The History of The AFL: Making Amends

As The Chancellor of Football, it’s imperative the history of the NFL and AFL is preserved and showcased for future generations. One of my favorite friends to Taylor Blitz Times is Chris Burford. Not only was he the starting wideout for the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl I, he was the first player signed in the history of the American Football League. He also suggested a great book to me last year. The Ten Gallon War which covered the days when the Chiefs / Dallas Texans battled the Cowboys for the heart of Dallas.

chris burfordAt the end of the highlight for Super Bowl I, he’s the one who puts on the Cowboy hat and heads out as John Facenda’s voice offers “In another year it will be the turn of the AFL. But this first spectacle of a sport belonged to Green Bay.”

These words echoed in my mind when Chris commented on an article which was the earlier incarnation of one I did on the ’66 Chiefs here.

“The major press were all in the NFL’s corner and denigrated our teams throughout the 60′s…however, when all was said and done after 10 years and 4 Super Bowls, the score was AFL 2 NFL 2…..(Chiefs 1-1), and the football world knew we could play with or against anybody….was a great time in pro football and a joy to have played in the AFL, from the beginning and through the emergence of the league….John Facenda, the Sabol’s, Pete Rozelle, Sports Illustrated, and the NFL propaganda machine notwithstanding.”

Full comment and original article here.

I thought it would be fitting to share with Chris one of my older archives where the late Steve Sabol had the late John Facenda narrate The History of The AFL. It’s told in a very respectful vain. The importance of this is even in the highlight for Super Bowl III, NFL Films narrated it with an NFL slant. Steve Sabol some time around 2000, later apologized for it. Going over the top about “One more moment for the master”- John Unitas trying to bring the Colts from behind instead of focusing on Joe Namath, the AFL, and the Jets victory. Which further validates Chris’ point.

So without further adieu lets take you back to this gem recorded in 1987 yet was produced in 1982.

Unfortunately I started two a day practice and didn’t get the other two shows recorded. What most folks don’t understand is there is still a battle between the AFL and NFL. For those that were there, some like Al Davis, didn’t want a merger. Others went on yet have their memories intact of the 10 year war and are fighting to be remembered and recognized. How the late DE Jerry Mays and FS Johnny Robinson were on the All Time AFL team, yet not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, are glaring omissions.

Websites like mine and Todd Tobias’ Tales From The American Football League do what we can to recognize these players. I know this doesn’t totally make amends Chris but something I wanted to share this Memorial weekend.

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1964 AFL Champion Buffalo Bills

1964 AFL Champion Buffalo Bills Ring

To the casual football fan, the legacy of the Buffalo Bills is that of a four time Super Bowl participant that lost them consecutively, or OJ Simpson and what later became of his life with a double murder trial.  Yet a further look into the legacy of MY beloved Buffalo Bills and you’ll find out about Robert Kalsu: The only professional football player to give his life serving his country in the Vietnam War.  You will also find that in the AFL, the Buffalo Bills came within a game of becoming a THREE-PEAT champion…and one of the most powerful champions in history.

Well when you think of the AFL you think of wide open offenses and high scoring football games.  It was the wild west up until this defensive mountain rose up to stop the onslaught of points.  It happened in Buffalo. Joe Collier developed a 4-3 defense that took advantage of cocking defensive end Tom Day #88 in the gap between the center and guard.  This was later made famous by Joe Greene and the Pittsburgh Steelers a decade later….yet I digress

A  solid front four that stopped the run with big Tom Sestak #70 that could get after the quarterback.  This team believed in roughing up the quarterback with safety blitzes the first to do so, George Saimes was the AFL pioneer with this tactic. Furthermore this was the first team to employ the bump and run tactics at cornerback, not the Oakland Raiders, in Booker Edgerson and Butch Byrd.

Byrd was arguably the best cornerback in Bills history and maybe the best in AFL history. He was 6-1 215 lbs, or 1 inch shorter and same weight as Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Ham a decade later. He punished receivers at the line of scrimmage yet could swoop in and pick off quarterbacks, leading the league with 7 interceptions.  Along with Mike Stratton, this defense sent 3 to the Pro Bowl and MLB Harry Jacobs should have gone.

On offense, the late Jack Kemp was quarterback yet the fuel to this team was Cookie Gilchrist.  Cookie ran for 948 yards and was the game closer when they needed to run the ball at the end of games.  He was the AFL version of Jim Brown with his power and speed.  Kemp had arrived a season before when he was placed on injured reserve by the San Diego Chargers.

There was some technicality that kept him from returning to the San Diego Chargers and the Bills were off and running.  Gilchrist and Daryle Lamonica (yes Oakland “The Mad Bomber”) each ran for 6 TDs in the regular season while Elbert “Wheels” Dubenion was the deep threat catching passes for 1,139 yards and 10TDs. Jack Kemp led a steady ball control offense and was a Pro Bowl performer in 1964 with Gilchrist, Dubenion, and TE Ernie Warlick.  They went 12-2 in the regular season and the two games they lost were by a combined 9 points.  Going into the 1964 AFL Championship they would have to take on the defending Champion Chargers.  How strong were they??

Buffalo AFL Championship Trophies

If you take a look back to 1963, the Chargers nearly became the first team in pro football to have two 1,000 yard rushers in Paul Lowe (1,010 yds) and Keith Lincoln (826 yds).  They teamed with Hall of Fame WR Lance Alworth and ancient Tobin Rote, who was Jack Kemp’s backup, to roar to the AFL Title with a 51-10 pasting of the Boston Patriots. The widest margin of victory during the 10 years of the AFL for a championship game.  The following year the team transitioned into John Hadl as the starting QB and with a bullseye on their back returned to the ’64 championship game. Only this time they had to travel to Buffalo’s War Memorial Stadium.

The Bills were the only team that could defense the Chargers of that era and did so to win the title 20-7.  In fact the most famous play in AFL history took place in this game when early on when Keith Lincoln was leveled by Linebacker Mike Stratton on a swing pass breaking several ribs.  The Chargers fighting spirit dissipated as they watched their star running back writhe in the mud in obvious pain.  A rubber match took place in ’65 out in San Diego and the Chargers didn’t come close to scoring in a 23-0 defeat. Buffalo was back to back AFL Champions.

Yet a look back at the 1964 Buffalo Bills and our fans would tell you “we could have beaten the Packers”.  To the casual fan who only knows football through the lens of ESPN, they know Lombardi and the Packers as Gods when they were just men. A closer look at the statistical analysis and it was Buffalo who had the better offense and defense:

1964 Buffalo Bills: 400 pts for 242 against or a 158 point differential: All #1 rankings

1964 G.B. Packers: 342 pts for 245 against or a 97 point differential: Which rank 5th, 2nd, and 3rd

Coach Lou Saban, Pete Gogolak, and Jack Kemp

Alas this team doesn’t get its due yet many firsts started with this team.  Another issue that took place a year before was the fact that the Oakland Raiders had run out of money and were on the verge of folding.  Knowing the league couldn’t operate with only 7 teams, it was Ralph Wilson that stepped in lending the Raiders $425,000 for a stake in the team.  Which is illegal but it had to be done to save the league.

Each team lives on in the present NFL for having done so. Another full circle situation with Lou Saban’s defense is defensive co-ordinator Joe Collier who built the AFL’s first superior 4-3 defense.  He would move on to become the Denver Broncos defensive co-ordinator in the post merger NFL and was the second team to make it to the Super Bowl playing the 3-4 defense in Super Bowl XII.  Take a wild guess as to who was his assistant at that time he taught the 3-4 defense to?? Bill Belichick who would take it with him and Bill Parcells to New York and the Giants and Lawrence Taylor with Harry Carson was born.

Another notable is longtime NFL coach Marty Schottenheimer was a linebacker on this team. Then you have Pete Gogolak who was the first soccer style kicker.  How important was he? It was the New York Giants signing him to a contract with the rival NFL that touched off the bidding war that forced the AFL / NFL merger.  Which goes to show that the legacy of the 1964 Buffalo Bills is a lasting one and they were one of the best teams ever.

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