In 1960 a 13-year-old boy in Litchfield, Conn., was entranced by the explosiveness of the games he saw on the family's 21-inch black-and-white. "Watching the AFL as a kid is how I fell in love with football," says Dick Ebersol, who as the chairman of NBC Sports would authorize the payment of billions for the rights to televise AFC games and later the NFL on Sunday night. "The wide-open offenses seemed so much more exciting."
ABC was the AFL's TV partner for the league's first five years, then in 1965 NBC swooped in with a five-year, $42.7 million deal—more than double what CBS was paying for rights to NFL games. The established league, sensing the rapid rise of the AFL, ordered CBS not to give the upstart league's scores during its NFL telecasts. That year, in the midst of the war between the leagues, SI put Alworth on the cover and called him the best receiver in football.
In 1971 the lithe and nimble 6-foot, 186-pound wideout was traded to the Dallas Cowboys—and experienced NFL culture shock. "I was taken to see coach [Tom] Landry in his office," says Alworth, now 68. "There was just a bare gray desk in there, and he never said 'Hello' or 'Welcome to the Cowboys.' He just said, 'We traded for you because you'll block. If you'll block, we'll win the Super Bowl.' I said, 'I'll block.' He said, 'Good,' and he got up and walked out."
Just as Landry promised, one of the greatest downfield threats in history, a receiver who had averaged 19.4 yards per catch in the AFL, spent most of the year blocking. Alworth caught 34 passes and had a career-low two touchdowns. And just as Landry promised, the Cowboys won the Super Bowl.
Houston Oilers 1960--63, Oakland Raiders 1964--69, Kansas City Chiefs 1970
INMATES AT the Louisiana State Penitentiary have a nickname for the facility's dental director: Legend. It comes not from how Billy Cannon has improved the care at Angola over the last 14 years, but in recognition of his football heroics. A Heisman-winning running back and return man at LSU, he led the Tigers to the 1958 national title, then won three AFL crowns (1960, '61 and '67) with the Oilers and the Raiders (whose Al Davis turned him into a tight end). After football, Cannon earned degrees in dentistry and orthodontics, but bad investments and gambling debts led to his involvement in a counterfeiting operation in the '80s; he himself served 2½ years in prison, so he understands his patients' plight. Says Cannon, 71, "I have empathy for the position the inmates have put themselves in."
First pick in 1960 AFL and NFL drafts > 1961 AFL rushing leader > Two-time AFL All-Pro
The AFL widened opportunity for black players
As a kid growing up in Richmond in the '50s, Willie Lanier rooted for the Washington Redskins but couldn't have had much hope of ever playing for them. Not until 1962, after pressure from the Kennedy Administration, did the NFL team in the nation's capital acquire its first black player, running back Bobby Mitchell. And Lanier, a standout middle linebacker at historically black Morgan State in Baltimore in the mid-'60s, had reason to think that he had no shot at playing his position in the NFL even if he got there. At the time, the so-called thinking man's positions in the league—quarterback, center, middle linebacker, safety—were almost exclusively white.