Billy Vessels, the University of Oklahoma running back who won the 1952 Heisman Trophy in an era when Sooner teams coached by Bud Wilkinson dominated college football, died last Saturday at his home in Coral Gables, Fla. He was 70.
The cause was congestive heart failure, said his wife, Susanne.
''He was the first player that I had ever been around who was the fastest player on the field and also the toughest,'' Wilkinson once said.
As an eighth grader, Vessels hitchhiked 50 miles on football Saturdays from his home in Cleveland, Okla., to see Oklahoma A&M play in Stillwater, and he sometimes served as the team's water boy. But by the time Vessels was a high school football star, the University of Oklahoma program was thriving in Norman under Wilkinson, and he became a Sooner.
Vessels ran for 870 yards and scored 15 touchdowns as a sophomore in 1950 on a consensus national championship team. He missed six games with a broken leg as a junior, then emerged as the nation's top player.
The 6-foot, 190-pound Vessels essentially won the 1952 Heisman Trophy on the second Saturday of November, in South Bend, Ind. It was Oklahoma, with Wilkinson and Vessels, versus Notre Dame, with Coach Frank Leahy and the all-American back Johnny Lattner, who would win the Heisman the following year. The game was telecast nationally and was broadcast on radio by Mel Allen.
''It was the so-called game of the year,'' Vessels remembered. ''All the press from New York was there.''
Vessels ran for 195 yards on 17 carries and scored on a pass reception and two long runs, but he also fumbled late in the game at the Notre Dame 20, and Lattner recovered.
Notre Dame, a heavy underdog, won by 27-21, handing Oklahoma its only loss of the season. ''It was not a good game for me because we lost,'' Vessels recalled. ''It ruined my entire season.''
But Vessels's performance brought him national acclaim, though he said he thought that his quarterback, Eddie Crowder, was more deserving of selection as college football's top player.
When Vessels won the Heisman, ''I'd never even heard of it,'' he said. ''It wasn't until I was in New York the next week that I realized its full impact.''
Having run for 1,072 yards and 18 touchdowns in his Heisman season, Vessels was the No. 1 draft pick of the Baltimore Colts in 1953. But he accepted an offer from the Edmonton Eskimos of the Canadian league. He won the Schenley Award as Canada's top pro player in his rookie year, then entered the Army, where he played football, and he finally joined the Colts in 1956. He ran for three touchdowns in a rout of the Los Angeles Rams but was hampered by injuries and retired after that season. He was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1974.
Vessels moved to South Florida in the late 1950's, worked as a real estate executive, bred horses and served in the 1980's as president of the National Association of State Racing Commissioners and director of the Florida agency regulating parimutuel wagering.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by two sons, Chase, of Miami, and Lance, of Philadelphia; a daughter, Jane Vessels, of Washington; and four grandchildren.
Vessels always kept in mind something Wilkinson said to him on the flight to New York for the Heisman ceremony. As Vessels related it to The Tulsa World last year: ''I remember Bud telling me: 'Billy, when you get to New York, they'll make a big deal of you. What's really important is not what you did yesterday, but what you'll be doing in 25 years.' He stressed that life was more important than football.''