Willie Buchanon was a first-round draft choice of the Packers in 1972 and was one of the team’s best players during his seven seasons in Green Bay. The San Diego State product was a two-time Pro Bowler who intercepted 21 passes during his time with the Packers and was a leader in the Green Bay secondary almost from day one.
Buchanon intercepted a pass in his first NFL game in 1972 and then had two key picks in the Packers Week 13 division clinching win over the Vikings. He was named the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year by the Associated Press and the Packers went to the playoffs after winning the NFC Central with a 10-4 record.
Injuries hampered Buchanon’s career in Green Bay. Twice he suffered broken legs that caused him to miss most of the 1973 and 1975 seasons. Initially, doctors told the Packers cornerback he would never play football again after the first injury, but he managed to work his way back and returned to the lineup the following season. He was selected to the Pro Bowl in 1974 and 1978.
Buchanon’s best performance came in Week 4 of the 1978 season, his first game back in his native San Diego. The surprising Packers met the Chargers on a sweltering 102-degree day that led to a very sloppy football game. Bart Starr’s Packers were off to a surprising 2-1 start while San Diego entered the game at 1-2.
The game was filled with sacks and turnovers. Packers starter David Whitehurst was sacked 10 times in the game while the Packers only managed nine first downs. Meanwhile, Green Bay was able to sack Chargers quarterbacks James Harris and Dan Fouts eight times.
The Chargers also committed 11 turnovers in this game, fumbling nine times while losing six of them while the Packers intercepted Chargers quarterbacks five times. The Packers were charged with 11 penalties in the game for 105 yards while the Chargers had “only” seven infractions for 51 yards.
The Packers took the lead in the second quarter on a 13-yard touchdown run by Terdell Middleton. In the third quarter, reserve fullback Walt Landers recovered a blocked punt and ran it back 15 yards for another score.
But the star of the game was Buchanon who tied an NFL record with four interceptions. “That was probably the best game of my NFL career,” he recalled. “I played at San Diego State and hadn’t been back in San Diego in seven years.”
That wasn’t the star cornerback’s only motivation. “I was playing out my option at the same time,” Buchanon added. “I kind of wanted to let San Diego know that Willie Buchanon could still play football. We got together with the defense. We huddled together and said we were going to have a great game. My friend Steve Luke decided that everybody was going to play for me because we were in San Diego.”
Buchanon picked off three passes before tying an NFL record with his fourth pick of the day in the fourth quarter. He returned that last interception 77-yards for the game’s final score to clinch a 24-3 Green Bay win that gave the Pack a surprising 3-1 start. Buchanon led the NFC with a career-high nine interceptions that season.
After the game, the Chargers fired head coach Tommy Prothro and replaced him with former Cardinals head coach Don Coryell who was Buchanon’s coach at San Diego State. Coryell went on to create one of the greatest passing attacks in NFL history in San Diego featuring Fouts, Charlie Joiner, John Jefferson and Kellen Winslow.
“I started thinking I was responsible for Don Coryell,” Buchanon joked years later.
Ironically, after playing out his option in Green Bay, the Packers dealt Buchanon to the Chargers where he spent the final four seasons of his career. In return, the Packers got a first-round pick and a seventh-round pick which they turned into linebackers George Cumby and Rich Wingo.
“I was very happy in Green Bay and I didn’t want to leave,” Buchanon said later. “But it boiled down to a fair salary—we were only $25,000 apart—and I moved on to San Diego.”
Buchanon was elected into the Packers Hall of Fame in 1993. His four-interception day has still never been topped and remains an NFL record to this day. It was also the most outstanding individual performance by a Packers player against the Chargers and a memorable moment in Packers’ history.
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