50 years later, the AFL's joke is on everyone else

Sep 14 2010 - 5:04pm

BOSTON -- Billy Sullivan saw big football crowds as the publicity director at Boston College and Notre Dame, and he was sold on the pro game and its televised future when he watched the landmark 1958 NFL championship with his sons on the black and white Zenith in their family room.

So when the fledgeling American Football League wanted to put a team in Boston, Sullivan needed no convincing. Still, the former marketing maven had one more deal to close: He had to talk his wife into taking the $8,300 nest egg they were saving for a summer house on Cape Cod and instead use it as seed money for an AFL franchise.

"She was eventually convinced it was the right thing to do," their son Pat said this week as the AFL approached the 50th anniversary of its inaugural game. "It was obviously one of the great success stories in sports."

With that -- and a lot more money he raised from investors -- Billy Sullivan became the eighth and final member of "The Foolish Club," an octet of owners who challenged the stodgy NFL and prospered where others before and after have failed. On Sept. 9, 1960, Sullivan's Boston Patriots played the Denver Broncos in the AFL's first game, starting the league on its way to a merger with its long-entrenched rival that still shapes the form and flavor of pro football to this day.

"It was the start of something big, although no one knew it at the time," said Ken Rappoport, author of "The Little League that Could," a new book that chronicles the league's feverish formation and lasting success. "It was a monumental achievement."

From its opening night at Boston University Field through the merger in which all of its original franchises were absorbed by the NFL, the spirit of the AFL lives on wherever the No Fun League is at its most fan-friendly. The AFL had more colorful uniforms and logos, names on the back of players' jerseys, the 2-point conversion and a pass-heavy offensive style that helped usher the sport from its leather helmet beginnings to the modern offenses of today.

"The NFL was kind of a stodgy, staid league even then," said Ron Hobson, who covered the opening game for The Patriot Ledger of Quincy (Mass.) and continued on the Patriots beat until his retirement in January.

Meanwhile, AFL's "fools" celebrated the entertainment value of the sport over the more disciplined, conservative style embodied by the NFL's Vince Lombardi and George Halas.

"Nobody took themselves too seriously. There were a lot of funny moments and a lot of fun moments," Pat Sullivan said. "The game would end and the players and the fans would all mill around on the field together. Players would say to their families, 'I'll meet you at the 20-yard line.' You didn't have 18 state troopers ushering the coach off."

The AFL also had longer seasons -- 14 games instead of 12 -- along with higher minimum salaries and better benefits as it tried to lure players from the NFL. It brought the sport to Texas (forcing the NFL to follow on its heels) and other areas that were clamoring for pro football.

And the new league was different in even more important ways: AFL teams scouted the traditionally black colleges and other small schools that NFL teams could afford to ignore, and the rosters showed it. Then, when black players were unhappy over segregation in New Orleans before the 1964 All-Star game, the league moved the event to Houston.

"They most definitely had a more of an open door than the NFL," Rappoport said. "The AFL had no choice if it wanted to compete with the NFL. It took a while for the NFL to catch up in terms of black players."

Others had tried to compete with the NFL before, including three groups that were also known as the American Football League. But the one that finally took root was the brainchild of Texas oil scion Lamar Hunt, who had been frustrated in his attempts to bring an NFL team to Dallas.

"What does a millionaire do when you can't buy a team? You start a league," said Rappoport, a former Associated Press sports writer who has written more than 50 books. "So that's what he did."

Hunt helped recruit owners for eight teams: Dallas, Houston, Buffalo, New York, Denver, Los Angeles and Oakland, with Sullivan coming on as the Boston owner right before the inaugural player draft.

Boston had been without a team since the NFL's Yanks left in 1948 on a path that eventually brought their remnants to Baltimore, where they would become the Colts. Without a pro football team of their own, New Englanders did the unthinkable, adopting a team from New York.

"I watched the Giants all the time on television," Hobson said. "They were legendary."

The Patriots were so fearful of their NFL rival, in fact, that they scheduled their games on Friday nights to avoid competing with Giants telecasts. And that meant the first game of the new league's first season wound up at BU field, a day before the Los Angeles Chargers hosted the Dallas Texans.

"It was an exciting night. It was something that my father had dreamed of and spoken about," said Pat Sullivan, who later became the team's general manager. "There was a certain level of anticipation and excitement going on, and I think they were satisfied going out the door."

Local media were less impressed, in part because of their investment in broadcasting the Giants games. "It was sort of like, 'That's cute, but they will never be the New York football Giants,"' Sullivan said.

Sullivan remembers that temporary bleachers were still being assembled just an hour before game time. Players were forced to dress in temporary buildings because the locker rooms were displaced during construction of BU dorms. Other teams talked of borrowed uniforms, bounced checks and hotel beds they couldn't sleep in because it cost more if the maids had to make the beds.

Gino Cappelletti, who is now the Patriots' radio announcer and will always remain the AFL's all-time leading scorer, had the league's first points -- a 34-yard field goal in the first quarter. But the Broncos went on to win 13-10 thanks to a 59-yard touchdown pass from Frank Tripucka to Al Carmichel and Gene Mingo's 76-yard punt return TD.

The crowd was recorded as 21,597.

Hobson was there as a quote-runner, and the next year the paper gave him the Patriots beat as an afterthought; he also covered college and high school sports, along with the local bowling scene.

"They figured it probably wouldn't last too long, but they gave me everything else to do with it," said Hobson, who remained on the Patriots beat at least part-time until his retirement this year. "At the time, the AFL was kind of snickered at. How were they going to compete against the NFL? They always had an uphill battle to get identity, and the Patriots were somewhat underfunded."

The money problems were largely solved because this incarnation of the AFL had something the others didn't: The game had come of age as a televised sport, thanks in no small part to the 1958 NFL championship between the Giants and Colts. Still known as the "Greatest Game Ever Played," the Colts won on Alan Ameche's 1-yard plunge in the league's first overtime.

"My father sat there, and he looked at my brothers and myself and said: 'This is the future of sports,"' Sullivan said. "They (the AFL owners) all had the foresight that they could utilize television to promote the teams and promote the game."

In 1964, the AFL signed a $36-million, five-year deal with NBC that provided the upstart league with more guaranteed money than the NFL was getting from CBS.

The money came in handy: A year later, the New York Jets outbid the NFL's St. Louis Cardinals to sign Alabama quarterback Joe Namath for $400,000; with Namath, the Jets won the 1969 Super Bowl and forever put to rest the notion that the AFL wasn't a worthy competitor.

"Personally, I always felt that one-on-one, we were as good as they were. After the first few Super Bowls we proved that we were," said Larry Eisenhauer, who joined the Patriots as a defensive end in their second year and played nine seasons. "Professional football wasn't what it is today, with all the glamour and hype. It was just a small pimple. When the AFL started, by today's standards, it wasn't much.

"But that was big-time football back then, as far as I was concerned," he said. "I was just thrilled to be out there and playing."

 

From Around the Web

  +