In the living room of Ralph Wilson's house in Grosse Pointe Park, Mich., hangs Claude Monet's 19th-century French riverscape La Seine √† Argenteuil. Wilson, the Buffalo Bills' owner, paid $8.25 million for the painting in 1997, and he enjoys talking about its beauty and its history. ¬∂ But what Wilson really cherishes is football history—specifically, American Football League history. Fifty years ago, Wilson, then a minority owner of the Detroit Lions and an insurance magnate, joined a small cadre of risk-taking businessmen who wanted to break the NFL's grip on the pro game and offer America something different. ¬∂ Wilson had read about Lamar Hunt's plan to form a rival league. He called Hunt, a Texas oilman whose bid for an NFL expansion franchise had been turned down, to find out how he could get a piece of the action. Come up with $25,000 to buy a franchise, Hunt told him, and a team was his. Wilson couldn't be sure he wasn't throwing money down the drain and had no idea where to put his team. "I thought of Miami," he says with a laugh, "but I tried to lease the Orange Bowl, and they said they wanted to wait for an NFL team. Hunt suggested Buffalo. I met with the managing editor of the Buffalo Evening News, Paul Neville. In those days you had to have the support from the newspapers or you were dead. I told him I'd give the city a franchise for three years if he promised he'd write about us every day. He said yes, and that was it."
This is an article from the July 13, 2009 issue
Why did he put a team in a city he knew nothing about, with no guarantees of its support? "It was a passion," says Wilson, 90, whose Bills became the AFL's seventh franchise in October 1959. "It was like that for all the owners. We had no idea what the future was. But there never would have been an AFL if the NFL had given Lamar Hunt the franchise he wanted in Dallas."
The AFL was eight franchises strong for its inaugural season in the fall of 1960, and over the next 10 years the rebel league captivated football fans and changed the landscape of sports in America. The AFL merged with the NFL in 1970, but its influence is still felt in profound ways.
Denver Broncos 1960--66, San Francisco 49ers 1967
THE MAN known as "the original Bronco" made far more money outside football than he did from an eight-year career, but Austin (Goose) Gonsoulin prizes his time with Denver's first major pro team above most everything else. As a 6'3" DB out of Baylor, he had 43 interceptions (including 11 as a rookie in 1960) and earned a reputation for sledgehammer hits. Upon retiring due to injuries, Gonsoulin returned to his native Texas and worked in a variety of fields: oil, construction, real estate, banking and sales. At 71, he's optimistically battling a second round of prostate cancer and meets up with fellow AFL vets such as Hall of Fame Jets wideout Don Maynard at cancer awareness events. Their talk inevitably turns to two topics: "How the money was terrible," Gonsoulin says, laughing, "and how hard I'd hit Don across the middle."
Three-time All-AFL > Broncos Ring of Fame
The AFL revved up the offense
In 1961 three of pro football's 22 teams averaged more than 28 points a game, and all three—the Houston Oilers, Boston Patriots and San Diego Chargers—were in the AFL. In the first eight games of the 1966 season, the AFL's Kansas City Chiefs averaged 35.6 points. What is now known as the West Coast offense was conceived by Chargers coach Sid Gillman, and the AFL even had the two-point conversion. Dominant teams in the NFL (Green Bay, Cleveland, Chicago and the New York Giants) moved the ball on the ground. San Diego, Oakland, Kansas City and the New York Jets offered up air shows. It's an oversimplification, but that's how fans came to see the two leagues.
"The NFL does today what we were doing in 1962," says Hall of Fame wide receiver Lance Alworth (box, page 60), who played nine seasons with the Chargers. "We created an offense that could change every play at the line of scrimmage. That made the game exciting." And it translated to television.
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.
The AFL, on the other hand, offered opportunity. In preparation for its first draft in November 1959, the league scoured small schools and found future stars such as Elbert Dubenion (Bluffton College) and Abner Haynes (North Texas State). Chiefs scout Lloyd Wells worked the black schools, and by 1966 eight of Kansas City's 22 starters were African-American—four of them from historically black schools. In the '67 draft the Chiefs took Notre Dame middle linebacker Jim Lynch (who was white) with the 47th pick and Lanier three spots later. In camp that summer coach Hank Stram told the two that the best player would win the starting job. "I wondered if there was going to be an open competition," says Lanier, "but from the start, it was refreshing to see there was a purity about the competition. One day Hank called us in and said he wanted the best guys on the field, and I was going to be the middle linebacker and Jim was going to play outside."
That season Lanier become pro football's first black starting middle linebacker. A year later the Denver Broncos' Marlin Briscoe was the first black starting quarterback in the modern era.
"Imagine if there had been no AFL and no Kansas City Chiefs," says Lanier, 63. "Maybe I have to wait five years for my chance [to play in the NFL], for the chance to play middle linebacker. And five years in football is an eternity." Lanier was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1986.
Official program photos for Super Bowl IV, in January 1970—the last before the NFL-AFL merger—show Kansas City with 19 black players; the Minnesota Vikings, 10. Of the six future Hall of Fame players on the Chiefs, four were black (Lanier, Bobby Bell, Buck Buchanan and Emmitt Thomas). Before he died in 2006, Hunt said that the Chiefs "never pretended we made a conscious effort to open things up [racially]. We made a conscious effort to go out and find the best players anywhere that we could."
Buffalo Bills 1963--66, Oakland Raiders 1967--74
THE LONGBALL philosophy of the Raiders was the perfect fit for this rifle-armed passer, who had a .794 winning percentage as a starting quarterback in the pros (still second all time to Otto Graham's .814) and became known as the Mad Bomber. "We were always in attack mode," says Lamonica. After he retired, Lamonica, who turns 68 this month, ran a trucking firm in Alaska and hosted a fishing show on Fox. These days the onetime Notre Damer makes his home in California's San Joaquin Valley and enjoys fishing (bass, primarily) and hunting (from pheasant to Russian boar) rather than preying on secondaries. "I have a passion for the mountains," he says, "and I think I've shot everything in North America except the polar bear."
Two-time AFL MVP > Three AFL championships
The AFL let it all hang out
While autocrats such as George Halas and Vince Lombardi ruled NFL teams, the new league championed individuality. In its first year, seven of the eight AFL teams put players' names on the back of the jerseys. (The NFL didn't do so until 1970.) And AFL players were allowed to grow their hair long, even if a few fans complained. "I got letters from back home [in Mississippi] telling me I'd burn in hell because my hair was coming out of my helmet maybe two or three inches," Alworth says.
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.
Following the 1965 season Pete Gogolak asked for a better contract. Buffalo offered him $13,000 a year, up from $9,900. The New York Giants, whose straight-on kicker, Bob Timberlake, had missed 14 of 15 field goal tries in '65, trumped the Bills' offer to Gogolak, violating an unwritten agreement between the leagues not to raid each other's rosters. Gogolak jumped to the NFL for $32,000, and the bidding war for players was on. Fearing that such competition would ruin both leagues, the NFL and AFL agreed in 1966 to merge four years later.
San Diego Chargers 1962--70, Dallas Cowboys 1971--72
WHEN ALWORTH, a Mississippi native and Arkansas All-America, drove to San Diego for the first time, he thought he'd see "palm trees, beautiful and green." Upon crossing into the Golden State, however, he was surprised to find only mountains and desert. "I said, 'Wait a minute, where's California?'" he recalls. But for the player known as Bambi for his deerlike speed and moves, California soon turned into the dreamland he'd expected. In 11 pro seasons—nine with the Chargers—he caught 542 passes for 10,266 yards and 85 TDs. In 1978 he was the first AFL player inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. What does he cherish most about his AFL days? "How close everyone was, and how much fun we had." He settled in Del Mar, Calif., and owns a chain of railside storage facilities. Says Alworth, 68, "Life is super after football."
Seven-time AFL All-Pro > AFL All-Time Team > NFL 75th Anniversary All-Time Team
The AFL raised the game's status in America
Early in 1959, nine of the 20 largest cities in the U.S., including Houston (7th in population), Boston (13th), Dallas (14th), San Diego (18th) and Buffalo (20th) did not have a pro football team. The 12-team NFL wanted to go slow with expansion, but Hunt's move pressed the accelerator, forcing the NFL to admit Dallas and Minnesota rather than cede those territories to the new league. The AFL brought football to five cities that didn't have a pro team (Boston, Buffalo, Denver, Houston and Oakland), second pro teams to New York and Los Angeles, and another to Dallas to compete with the NFL's expansion Cowboys, which also began play in 1960.
Not every city, though, was ready for pro football or willing to support a second team. Wilson had to float Raiders owner Wayne Valley a $400,000 loan to keep Oakland going beyond the first season. Barron Hilton's Los Angeles Chargers moved to San Diego after one season. Hunt took his Dallas Texans franchise to Kansas City after three years because Big D wasn't big enough for two pro teams.
Yet once AFL teams found their homes, the fan base grew rapidly—average attendance was a healthy 34,291 by 1966 (compared to 50,829 for the NFL)—as did league revenue and respect for the operation. Six years after the Orange Bowl turned down Wilson and his $25,000 franchise, lawyer Joe Robbie and entertainer Danny Thomas paid $7.5 million to put an AFL expansion team in the stadium.
The NFL eventually would have expanded into some of these cities, but it's inconceivable that the league would have more than doubled from 12 teams in 1959 to 26 in 1970, after the merger. And it's possible that cities such as Oakland, Buffalo and Kansas City might never have gotten teams if the AFL hadn't given them a shot. Spreading pro football to more parts of the country, and proving how popular the game could become—that was the AFL's greatest impact on America.
Chicago Bears 1949--58, Houston Oilers 1960--66, Oakland Raiders 1967--75
THERE'S ONE man, more than any other, who can appreciate Brett Favre's annual retirement dilemma. "I absolutely can identify with him," says Blanda, 81. "I've felt his pain." After 10 years as a QB and a kicker for the Bears, the 32-year-old Blanda was without an NFL job. He missed a season, then caught on with the AFL's Oilers in 1960 and quarterbacked them to the league's first two titles. "The AFL," says Blanda, "was a godsend." In '67 he joined the Raiders as kicker and backup QB, playing nine more seasons before retiring at 48 as football's alltime leading scorer, with 2,002 points. (He's now third.) A 1981 Hall of Fame inductee, Blanda splits his time between Oakbrook, Ill., and La Quinta, Calif., with his wife, Betty. They'll celebrate their 60th anniversary in December. The man knows a thing or two about longevity.
1961 AFL Player of the Year > Two AFL championships > AFL All-Time Team