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Green: 'The Other League' brought us the Super Bowl

Jerry Green
Special to The Detroit News

Miami — It was the perfect hideout.

A car in a spot between two yellow lines at an airport parking lot. Folks rushing for planes would never have noticed the occupants conducting important business.

That’s where this Super Bowl fuss all started. On a hot June day in 1966. In a parked vehicle at Dallas Love Field. Two men negotiating a merger.

Kansas City Chiefs owner Norma Hunt, the widow of the founder of the American Football League, holds the Lamar Hunt trophy.

Perfectly inconspicuous. Rumor proof.

The two men were Lamar Hunt, scion of a super-wealthy Texas oil family and a founder of the American Football League, and Tex Schramm, boss of the Dallas Cowboys of the National Football League.

The two pro football leagues had been at war for six years. Hunt and Schramm figured the two leagues were trying to destroy each other.

War is hell!

Inside the car, in the parking lot, the two men agreed to a peace treaty.

For many years, Hunt had yearned to own an NFL franchise and tried to buy the Chicago Cardinals in 1959. His generous offer was rejected. So Hunt contacted other wealthy businessmen and proposed forming a new league to challenge the established NFL. Among them were Bud Adams, out of Houston, and Ralph Wilson Jr., a Detroit insurance magnate and aspiring purchaser of his hometown Lions.

The new league started up in 1960 — Wilson’s team in Buffalo, Adams’ Oilers in Houston — and others in L.A. and in Boston, a team named the Patriots.

Texans to Chieftains

Hunt took Dallas for himself, naming his team the Texans, ready to battle the NFL newbie, the Cowboys, for clientele. Three years and one AFL championship later, Hunt reluctantly moved his franchise to Kansas City, and called them the Chiefs.

Back then, the NFL snickered at the new league. It had won bidding wars with at least four other challengers. The mighty NFL’s owners told jokes about the AFL. Pete Rozelle, the powerful NFL commissioner, refused to refer to the AFL by name.

Rozelle mocked the AFL as “The Other League.”

A jolly good time

The AFL played — at first — with culls from the NFL. Plus a few stars from the colleges, Billy Cannon and Fred Biletnikoff among them. But mostly Hunt’s dream new league existed with ancient athletes. Players like a Tobin Rote, who had won an NFL championship at quarterback for the Lions in 1957. And Len Dawson, who had been dumped by the Steelers. And Jack Kemp, a roustabout quarterback who could never quite click in the NFL.

Hunt made it a fun time, really, for sports journalists. There was a fresh story every day about rivals pirating the draft choices of “The Other League.”

Cannon, first in the NFL draft, signed with both leagues. Rozelle personally agreed with Cannon on an NFL contract. But the AFL coveted Cannon, a Heisman Trophy winner.

At the end of a college bowl game, Cannon signed a sweeter deal with the Oilers — famously under the goalposts. Ultimately, the AFL won that dispute.

Dismayed, the NFL employed “babysitters” as it hid the finest college seniors in obscure locations to protect the talent.

One such player secreted away was Otis Taylor, a talented receiver out of Prairie View. He was placed in a motel by the Eagles, prepared to sign an NFL contract. As the story went, there was a tap on the bathroom window. Taylor opened it. He crept out of a back door accompanied by Lloyd Wells, a scout for Hunt’s Chiefs. Taylor signed to play for the Chiefs, another prize for the AFL.

Around then, a swaggering quarterback named Joe Namath, out of Alabama, was drafted by the NFL’s Cardinals, now transplanted in St. Louis, and the New York Jets.

With blazing headlines, Namath agreed to sign with the Jets and the AFL for a then mind-boggling $425,000.

Hunt’s league had bucks, enhanced by revenue from a television contract.

It also had Al Davis. Davis, conniving with the AFL’s Oakland franchise, had worked his way to become commissioner of “The Other League.”

“What we’ll do is sign the NFL’s best quarterbacks,” Davis said.

John Brodie, deprived as quarterback of the NFL’s 49ers, agreed to jump to the Oilers for a million. Davis’ own Raiders lured Roman Gabriel from the Los Angeles Rams.

Meanwhile, Hunt was working toward a settlement between the leagues. He contacted Schramm. Schramm spoke to Rozelle in New York. Rozelle consented, reluctantly.

White flags

The cease-fire

It was time for a peace conference. It would be at a mutually determined location — the parking lot at Love Field, Dallas.

Davis was wrecking the NFL and loving it. He fumed when the leagues agreed to merge.

In New York, the Jets’ owner, Sonny Werblin, issued a loud objection.

“Why?” he was quoted as saying, “in a year the NFL would have come to us.”

By 1965 and 1966, we sports journalists were wondering which team would win if the champions of the two leagues played in a fantasy game.

Part of the agreement Hunt made with Schramm was for the two 1966 champions to play each other. There would also be exhibition games immediately before that season. A full merger was scheduled for after the 1970 season.

In August 1966, I accompanied the Lions to Denver for the first NFL-AFL matchup against the Broncos. Alex Karras, the Lions’ new Hall of Famer, vowed to walk back to Detroit if the Broncos won.

It happened. Right then. The first game. The Broncos defeated the Lions. All the AFL celebrated. Alex went home on the Lions’ charter.

At the end of the season, it turned out that Hunt’s Chiefs won the AFL title. They would play the Packers.

Hunt became acquainted with sports journalists from NFL cities before that game.

We learned he was a decent man, never flaunting his wealth or his success in founding a new league that fought the haughty NFL in a merger. And a game matching champions.

What was billed as The First Annual AFL-NFL World Championship Game was much too complex a name for newspaper headlines.

One day, I talked to Hunt before the game.

He smiled as he did often.

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“My daughter has this toy, one of these new rubber balls that bounces high over her head.” he said.

“’What’s it called?’ I asked.

“A superball.”

Hunt just smiled. He admitted he suggested the name Super Bowl as a joke.

But by then that’s what we were all calling it — a name that stuck.

The Chiefs lost that first Super Bowl to Vince Lombardi’s Packers. Davis’ AFL champion Raiders lost the second Super Bowl in Lombardi’s last game with the Packers.

The third year, Rozelle sanctioned the Super Bowl name — and haha, Namath and the AFL’s Jets beat the NFL’s heavily favored Baltimore Colts.

Hunt’s own Chiefs would win Super Bowl IV, Len Dawson at the helm.

That was the AFL’s final game. It had been decided after three years of bickering to transfer the Cleveland, Baltimore and Pittsburgh franchises to the AFL side.

Those years had been hectic. There were merger realignment meetings from Palm Springs, California, to New York City, back and forth battled the owners of the two leagues.

One such meeting was New York’s Fifth Avenue Hotel. Upstairs, the owners took a break after hours of deadlock. Hunt slumped into a chair and raised his legs on another. He dozed off.

A photographer came into the room. I thought maybe I should awaken Lamar.

The photographer took his shot and the picture with Lamar Hunt’s shoes in focus was printed in papers across America.

There was a hole in the bottom of his shoe.

Jerry Green, a retired Detroit News sports writer, has covered every Super Bowl for The Detroit News.