In January, 1959, a young man totally frustrated in his repeated attempts to gain a franchise in the National Football League, hit upon an idea.
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His name? Lamar Hunt, a 26-year-old sports-minded, civic-minded individual who called Dallas home. His idea? To simply form a new professional football league to rival the NFL.
That new league was destined to be known as the American Football League – the fourth pro football league to adopt that name – and its eventual David-and-Goliath-like success in its survival battle with the established NFL did more to permanently change the pro football scene than any other event in a half century of organized pro football.
Hunt’s contribution to the game earned him election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame before his 40th birthday. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame as a member of the Class of 1972 along with football greats Gino Marchetti, Ollie Matson, and Ace Parker.
Hunt had dabbled as an active participant in sports and had been a member of the Southern Methodist University football squad during his college days. He earned his geology degree which would make him a professionally competent member of the Hunt Oil Co. organization, which had been built into a huge success by his father, H. L. Hunt.
But the sporting world still held a fascination for Lamar and, starting in 1958, he actively sought ways to bring an NFL franchise to Dallas. The Chicago Cardinals were considered obtainable, but Lamar could never get offers for more than a minority ownership with no assurance that the club would wind up in Dallas.
He then approached the NFL expansion committee, headed by George Halas, owner of the Chicago Bears and himself a co-organizer of the NFL some four decades earlier. Sentiment in the NFL at the time was against expansion and Halas and Commissioner Bert Bell reported this to Hunt.
"The idea just hit me while I was flying home from my last attempt to buy the Cardinals,” Lamar recalled. "I knew that other cities were interested in getting pro football teams and I decided the answer had to be a new league."
The first person Hunt approached was K. S. (Bud) Adams Jr. of Houston. Also a young oilman, Adams, too, had been discouraged in his attempts to put an NFL team inHouston. He enthusiastically backed Hunt's proposals.
By August 14, 1959, the first organizational meeting was held and play was begun in 1960. The rest of the struggle of the AFL is not only well known but really a different story, although somewhat parallel, to the Lamar Hunt saga in professional football.
Once the AFL's organizational process had begun, however, the NFL suddenly developed immediate expansion plans and first offered expansion franchises to both Hunt and Adams. Both Hunt and Adams refused the overture.
"We both felt we had made a commitment to the other fellows, like in Denver, Buffalo and so on,” Hunt recollected. "And we felt committed to stay with our commitments."
The NFL rushed ahead with its expansion plans and one of the new franchises was the Dallas Cowboys, who thus would battle head-to-head in an intra-city struggle with Hunt's Dallas Texans.
The AFL-NFL "war" in Dallas eventually wound up as somewhat of a standoff except that the Texans moved to Kansas City after the 1962 season. The struggle had been costly to both sides.
"We averaged only 10,030 attendance in our last year in Dallas even with a championship team," Hunt pointed out. "The Cowboys didn't do any better. We had a better team for our league than the Cowboys did for their league, but they had the advantage of more attractive, much better known opponents. Of course we were disappointed in leaving Dallas, but it seemed the sensible thing to do. Then, too, we wore convinced we were going into a good thing in Kansas City."
Over the long haul, that proved to be a correct assessment and today Hunt's team, renamed the Chiefs when it moved to Kansas City, is regarded among the upper echelon of the NFL.
It would be incorrect to say that everything good that happened in the AFL before, during and after the costly all-out conflict with the NFL was Hunt's doing. Hunt, however, was a leader in many of the forceful moves his league made and he was a busy participant in the signing war. As an example, Hunt once signed widely-sought defensive star Aaron Brown in a commercial jet airliner while on a flight to New York. A few hours later, he delivered a signed star into the AFL draft headquarters. He was actively involved in many of the cloak-and-dagger activities that became commonplace in the final stages of the AFL-NFL war.
By the example of having a solid team and a solid organization, he gave the AFL additional strength. Over a 10-year span, the Chiefs had the best won-lost record (87-48-5) of any original AFL team and they won the most championships, three. They also were the first AFL representative in the Super Bowl and they won the final game ever played by an AFL team. That was, of course, Super Bowl IV, when the Chiefs upset Minnesota, 23-7.
So it was that there were many people from both leagues who had been working officially and unofficially toward a merger for several years when Hunt finally took a prominent role in the "peace talks."
The most famous meeting was a discussion between Hunt and Cowboys' general manager Tex Schramm in a parked car at Dallas' Love Field on April 6, 1966. It was the kickoff to the final round of negotiations. Two months later, on June 8, the merger was formally announced (photo right).
The AFL paid $18 million in indemnities and agreed to give up its name. But it won what it had set out to win – total equality, a common draft, inter-league competition and a championship game. Eventually, it also won realignment into the American-National Football Conference setup that exists today.
Hunt’s enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame was just reward for the man who turned a flickering thought into brilliant reality and changed forever, and undoubtedly for the better, the professional football world.