Glory Years of the AFL

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November 8, 1999
Chapter 1: Glory Years of the AFL
by Bob Hulsey

The sport of football is one that would have instant appeal to Texans. Men who grew up on the hot Texas plains, tending to vast farm and ranch lands, herding cattle or drilling for oil, would understand the appeal of grown men running, tackling and kicking a pigskin. Texas was settled in small rural communities where fall Friday evenings of football became central to local pride.

Professional football, apart from barnstorming and exhibitions, did not reach Texas until 1952. The National Football League Dallas Texans folded in their first season. Their remnants became the Baltimore Colts, which won the league title in 1958. Television increased the visibility and desirability of the NFL and pressure increased to expand beyond the current 12 clubs.

Cities with no NFL team banded together, as was happening in baseball, with the threat to join the existing league or form their own. In 1959, Lamar Hunt, son of a wealthy Dallas magnate, organized the American Football League, which sought to compete head-to-head with the established NFL. He persuaded oilman K.S. "Bud" Adams to create a team for Houston. Hunt would lead a team in Dallas. Other cities represented were Buffalo, Boston, Denver, Minneapolis, Los Angeles and New York. The NFL responded by expanding to Dallas and Minneapolis. This caused the AFL group in Minneapolis to relinquish their franchise. In their place, the AFL found an ownership group in Oakland, California.

The newly born league began play in 1960 with many teams situated in run-down depression-era stadiums or high school fields. Adams began in Jeppesen Stadium, a high school park near the University of Houston campus that Adams expanded from a capacity of 22,000 to 36,000. The Oilers, as Adams would name them, drew well for a new entry but found that fitting pro football into people’s weekend habits wasn’t going to be easy. Although above average for the fledgling circuit, the Oilers rarely sold out.

Most AFL players were NFL castoffs or recent college players not ready to give up on a football career. The Oilers signed an aging reserve QB who had spent ten NFL seasons riding the pines for the Chicago Bears. His name was George Blanda. The Kentucky alum also played defensive back, linebacker and kicker with the Bears – anything to get into a game. The Bears had enjoyed many years of success when Blanda joined them in 1949 but had watched clubs like the Browns, Rams and Lions eclipse them in the Fifties. The Bears had stayed a bruising, traditional grind-it-out team. In the new league, Blanda had a chance to open up the offense and operate a high-risk passing game.

Adams’ biggest signing was Billy Cannon, a Heisman Trophy winning runner from LSU. Cannon’s contract, a three-year deal for the princely sum of $100,000 which was challenged in court by the NFL, was as important an event for the league’s credibility as the signing of Joe Namath in New York would be five years later.

Cannon would not produce the most yards for a runner in Houston’s backfield that initial season. That honor would go to Dave Smith, a burly fullback from Ripon College. They were joined in the backfield by Ken Hall, a Texas Aggie best known as the high school rushing record holder, and stocky Charlie Tolar of Northwest Louisiana St. Tolar, nicknamed the "Human Manhole Cover" used his 5-7, 200-lb frame to sneak past taller defenders for seven seasons.

But rushing took a back seat to passing on those early Houston clubs. Blanda and his receivers set records that lasted for decades. Tolar’s college teammate, Charlie Hennigan, and Bill Groman, of tiny Heidelberg College, gave nightmares to AFL defenders. Groman caught 72 passes for 1,473 yards and 12 TDs in a 14-game season – averaging better than 100 receiving yards per game. Blanda threw 24 TD passes the first year, booting 15 field goals and 46 Pats to lead the offense.      

Head Coach Lou Rymkus was a winner in the season opener, a 37-22 victory over the Oakland Raiders in San Francisco. The Oilers played their next four games at home, winning three. They bounced back form a 24-0 shutout in Dallas to beat Buffalo, 31-23, for the Eastern Division title. Houston finished the season at 10-4.

Jeppesen Stadium hosted the first AFL Championship, January 1st, 1961. Jack Kemp led the Los Angeles Chargers to two early field goals by 41-year-old Ben Agajanian. Blanda hit Smith for a 17-yard TD that led to a 10-9 halftime lead. The teams traded touchdowns in the third quarter and the Oilers built an eight-point lead early in the fourth when Cannon took a swing pass 88 yards for a touchdown. The Chargers surged three more times into Oiler territory but came away empty. The Houston Oilers were the first AFL champions, 24-16.

Rymkus benched Blanda for Jacky Lee at the beginning of the 1961 season. After a 1-3-1 start, Rymkus was fired, replaced by assistant coach Wally Lemm. The first thing Lemm did was put Blanda back in the lineup and the Oilers ran the table from there, averaging 41 points a game over the season’s final nine games. Blanda threw for 464 yards to beat Buffalo, hurled seven TD passes against New York and beat the San Diego Chargers with four TD tosses and a 55-yard field goal.

Hennigan was the receiving star that year. The former high school biology teacher, who taped his school paycheck under his helmet for motivation, snared 82 passes for 1746 yards and 12 TDs. Groman scored 18 TDs. Cannon was the AFL rushing champ with 948 yards. He reached pay dirt 15 times.

The Oilers sent shockwaves through the NFL that year when they signed Chicago Bear receiver Willard Dewveall. It was the first time the AFL had signed an active NFL player. Dewveall caught just 20 passes, less than half of what he caught for Chicago in 1960.

Houston finished with a 10-3-1 record. "I feel like someone who inherited a million dollars in tarnished silverware," smiled Lemm. "All I did was polish it."

Surprisingly, defense dominated in the AFL Championship Game that season in San Diego. The Chargers and Oilers combined for seven fumbles and eight interceptions. The Oilers led, 3-0, in the third quarter when Blanda scrambled away from a pass rush and found Cannon who eluded a defender and scored on a 35-yd play. Like the year before, the Oiler defense with DE Don Floyd, LB Doug Cline and DB’s Tony Banfield and Jim Norton frustrated the Chargers. Julian Spence’s interception sealed Houston’s 10-3 win and second straight title. As he was the year before, Cannon was named the game’s MVP.

Lemm was lured to the NFL St. Louis Cardinals. Adams turned to Pop Ivy as his new head coach. The offense bogged down as Blanda tossed 42 interceptions, Cannon suffered a back injury and the Oilers ended the first half of the season with a 4-3 mark. Then Houston won the last seven games to finish 11-3 and top the Eastern Division for the third straight year. Tolar became the team’s first 1,000-yard rusher.

The AFL Championship Game of 1962 is still remembered today as a classic. Almost 38,000 packed Jeppesen Stadium to see the Oilers try for their third crown against Hunt’s Dallas Texans. The Texans, having lost their fan base to the NFL Cowboys, were playing their last game representing Hunt’s hometown. They would be reborn as the Kansas City Chiefs the next year.

Abner Haynes scored twice and the Texans led at the half, 17-0. Blanda hooked up with Dewveall for a 15-yd score then added a fourth-quarter field goal. Tolar’s one-yard plunge tied the game with less than six minutes to go. The Oilers lined up to kick a game-winning field goal in the closing seconds but Sherill Headrick blocked Blanda’s attempt and sudden-death overtime loomed.

As the ABC telecast moved to prime time, the first such exposure for the fledgling league, sideline announcer Jack Buck dragged his microphone to midfield for the coin toss. Dallas coach Hank Stram told Haynes that, if he won the coin toss, to choose the wind which was a stiff breeze heading into the stadium scoreboard. Haynes called "heads" and the coin turned his way. "We’ll kick to the clock," said Haynes in perhaps the most famous utterance in AFL history. Referee Harold Bourne replied, "Captain Haynes, you made the choice and said you’ll kick." Haynes then did not have the choice of direction. The Oilers joyously accepted both the ball and the wind.

Blanda was picked off twice in the first overtime. The Dallas defense spared Haynes from eternal goat-dom. Jack Spikes opened the second overtime, taking a Len Dawson handoff and bolted 19 yards to the Oiler 19. An incomplete pass and two short runs led to rookie Tommy Brooker’s 25-yard field goal attempt. With the breeze now at his back, Brooker ended pro football’s longest afternoon to date – a 78-minute marathon – with a kick to complete the 20-17 Dallas win.

Houston’s reign as AFL champs was suddenly over, never to be repeated.

Bob Hulsey has a journalism degree from the University of Texas at Austin. He has worked in print and radio covering sports throughout Texas since 1976. He presently works for a telecommunications company in Austin. George Blanda George Blanda Home

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