Al Davis never cared how rowdy his Oakland Raiders were off the field, only how fast and explosive they were on it. His speedy receivers and athletic cornerbacks set standards for how the AFL game was played. And as Davis rose from assistant (he was Alworth's first position coach at San Diego) to coach--general manager to commissioner in the AFL, his influence grew.
No one, though, held greater sway than Joe Namath. The three-year, $427,000 rookie contract the Jets gave him in 1965, the biggest deal ever for an athlete in a team sport at the time, was easily the smartest single decision made by the AFL. Handsome, blue-eyed and shaggy-haired, he was viewed by the '60s generation as one of its own. And he was a thrill to watch. "He was so good, such a competitor, so wonderful for the league," says Paul Maguire, a punter and linebacker on the Bills in the '60s before becoming a broadcaster. "You know how when Tiger Woods is in a tournament, you turn on the TV, and when he's in contention, you can't look away? Same with Joe. When he came to town, everything stopped. Everyone just wanted to see Joe."
By the end of the 1960s the most compelling figures in American sports arguably were Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain—and Joe Namath.
Los Angeles--San Diego Chargers 1960--68, Kansas City Chiefs 1968--69
AS A FREE-AGENT tailback out of Oregon State in 1960, Paul Lowe returned the first kickoff he handled as a professional—in the Chargers' inaugural preseason game—105 yards for a touchdown. And yet, he says, "I wasn't sure if I was going to make the team." Lowe would find not only a roster spot but also a place in history. In 10 seasons, all in the AFL, he set a league record with 4.9 yards per carry and was later named to the AFL's All-Time Team. After his playing days he owned a liquor store and a restaurant in San Diego, worked security for a regional airline and did "a little bit of everything" as a 15-year employee of Donovan State Prison. Says the retired Lowe, 72, who's still a Chargers season-ticket holder, "I tried to teach the inmates lessons about life." One of the best: the importance of a first impression.
1965 AFL MVP > Chargers Hall of Fame > AFL All-Time Team
The AFL got its kicks in a new way
In 1963 Bills scout Harvey Johnson raved about a placekicker he'd seen at Cornell. A former soccer player from Hungary, Pete Gogolak was the first college player to boot a 50-yard field goal. Johnson told his bosses that the kid, who swung his leg at the ball sideways rather than straight on, "could revolutionize football." The Bills drafted him in the 12th round. "In camp everyone was a little leery of the sidewinder," Maguire says. Until he made a 57-yarder in the first preseason game.
In two seasons in Buffalo, Gogolak made 62.7% of his field goal attempts, more than nine percentage points higher than the NFL average over that span. One day in jest a reporter asked him, "Got any brothers?" He did. The Redskins drafted Charlie Gogolak out of Princeton in the first round in '66; the same year Garo Yepremian, a former soccer player born in Cyprus, was kicking for the Lions. Twenty years later every field goal kicker in the NFL was booting it soccer-style.