Houston — It all started a half century ago with the kidnappings of young, famous athletes; with shenanigans by plutocrats; with double dealing and infighting between television networks; and with a prominent American city being invaded by two warring sporting factions.
The result was a shotgun wedding — and a birth of an event, 50 years ago, to be called the Super Bowl.
Enemies became business partners. Joe Namath, coveted by rival professional football leagues, became a national celebrity whose nocturnal lifestyle was chronicled in daily newspapers, books and magazines.
And the city of Atlanta was captured again — a century after it had been devastated in the Civil War.
Indeed, the Atlanta Falcons became a football prize — or pawn — in the peace settlement between the established National Football League and the upstart American Football League.
Flashback to the 1960s, the most turbulent decade in the history of professional football — likely the most turbulent era in the history of sports in America.
It was a period dominated by rapid expansion in Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League, National Basketball Association and pro football. And dominated by television emphasis on sports. And dominated also by revered athletes and the publicity surrounding them: Namath, of course, Muhammad Ali, Mickey Mantle and even Denny McLain.
NFL fights back
At the pinpoint of this sports turbulence was Atlanta, the largest metropolis in America’s Deep South.
The AFL, in truth, was licking the NFL by the middle 1960s. The New York Jets of the AFL, in a bidding war with the NFL’s St. Louis Cardinals had signed Namath — “The $400,000 Quarterback.”
Still new, aggressive in spiriting athletes out of motel rear windows at college all-star games, funded by rich men and NBC — put in a claim for Atlanta. Several different groups of tycoons were bidding for the Atlanta’s AFL franchise.
On June 7, 1965, the AFL awarded Atlanta a franchise.
Until then Pete Rozelle, the innovative commissioner, had dismissed the AFL as “The Other League.”
But on that June day, Rozelle reacted. He quickly flew from New York down to Atlanta with a counter offer from the NFL, according to a history account on the Falcons website.
The dickering between leagues continued for 23 days. The AFL, just five years old, versus the powerful, smug NFL, in business then for some 45 years.
This time, the NFL licked the AFL.
Rozelle and Rankin Smith, a Georgian with a mellowed Southern accent, reached a deal on June 30, 1965. Their final negotiation for the NFL’s $8.5 million expansion franchise price was settled in five minutes, as stated on the Falcons website.
And Atlanta’s city fathers awarded the Falcons usage of the new Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.
The game ensues
Defeated this time, the AFL placed its new franchise in Miami — with a team named the Dolphins and soon to be coached by Don Shula.
One year later, in the parking lot of Dallas’ Love Field, Tex Schramm, of the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys, and Lamar Hunt, of the AFL’s Kansas City Chiefs, mapped out a merger of the enemy leagues. And on that June night in 1966, The Detroit News’ rookie pro football beat writer was summoned downtown from vacation to blast out four quick articles.
I remember it well. That night remains vivid in my reflections, and so personally and professionally satisfying.
Quickly, Rozelle announced that there would be a matchup between the leagues — The First Annual AFL-NFL World Championship Game. Not so quickly, via a superball bounced by one of Lamar Hunt’s children, the game would be redubbed the Super Bowl.
Super Bowl I was played with intense rivalry and incessant league bragging 50 years ago, on January 15, 1967. The score, of course, Green Bay and NFL 35, Kansas City and AFL 10.
Beaten by the NFL in the bidding for Atlanta, the AFL — ultimately retitled the AFC — flourished in Miami.
The Falcons struggled their early years. They lost their first nine games in 1966, finishing 3-11 that initial season. The next year they were 1-12-1. Meanwhile, in Miami, the Dolphins were building a mini-dynasty. Within their first decade the Dolphins would have a perfect season and two Super Bowl championships.
For most of their half-century, the Falcons would continue to struggle. They did make a Super Bowl after 33 seasons, but were whipped 34-19 by John Elway and the Denver Broncos, one of the AFL originals.
But now the Falcons have built a powerful, highly tuned team. And on Sunday, they will appear in The Fifty-First Annual AFC-NFC World Championship Game against the New England Patriots.
Super Bowl LI — the perfect irony; a docile, formerly sad-sack football franchise versus a smug sports dynasty.
Jerry Green is a former News columnist