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The 1960 AFL Championship game between the Los Angeles Chargers and Houston Oilers was typical of the high-risk, exciting brand of football the AFL was known for. (NFL / Getty Images)

The American Football League's Foolish Club

Succeeding where previous leagues had failed, the AFL introduced an exciting brand of football forcing the NFL to change its entrenched ways

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Others, like Charlie Hennigan, who was coaching a Louisiana high school team and teaching biology when the Oilers offered a tryout, never had a shot in the established league. He’d played at tiny Northwestern State College in his native Louisiana and was undrafted by the NFL. He signed with the Oilers in 1960 for a $250 bonus and a $7,500 salary. “I was so happy,” recalls Hennigan, 74.”I was going to be making as much as the principal.”

He kept a pay stub from his $270.62-a-month teaching job in his helmet as a reminder of what he’d go back to if he failed. He didn’t. Hennigan may be the most prolific receiver not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In 1961, he set a single season record for reception yards that stood until 1995. In 1964, he became the second receiver to catch more than 100 passes in a season with 101, a record that lasted until 1992.

Blanda points out there were only 12 NFL teams with 33 players on a squad when the AFL began, meaning there were a lot of good athletes available. “I know the NFL people thought we were not much better than a junior college team,” Blanda says.”But we had a lot of great players in our league.”

By the middle of the 1960s, the NFL was luring away as many players from the AFL as the AFL was from the NFL. The bidding war for players, which began when the AFL was formed (Brandt recalls the price for free agents went from $5,500 to $7,500 the first year and kept climbing) reached a peak in 1965 when the New York Jets signed Alabama quarterback Joe Namath to a three-year, $427,000 contract, the biggest deal ever for an athlete in a team sport.

That year, NBC signed a five-year, $36 million television deal with the AFL, far more than CBS was paying the NFL. The NFL responded by ordering CBS not to give AFL scores during telecasts. A year later, a gentlemen’s agreement between the leagues not to sign each other’s players was shattered when the New York Giants enticed star kicker Pete Gogolak from the Bills for a three-year, $96,000 contract. A bidding war ensued with several established NFL stars signing with the AFL.

Finally, the two leagues announced a merger in the summer of 1966. They would play the first AFL-NFL World Championship Game (the term “Super Bowl” was coined later) after the 1966 season. The NFL’s Green Bay Packers won the first two matchups, then the New York Jets and Kansas City Chiefs grabbed the next two, announcing loudly that the AFL was the NFL’s equal.

The rivalry hasn’t waned for Blanda and Hennigan, even though they draw NFL pension checks. They’re still AFL guys at heart.

“We were a better show than the NFL was,” Hennigan says. “They didn’t like us and they still don’t like us. And I don’t like them.”

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About Jim Morrison
Jim Morrison

Jim Morrison is a freelance writer whose stories, reported from two dozen countries, have appeared in numerous publications including Smithsonian.com, the New York Times, and National Wildlife.

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