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American Football League

The American Football League was a professional league of American football which operated from 1960 to 1969. (There were three earlier, unrelated, and unsuccessful football leagues with the name of "American Football League", one in 1926, one in 1936-1937, and one in 1940-1941. See bottom of page) The American Football League, or AFL, was the brainchild of founder Lamar Hunt. Of all the leagues that have attempted to challenge the dominance of the NFL, it was the only one to be truly successful. In 1970, the NFL merged with the American Football League to form into a single league. The American Football League is the only league in North American pro sports ever to have merged with another and have all its teams continue to exist, unlike the AAFC (or in a different sport and later era, the World Hockey Association merger with the National Hockey League).

AFL logo
AFL logo

League history

The AFL benefited from having been formed just at a time when professional football was beginning to catch up with (and eventually, in the 1960s, overtake) baseball as the most popular spectator team sport in the United States. In 1958, Texas oilman H. L. Hunt's son and heir, Lamar Hunt, wanted to bring professional football to Texas. He was rebuffed in his efforts to establish an NFL franchise there, and in 1959, decided to form a new professional football league, which he called the American Football League On August 14th, 1959, franchises that initially joined Hunt's Dallas Texans were: K.S. (Bud) Adams' Houston Oilers, Harry Wismer's New York Titans, Bob Howsam 's Denver Broncos, Barron Hilton's Los Angeles Chargers, and Max Winter and Bill Boyer's Minnesota franchise. By November they had been joined by Ralph Wilson's Buffalo Bills and William H. (Billy) Sullivan's Boston Patriots.

In an early attempt by the established NFL to disrupt the new league, Winter and the Minnesota group were lured away from the so-called "Foolish Club" and promised a franchise in the older league. The eighth AFL franchise, replacing Minnesota, later became the Oakland Raiders, owned by a group including Chet Soda, Wayne Valley, E. J. McGah and Ed McGah Jr.

Hunt's vision brought a new professional football league not only to California and New York, but to parts of the nation that did not have the game: New England, Colorado and Texas. It would later be brought to Missouri and Florida. The AFL also adopted the first-ever cooperative television plan for professional football, in which the league office negotiated an ABC-TV contract, the proceeds of which were divided equally among member clubs. On November 30th, 1959, Joe Foss, a WWII Marine flying ace and former governor of South Dakota, was named American Football League Commissioner. Foss commissioned a friend of Harry Wismer's to develop the AFL's eagle-on-football logo, shown above.

The AFL stocked its teams in two ways: signing "draftees" from the previous year's college graduates (the college draft); and signing "free agents" (players whose contracts in other professional football leagues had expired, or who had no professional experience). In advance of the inaugural 1960 season, the first AFL draft of college players (33 rounds) was held on November 22nd, 1959. An additional draft of 20 rounds was held on December 2nd. College stars signed by the AFL in its first draft included Ron Burton, HB, Northwestern (Patriots); Ron Mix, T, USC, and Paul Maguire, TE, The Citadel (Chargers); Tom Day , T/G, North Carolina A&T (Bills); Chris Burford, E, Stanford, and Johnny Robinson, HB, LSU (Texans); "Goose' Gonsoulin, HB, Baylor (Broncos); Larry Grantham, E, Mississippi and Bill Mathis, HB, Clemson (Titans); and Billy Cannon, HB, LSU, Don Floyd, T, TCU, Jacky Lee , QB, Cincinnati, and Bob Talamini, T/G, Kentucky (Oilers). The American Football League also began recruiting from small colleges, which the NFL had avoided. Drawing on this source of talent that had been essentially untapped by the NFL, in the AFL's first year its teams signed such stars as Elbert Dubenion (Bluffton), Lionel Taylor (New Mexico Highlands), Charlie Tolar (Northwestern State of Louisiana), Abner Haynes, North Texas State. In later years this trend continued, for example the Bills' signing of Tom Sestak (McNeese State). For black players, the AFL's recruitment from small colleges opened a door that the NFL had cracked only grudgingly. On a per-team basis, the AFL had a significantly greater number of black players than the NFL, which had still not fully overcome the exclusion of blacks precipitated by the entry into the league of Redskins owner George Preston Marshall. Meanwhile, the AFL also successfully engaged the NFL in competition for talented players from major schools: LSU's Cannon, and in subsequent years, Notre Dame's Daryle Lamonica, Arkanas' Lance Alworth, Kansas' John Hadl, Alabama's Joe Namath, and many more.

The AFL's free agents came from several sources. Some were so-called "NFL Rejects", players who supposedly were not good enough to play in that league. But the success of men like the Oilers' George Blanda, the Chargers/Bills' Jack Kemp, the Texans' Len Dawson, Titans' Don Maynard, the Raiders/Patriots/Jets' Babe Parilli, the Pats' Bob Dee, and many others, made that sobriquet questionable. Another source was the Canadian Football League. Many players not drafted or signed out of college by the NFL in the late nineteen-fifties went North to try their luck with the CFL, and later returned to the states to play in the American Football League. In that first year, these included the Pats' Gino Cappelletti; and the Chargers' Sam Deluca and Dave Kocourek . Finally, there were the true "free agents", the walk-ons, the "wanna-be's", who tried out in droves for the chance to play pro ball. If even half of the apocryphal stories are true, there were dozens of ex-bartenders and ex-insurance salesmen who wound up playing in the AFL.

The American Football League took advantage of the burgeoning popularity of football by locating teams in major cities that lacked NFL franchises, and by using the growing power of televised football games (bolstered with the help of major network contracts, first with ABC and later with NBC). It featured many outstanding games, such as the classic 1962 double-overtime American Football League championship game between the Dallas Texans and the defending champion Houston Oilers. At the time it was the longest, and it is still one of the best professional football championship games ever played.

The bidding war, which was financially draining both leagues, and the rapidly rising popularity of the AFL were factors that eventually led to the merger.

The AFL appealed to fans by offering a flashier alternative to the more conservative NFL. Team uniforms were bright and colorful. Long passes ("bombs") were commonplace in AFL offenses, led by such talented quarterbacks as John Hadl, Daryle Lamonica, and Len Dawson. Some innovative rules changes were also put into place, such as the two-point conversion (later adopted by the NFL in 1990s); the use of the scoreboard clock as the official game clock (adopted by the NFL when the leagues merged—prior to this time, the NFL's official game clock was maintained by an official on the sidelines, and often did not match the scoreboard clock very closely); the use of player names on jerseys (also adopted by the NFL); the sharing of gate and television revenues between home and visiting teams (also adopted by the NFL); and in 1960, the first network television coverage of all games, by ABC-TV (adopted two years later by the NFL with CBS-TV).

Another attractive feature of the American Football League was its competitive balance. In the original eight-team league, in a fourteen game schedule, each team played every other team twice. Every team had the same "strength of schedule", so the division champions were clearly the best teams in each division. Further, the league championships were evenly divided: five were won by Western Division teams, five by the Eastern Division; and of the original eight teams, all but two won at least one AFL title, and only one did not make the playoffs at some time during the league's ten-year existence.

The AFL achieved its success in spite of sparse coverage by the print and electronic media. CBS-TV, which then carried NFL games, refused to give AFL game scores on its football broadcasts. Sports Illustrated ridiculed the new league, and even after the AFL was established, SI gave full-page color action shots of the NFL, while it used black and white photos in its AFL coverage. In turn, each of the NFL teams in the first four Super Bowls, the Packers, the Colts, and the Vikings were heralded as "the greatest football team in history" by the "establishment media". Yet, two out of three of those teams were defeated by their American Football League opponents. Ironically, after the New York Jets and the Kansas City Chiefs each defeated one of these "great" teams, the NFL-dominated sports media failed to call the Jets or Chiefs the "greatest football team in history".

Some would argue the AFL clearly matched or outshone the elder league in some specific cases. Examples abound: Lance Alworth of the Chargers was arguable the best receiver of the 1960s; Johnny Robinson of the Chiefs, although he has been ignored by the pro football hall of fame, was the equal of any NFL defensive back of the era; the term "Fearsome Foursome" was coined to describe not an NFL defensive line, but the Chargers' formidable unit, anchored by Ernie Ladd and Earl Faison; and the 1964 Buffalo Bills defense allowed their opponents only 300 rushing attempts and held them to a pro football record 913 yards rushing, while recording fifty quarterback sacks in a fourteen-game schedule.

In 1966, the two leagues paved the way for a merger by agreeing to operate a common draft, and to carry out a championship game between the two league champions. The title game has come to be known officially as the Super Bowl, but originally this was just a nickname (coined by AFL founder Lamar Hunt, whose daughter had a toy called a "super ball"); the game was, at first, officially called the AFL-NFL World Championship Game. The NFL champions in both 1966 and 1967, the Green Bay Packers, decisively defeated the AFL champions in the first two Super Bowls, temporarily confirming the view of many NFL supporters that the NFL was the superior league. However, the AFL champions won the last two Super Bowls before the merger was completed in 1970. The first of these two victories was carried out by the New York Jets over the heavily favored Baltimore Colts, and was one of the most heralded upsets in sports history. Likewise, the following year the Minnesota Vikings were favored over the Kansas City Chiefs, who defeated the NFL product 23 to 7, even more resoundingly than the Jets had beaten the Colts.

When the two leagues merged, the AFL had 10 teams, the NFL 16. These formed the basis for the National and American Football Conferences of the newly merged NFL. Three teams from the NFL (the Baltimore Colts, Cleveland Browns, and the Pittsburgh Steelers), joined the ten AFL teams in the American Football Conference so that both conferences would have the same number of teams. In order to produce an eight-team playoff tournament with six divisions, the NFL once again copied an AFL innovation, the wild card playoff concept, where the best second-place finishers in each conference qualified. This innovation was later imitated by Major League Baseball. The CFL, since the 1940s, had "wild cards" make the playoffs, so the AFL copied this idea from the CFL.

AFL Teams

The original eight AFL teams were as follows:

Eastern Division

Boston Patriots (now New England Patriots)
Buffalo Bills
Houston Oilers (now Tennessee Titans)
New York Titans (now New York Jets)

Western Division

Dallas Texans (now Kansas City Chiefs)
Denver Broncos
Los Angeles Chargers (now San Diego Chargers)
Oakland Raiders

The eight-team roster enabled the league to set a schedule where every team played every other team twice during the forteen-week season.

The league added a ninth team, the Miami Dolphins, in 1966, and a tenth team, the Cincinnati Bengals in 1968.

AFL Playoffs

From 1960 to 1968, the AFL determined its champion via a single playoff game between the winners of its two divisions. In 1969, a four team tournament was instituted, with the second place teams in each division also participating.

AFL All Star Games

The AFL did not play an All-Star game after its first season in 1960 but did stage All-Star games for the 1961 through 1969 seasons. All-Star teams from the Eastern and Western divisions played each other after every season except 1965. That season, the league champion Buffalo Bills played all-stars from the other teams.

After the 1964 season, the AFL All-Star Game had been scheduled for early 1965 in New Orleans' Tulane Stadium. After numerous black players were refused service by a number of New Orleans hotels and businesses, black and white players alike lobbied for a boycott. Under the leadership of Buffalo Bills players including Carlton Chester "Cookie" Gilchrist, the players put up a unified front, and the game was successfully moved to Houston's Jeppesen Stadium.

Players, Coaches, and Contributors

Commissioners/Presidents of the American Football League

  • Joe Foss........... November 1959-April 1966 Commissioner
  • Al Davis........... April 1966-July 1966 Commissioner
  • Milt Woodard ...... July 1966-March 1970 President

External Links

Earlier AFLs

American Football League, 1926

Roster and Final standings:

American Football League, 1936-37


The Syracuse Braves moved to Rochester in midseason and disbanded during the season. The Brooklyn Tigers moved to Rochester after the Rochester Braves disbanded.


  • 1936 Boston Shamrocks
  • 1937 Los Angeles Bulldogs

American Football League, 1940-41


  • Boston Bears (1940)
  • Buffalo Indians (1940)/Buffalo Tigers (1941)
  • Cincinnati Bengals (1940-1941)
  • Columbus Bullies (1940-1941)
  • Milwaukee Chiefs (1940-1941)
  • New York Yankees (1940)/New York Americans (1941)


  • 1940 Columbus Bullies
  • 1941 Columbus Bullies

See List of leagues of American football

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