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.
The NFL team that drafted Namath, the St. Louis (football) Cardinals, offered him $200,000. That equaled the signing bonus Namath eventually got from the Jets. All told, Namath’s contract was worth $427,000 (including the value of a Lincoln Continental), an amount so huge it was its own story—which was half of why Werblin did it. “I don’t know whether you’ll play on our team or make a picture for Universal,” Werblin told his new quarterback, according to Sports Illustrated (just in case, Werblin also signed Huarte, Notre Dame’s Heisman Trophy-winner). In fact, Namath was a certain kind of gridiron genius, the first quarterback to throw for 4,000 yards in a season and the leader of the Jets team that won Super Bowl III. But just as important for the AFL and the future of professional football, he was Broadway Joe: football’s first mass media-age star.
The Jets quickly became attendance kings, and other AFL teams enjoyed their strongest fan showings whenever the Jets were visiting. Namath’s youth, casual attitude, and sex appeal helped associate the AFL, already football’s alternative league, with the ’60s counterculture. “A lot of people became AFL fans just to bug their fathers,” says Ange Coniglio, who runs the fan website Remember the AFL. (Joe Namath had the honor of being the only athlete to appear on Nixon’s Enemies List.) Above all, the Namath signing and the NBC deal—both Werblin’s doing—signaled that the AFL was not going away, which meant the NFL had to get serious about a merger.
“You’re not a wartime consigliere,” Michael Corleone tells his adopted brother, Tom, in The Godfather, pushing him aside. One imagines a similar conversation taking place among the AFL owners in April 1966, when, sensing war on the horizon, they replaced jovial commissioner Joe Foss with Al Davis, then the head coach and general manager of the Oakland Raiders. Among Davis’ first moves was to demand a new office in New York. “I want to be on the top floor of a building,” Joanne Parker, a former staffer, recalls Davis insisting. “I want the entire floor, and I want the elevator to be such that nobody else can get to that floor.”
Think of the person you know who has the biggest chip on his or her shoulder. Then add football genius, paranoia, and overtly Machiavellian tendencies. Finally, multiply the size of the shoulder-chip by 50. I ask Glenn Dickey, who covered Davis as the San Francisco Chronicle’s Raiders beat writer in the late ’60s, where Davis got his me-against-everyone mentality. “We always wondered that, too,” he says. While the NFL’s Pete Rozelle was firmly establishment and Lamar Hunt, a child of privilege, was a rebel purely out of necessity, Davis was—is—a rebel by nature. “He’s always had something in him that made him feel like an outsider,” says Dickey, “and he enjoyed that role.”
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Born in Brockton, Massachusetts, he attended Brooklyn’s Erasmus Hall High School and then Syracuse, where the coach did not give him the playing-time he felt he deserved—forging, or at least adding to, his grudge against the universe. His military affectations were refined while coaching at The Citadel; he later coached at the University of Southern California and for Gillman’s Chargers before heading north, to Oakland. “It’s dangerous to put Al in this group of AFL guys,” MacCambridge warns me. “In so many ways he is an American original.” He was born on July 4, 1929, and is known for two three-word phrases that seem applicable to any life situation: “Commitment to excellence” and “Just win, baby.” (There is a splendid third, lesser-known quip of his: “Anything good in this life is worth cheating for.”) Today, at 81, he is still the principal owner of, as he always pronounces it in full Brooklyn splendor, “the Raiduhs.”
Earlier than any other franchise, The Raiduhs stood—and continue to stand—for something beyond their location, their colors (a menacing silver and black), and whoever happens to manage, coach, and play for them at any particular time. They were the first team with an identity in a league that now relies on such identities to market itself. And what is the Raiders’ identity? The team with a chip on its shoulder. When NFL Network counted down its “Top Ten Feuds,” number one was “Raiders vs. the world.”
Part of Davis’ brilliance was football. In his first year as head coach, he turned a 1-13 team into a 10-4 one. In 1966, back from his brief stint as the AFL’s second and final commissioner—he returned as general manager, not coach, and he picked up his first ownership stake then—he initiated Bill Walsh’s coaching career, putting him in charge of the running backs. He added to Gillman’s passing game—he was a particular fan, says Dickey, of Gillman’s “East Formation,” in which two receivers line up to the quarterback’s right (which at the time was unusual)—and the Raiders, even more than the Chargers, became known as the top vertical passing team, winning the 1967 AFL Championship with QB Daryl “The Mad Bomber” Lamonica. The Raiders proudly built an identity as being tougher than everyone else. “There was a philosophy in the ’60s that if a player was too idiosyncratic, that player could not help the team,” MacCambridge says, citing anecdotes of coaches like Paul Brown and Vince Lombardi chastising players for missing assignments right after they had scored touchdowns on electric, improvisational plays. “Davis was among the first of football men, as a coach and an executive, to recognize that was hogwash.”
As AFL commissioner, Davis did not strike the deal that led to the historic merger of the two leagues. Instead, he lured the NFL into war and then proved a formidable foe, creating a climate where the non-psychopaths could move in, strike a deal, and make the peace.
There was an unwritten agreement that while the two leagues would hold their own drafts and compete over college prospects, teams would not poach veteran free agents from the other league. That understanding was shattered one month after Davis became commissioner when the Giants—frightened by Werblin and Namath’s resurgent Jets across the river—signed Pete Gogolak, the star soccer-style placekicker of the AFL’s Buffalo Bills. Davis immediately perceived Gogolak for the Fort Sumter he needed, and he quickly counterattacked, getting AFL teams to go on a spending spree for NFL free agents. Prowling his penthouse office, muttering things like, “The guerrilla wins if he doesn’t lose,” Davis targeted three types of players: the stars, because they were stars (Bears tight end Mike Ditka signed with the AFL’s Houston Oilers, though never got the chance to play for them); the quarterbacks, because they were quarterbacks; and—this is the best—Los Angeles Rams, because he wanted to get under Rozelle’s skin. (Rozelle had started out in the Rams’ publicity department and been their general manager.)
In this atmosphere, Rozelle, Lamar Hunt, and Tex Schramm—the influential owner of the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys—struck the deal that merged the two leagues behind Davis’ back. After the 1966 season, the leagues would stage a championship game between the two leagues’ winners and then a common draft; inter-league exhibition games would commence before the 1967 season; and the total merger would occur before the 1970 season. Rozelle would be commissioner of the two leagues immediately. An aide had to tell Davis what had happened mere hours before the merger was announced. His response: “Do you remember Yalta?”
The Big Game
The Super Bowl is super because, for four seasons, it featured not the two champions of artificial conferences within one organization but the best teams in two distinct leagues that truly hated each other. Vince Lombardi’s Packers handily beat Hunt’s Chiefs and Davis’ Raiders in the first two big games, confirming the public’s sense of the NFL’s superiority. But in Super Bowl III, the Jets, 19-point underdogs against a Colts team that some declared to be the best ever—and with Namath, famously, “guaranteeing” victory—stunned the world with a 16-7 win. MacCambridge reports that Rosenbloom, the Colts’ owner, was inconsolable afterward, even as Rozelle tried anyway. “Don’t worry,” he said, “this may be the best thing that ever happened to the game.”
Today’s NFL teams are unafraid to throw the deep ball and let their quarterbacks escape the pocket, as Gillman and other AFL coaches devised for their offenses. On defense, Steelers safety Troy Polamalu and Packers cornerback Charles Woodson at times freelance outside the system, in ways that would make Al Davis proud, if only they weren’t doing it on teams that aren’t the Raiders. And at least as many stories will have been written about Roethlisberger’s off-the-field troubles and Rodgers’ humility as about their passing prowess, because, thanks to Werblin and Namath, quarterbacks today are stars like any other stars. And it’s all happening at the Super Bowl, the biggest and loudest spectacle in the world. The AFL didn’t disappear. It assimilated.
Cover image from RemembertheAFL.com.
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