Honor the Heroes of the Game, Preserve Its History, Promote its Values & Celebrate Excellence Everywhere
Jon Kendle is Director of Archives and Football Information at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His biweekly columns tell unique and interesting stories starting from the league’s founding in downtown Canton in 1920 to the present day.
The Chargers completed their first full season back in Los Angeles. That’s right, I said back!
The franchise began playing pro football in 1960 as the Los Angeles Chargers of the American Football League, before moving to San Diego in 1961. As a charter team of the AFL, finding star power was integral to the league’s success. Direct competition with the National Football League has never been seen as a successful business venture. The NFL had been rooted in the fabric of American culture for 40 years before the birth of the ’60s AFL. Without stars, the upstart league was bound for failure. However, with the leadership of young, wealthy, and successful owners such as Lamar Hunt, Bud Adams, Ralph Wilson, Jr. and Barron Hilton the league found a way to compete with NFL franchises for the stars needed to survive.
Paul Lowe was one of those players who helped the AFL shine. Unfortunately, his legacy is seldom shared. It’s one of my career goals that the legacies of every professional player be shared with future generations of family, friends and fans.
Lowe was one of just 20 players to play in the AFL for its entire 10-year existence before it merged with the NFL. Lowe’s contributions were more than just the stats he accumulated. Lowe was a 6-foot-1 205-pound halfback from Oregon State with an exciting breakaway running style. Lowe not only helped the Chargers win football games, but maybe more importantly for the AFL, he kept fans in the seats. His abilities were on full display from the moment he first stepped onto the field during the Chargers first-ever preseason game. Lowe received the opening kickoff against the New York Titans (who later changed their nickname to the Jets) and returned it 105 yards for a touchdown, sending a bolt of electricity through the crowd. That excitement radiated throughout the entire season and quintessential to the success of the AFL. Stars such as Lowe allowed the AFL to market itself as a wide-open offensive league that could wow and entertain fans and become a formidable rival to the NFL.
The long-striding running back also produced some very impressive and league-leading statistics throughout his career. During the Chargers’ inaugural season, Lowe led the team to a 10-4 record and an AFL Western Division Championship. He rushed for 855 yards, caught 23 passes for 277 yards and was named a first team All-AFL halfback. The following year, though hampered by a series of injuries, Lowe still managed to gain 767 yards, fourth in league rushing, and once again guided the Chargers to a Western Division Championship. Unfortunately, he suffered a broken arm and missed the entire 1962 regular season. Lowe’s injury was a huge blow to the Chargers as it left them sliding toward the cellar in the standings.
On the comeback trail, in 1963, Lowe recaptured his form and the Chargers returned to their winning ways. The Chargers captured yet another AFL Western Division championship, and for the season, Lowe finished with 1,010 yards rushing (first player in Chargers history to run for 1,000 yards in a season).
The following season, he rushed for just 496 yards, while sharing carries with running mate Keith Lincoln. However, he rebounded with his best year as a pro in 1965 rushing into the AFL record books with a then all-time league-best 1,121 yards. He was named AFL Player of the Year and the Chargers claimed their fifth AFL Western Division championship in six years.
In 1966, the competition between the AFL and the NFL came to an end and the leagues announced a merger, which took place following the 1969 season. Unfortunately, injuries began to sideline Lowe and he missed most of the 1967 season. After a trade, the final two seasons of Lowe’s brilliant career took place as a member of the Kansas City Chiefs where he earned both an AFL and Super Bowl championship. He retired shortly before the 1970 season and his 4,963 rushing yards ranked second only to Clem Daniels on the AFL’s all-time list.
Although the super-charged Lowe never officially played a down in the NFL, the passion and electricity he brought to the field helped change the game and create an excited and loyal fan base. It was the blending of two leagues, in 1970, which created the style of football we see being played today. It’s a testament to the talents and dedication of every player, coach and administrator that has built the game into, what I believe is, the greatest sport in the world.