The AFL: A Football Legacy
'The Foolish Club' organizes its own eight-team game
The American Football League kicked off Sept. 9, 1960, as Denver defeated Boston 13-10. During the following decade, the AFL challenged the National Football League for professional gridiron supremacy, eventually prompting a merger that led to the current 31-team NFL.
In preparation for the 35th edition of the AFL's most notable achievement -- the Super Bowl -- join us in a fond look at the watershed moments in a league born from one man's simple desire to own a football team.
Part 1 of a two-part series
By Rich Loup, CNNSI.comGiven how big professional football is today, harken back to 1959, a year before the American Football League came along. The NFL had 12 teams, with only two -- the Los Angeles Rams and the San Francisco 49ers -- west of the Mississippi River. The Washington Redskins were the team farthest south.
The AFL expanded the game's presence and helped complete the foundation that modern football rests on today. The league's brief life (1960-69) still spurs intense loyalty from those who were close to it.
"To me, it was the most vital part in football history," says Jerry Magee, a San Diego sportswriter whose 25-year tenure covering the Chargers began when the franchise moved from Los Angeles before the 1961 season.
"If you were even just on the periphery, it was almost like you were on a crusade against this giant, this monolith. Every time, there's something that should be described AFL-NFL or NFL-AFL, I put the AFL first."
From a modest eight-team beginning in 1960 to the Kansas City Chiefs' victory in Super Bowl IV to close the '69 season, the AFL had a colorful, bizarre history that is a large part of the modern National Football League that we know today.
Lamar Hunt was a successful Dallas businessman who had been unsuccessful in joining the National Football League. He wanted a football team and decided to do something about it.
So Hunt formed the AFL and persuaded other men with huge fortunes, such as Bud Adams and Barron Hilton, to join his league, which consisted of eight teams. Each potential owner had to put up only $100,000 in a performance bond and contribute $25,000 of earnest money.
That turned out to be a lucrative investment for Hunt, Adams and Ralph Wilson. Their teams (today Hunt has the Kansas City Chiefs, Adams the Tennessee Titans, and Wilson the Buffalo Bills) are now worth more than $500 million apiece. But Hunt, Adams and Hilton (who owned the Chargers) and the other owners were called "The Foolish Club" when the AFL began operations.
However, Magee thought the league would be anything but foolish. "They had money," says Magee "You had guys who had enormous fortunes like Hunt, Adams and Hilton going against the NFL's football families like the Maras and the Rooneys."
After a two-month trial in 1962 in Baltimore, a federal judge ruled against the AFL, but time was starting to favor the AFL. The fledgling league survived, the stronger it became as a viable option to the NFL.
From the start, the AFL served notice to the NFL that it would compete for top college talent. That was evident in 1960, when Adams' Houston Oilers signed reigning Heisman Trophy winner Billy Cannon out of LSU for $100,000 per year. The problem was that Cannon had agreed to a contract with the Los Angeles Rams for $50,000 per year.
The Oilers won the ensuing court fight. With Cannon in tow, the Oilers reached the AFL title game in each of their first three seasons and won the first two. Both victories were against the Sid Gillman-led Chargers, who were based in Los Angeles in 1960 before shifting to San Diego in 1961.
"Sid Gillman brought to the AFL professionalism," says Magee. "The AFL had to learn to keep up with him, or he would have devoured them."
In 1962, eight-year Canadian Football League veteran Cookie Gilchrist became the AFL's first 1,000-yard rusher for the Buffalo Bills.
The Oilers were dethroned as AFL champs in 1962 in what turned into the longest game in professional football history. Houston and Dallas were involved in an epic struggle that lasted two overtimes for a total of 77 minutes and 54 seconds. In the first OT, the Texans won the toss, but Abner Haynes made a dubious declaration. Haynes announced that Dallas would "kick to the clock", which meant that not only would the Texans kick off, but that they would also be going against the wind.
However, much like Garo Yepremian's ill-fated pass that was returned for a touchdown in Super Bowl VII, Haynes' gaffe was just a humorous sidelight as the Texans beat the Oilers 20-17.
Moving forward in New York
Following the 1962 title, Hunt moved the Texans to Kansas City in '63, where the franchise adopted "Chiefs" as its nickname. That offseason, New York didn't move, but it made changes in a nickname and ownership. Before a five-man group that included Sonny Werblin and Leon Hess purchased the team in 1963, New York was a laughingstock.
Magee recalls Titans officials had laughable methods entering one draft before the Werblin/Hess group took over. "Here were the Chargers and the Chiefs showing up with their libraries of material," remembers Magee. "The Titans drafted out of the Street & Smith annual."
But Werblin was instrumental in luring University of Alabama quarterback Joe Namath to the Big Apple in 1965, a signing for a reported $427,000 that turned around the fortunes of a franchise and probably an entire league.
"You've got to have a fairly strong franchise in New York," says Magee. "When Werblin signed Namath to the AFL, that was quite a coup." Namath was the AFL's Rookie of the Year in 1965 as he threw for 2,220 yards, 18 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. The Jets finished with the same 5-8-1 record they had attained in 1964, but New York gradually improved until it won the Super Bowl following the '68 season.
Preview of things to come
Besides a name change, the Jets also made news in 1963 as one of two teams to participate in a talent dispersal draft. Other AFL teams provided players to New York and Oakland, which had been the two worst franchises in the league's three-year history. The Raiders used the talent infusion and a glimpse of its future to turn their franchise around.
Al Davis, 33, became Oakland's head coach/general manager and guided his team to a 10-4 record and a second-place Western Division finish. Davis coached another two seasons before becoming AFL commissioner in April 1966. Once he took over the league for a brief two-month stint, the gloves were off and he began a fight with the NFL that became personal in the 1970s and continues until today.
Information for this series was culled from Internet sites, Football Digest, 25 Years: The NFL Since 1960, Butkus: Flesh and Blood, NFL Record and Fact Book and league media guides.