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Book Report: Going Long

by Randy Snow

Originally posted on AmericanChronicle.com, Wednesday, October 28, 2009


The American Football League was founded in 1960 and for 10 years, the AFL existed as a separate league and challenged the NFL for players on the field, as well as in the courts.

In the 2003 book, Going Long, author Jeff Miller interviewed 174 former players, coaches and owners who tell the story of the birth of the AFL and its eventual merger with the NFL in 1970.

The AFL story begins in 1958 with a young 26-year old Texas billionaire by the name of Lamar Hunt wanting to bring an NFL team to his hometown of Dallas. He approached the NFL about an expansion team, but was told the league did not want to expand beyond the 12 teams that it already had. Since Chicago had two NFL teams at the time, the Bears and the Cardinals, Hunt began looking into the possibility of buying the Chicago Cardinals. His intention was to move the team to Texas but, at the time, the Cardinals owners did not want the team to be moved. By January 1959, Hunt had decided to form his own football league. (Ironically, the Cardinals did end up moving to St. Louis in 1960)


On August 14, 1959, the American Football League was officially introduced at a press conference in Chicago. There would initially be six teams; New York, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Dallas, Houston and Denver. The response to the new league was so great that a few months later, two more teams were added in Boston and Buffalo.

However, the Minneapolis ownership group withdrew from the league in November 1959 after they were promised a future franchise in the NFL. This occurred while the AFL was conducting its inaugural player draft, in Minneapolis. The loss of the Minneapolis team opened the door for a team in Oakland to become the eighth team in the new league. Hunt would be the owner of the AFL Dallas Texans. But the NFL also decided to put a team in Dallas in 1960.


Because the AFL did not want to compete with the Sunday NFL or Saturday college football during its first AFL regular season game, it was decided that the Boston Patriots would host the Denver Broncos on Friday night, September 9, 1960 in the leagues opening game.

The AFL tried to distinguish itself from the NFL by doing things a bit differently. They instituted an optional 2-point conversion after touchdowns (which was used in college football at the time, but not in the NFL) and they put players names on the backs of their jerseys, something the NFL did not do.

Another innovation that can be credited to the AFL came in 1964. The Buffalo Bills drafted a kicker out of Cornell in the 12th round by the name of Pete Gogolak. He became the first ever soccer-style kicker in pro football. After two seasons with the Bill, and two AFL titles, Gogolak became the first AFL player to jump to the NFL when he signed a four-year contract with the New York Giants.


The AFL needed stars on the field to attract fans and one of the first players signed was running back Billy Cannon, the 1959 Heisman Trophy winner from LSU. Cannon actually signed contracts with both the NFL and the AFL and the fight to acquire his services ended up in court where a judge eventually awarded Cannon to the AFL and the Houston Oilers.

The Oilers won the first AFL championship game in 1960, beating the Los Angeles Chargers. The winning players earned about $1,500 each for the game.

After that first season, the Chargers moved to San Diego because they were having trouble competing for fans against the NFL Los Angeles Rams. Both teams played their home games in the Los Angeles Coliseum.


In the league's third season, Hunt's Dallas Texans team won the AFL title, but it too was having trouble competing for fans with the NFL Dallas Cowboys. In fact, both teams in Dallas were struggling to attract fans and it became clear that one of them had to go if both were to survive. The Texans moved to Kansas City after the 1962 season and became the Chiefs.

The New York franchise started out being known as the Titans, but the name was changed to the Jets after the 1962 season when a new owner bought the team.

Originally, the Oakland team was also known by a different name. The original nickname was the Seņors, the result of a "Name the Team" contest. They even had an informal mascot who wore a sombrero and a serape, but the name was soon changed in favor of the Raiders.

When the AFL launched in 1960, it had a five-year television contract with ABC. The NFL had a TV contract with CBS to broadcast its games. When the AFL contract with ABC was up in 1964, it signed a huge contract with NBC that would allow the league to compete with the NFL in signing the top college and free agent players available. The AFL also was the first to come up with the idea of having all its teams share the TV revenue money equally.

In 1964, the AFL New York Jets drafted quarterback Joe Namath out of Alabama. But about a week later, the Jets also signed another rookie quarterback, John Huarte, a Heisman Trophy winner from Notre Dame. Namath was paid an unheard of $400,000 at the time to join the AFL. In the years that followed, player contracts began to skyrocket past that figure in both the AFL and the NFL.


In 1965, merger talks began between the two leagues behind closed doors. AFL Commissioner Joe Foss resigned in 1966 to pursue other interests and the owners elected Al Davis to replace him in April 1966.


On June 8, 1966, a joint press conference was held in New York to announce that the AFL and NFL would be merging. They would not play regular season games against each other until 1970, but they would play pre-season, exhibition games beginning in 1966. There would also be a championship game between the winners of the two leagues beginning in January 1967. Pete Rozelle would be the commissioner of the combined league, which meant that Al Davis would be out of a job. Davis had not even been included in the secret merger talks.

Initially there was talk that the AFL Raiders and Jets would be moved so that they would not be in competition for fans with the NFL 49ers and Giants, but that eventually was dropped from the merger discussions.

The AFL added its first expansion team in 1966, the Miami Dolphins. At the time, the owners were Joe Robbie, who was a lawyer in Minneapolis, and entertainer Danny Thomas. The NFL and AFL also began conducting a joint player draft in 1967. In 1968, the AFL added another expansion team, the Cincinnati Bengals. The league now had 10 teams prior to the merger.

In addition, it is an AFL game between the New York Jets and the Oakland Raiders that will forever be remembered as, "The Heidi Game." On November 17, 1968, the Jets traveled to Oakland for a nationally televised game on NBC. At 7:00 PM Eastern Time, with 1:05 remaining in the game and the Jets leading 32-29, NBC pulled the plug on the game and started the movie, Heidi. Jets fans in New York had to listen to the remainder of the game on the radio. Oakland wound up scoring two touchdowns and came from behind to win the game 43-32.

The NBC broadcast supervisor at the game knew that the game was going to go past 7:00 and had been in contact with an executive producer at the network who said he would get permission to extend the broadcast and call back. That call never came because the phone lines were jammed. People were calling the network wanting to know if NBC was going to stay with the game or not. The network would have stayed with the game, but could not get through, so the broadcast supervisor switched to the movie. Once the switch was made, there was no way to go back to the game.

Even though the Jets lost the "Heidi" game, they went on to win Super Bowl III that year. It was the first win for the AFL after the Green Bay Packers of the NFL had easily won the first two Super Bowls over AFL teams.

Joe Namath was the co-owner in a New York restaurant called Bachelors III. NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle found out that a number of undesirables (mobsters) were frequenting the restaurant. After Super Bowl III, Rozelle made an ultimatum to Namath. He wanted him to give up his stake in the restaurant or be banned from playing football. Infuriated, Namath held a press conference and retired from football.

The following fall, when Jets players returned to training camp and received their Super Bowl Championship rings, Namath was not there. He received his ring separately from the team. Soon after, however, Namath did sell his interest in the restaurant and joined the team in training camp.

In the first regular season game for Namath and the Jets as defending Super Bowl Champions in 1969, they beat the Buffalo Bills, who featured a rookie running back by the name of O.J. Simpson.

The final Super Bowl before the official merger with the NFL in 1970 was Super Bowl IV. Ironically, the game featured the Kansas City Chiefs, owned by AFL founder Lamar Hunt, and the Minnesota Vikings, a team that was supposed to be in the AFL, but whose owners decided at the last minute to join the NFL. Chiefs head coach Hank Stram wore a microphone during the game and his antics on the sideline were forever captured by NFL Films. Kansas City won the game 23-7.

When it came time to merge the two leagues, there were 16 teams in the NFL and 10 in the AFL. Both leagues wanted to retain its own structure as much as possible. It was decided that three NFL teams would move to the AFL in order to balance the two leagues at 13 teams each. Those three teams were the Cleveland Browns, the Baltimore Colts and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Each team receiver $3 million for moving to what became known as the American Football Conference.

Sadly, since the book was published in 2003, many of the founding pioneers of the AFL who were interviewed for the book have passed away. Most notably Lamar Hunt, who died on December 13, 2006, Coach Lou Saban, who died on March 29, 2009, coach Hank Stram, who died on July 4, 2005 and quarterback Jack Kemp, who died on May 2, 2009. The AFL's first commissioner, Joe Foss, died on January 1, 2003, just before the book was published.

This was a great book with countless stories that could only have been told by the people who were actually there. Jeff Miller should be proud of the fact that he has helped to save the history of the American Football League for all of us to enjoy!

In celebration of the AFL's 50th anniversary, the original eight teams are wearing throwback uniforms and helmets during many games this season, especially when they play each other.

As a side note, Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this past August along with the rest of the Class of 2009.




Remembering the AFL - USAToday.com



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