If you glance at the history of American professional football, you’ll find as many tombstones as you will milestones.
While the National Football League has grown into the most lucrative sports league on the planet (it takes in roughly $13 billion per year), upstarts such as the World Football League and United States Football League drown in red ink.
But 60 years ago today, a competitor decided to challenge the status quo.
And although it now exists as part of the NFL, the American Football League rattled the establishment by establishing itself as gridiron equals.
On August 14, 1959, Dallas millionaire Lamar Hunt led a meeting in Chicago that created a second major pro football league in the United States, one that would begin play in the fall of 1960 as the AFL.
Hunt announced that Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Denver and New York would have franchises, and there was a possibility two more cities could join for the inaugural campaign.
“We have definite commitments,” Hunt told the United Press International news service. “A kitty (pool of money) is being set up to assure the financial success of the league.”
The other owners – including Barron Hilton, who bought the L.A. franchise, and Bud Adams, head of the Houston entry – dubbed themselves the “Foolish Club” because of their audacious plan to take on the established NFL.
“We’ll try to beat the National Football League on their draft,” Hunt said, adding that the AFL would also bid against the NFL and the Canadian Football League for the best available talent.
The NFL had 12 teams in 1959 and was still playing second fiddle to Major League Baseball among sports fans. But the senior circuit got a huge popularity boost due to the 1958 championship game, one that saw the Baltimore Colts defeat the New York Giants, 23-17, in the league’s first-ever sudden death overtime game.
Featuring 17 players who went on to be inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, that contest turned the NFL into a television hit. It’s widely considered the single event that ultimately propelled the NFL to its spot atop the American sports food chain.
That being the case, trying to go head-to-head with it seemed like a losing proposition.
What’s interesting, though, is there was little opposition among NFL officials when the formation of the AFL was first announced.
Hunt discussed the idea with NFL commissioner Bert Bell, who “gave the league his blessing” and said the franchises of each league would respect each other’s player contracts.
Even Vince Lombardi – about to embark on his first year as coach and general manager of the Green Bay Packers – was in favor of the AFL.
“There is plenty of talent around to support two leagues,” Lombardi told UPI.
While the movers and shakers of the AFL had only a year to get it up and running, they pulled it off, although the lineup was a bit different from the one proposed at the Chicago meeting.
The 1960 season featured the Boston Patriots, Buffalo Bills, Dallas Texans, Denver Broncos, Houston Oilers, Los Angeles Chargers, Oakland Raiders and Titans of New York.
The cordial relationship between the NFL and AFL ended quickly after the older organization announced that it would expand to both Dallas and Minneapolis. It also moved into Miami when the AFL was targeting a team for South Florida.
But the new league managed to add Boston, Buffalo and Oakland to the lineup, and started with eight teams instead of six.
AFL Commissioner Joe Foss negotiated a package TV deal for the league that guaranteed each team $225,000 for broadcast rights, and 70 percent of the players drafted out of college were signed by the fledgling organization.
“Even competition is the most important thing for our success,” Foss told the Associated Press on September 7, 1960. “One-sided games would be the worst thing that could happen and it is hoped that our plan has made that unlikely. We do not expect to be up to the standards of the National Football League, but inside the league the competition should be good.”
The rest, as they say, is history.
The relationship between America’s two major leagues got more acrimonious over the years (the Texans couldn’t compete with the Cowboys in Dallas and moved to Kansas City, where they were rebranded the Chiefs), but the AFL was proving to be on par with the NFL on the field.
On June 8, 1966 – three months before the start of the AFL’s seventh season – the two leagues announced a merger in an effort to end the bidding war for top talent. They would play four more seasons as separate leagues before joining forces as a unified National Football League in 1970.
It made perfect business sense, of course, but I hated to see the AFL loses its identity.
It was the league that made me passionate about football, and I found it far more entertaining than the NFL. Its games were high-scoring, its players free-spirited – it was everything I wanted as fan.
The AFL was the last real threat to the NFL, and proved that members of the “Foolish Club” were anything but.
It’s a league worthy of a monument, not a tombstone.