Pittsburgh Sports Report
January 2006

Birth of the Super Bowl
NFL-AFL Merger Remembered
By George Von Benko

Secret wars… clandestine meetings in airports… players been stashed away in hotels.

It sounds like the plot to a spy movie, but in reality it’s closer to the History Channel. Two rival leagues, battling in basements and in courtrooms, until their subsequent merger made them the richest sports league in the world. So with Super Bowl XL fast approaching, a little history lesson is in order. The Super Bowl itself is a direct result of the merger between the established National Football League and the upstart American Football League.

When the AFL was formed in 1960, many viewed the AFL owners as members of the "Foolish Club," a phrase that was coined by one of their own – Wayne Valley, a part owner of the Oakland Raiders. Pittsburgh Steelers chairman Dan Rooney was not one of those who shared that perception of the AFL, however.

"We knew that they would make every effort and that they had some heavy hitters like Lamar Hunt and Bud Adams and Barron Hilton," Rooney said. "They had some substantial people."

Hunt became a driving force behind the formation of the AFL after he had tried and failed to secure a NFL franchise.

"I decided," Hunt recalled, “that my best bet was to put together a new league. It seemed to me a natural thing. There was an American and a National League in baseball. I was encouraged because pro football had become so popular, and because I knew there were many cities interested in backing a competitive league. I felt we could be successful."

AFL DECLARES WAR

The war between the AFL and NFL reached the courtroom Heisman Trophy winner Billy Cannon of LSU signed deals with both leagues — the Houston Oilers AND the Los Angeles Rams. The Cannon double-signing was not unique, however. There were others involving LSU’s Johnny Robinson and Charley Flowers of Ole Miss. All three players were awarded to the AFL clubs that signed them.

Things got better for the AFL when commissioner Joe Foss negotiated a television deal with ABC for five years. The league received $1.7 million as a starter, with graduated increases each subsequent year. Foss’s deal with ABC gave the AFL a weapon that no other league that competed with the NFL ever had: television.

Soon after, AFL clubs were competing for college talent on with such aggressiveness that the NFL was prodded into something called “Operation Hand Holding.” Once an NFL team selected a player, the hand-holding group went to work trying to get the player signed before the AFL was able to make contact.

“The hand-holding thing was something that we did because (the AFL) was more or less trying to steal quarterbacks and get college kids to sign early," Rooney explained. "We felt the best way to prevent this was to get a relationship with the college kids. So we would get a guy, and we called them hand-holders, and they would go in and get to know the kids, and they treated them good."

Rooney recalls one player in particular that the Steelers lost to the AFL.

“We lost a kid named Aaron Brown, who was a player we wanted. We thought we were going to get him,” Rooney remembered. “Buddy Young was the guy that had Brown under his wing and he put him in the hotel, but he made the mistake of putting him on the first floor. So Lamar Hunt sends some people in there, and they took him away, and we couldn’t find him. "

The NFL was winning the battle with AFL until January 29, 1964. On that day, NBC announced a $36 million television pact with the AFL and the league’s solvency was assured.

Soon after the AFL’s New York Jets signed Alabama quarterback Joe Namath to a contract worth $427,000 – an unheard of figure at the time. The escalating price war was getting the attention of owners in both leagues. It has been estimated that the 1965 draft cost pro football around $25 million for the college crop, with about $7 million going to the top 20 players. Things were changing.

Merger talk began between Ralph Wilson of the Buffalo Bills and Carroll Rosenbloom of the Baltimore Colts.

"There was a lot of conversation because there were a lot of people on both sides that knew each other," Rooney recalls. “That really wasn’t a surprise and it didn’t precipitate anything. When it really started was when Lamar Hunt and Tex Schramm of Dallas met the first time at the Dallas airport."

Other events would play a role in the merger. AFL commissioner Joe Foss resigned and Oakland’s Al Davis replaced him. Then on May 17, 1966, the New York Giants signed soccer style kicker Pete Gogolak away from Buffalo of the AFL. Meanwhile, Davis was preparing to go after NFL quarterbacks Roman Gabriel and John Brodie.

"Well, that’s the way Davis operates," Rooney explained. "There was no secret to that. There were people that didn’t want the merger to go through. What really started a lot of this is when the Giants signed Gogolak. The AFL would not have gotten all those quarterbacks otherwise. The quarterbacks wanted to stay with the NFL, but they just wanted to make as much money as they could."

TRUCE

Finally, on Wednesday June 6, 1966, the two leagues announced a merger agreement at the Warwick Hotel in New York.

There were seven major points to the agreement:
Pete Rozelle would be the commissioner.
The leagues would play a championship game.
All existing franchises would remain at their present sites.
A combined draft would be held.
Two franchises would be added by 1968, one in each league; the money from each would be paid to the NFL.
AFL clubs would pay indemnity of $18 million to the NFL over a 20-year period.
A single league schedule would commence in 1970.

After that, the AFL wanted one more thing: realignment. A balanced 13-team American and National conferences were created under the NFL banner. Baltimore, Cleveland and Pittsburgh were added to the existing 10-team AFL lineup to form the AFC while the remaining 13-teams formed the NFC.

"I was very, very much against joining the AFC," Rooney stated. "My father was somewhat neutral. It wasn’t going to be in the best interests of the Steelers. We fought that league for six years. It wasn’t going to be us jumping over there and everything was going to be good.

"What they did with the way they set up the schedule and the divisions, though, it was perfect for us,” Rooney continued. “We ended up with Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati and then they threw in Houston, which was a great team for us. Then the way they set the schedule up, you played a lot of other teams in the NFC. The way it worked out it was much to our advantage, but we were not going to go with their original idea to put one team in each division. That would have been bad for us."

LAST OF THE OLD GUARD

With the passing this year of New York Giants owner Wellington Mara, Rooney is now the last of the old guard in the NFL. He relates a story that drove home that fact to him.

“About 10 years ago I got a call from the league, and they were asking me a question about what happened in a particular meeting,” he recalls. “I went on to tell them about it, and said I remembered it very well. When they were finished I said ‘I’ve got to ask you a question – why did you call ME?’ They said ‘because you and Wellington Mara are the last two left from that meeting.’ I thought that was rather frightening.

“I am now the last of the people who had contacts with the originals. I was a young man, but I was able to talk to my father as I grew up and talk to him about individuals like Joe Carr, who was the first commissioner, and Sid Luckman. I knew George Halas, George Marshall, the Mara's of course, and Dan Reeves. I knew all these people, and had great relationships with them. Right now there’s nobody that’s in that capacity."

Rooney views himself as the keeper of the flame and takes the old guard’s vision seriously.

"Very much so,” Rooney said. “I think they did a marvelous job in their planning and carrying on the league, and making sure that it lasted. And helping each other."


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