With a little more than eight minutes to play in the first quarter of the American Football League championship game in Buffalo last Saturday afternoon, San Diego's balding quarterback, Tobin Rote, called a pass from his own 34 and quickly retreated into the pocket to look downfield. On the previous play Rote, who had already thrown a touchdown pass for a sudden 7-0 lead over the Buffalo Bills, had aimed deep for Halfback Paul Lowe, but Buffalo Linebacker Mike Stratton had run 30 yards stride for stride with Lowe, as rhythmically as if the two of them were working up a vaudeville dance act, and had knocked away the ball that Rote had figured would bring another easy touchdown.
This time the Bills were in a different defense. Stratton, a grinning blond from Tennessee, was responsible for the area in San Diego's left flat. Watching Rote intently, he saw the 15-year veteran's eyes shift to his right, searching futilely for a downfield receiver, and then Stratton knew what to do. Without hesitating, he sprinted toward San Diego Fullback Keith Lincoln, who had drifted into the left fiat as an alternate receiver.
Stratton's dash was perfectly timed. As the ball reached Lincoln, so did the 6-foot-3, 240-pound linebacker. Lincoln's arms were raised for the pass, leaving his chest and ribs vulnerable. Into that area crashed Stratton with a sound like a bull smashing into a barrera. The wind left Lincoln in an awful grunt. The ball skidded away. Stratton rolled over and loped back to the defensive huddle. But Lincoln, one of the toughest backs in the league, lay as if he had fallen out of a third-floor window.
"A thrill went up and down our bench," said Buffalo Assistant Coach Joel Collier. "We saw Lincoln down, and we knew we had them. The offensive team, standing on the sideline, started shouting. We had a great lift. We knew we had them."
"Gosh, I didn't think I hit him that hard," Stratton said, ducking his head shyly. "I just saw him out there, and when Rote couldn't find a man open downfield I knew Lincoln was mine, and I went for him. One second sooner, it would have been interference. One second later, I would have missed him."
When Lincoln finally did rise, it was to limp to the dressing room with a broken rib. San Diego's magnificent Hanker, Lance Alworth, had not even suited up because of an injury to his left knee, and when Lincoln departed with half of the first quarter still to go, the Chargers had abruptly lost too much of their offense to do without.
The result was that after their first-quarter burst that produced a 7-0 lead, the Chargers could do nothing but watch as Buffalo methodically chipped away to win the AFL championship 20-7, in a game that ended as wildly as it had begun. And that ending was like something that had been choreographed by Genghis Khan. With half a minute still on the clock, thousands of the AFL's record championship crowd of 40,242 sloshed across the muddy sidelines and began to destroy the goalposts. The crossbars toppled with a few seconds remaining, and then hundreds of hands grabbed for Buffalo Quarterback Jack Kemp. They lifted him up and tossed him high above the delirious faces, and the Buffalo police charged to the rescue with nightsticks at order arms. "Don't hit them," Kemp yelled to the police in the high-pitched voice that sometimes makes him sound like Mickey Rooney. "Don't hurt these people."
"Imagine that," one cop said later. "They're throwing the guy around, and they've broken my glasses and ripped my coat and I'm ready to take a couple of belts at them, and here's Kemp yelling don't hit them. Well, it's his life, I guess."
At that moment life had never been better for Jack Kemp. Last Saturday was his third championship game in the AFL and his first victory. In the first two games, in 1960 and 1961, he was quarterback for Coach Sid Gillman of the Chargers. After the Chargers lost both those title games to Houston, Gillman gave up on Kemp and let Buffalo have him for the $100 waiver price. It was Gillman's announced opinion that Kemp, despite the strength of his arm, was too erratic ever to be counted on for a clutch game. Now Kemp has won two clutch games in a row, including the 24-14 verdict over Boston two weeks ago that gave the Bills the Eastern Division championship.
Recently Kemp did some pondering about his future. He went in to Buffalo Coach Lou Saban and said he wanted to take films home to study in the off season. Prior to this year, Kemp had been the sort whose interest in football lapsed as soon as he removed his helmet. Saban was surprised by the request. "You have to consider the possibility that you might come back here next year as the second-stringer," Saban told him. Kemp was acutely aware that Daryle Lamonica, a second-year man from Notre Dame, was being trained for the quarterback job, but rather than being discouraged, he merely nodded. Now the Bills are champions, in some measure because of Kemp's new attitude.
"I have come to the point in my career when I know I can play four or five more years, but it will take dedication to the mental aspects of the game," Kemp said. "The game is changing rapidly, and I want to stay up with it. If that means extra work and study, that's what I'll do."
The way the Chargers had it puzzled out, Kemp was going to be their heavy bag for serious buffeting on Saturday. "Kemp doesn't like to see me coming," said 262-pound Defensive End Earl Faison. The Chargers thought they could drive Kemp out of the pocket and scramble Buffalo's game plan.
Offensively, the Chargers intended to throw flares and screens to catch the Buffalo linebackers backing off into their zones, and with Lincoln and Lowe they knew they could run. During the week San Diego worked on a spread formation designed for use on a frozen field. The Chargers' plans did not include Lance Alworth, the finest deep receiver in the AFL. In the final league game against Oakland, Alworth was blocked after a pass interception and his left knee was bent the wrong way. "When I sat up and discovered there was no feeling in my knee, I said to myself that's all for this season." He tried to run in midweek before the championship game but the knee swelled and his fears became fact.
Buffalo's idea was to control the ball. "We knew they would give double coverage to our two outside receivers—Elbert Dubenion and Glenn Bass—and their big men up front would have to spread out to protect the middle," said Kemp. "So we knew we could run Cookie Gilchrist and Wray Carlton, and then we could throw into the creases of their zone. But what we had to do was keep the ball away from them."
Both teams had accepted the probability of miserable weather and an icy field, despite the 60 tons of sand that the ground crew at War Memorial Stadium had spread on the turf. But the snow melted in Buffalo, helicopters came in to hover over the field and dry the wet spots and then the field was marked and covered. On Saturday the cover was rolled off after a morning rain, the field was marked again and the covering was replaced. At 1 p.m. Saturday the covering was removed for the last time, and the field was remarkably firm. The temperature was in the 40s, the sky was the color of an elephant's hide and fog blew in like smoke. The stadium lights had to be switched on before the kickoff. Bulldozers scraped up hillocks of mud on the sidelines, but the footing was good.
The Bills found themselves strangely unexcited. For them, the big game had been the week before when they beat Boston on frozen ground to win their first Eastern Division championship. "That was the game that worried us," said All-AFL Safetyman George Saimes. "We know if we do what we're supposed to we can beat San Diego. With Alworth out, that's six points for our side right there. We had our injuries last year. It's their turn now."
But for the first two minutes it looked as if the Chargers were out to surpass the 51-10 score by which they demolished Boston in the championship game of 1963. On the first play after the kickoff Lincoln raced 39 yards on a draw. Then Lincoln, who had gained 206 yards rushing against Boston, hit for four more and caught a pass for another 11. Rote, playing his final game before retiring to his conduit manufacturing business in Detroit, passed 26 yards under pressure to Tight End Dave Kocourek for a touchdown, and San Diego led 7-0 with 11:49 left in the first quarter.
The Chargers quickly got the ball again, and Rote, who will have an operation next month for calcium deposits in the elbow of his throwing arm, threw a 60-yard pass that Jerry Robinson, Alworth's replacement, could not hold. The pass was important, however, for it proved that Rote could throw deep despite the bad elbow. For the Bills, the situation looked darker than the Buffalo sky. But Stratton disposed of Lincoln, Buffalo drove for a field goal, Rote had an interception on the next series and the Chargers were staggering.
"I should have kept pecking away short," Rote said. "We had our short man open all day, but I couldn't hit the right man."
Still, Rote kept San Diego threatening through the second quarter. Lincoln came back from having his ribs taped and asked to return to the game, but the team physician advised against it. Buffalo moved in for a touchdown on a four-yard run off right tackle by Wray Carlton and then for another field goal by Pete Gogolak, the Hungarian refugee who made his way into professional football via the Ivy League. With the score 13-7 the stadium shook beneath the shouting and stamping of a crowd that adores the Bills without the smallest taint of sophistication.
Rote was laboring under extremely poor field position. The Chargers had to start twice from inside their own 10 in the first half. But after Buffalo's second field goal, a fine kickoff return by rookie Jim Warren set up the Chargers on their own 33 with nearly three minutes left in which to score before intermission. At that moment in stepped Mike Stratton again. The big linebacker intercepted Rote's first pass and lateraled the ball to George Byrd, who darted around like a waterbug, but in vain. The officials ruled the interception had been caused by interference. The Chargers got the ball again, at the Buffalo 43 now, and it was the sort of break that can give a football team a tremendous lift. Rote completed his next pass, Lowe gained 10 yards on a sweep, Buffalo Corner Back Charley Warner dropped a possible interception, and then Rote passed 13 yards to Don Norton to the Buffalo 15. The clock showed 59 seconds—a situation in which Rote, in other, dearer days, could put a defense into paroxysms of anxiety.
But not this day. Rote's final pass of the first half went into the hands of, well, the same Mike Stratton. The Chargers were finished. Rote walked off the field with his head down. It was a sad ending to the career of a man who had quarter backed Detroit to the NFL championship in 1958 and who had guided San Diego in the championship heroics of last season. Rote began this year's training camp in pain from his sore arm, and he saw the last of the championship game in pain inside. "My arm didn't bother me today," he said. "They didn't shoot it. They haven't shot it all year. I wish we could have had Lincoln and Alworth, but there's no use making excuses. I'm just sorry I couldn't have gone out a winner."
Rote was the San Diego quarterback for only seven plays in the third quarter—during which the Bills ran 20 plays. Then, late in the third quarter, Gillman sent in John Hadl to take over for Rote. There has been speculation that Gillman, whose dismissal of a quarterback can be harsh and quick, has given up on Hadl as he gave up on Kemp. If so, Hadl's performance last Saturday did not help him. His first pass was an interception.
Meanwhile, Kemp was enjoying excellent pass blocking by his offensive line and by the two big backs—the 251-pound Gilchrist and the 216-pound Carlton. It was only a month ago that Carlton was pulled off the injured-deferred list when Back Joe Auer had to leave active duty because of his wife's illness. "I had been pleading for Wray to be activated," Kemp said. "He's a very underrated runner, and I like the way he stands strong back there to block." Carlton rushed for 70 yards against San Diego. Gilchrist, who had one of his best days before he bruised his ribs early in the fourth quarter, gained 122 yards on 16 carries and blocked like a barbed-wire fence. Part of his improvement is due to understanding Kemp better, and vice versa. "We talk about things now," said Kemp. "If I'm going to pass a lot and not let him run, I explain why to him. He tells me how he's thinking. Our only trouble before was a lack of communication. We're both heady guys with plenty of pent-up feelings."
Kemp had a brilliant afternoon. Gilchrist's longest runs—of 39 and 32 yards—came on Kemp audibles. Wearing a white turtleneck ski sweater and a black leotard under his uniform, Kemp completed half of his 20 passes without an interception, and he had the satisfaction of beating the team that had said he was not good enough. (There was but one disappointment all day: the disclosure that ABC had not sold out the commercials on the telecast, and thus the winning players' shares were only $2,668, only $200 more than last year and about $5,000 less than the winning shares in the NFL game on Sunday. The Chargers received $1,738 per man.)
In the more obvious passing situations the Bills dragged out their weird three-man rush and dropped off eight men into a zone that made the secondary look like a volleyball lineup. The Chargers could not beat it. Buffalo Captain Billy Shaw, who calls the team to silent prayer before and after games and occasionally during the half, kept San Diego's 295-pound tackle, Ernie Ladd, from bothering Kemp. Lamonica, who went into most of the regular-season games as a reliever for Kemp, got to run with the ball once quite by accident. Lamonica was in to hold for a field goal, called an audible to change it to a pass, then jumped up to discover the receivers had not heard him.
The fans overlooked such gaffes. They paraded onto the field with a sign that said: Bring on the Colts! They showered the stands with confetti. They blew bugles and fired cannons and celebrated Buffalo's first AFL championship with songs and laughter and that mad charge through the police to get at Kemp. But perhaps the happiest guy in Buffalo was a man who does not live there. He was the Bills' owner, Ralph Wilson of Detroit. Before the game American Airlines Executive Jack Tompkins, a friend of Wilson who also lives in Detroit, presented Wilson's wife with a mink football. "It's for the football widow who has everything," said Tompkins.
"Five years ago this league didn't even have a football," Wilson said. "Now we have one made out of mink. That shows how far we've come."