Make room for the AFL: Why the Hall should reserve a special place for a special league

Clark Judge

When an NFL club official asked me once why the Pro Football Hall of Fame doesn’t have a room or a wing reserved for the American Football League, I had an immediate answer.

I have no idea.

There are a couple of areas where it is included – the First Century and Lamar Hunt Super Bowl Galleries -- but beyond that I know of nothing exclusive for a league so significant that it forced the NFL to declare a truce and absorb it.

And that’s puzzling.

The AFL gave us more than Broadway Joe, the two-point conversion, Billy Cannon, names on the backs of jerseys and The Guarantee. Ultimately, it gave us the Super Bowl, too, and, yeah, I’d say that was significant.

As the only professional football league to successfully compete against the NFL, the AFL owns an important piece of history. So you’d think it would merit its own place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Except you’d be wrong. And that’s where I’d like to see a change.

Hall-of-Fame voters for too long turned their backs on AFL stars, deeming them unworthy of induction because the league was – at least in their estimation – inferior to the NFL. Yet the facts belied their opinions, with the AFL 2-2 in Super Bowls before joining the NFL – 0-2 vs. Green Bay; 2-0 vs. the rest of the NFL.

Nevertheless, the Hall never warmed up to the AFL, and forget about a reserved room. Let’s look at the all-AFL team of the 1960s as an example. Fourteen of its members – first and second team, specialists included – are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. By contrast, there are 28 players – or twice as many -- from the NFL’s 1960s’ all-decade team from the same era.

Left out were luminaries like Houston wide receiver Charlie Hennigan, who in his second season with the Oilers caught 82 passes for 1,746 yards and 12 touchdowns … and did it in a 14-game season. His 1,746 yards were a record that stood until Jerry Rice broke it in 1995. He also caught 100 yards in passes in 10 of Houston’s 14 games that year, a record that stood for 34 years before Michael Irvin broke it in 1995.

Rice and Irvin did it in 16-game seasons. Both are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Hennigan is not.

In fact, he’s never been a finalist or semifinalist, and don’t ask me why. The guy also had three 200-yard games in 1961, a record that still stands.

When the Pro Football Hall of Fame last year formed a committee to elect a Centennial Class of 10 seniors, I thought Hennigan … and the AFL … would gain a modicum of overdue recognition. I was right … and wrong. Former Jets’ tackle Winston Hill was elected, but he was the only AFL representative. In fact, he was the only AFL candidate among 20 finalists.

No Hennigan. No Tom Sestak. No Lionel Taylor. No Ed Budde. No Larry Grantham.

So we at the Talk of Fame Network decided to give AFL stars the recognition they deserve. I formed a committee of 15 voters to name the league’s 10 best players NOT in Canton, and we’re down to 20 finalists (https://www.si.com/nfl/talkoffame/nfl/chiefs-and-afl-finalists-for-talk-of-fame-network-poll). Our panel includes Hall-of-Fame voters, historians and Hall-of-Famer Art Shell, but it has nothing to do with Canton and will never be mentioned by Canton. It’s simply a means of reminding the Hall that there’s an abundance of AFL talent that deserves something it hasn’t given them.

And that’s consideration.

Of our 20 finalists, for example, only one – former Kansas City tackle Jim Tyrer – was brought before Hall-of-Famers voters as a finalist. It happened once, in 1981. And the other 19? They haven’t even been semifinalists.

OK, so we can’t correct what happened then. But we can do something about it now, and my hope is that A) the Hall’s senior committee gets behind some of these players and/or B) the Hall gives the best and brightest of the AFL its own room some day. The Hall keeps reminding us of the millions and millions of dollars it raised to expand its operation. So sink some of that money into recognizing a league that was so competitive with the NFL it forced a merger.

Yeah, I know, the All-America Football Conference had three teams join the NFL in 1950. And the USFL had more than a handful of stars enshrined after it folded in 1986. But the entire AFL … the entire 10-team league … was absorbed by the NFL, expanding its membership from 16 to 26.

That’s more than significant. It’s historic.

Once the Hall had a gallery devoted to rival leagues, but it disappeared in 2016 when the Game for Life Hologram Theater took its place. I’d like to see it reconstructed, only this time feature one rival league – the one the NFL absorbed in its entirety.

“Given the AFL’s years (longer than any of the other upstart leagues, by far),” said Chiefs’ historian an former PR director Bob Moore, “its contribution of players who made significant numbers in the Hall of Fame, the expansion of the games to geographic areas (the South, Midwest and Rockies) where there were no teams and the fact that it brought about a merger with the older league, it deserves a much more substantial section in Canton that it has now. Frankly, it’s embarrassingly small to non-existent.”

I can’t say that I disagree. What I can say is that I hope it changes.

“Anybody can say, ‘Well, we dismiss the AFL because it’s just like ...’ Well, no, it’s not,” said Denver Broncos’ historian Jim Saccomano, the team’s former vice president of communications. “It’s one of a kind in American sports history. I’m totally in favor of an AFL room at the Hall.”

Me, too. 

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