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The Other League

The short-lived American Football League, merged into the NFL after Super Bowl IV, invented the modern media spectacle that is pro football. And three Jews invented the show that was the AFL.

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Superbowl Third World Championship GameSuper Bowl III program, 1969.

This article was published February 3, 2011

This Sunday, you will watch Super Bowl XLV. You will watch because the Super Bowl is among the American religion’s biggest holidays. You will watch because professional football is the national pastime (last Halloween, more viewers watched a regular-season National Football League game than a simultaneous Game 4 of the World Series). You will watch because at some point during the game, Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers or Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers will take the snap, drop back to give his receivers precious seconds to zoom down the field, maintain focus even as the pocket collapses, pat the ball once and chuck it 40 yards as one of the fastest men alive runs to meet it. For a little under three seconds, the ball will travel through the air, hovering onscreen against the backdrop of the blurred masses, and more than 100 million Americans will hold their breath, waiting to see what happens.

None of this would exist—pro football’s astounding popularity and financial success, the Super Bowl, the Hollywood-like narratives and Hollywood-like stars, and even the glorious deep bomb—if it were not for the American Football League, or AFL, which disappeared more than 40 years ago, only 10 years after its birth. The AFL’s story is a quintessentially American tale of a group of outmanned, outcast insurgents working on the margins, forced to break with the old way of doing things and in the process creating a brasher, more exciting version of the mainstream—a mainstream that then remade itself in the insurgents’ image.

And Sid Gillman, Sonny Werblin, and Al Davis—three Jewish men—were among the AFL’s boldest and most creative innovators, and through the AFL had among the greatest impacts on the shape, success, and direction of the game you will watch on Sunday night.

The AFL began because 27-year-old Lamar Hunt, the son of independent oil baron H.L. Hunt, wanted to own a football team and the 12-team NFL refused to expand. So Hunt found seven like-minded entrepreneurs and started his own league, which played its first games in the fall of 1960. (Jeff Miller’s oral history, Going Long, the NFL Films documentary Full Color Football, and especially Michael MacCambridge’s superb history of pro football, America’s Game all tell the story well.) Over the next decade, the AFL slowly gained enough respectability—and presented enough of a threat—that the NFL agreed to absorb it. In January 1970, Hunt’s team, the Kansas City Chiefs, won the AFL and then defeated the NFL champion Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IV—and then the AFL ceased to be. Its teams were absorbed into the American Football Conference of the NFL.

Then the NFL, having conquered the AFL, was in turn conquered by it. The story of how the AFL—and particularly Gillman, Werblin, and Davis—remade football will resonate with those who know how Gershwin remade American popular music, or how Bellow remade the American novel.

The Genius

At the end of a disappointing 1959 season, the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams—general-managed by a young comer named Pete Rozelle—fired Coach Sid Gillman, making him the logical choice, in 1960, to lead L.A.’s brand-new AFL franchise. Gillman was the Chargers’ coach (they soon moved to San Diego) for the entirety of the AFL’s 10-year existence and was, as at least three different people I talked to called him, “the father of the offensive passing game.”

Sid Gillman1960 Fleer pro football trading card.

In the 1950s, football offenses overwhelmingly handed the ball off. Gillman was typical in this regard: “He ran the ball an extraordinary amount even among NFL coaches,” the football historian Michael MacCambridge says. However, arriving in the AFL, Gillman noticed a few things. First—at least at its outset—AFL defenses were not quite up to the NFL standard and frequently played man-to-man coverage. Second, the actual ball was a Spalding J5-V, which was a quarter of an inch longer and slimmer than the Wilson model in the NFL, which made it slightly easier to throw. Finally, Gillman found an excellent set of toys to play with: quarterback Jack Kemp, an NFL cast-off who, like so many others, found the second act of his career in the nascent league (he would find his third act in politics, serving in Congress and eventually becoming Bob Dole’s running mate in the 1996 elections); running back Keith Lincoln; offensive tackle Ron Mix, a future Hall of Famer known as “The Intellectual Assassin”; and, most important, Lance “Bambi” Alworth, a wide receiver out of Arkansas with exceptionally soft hands. Most of all, Gillman saw a new league, where innovation would be more welcome.

So Gillman decided to switch things up offensively. “The field is 100 yards long and 53 yards and two-thirds inches wide,” Gillman is shown saying in Full Color Football, “and we decided we were going to use every inch of it.” Alworth could run deep and catch what was thrown at him, creating a potential for big plays and, just as important, a defense that would be stretched too thin guarding against the long pass to successfully defend the run and shorter passes—many of which, in another Gillman innovation, were caught by running backs.

“If you look at today’s game, Sid Gillman still has a tremendous impact,” says Ron Jaworski, the ESPN analyst who as a quarterback—and with Sid Gillman as his quarterbacks coach—led the Philadelphia Eagles to the 1981 Super Bowl. “Gillman was a vertical stretch guy who believed in attacking down the field, as well as the horizontal stretch, sideline-to-sideline.” The sport played today is dominated by the pass and by quarterbacks who routinely throw 4,000 yards in one season (including Roethlisberger and Rodgers, Super Bowl XLV’s featured QBs). While prime credit for this arguably goes to Bill Walsh, the legendary San Francisco 49ers coach who created the West Coast Offense, which spread offensive players across the field, Gillman’s innovations and emphasis on passing came first. “This notion that you hear associated with Walsh, that you use the pass to set up the run, the seeds of that were in the Chargers’ system,” MacCambridge argues. It is no coincidence that the first quarterback to throw for 4,000 yards did so in the AFL and that the quarterback to throw three of the next four 4,000-yard seasons did it for the Chargers.

That accomplishment belongs to Hall of Famer Dan Fouts, who played under coach Don Coryell; his brilliant offense, “Air Coryell,” extended Gillman’s ideas about deep routes and pass-catching running backs. “They shared ideas and concepts, and I think what they shared more than anything was a fearlessness about the passing game,” Fouts, now a CBS commentator, tells me. “When you think of the American Football League, you think of men like Sid Gillman, and the wide-open style that the league played, and how entertaining it was.”

Sid GillmanSid Gillman of the San Diego Chargers with quarterback John Hadl in 1971.
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

In the AFL, necessity was the mother not only of invention but of tolerance. Most famously, when it became clear that New Orleans was neither big nor easy on the prospect of black players competing in the 1964 AFL All-Star Game, the squads refused to play, and, a day later, the League moved the game to Houston. But this proud moment was possible only because from the outset several teams—and most notably the Chargers—were unafraid of putting 10 or 15 black players on their squads at a time when American sports had only recently integrated; Gillman and his chief scout, a young Al Davis, placed particular emphasis on recruiting at historically black colleges, which the NFL ignored. Additionally, in training camp, Gillman assigned rooms by position, meaning the extraordinarily rare phenomenon of whites and blacks sharing bedrooms. “Sid told me at the time that’s why he was doing it,” says Ron Mix, Gillman’s offensive lineman.

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The quaarterback does NOT hike the ball. The center hikes the ball to the quarterback, or another player in the backfield!

Yonos – you gotta understand – he writes for the NY Times and the Village Voice – you can’t expect him to know too much about football.

Great article, lots of history I was not aware of.

David Gleicher says:

Admit the truth, Marc. Just as most lawyers would rather be screenwriters, you would rather be a sportswriter. And if you’re writing about the Devil, isn’t it more fun to write about Dan Snyder than George Soros?

Let’s be clear here….the reason nobody watched last years’ World Series was because of the two teams that wound up there. SF Giants and Texas Rangers. Anyone wanna bet that neither team will even come close this year?

I assume the two commenters on Marc’s football knowledge must not be regular readers, or were kidding. The hike comment is an obvious typo from a writer whose football pieces all season bespeak deep knowledge of the game. I mean, do you know anyone who thinks the qb hikes the ball?

Matthew Fishbane says:

Due to an editing error, a sentence was flipped such that the quarterback appeared to “hike the ball,” which was not Marc Tracy’s intention. The sentence has been corrected. Thanks to Yonos for pointing out our oversight.

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The Other League

The short-lived American Football League, merged into the NFL after Super Bowl IV, invented the modern media spectacle that is pro football. And three Jews invented the show that was the AFL.