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Tuesday, July 29, 2003
Burk signed Houston Oilers' first player
HOUSTON -- Adrian Burk, a former NFL quarterback, who signed the Houston Oilers' first player -- Heisman Trophy winner Billy Cannon -- died Monday at Henderson Memorial Hospital in East Texas. He was 75.
"He had a very full, very interesting life and he was just a dynamic guy,'' his son Robert Burk said Monday.
Burk was remembered by Oilers founder Bud Adams for helping the team secure Cannon and bring him to what was then a charter team of the American Football League instead of the established National Football League.
"Billy Cannon was a two time All-American and Heisman trophy winner,'' said Adams, who moved the Oilers to Nashville after the 1996 season. "We had the No. 1 player coming into the new league and not going into the NFL. It was a big signing.''
Adams said there was a legal battle over Cannon, because the Los Angeles Rams claimed they had signed the player first. A judge in California ultimately ruled Cannon should go to the Oilers.
Burk, a Baylor law school graduate, waited for Cannon, a Louisiana State University player, to finish up his final game -- the Sugar Bowl -- and signed him underneath the goal post on Jan. 1, 1960.
"He could certainly talk to the players (into) signing better than a lawyer who had never been around a pro team or a pro league,'' Adams said. "It was right down his alley to be working with the Oilers and signing players.''
Before entering the legal arena, Burk played for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1951-56. Team spokesman, Derek Boyko, said Burk tied a record for the most touchdown passes in one game on Oct. 17, 1954 at Washington when he threw for seven.
After his pro career, Burk joined the Houston law firm of Vinson & Elkins, where he worked from 1957 to 1968 and began representing the Oilers in addition to his normal caseload of insurance defense cases, said Paul Stallings, a senior partner at the law firm.
"He was very competitive. He was confident and he was fearless,'' Stallings said. "He brought the quarterback leadership confidence skills to the trial practice. Our firm represented Bud Adams and before him, his father.''
On weekends, Stallings said Burk would fly from Houston to various NFL venues, where he would referee games. His football experience also intermingled with his law career when during a lawsuit, in which he was representing the Houston Oilers, Burk entered an official NFL football as an exhibit. Stallings said a fan had sued the team after being injured at a game as players scrambled for the ball.
When the jury came back and found in favor of the Oilers, Burk picked up the football and threw it across the courtroom to the jury's foreman, Stallings said.
"It was the funniest thing,'' he said. "I think it's fair to say (football) was a major part of his life before and after he became a lawyer.''
Baylor University spokesman Jeff Brown said Burk was an All-American at the university in 1949, a year when he led the nation as a collegiate passer.
"He is still among our statistical leaders in a couple of categories,'' Brown said.
Robert Burk said his father spent nearly three decades practicing law. Besides working for Vinson & Elkins, in February 1976 he became the Houston Oilers assistant to the president and general counsel. Two years later he started his own private practice, his wife of 53 years, Neva Nelle Wright, said.
In 1985, Burk retired from private practice and became a missionary.
"He was just a tremendous football player and a very good official and an outstanding lawyer,'' said Vincent Buckley, a friend of Burk who continues to work with Adams. "He was just a very popular person in the sports circles and respected by his fellow lawyers.''
Burk is survived by his son, Robert, who lives in California, and wife, Neva Nelle Wright, of Henderson.
Funeral services are set for Friday in Henderson with visitation on Thursday night at First Baptist Church.
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