A Second Book Excerpt From: “When It Was Just a Game”

By Harvey Frommer, Contributor
September 21, 2015 Updated: September 21, 2015

This is a well-executed retelling of the game and its surroundings from all points of view: officials, coaches, players, the media, and even fans. Among the narrative’s best parts are the late Stram’s detailed recollections from an unpublished manuscript made available to the author from Stram’s son. Verdict: Consistently fascinating, this book will appeal to all football fans.—Library Journal

In 1956 the owner of the Chicago Bears, George Halas, said the NFL would expand from 12 to 16 teams within a decade. In 1957, NFL Commissioner Bert Bell was optimistic about the league increasing the number of its franchises in 1960. Bell appointed Halas and Pittsburgh owner Art Rooney to a committee to explore expansion in 1958.

Around that time Lamar Hunt and Bud Adams, owner of the Ada Oil Company of Houston and son of the chairman of Phillips Petroleum, both ambitious young men and very sports minded, also attempted to acquire the Chicago Cardinals and transfer the team to Dallas. The duo was rebuffed in all these efforts. Reaction of NFL owners was: “What? A pro football team in Dallas, what next?”

Self-effacing, some would say, almost self-deprecating, Lamar Hunt did not back down. Against the advice of his highly successful father, the former second string pass receiver at SMU called “Games” because of his love of sports, decided to move forward and create a football league of his own.

“There had been a National League and an American League competing side by side for 60 years.” Hunt told reporters. I was encouraged because pro football had become so tremendously popular and because I knew there were cities in backing a competitive league. I felt that an American Football league, side by side with the National Football league could be a success.”

Other rivals to the NFL through the decades had sprung up:

              American Football League (1926), American Football League (1936–1937), American Football League (1940–1941), All-America Football Conference (1946–1949)

Green Bay head coach Vince Lombardi won each of the first two Super Bowls. (AP Photo/Stf)
Green Bay head coach Vince Lombardi won each of the first two Super Bowls. (AP Photo/Stf)

None of them had the financial muscle and the organizational skills behind them that the new kid on the block, Lamar Hunt’s American Football League, had.

Joe Foss was put in place as AFL League commissioner. A World War II Medal of Honor winner who shot down 26 Japanese planes as a Marine pilot in the Pacific, a man who was born in 1917 on a farm without electricity in South Dakota, a state he became Governor of, the amiable Foss seemed a perfect choice.

Charter AFL franchises included: the Boston Patriots, Buffalo Bills, Dallas Texans, Denver Broncos, Houston Oilers, New York Titans, Oakland Raiders, and San Diego Chargers. Original owners included: Lamar Hunt of Dallas and Bud Adams of Houston; Ralph Wilson of Buffalo, a Midwest insurance and trucking power broker; Baron Hilton of the L.A. Chargers and head of the hotel chain that still bears his name; Max Winter of Minnesota, sports promoter and part owner of the Minnesota Lakers basketball team; Billy Sullivan of the Patriots, sports publicity director and businessman; Harry Wismer of the Titans, a famed sports broadcaster who had been part owner of the Detroit Lions and the Washington Redskins; Bob Howsam of the Broncos, a former WWII test pilot and a man with a feel for running sports franchises.

NFL owners tried to persuade AFL owners to switch leagues. Only Max Winter was listening apparently. He moved his Minneapolis franchise to the NFL. Businessman F. Wayne Valley set up shop for a new team in Oakland as a replacement for the Minnesota franchise.

American Football League team owners were actually at meetings in Minnesota on the very day that Winter joined forces with the enemy. That night over dinner the outspoken owner of the New York Titans stared down Winter. It was reported that he slowly and carefully said to Winter: “Nice going, Judas.”

Annoyed, Winter stood up. Wismer was fond of telling everyone what happened: “I got him with one line when I told the others owners: “Boys, this is the last supper.”

Otis Taylor of the Kansas City Chiefs gets some comforting words from the assistant coach on the sidelines during the Super Bowl at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles, Calif., Jan. 15, 1967. Taylor was one of the stars of the Chiefs, but the Green Bay Packers won the game 35-10. (AP Photo
Otis Taylor of the Kansas City Chiefs gets some comforting words from the assistant coach on the sidelines during the Super Bowl at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles, Calif., Jan. 15, 1967. Taylor was one of the stars of the Chiefs, but the Green Bay Packers won the game 35-10. (AP Photo

AFL owners referred to themselves as the “Foolish Club,” a back-handed, some would say, a realistic acknowledgment of the challenge they knew was before them going against the established and the powerful NFL. No other league in history had faced off against the National Football League and survived.

With gusto, this varied and ambitious group took the fight to the old league. Part of the AFL strategy was to try and outbid the NFL for top players. That was viewed as a crucial component of survival by the AFL owners. So was finding players who had been over-looked, not given a chance, who came from non-traditional outlets,

Early on the AFL landed a powerful body blow against the NFL by signing Billy Cannon, 1959 Heisman winner out of LSU. The number one draft pick of both leagues, a bruiser of a ball carrier Cannon signed with the Houston Oilers. That signing underscored the future – – the push and pulling for players, the virtually uncontrolled bidding, and the payment of huge sums of money to untested collegiate stars, making them wealthy, angering established veterans. In the 1960 draft the AFL signed 75% of the NFL’s first round picks.

The Texans of Dallas situated their offices in the Mercantile Securities Building. AFL offices were also in Dallas. Sharing the Cotton Bowl with the Dallas Cowboys, the Texans won the attendance battle drawing about three thousand more fans that season than the NFL club. Ticket prices were more affordable for the AFL team which also put forward a more attractive team. Hunt’s team that initial season charged four dollars for reserved seats. General admission was two dollars. High school students paid 90 cents. The Texans won eleven of its fourteen games and the AFL championship.

LAMAR HUNT, JR: My father was taking on a powerful, entrenched league. He had a fight on his hands. There were the big signings like Billy Cannon. The AFL was able to identify, at a sort of deeper level, players that were either sitting on benches, or getting cut, or released, who had some ability like a Len Dawson. And I think tapping into the African-American player, looking to those colleges for people like Otis Taylor.

From 1960 through 1962, AFL teams averaged 17% more blacks on their teams than NFL teams did. Several AFL clubs had 10 or 15 black players on their rosters.

Seeing the force and determination of Lamar Hunt in action, the NFL offered him the expansion franchise in Dallas he had sought. All he had to do was turn his back on the other seven franchises and their owners in the AFL.

In this Jan. 15, 1967 file photo, football commissioner Pete Rozelle, left, presents the trophy to Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi after they beat the Kansas City Chiefs in the Super Bowl in Los Angeles. (AP Photo, File)
In this Jan. 15, 1967 file photo, football commissioner Pete Rozelle, left, presents the trophy to Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi after they beat the Kansas City Chiefs in the Super Bowl in Los Angeles. (AP Photo, File)

LAMAR HUNT, JR: My father was a quietly powerful person, just very determined. I would say he was loyal, sometimes loyal to a fault. When he turned down that NFL offer he said, “No, we’re just going to go ahead and do the league. We are going to do it.” I think that was good loyalty. It was good character.

ED LOTHAMER: I’ll give you one example of what kind of guy Lamar Hunt was, what his character was like. We used to play at Municipal Stadium in Kansas City. And Mike Livingston and I drove up one day. It was like December and 5 below zero. And we parked and were walking toward the Stadium entrance. And here’s Lamar standing there, and you could tell he was just freezing.

I said, “Lamar, what’s the matter? Why aren’t you inside?”

He said, “Well, this guy here at the gate, he doesn’t know who I am, and I didn’t want to make any waves so I was just waiting for somebody.”

That was Lamar. He loved athletics. His nick-name at SMU where he played behind the great Raymond Berry, was “Games.” He sure loved the game of football and knew an awful lot about it.

Modest, not pushy, but honed in completely with everything the team was doing. He flew with us every time on the plane. He was just there.

There in January 1960 were all the National Football League team owners in Miami at the famous Kenilworth Hotel. Their main agenda item was choosing a new Commissioner to succeed the respected Bert Bell who had died from a heart attack while attending an Eagles-Steelers game at Franklin Field in October 1959.

A new commissioner was top of the agenda. However, there were also other grave concerns: the AFL challenge, the slim and unpredictable attendance for some of the teams in the NFL, the television exposure that was not prime time. Hughes Sports Network, not a household name, transmitted games of the Cleveland Browns.

Some owners favored staying with the steady, practical approach that had been followed by Bell. Others sought to install a Commissioner with modern ideas, with marketing skills, with the savvy to fuse the old league to the new world of television and computers, a person with skills to steer the path for NFL expansion.

There were two equal in house favorites: Austin Gunsel, treasurer, acting commissioner and Marshall Leahy, chief legal counsel. Day after day there were meetings, discussions, disagreements, ballots cast. Neither candidate for Commissioner was able to gain a clear advantage. And newspaper reports made fun of the futile efforts, the lack of progress, the sense that there was a pervasive aimlessness.

Various names were suggested and were rejected. Vince Lombardi, General Manager and coach of the Green Bay Packers was mentioned as a candidate for Commissioner. His candidacy never gained traction. It was against this backdrop – caught between the past and the future – that owners haggled, debated, bluffed and tried to reach a consensus between the two candidates for NFL Commissioner. Leahy, annoyed, frustrated by the goings on and the lack of movement made his own move. Leaving his name in nomination but not his contact information, he boarded a plane and headed back to his native San Francisco.

Unable to reach a consensus on any candidate, a movement began to find one that everyone could compromise on. Pete Rozelle, just 33, the general manager of the Los Angeles Rams was the choice of both Wellington Mara of the New York Giants and Paul Brown of the Cleveland Browns. Both men thought of Rozelle as a choice who would be agreeable to the majority of the owners. It was suggested that he leave the premises, that it would be best for him not to be around while his candidacy was topic “A “at the meeting.

So the dark horse of all dark horses, he was even referred to in a Miami Herald story as “Pete Roselle,” a face in the crowd, an in and out of the scene personage in the hotel lobby, a young man with a nice tan, Pete Rozelle hung out in the men’s room for a couple of hours and adjusted his tie, looked away, washed his hands whenever anyone entered. He later guessed that he had washed his hands 35 times while waiting.

(Photo provided by author)
(Photo provided by author)

Finally, on January 26, 1960, after eleven days and nights of what was not so much sun and fun, but more like dread and deadlock, after 22 ballots, by a 7-4-1 vote, the NFL’s youngest general manager, was chosen – – Alvin “Pete” Rozelle.

Owners Paul Brown of the Cleveland Browns and Wellington Mara of the New York Giants came to Rozelle and told him that he now had a $50,000 a year job – Commissioner of the National Football League.

In a back-handed and witty reference to his time spent nervously washing his hands in the men’s room, Rozelle quipped to the owners:

“I can honestly say I come to you with clean hands.”

Written by acclaimed sports author and oral historian Harvey Frommer, with an intro by pro football Hall of Famer Frank Gifford, When It Was Just a Game tells the fascinating story of the ground-breaking AFL–NFL World Championship Football game played on January 15, 1967: Packers vs. Chiefs. Filled with new insights, containing commentary from the unpublished memoir of Kansas City Chiefs coach Hank Stram, featuring oral history from many who were at the game—media, players, coaches, fans—the book is mainly in the words of those who lived it and saw it go on to become the Super Bowl, the greatest sports attraction the world has ever known. Archival photographs and drawings help bring the event to life.

Dr. Harvey Frommer is in his 39th year of writing books. A noted oral historian and sports journalist, the author of 42 sports books including the classics: best-selling “New York City Baseball, 1947-1957″ and best-selling “Shoeless Joe and Ragtime Baseball,” his acclaimed Remembering Yankee Stadium was published in 2008 and best-selling Remembering Fenway Park was published to acclaim in 2011.