In the living room of Ralph Wilson's house in Grosse Pointe Park, Mich., hangs Claude Monet's 19th-century French riverscape La Seine à Argenteuil. Wilson, the Buffalo Bills' owner, paid $8.25 million for the painting in 1997, and he enjoys talking about its beauty and its history. ¶ But what Wilson really cherishes is football history—specifically, American Football League history. Fifty years ago, Wilson, then a minority owner of the Detroit Lions and an insurance magnate, joined a small cadre of risk-taking businessmen who wanted to break the NFL's grip on the pro game and offer America something different. ¶ Wilson had read about Lamar Hunt's plan to form a rival league. He called Hunt, a Texas oilman whose bid for an NFL expansion franchise had been turned down, to find out how he could get a piece of the action. Come up with $25,000 to buy a franchise, Hunt told him, and a team was his. Wilson couldn't be sure he wasn't throwing money down the drain and had no idea where to put his team. "I thought of Miami," he says with a laugh, "but I tried to lease the Orange Bowl, and they said they wanted to wait for an NFL team. Hunt suggested Buffalo. I met with the managing editor of the Buffalo Evening News, Paul Neville. In those days you had to have the support from the newspapers or you were dead. I told him I'd give the city a franchise for three years if he promised he'd write about us every day. He said yes, and that was it."
Why did he put a team in a city he knew nothing about, with no guarantees of its support? "It was a passion," says Wilson, 90, whose Bills became the AFL's seventh franchise in October 1959. "It was like that for all the owners. We had no idea what the future was. But there never would have been an AFL if the NFL had given Lamar Hunt the franchise he wanted in Dallas."
The AFL was eight franchises strong for its inaugural season in the fall of 1960, and over the next 10 years the rebel league captivated football fans and changed the landscape of sports in America. The AFL merged with the NFL in 1970, but its influence is still felt in profound ways.
Denver Broncos 1960--66, San Francisco 49ers 1967
THE MAN known as "the original Bronco" made far more money outside football than he did from an eight-year career, but Austin (Goose) Gonsoulin prizes his time with Denver's first major pro team above most everything else. As a 6'3" DB out of Baylor, he had 43 interceptions (including 11 as a rookie in 1960) and earned a reputation for sledgehammer hits. Upon retiring due to injuries, Gonsoulin returned to his native Texas and worked in a variety of fields: oil, construction, real estate, banking and sales. At 71, he's optimistically battling a second round of prostate cancer and meets up with fellow AFL vets such as Hall of Fame Jets wideout Don Maynard at cancer awareness events. Their talk inevitably turns to two topics: "How the money was terrible," Gonsoulin says, laughing, "and how hard I'd hit Don across the middle."
Three-time All-AFL > Broncos Ring of Fame
The AFL revved up the offense
In 1961 three of pro football's 22 teams averaged more than 28 points a game, and all three—the Houston Oilers, Boston Patriots and San Diego Chargers—were in the AFL. In the first eight games of the 1966 season, the AFL's Kansas City Chiefs averaged 35.6 points. What is now known as the West Coast offense was conceived by Chargers coach Sid Gillman, and the AFL even had the two-point conversion. Dominant teams in the NFL (Green Bay, Cleveland, Chicago and the New York Giants) moved the ball on the ground. San Diego, Oakland, Kansas City and the New York Jets offered up air shows. It's an oversimplification, but that's how fans came to see the two leagues.
"The NFL does today what we were doing in 1962," says Hall of Fame wide receiver Lance Alworth (box, page 60), who played nine seasons with the Chargers. "We created an offense that could change every play at the line of scrimmage. That made the game exciting." And it translated to television.