Gordon Scott Appleton was born on February 20, 1942, in McCulloch County, Texas to Gordon Frederick Appleton and Alberda Methelda Leifeste. He was a three-year starter and a tri-captain for the Texas Longhorns football team. He earned All-SWC honors in 1962 and 1963. As a senior, he helped Texas win its first National Championship. He was named All-American, was the school's first Outland Trophy winner and he finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy balloting. He was also a member of the Texas Cowboys.
In the 1964 NFL Draft the Dallas Cowboys had their sights on acquiring Dave Parks, but after he was selected earlier than expected, they drafted Appleton in the first round and traded his rights to the Pittsburgh Steelers in exchange for Buddy Dial, one of the best wide receivers in the NFL at the time. Although the Steelers thought he would sign with them, he ended up signing with the Houston Oilers of the AFL, who had also drafted him in the first round. The voice of the Steelers, Myron Cope, described the shenanigans both teams used in the attempt to sign Appleton as the "Buddy Dial for Nothing" trade and was one of his favorite stories.
After his career in football ended, he became a manager of a Dairy Queen in Westfield, Texas (20 miles north of Houston) and worked at fast food restaurants, still battling alcoholism and participating in various rehab programs. He eventually ended up at the Fourth Street Inn, a project of the First Baptist Church and Rev. Jimmy Allen, in San Antonio, Texas, where they would feed the homeless and conduct Bible readings. Appleton quit drinking and began studying to become an ordained minister. After working at the Fourth Street Inn, he started his own ministry and spoke across the U.S. talking about his alcoholism and recovery.
Suffering from heart disease, Appleton at first declined a heart transplant operation, but later was placed on the list for a donor heart. However, he died of heart failure in 1992 at age 50. He was survived by his mother, Alberda, of Brady, Texas, sister Tresha Steffens and daughter Taunya.