Thelma Elkjer’s Vase

Tuesday July 8th, 2014

The MMQB presents NFL 95, a special project running through mid-July detailing 95 artifacts that tell the story of the NFL, as the league prepares to enter its 95th season. See the entire series here.

The AFL-NFL merger in 1970 settled the rivalry between the two leagues, but one epic fight only led to others. Such as: How would the new National Conference be realigned? This was hotly debated for eight months, until commissioner Pete Rozelle’s longtime secretary, Thelma Elkjer, reached into a cut glass flower vase at 11:26 a.m. on Jan. 17, 1970.

Three NFL clubs had agreed to join the 10 AFL clubs in the American Conference, but it was the 13 teams in the National Conference that couldn’t agree on how they’d be assigned to divisions. Rozelle drew up five possible alignments and dropped a tag for each into the vase (similar to the one pictured above), leaving the teams’ rivalries and travel schedules up to chance—or, rather, Elkjer’s hand.

She picked Plan 3, which included ‘East’ and ‘Central’ divisions whose rivalries remain intact today in the NFC East and NFC North (except for St. Louis having left the ‘East’). Most of the owners were satisfied, meaning that games could be scheduled and the new NFL had a structure. “Pete Rozelle should get the Medal of Honor,” Sid Gilman, then general manager of the San Diego Chargers, told the Associated Press.

— Jenny Vrentas

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