As we enter the roaring 20s, the thought of a new professional gridiron organization coming along and challenging the National Football League seems absurd. With 32 franchises, an international footprint and a seemingly endless supply of money, the NFL is more than an 800-pound gorilla – it’s King Kong.
The World Football League (1974-75) didn’t have the cash to pose a real threat to it, and the United States Football League (1983-85) didn’t have enough owners with the sense to stick to a spring schedule so it could maintain a degree of major league status.
But 50 years ago today the league’s last real challenger played its final title game – not because it couldn’t beat the NFL, but because it joined it.
When the Kansas City Chiefs defeated the Oakland Raiders, 17-7, on January 4, 1970, the book closed on the little league that could – and did. Oh, there was an AFL all-star game on January 17, but this marked the last high stakes competition played by an association that swiftly proved it could stand shoulder to shoulder with big brother.
Formed in 1959 and starting play in 1960, the AFL got the NFL’s attention quickly. And once it became obvious that its owners were willing and able to outbid the older league for top talent, a union made the most business sense.
So in 1966 reps from each entity met and decided they’d combine, forming one major league in 1970 with room for expansion.
Until then, they’d maintain separate schedules but play preseason games, an AFL-NFL World Championship Game (the Super Bowl) and hold a combined college draft.
The best news for AFL faithful was that all of its existing franchises would be absorbed and none could be transferred outside their metro areas.
The 1960 AFL season began with the Boston Patriots, Buffalo Bills, Dallas Texans, Denver Broncos, Houston Oilers, Los Angeles Chargers, Oakland Raiders and Titans of New York.
Ten years later those franchises were still around, although the the Chargers shifted to San Diego in 1961; the Texans relocated to Kansas City in 1963 and were renamed the Chiefs; and the Titans rebranded as the New York Jets in 1963.
The United States Senate approved the merger on October 14, 1966, so the leagues basically had a working relationship for three full seasons before consolidating.
As a kid who had learned to love football thanks to the AFL (and specifically the New York Jets), this wasn’t particularly good news to me.
I thought the upstarts were a lot more fun to watch; it was sandlot football in pads, and I mean that as a compliment. Generally the games were more wide-open than those of the NFL, and coaches were much less conservative in their play-calling.
Not that I disliked the NFL (the Los Angeles Rams were my favorite team in the “other” league), but given a choice I’d always choose an AFL game first.
So as I sat and watched the final AFL title game 50 years ago, I did so with a touch of sadness.
Even though I wasn’t losing an old friend, that old friend was moving to a nicer neighborhood – and that meant my sandlot would never be the same.