Until then there had been a code, based on self-preservation, to guide the NFL and AFL in conducting themselves around each other's veterans. An end, Willard Dewveall of the Chicago Bears, played out his option in 1960 and jumped to the Houston Oilers of the AFL. But Dewveall, who had a business in Houston, was never that significant a player, and was going to leave the Bears regardless. Other players talked about playing out their options and changing leagues, but there was a sort of tacit agreement among the owners not to encourage such actions, lest dozens of players get the idea and begin leaping about in costly bounds from one team to another.
When the Giants signed Gogolak, with the approval of NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle, the AFL owners were enraged and declared that all rules were off. Some NFL men—notably Vince Lombardi of Green Bay and George Halas of Chicago—also were stunned and angered, but their reactions were calm compared with Wilson's. Ralph Wilson is a gentleman and a sportsman, a man with a great amount of class. He had been one of the AFL owners most anxious to bring about a merger that would rescue pro football from its absurd predicament. However, the thought of losing Gogolak to the NFL—particularly to the New York Giants—put Wilson in the mood for war. Wilson had been instrumental in persuading the league to hire Al Davis, who was then coach and general manager at Oakland, to replace Joe Foss, who yearned for peace, as commissioner.
Davis, 37, a clever man with an excellent record as talent scout, coach and general manager, became commissioner on April 7. "He is going to show the NFL that Pete Rozelle doesn't know anything about football," said one AFL owner. That, obviously, was an exaggeration. What Davis was going to show the NFL was that he knew how to plot, scheme and maneuver through the tricky thought channels of players and organizations. The NFL had fought at draft time with an extensive baby-sitting operation, hiding high draft choices from AFL scouts. Foss considered the tactic undignified, and it was, but it never bothered Rozelle and would not bother Davis. As a brilliant organizer himself, Davis knew how to set up baby-sitting operations and scouting systems, and he knew how to talk to players. He hired a larger staff and studied various means of hitting the NFL the hardest possible blow in the shortest time, and he decided upon his plan.
The plan was as effective as a left hook to the jaw. Davis reasoned like this: if we want to hurt them and at the same moment help ourselves, what do we do? Simple. We get all the NFL's quarterbacks.
By then the NFL owners had realized they were in for a fight that could shatter both leagues. Tex Schramm, president and general manager of the Dallas Cowboys, says he approached Lamar Hunt, owner of the Kansas City Chiefs and originator of the AFL, about a merger (SI, June 20) two days before Davis officially took office and launched his attack. It is a good thing the NFL moved when it did. If Schramm had waited another week, every team in both leagues might have found itself with radically different personnel by next season.
Davis opened his assault by using just two of his league's best men—Houston General Manager Don Klosterman and Oakland General Manager Scotty Stirling, who had been Oakland's publicity director under Davis. With money coming from an AFL war chest, Stirling quickly signed Los Angeles Quarterback Roman Gabriel to a contract beginning in 1967. Gabriel was presented a check for $100,000 as down payment. Davis figured that the AFL could pay NFL quarterbacks whatever it would cost to make them desert, that thrusting a lavish bonus at a proven quarterback made more sense than offering the same money to a rookie who might flop, and that the NFL's constant brag about the superiority of its quarterbacks could be turned into an AFL brag. It did not take long for that word to reach the ears of the NFL quarterbacks.
Not too surprisingly, there was an immediate side effect. Many NFL stars other than quarterbacks began telephoning Davis and AFL club owners about playing out their options and jumping, asking raises and bonuses that were not overly large but were more than they would get by staying with their present clubs. The vulnerability of the NFL was exposed. The rush toward a merger was on in earnest.
Sonny Werblin, owner of the Jets, was not one of Davis' inner circle of hawks dealing with quarterbacks, but he was asking to be freed to sign the NFL players who were contacting him.
Among those who reportedly were to go to the Jets were Paul Hornung, Willie Wood and Herb Adderley of Green Bay, a club that allegedly would also lose Henry Jordan and Jim Taylor. Lombardi's anger and apprehension over the signing of Gogolak had been well-founded. Miami Coach George Wilson, acting on his own, talked contract with Detroit Tackle Alex Karras and others.
Klosterman, meanwhile, signed Tight End Mike Ditka of the Bears to a contract, giving him a $50,000 bonus. But it was still quarterbacks that Klosterman and Stirling were after. The other players asking to be let in were frosting for the cake.