The American Football League established an identity in its first five seasons -- primarily through innovative offenses and high-scoring games. But the NFL still ruled the consciousness of pro football fans.
It also ruled financially.
It's convenient to say now that the AFL was an instant success. It wasn't. The New York franchise, the Titans, was drawing less than 10,000 people to the Polo Grounds, about one-seventh the number the Giants were drawing at Yankee Stadium a couple of miles away across the Harlem River.
In Oakland, the Raiders, even after they hired an energetic 33-year-old coach named Al Davis in 1963, were struggling financially, playing in an 18,000-seat high school field along the Nimitz Freeway. They were losing so much money that Wayne Valley, the managing general partner, called Buffalo owner Ralph Wilson in desperation.
"He said, 'My four partners won't put any more money in. We're going to have to close the door,'" Wilson said. "I told him 'If you fold up all the cynics around America will say, 'We knew they wouldn't last.' I asked him how much he needed. He said '$400,000' and I said 'You've got it.' "
Then and now, Wilson kept a relatively low profile and few people, if any, knew how he'd saved the Raiders.
Not so when Sonny Werblin, one of the nation's most successful talent agents, bought the Titans from nearly bankrupt broadcaster Harry Wismer after the 1963 season He renamed them the Jets and moved them into all-purpose Shea Stadium, which had been built for baseball's Mets as well.
That was his first move. His second was to sign Joe Namath a year later.
It was pivotal for a lot of reasons -- New York is the financial and media capital of the nation if not the world. And Werblin believed money talked. So what, he reasoned, if you pay more than anyone ever has for an unproven player. Just that fact will have people talking about it and put you on the map.
The Namath signing came after the AFL's financial windfall, which came in the winter of 1964.
The AFL had been televised by ABC, then the third network -- it had far less reach than CBS, which carried NFL games, and NBC. But NBC was interested and Wilson, Werblin and several others traveled to Innsbruck, Austria, for the Winter Olympics, which the network was carrying. The idea: up the ante from $100,000 per team.
The ultimate offer was $600,000 and some owners thought the league should take it. "Keep pushing,'' said Werblin, who knew show business. They kept pushing and the figure reached $900,000, only about $200,000 less than the NFL was getting.
The AFL was established. And it had the money to escalate the war for college stars.
The most important was Namath, Alabama's star quarterback and a player whose charisma was as important as his skill.
The St. Louis Cardinals had his NFL draft rights and the AFL rights originally went to Houston and Bud Adams, one of the league's free spenders.
"When I called him, he said 'I'm a New York man. I want to play in New York where the lights are big and fast and everything,' " Adams recalls. " 'Or Chicago or Los Angeles. Houston? I don't know too much about Houston.' He wasn't that interested so I traded with the Jets up there."
It was the perfect convergence because "Broadway Joe" truly was Broadway Joe.
The Cardinals visited Namath in his dorm at Alabama and were appalled when he asked for $200,000. The Jets brought him to New York, and Werblin wined him, dined him and -- most importantly -- took him to night spots all over the city. It was no contest and Namath signed. ("Sonny as in money,'' Howard Cosell said of Werblin.)
Namath arrived in 1965, the second year for the Jets, who as the Titans had been drawing crowds of "10,000" -- writers literally counted the house and found 3,000 several times -- at the Polo Grounds. By then, the Giants were in serious decline on the field, another reason Namath's signing was so important..
Not everyone appreciated the money Namath was getting -- few players in either league were close to six figures then. Even his peers wondered. "I doubt if a quarterback right out of college is worth $400,000," San Diego's John Hadl, who with Lance Alworth formed one of the AFL's most dangerous passing combinations, said at the time.
But again, Werblin's view was that money generated money.
"The first game he played, we go out on the field and there were 63,000 people in the stands," said Don Maynard, who became his favorite receiver. "We'd been playing before empty seats in the Polo Grounds. If some of us worried about how much money Joe was making compared to us, we didn't worry anymore. That's just the way it was."
Meanwhile, the Giants' decline became more than a way for the Jets to establish themselves.
It even eventually led to the merger.
They had been the NFL's cornerstone franchise -- stars like Frank Gifford and Kyle Rote and Sam Huff were revered on Madison Avenue and at the networks. They won an NFL title in 1956, lost that overtime game to the Colts in 1958 and also lost title games in 1959, 1961, 1962 and 1963. But the core had aged and assistants Tom Landry and Vince Lombardi had left to become Hall of Fame coaches in Dallas and Green Bay after Allie Sherman ("the guy who decided to cut me," Maynard says) was made the new head man.
In 1964, the Giants went 2-10-2, and two years later, after a 7-7 season, were 1-12-1 as chants of "Goodbye Allie" rained down on Sherman. Gary Wood and Earl Morrall shared the QB job and were nobodies compared to Namath.
It certainly helped the AFL's television situation.
While home games were blacked out in both leagues, the rest of the country watched Namath most weeks. If not him, Curt Gowdy and Paul Christman, the Summerall and Madden of their era, were doing what sometimes seemed like weekly telecasts of Oakland vs. Kansas City, the West's two powers.
But it still was the New York situation that moved the AFL toward parity.
The catalyst was Pete Gogolak, a Hungarian refugee who became football's first soccer-style kicker and one of its first specialists. Until he came along, most kickers were players who happened to kick -- Lou Groza, a Hall of Fame offensive tackle; George Blanda, a quarterback; Paul Hornung, a running back. Even Pat Summerall, who became a specialist for the Giants, began as an "end," until he was deemed too valuable as a kicker to risk injury (no differentiation in those days between wide receivers, flankers or tight ends).
Gogolak had been playing for the AFL's Buffalo Bills; his contract expired in 1964 and he played out his option in 1965.
Suddenly, he was a Giant, signed by New York owner Wellington Mara in violation of the unwritten rule that neither league would go after the other's players. It enraged NFL owners and shocked the AFL.
"If I'd known you wanted a kicker, I'd have given you a kicker," Baltimore's Carroll Rosenbloom told Mara.
Vince Lombardi, who attended Fordham with Mara and had coached for him in the '50s, was equally aghast -- Mara, the most gentlemanly of owners and one of the most respected and influential in NFL history, was the last person anyone expected to break the rules.
He never said why he did it, but friends said that with a bad team that was losing space in New York newspapers, he wanted to make a splash.
"The NFL fired a pistol shot across our bow and Al Davis followed with a machine gun," said Al LoCasale, the top aide to Davis, who had succeeded Joe Foss as the AFL's commissioner. Earlier, when he heard the news of the Gogolak signing during an AFL meeting, Davis had turned to Buffalo's Ralph Wilson and said "we just got a merger."
The machine gun was a raid on some of the NFL's top stars.
Davis targeted the Los Angeles Rams and signed quarterback Roman Gabriel to a future AFL contract. Adams doubled the salary of Chicago tight end Mike Ditka from $125,000 to $250,000. Davis also signed John Brodie from the 49ers -- he too was ticketed for Adams' Oilers and the war was on.
Or was it?
The last thing either league wanted was a salary war, although Davis and Werblin felt that had the AFL stayed independent, it would have become No. 1 within a few years.
Quietly, Kansas City's Lamar Hunt, a Dallas resident whose quest for a football franchise had led to the AFL's founding, got in touch with Tex Schramm, the Cowboys' president. At the same time, Wilson and Rosenbloom, who both had homes in south Florida, also were talking merger.
But it was still on the NFL's terms -- the AFL had to pay an indemnity and, when realignment came four years later, the Steelers, Browns and Colts received $3 million each to switch to the AFC.
When the deal was finally made, the leagues decided on a common draft, an unnamed title game to be played after the 1967 season and a full merger in 1970 plus financial reparations from the AFL to the NFL. The draft was held on March 14, 1967 and many of the players taken are familiar today to folks who weren't even born then.
They included Bubba Smith to the Colts with the first overall pick, obtained from expansion New Orleans; Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Steve Spurrier to San Francisco with the third (he was never much more than a backup); Bob Griese, Floyd Little, Alan Page, now a justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court; Willie Lanier, Gene Upshaw; Lem Barney in the second round. And way down in the seventh round, No. 182 overall, an offensive tackle named Rayfield Wright to Dallas, one of many sleepers unearthed by Gil Brandt, the Cowboys' astute personnel director. Griese, Page, Upshaw, Lanier, Barney, Wright and Ken Houston, the Oilers' ninth-round choice, are in the Hall of Fame and Little is a finalist this year.
The rivalry was still fierce.
In an exhibition in Denver between the Broncos and Lions on Aug. 5 1967, Detroit captain Alex Karras declined to shake hands and said he'd walk back to Detroit if his team lost. The Broncos won, 13-7. Karras wasn't sighted for a while.
Lombardi's Packers beat Kansas City in the first inter-league championship game on Jan. 15, 1967 at the Los Angeles Coliseum. It was simply known as that -- "NFL-AFL Championship." "Super Bowl" didn't come until a couple of years later.
The hero was 35-year-old Max McGee, who spent the night before on the town in Los Angeles because he hadn't expected to play. But Boyd Dowler was injured early and McGee was forced into action, finishing with seven catches for 138 yards and two touchdown passes from Bart Starr, including one he caught one-handed behind his back.
The next year, the Packers beat Oakland 33-14, a second "we told you so," for the NFL.
But the AFL wasn't down.
The Packers, most of the younger league's players and coaches reasoned, were simply the best team in football. The rest of the NFL wasn't that much better, if at all.
Enter Namath and the Jets.
They won the AFL's Eastern Division in 1968 at 11-3, one of their losses in what has still become a hallmark of both the AFL and sports television.
It was called simply "the Heidi Game" and 40-plus years later, its heritage can be found in the networks' decision to make football Sunday's No. 1 priority, even if 60 Minutes has to be delayed.
It took place in Oakland on Nov. 17, 1968, as part of one of the first NBC doubleheaders. From the start, it was a shootout between Namath and the Raiders' Daryle Lamonica and the game went long, prompting calls to NBC from folks wanting to know if it's showing of Heidi would start on time. At 7 p.m. ET, the Jets led 32-29 and the decision was made.
Cut to Heidi.
Lamonica threw another TD pass, then a Raider named Preston Ridlehuber recovered a fumble on the ensuing kickoff in the end zone. Two touchdowns in nine seconds, Raiders win 43-32 and most of the nation missed it. The calls for Heidi were nothing like the furor raised with NBC switchboard operators about that, a learning experience about football that network executives never forgot.
But that was just a preliminary for the Jets.
On Jan. 12, 1969, Super Bowl III was to be played in Miami. It was the first game to officially bear that name -- the source of the name was "super ball,'' which was a toy Lamar Hunt's children played with.
It was the Jets vs. the Baltimore Colts, favored by 18 points, another indication that the public still believed that the best NFL team was far superior to the best from the junior league.
As predicted, it was never a game. But after Namath "guaranteed'' victory, it was the Jets who won -- with John Unitas injured and Earl Morrall playing quarterback, New York won 16-7. Matt Snell, a New York native who chose the Jets over the Giants, was the star, with 30 carries for 121 yards and New York's only TD, although Namath was voted the game's MVP.
Only fitting for the man who brought the AFL to parity.
The next year, the AFL put a ribbon on that win when Kansas City beat Minnesota 23-7 before more than 80,000 fans in New Orleans.
"I said to myself that I made the right decision," said Adams, who had traded Namath's rights to New York. "Because it gave us the first victory over the NFL."
Well, not quite the first. That was the Broncos over the Lions, who were 10 years into a title-less streak that has continued for another 40-plus.
But the first that really counted.