (chosen since 1940): 1978
  • Pro Bowl selection (played since 1950): 1973, 1974, 1978
  • Press-Gazette All-Century Team: 1999

If NFL scouts ever decided to examine past drafts in search of the prototypical cornerback prospect even for today's game, Willie Buchanon would belong on their list, despite it being more than a half-century since he played college football.

At 6 foot and 190 pounds, Buchanon had an ideal frame for both pass coverage and run support. He was a sprinter in track, once credited with a wind-aided 9.4 seconds clocking in the 100-yard dash. Playing at San Diego State for future NFL head coach Don Coryell and position coach Ernie Zampese, who later became a renowned offensive coordinator in the NFL, Buchanon played man-to-man coverage almost exclusively and was well trained for the pro game. He also served as a team captain there.

"He was the cornerstone of all corners," Ron Wolf, who spent almost 40 years scouting for four different NFL teams, said in 2014. "That's what everybody looked for – Willie Buchanon."

Dave Hanner, who spent 44 years with the Packers as a player, coach and scout, offered similar praise of Buchanon. "As good as I've seen come out of college other than the guy at Dallas (Deion Sanders)," Hanner echoed shortly after retiring as a scout in 1996. Former Packers great Willie Davis, who served as a defensive assistant for the College All-Stars before Buchanon's rookie year, saw enough already that summer to predict stardom for the Packers' top pick. "He's something," said Davis. "I never saw a young cornerback who was any better. I always figured Herb Adderley was the best young one I ever saw. Well, this kid is right up there with Herb."

Selected with the seventh overall choice in 1972, Buchanon was the second-highest drafted cornerback in history at that point behind only Pro Football Hall of Famer Jimmy Johnson, who was selected sixth overall in 1961 by San Francisco.

Buchanon became an instant starter at left cornerback as a rookie and was instrumental in the Packers improving their record from 4-8-2 to 10-4, jumping from 13th to second in defensive yards allowed and winning their only division title between the Vince Lombardi and Wolf eras. Buchanon was named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year by the Associated Press in a vote of sportswriters and sportscasters, and NFC Rookie of the Year by the Newspaper Enterprise Association in a vote of the league's team captains and player representatives.

Then six games into his second season, Buchanon fractured both the tibia and fibula just above the ankle of his left leg and missed the remainder of the season. He recovered to play in all 14 games in 1974 and was named to the Pro Bowl, but then he fractured his left leg again, although it wasn't as severe an injury, in the second game of the 1975 season and missed the remaining 12 games.

Years later, Buchanon admitted that thereafter, "I had a little hitch in my giddy-up," but he also continued to play at a high level. He remained a special athlete, a student of the game, a highly skilled cover corner, and a willing, textbook tackler. In fact, in his seventh and final season in Green Bay, Buchanon intercepted nine passes, including a club-tying record of four in one game, and was named to the Pro Bowl and AP All-Pro Team.

What more might Buchanon have accomplished if he hadn't missed 20 games in his first four seasons and suffered injuries that might have ended the careers of lesser corners? "He would have been something," said Pat Peppler, who was the Packers' personnel director when Buchanon was drafted and also during Adderley's final seven seasons in Green Bay. "He would have been as good as Herb."

And maybe even better than Sanders, according to teammate John Brockington. "(Buchanon) could have been like one of the best ever," said Brockington. "He was big. He was fast. He wasn't any Deion Sanders. Willie could force on the sweep and make tackles. He wasn't soft. Deion used to say, they paid him to cover. No, if you're a defensive player you've got to tackle. Willie was a great, great defensive back. He did it all. Unfortunately, (twice in three) years, he broke the same ankle."

Buchanon played out his option with the Packers in 1978 and was traded to San Diego in the offseason for two draft picks: a first and a seventh. In all, Buchanon played in 80 games for the Packers over seven seasons and intercepted 21 passes. He played four more with the Chargers from 1979-82 and intercepted seven more passes before retiring.

Born Nov. 4, 1950. Given name Willie James Buchanon.

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