Football

When the little guys hit it big: Helping to bring AFL and NFL together turned into a covert operation for Chiefs owner

The clandestine meeting occurred in front of the Texas Ranger statue in the lobby of Love Field in Dallas.

In a scene out of a spy novel, Lamar Hunt, the maverick founder of the upstart American Football League and owner of the Kansas City Chiefs, was changing planes, and he signaled to Tex Schramm, general manager of the Dallas Cowboys of the established National Football league. They adjourned to Schramm's car and secretly began discussing a merger of the two leagues in April 1966. The rebel AFL, which began play in 1960, had caused a bidding war for players that neither side could withstand, so unbeknownst to the public, Hunt and Schramm exchanged proposals. The result was a merger announced on June 8, 1966, uniting two sides in what would become the most successful sports league in the world. "The greatest thing of all was nobody knew about it except for Lamar, Tex and (commissioner) Pete Rozelle," recalled Gil Brandt, then the Cowboys' personnel director. "It was a very, very, well-kept secret. It was fortunate that there were two guys who really had the best interest of the entire league in their minds, and that's why it was done. Lamar is very league-conscious and always has been, and Tex was league-conscious. "Because there were two people with a broad understanding without their own agenda, that's why the whole thing came about." As the NFL celebrates the 40th anniversary of the merger, Hunt is still amazed they were able to pull it off. "There was common sense that said that something needed to be done," Hunt said. "That was the spirit in which Tex Schramm came to me. He and Pete Rozelle felt there were economic hardships on teams in the NFL as well as the AFL. "Tex laid out the parameters that he thought would work. I thought they were reasonable. I took them to our nine-person ownership, and seven of the nine felt it was the right thing to do. The two not in strong favor were the New York Jets and the Oakland Raiders. They felt the NFL was asking for too much." The merger called for the nine AFL clubs to pay a total of $18 million over a 20-year-period to join the NFL. A common draft would be instituted in 1967. Rozelle would serve as the commissioner. Two new franchises, Cincinnati as the AFL's 10th franchise and New Orleans as the NFL's 16th franchise, would be added by 1968. Interleague preseason games would be played in 1967, and a common schedule would begin in 1970. Best of all, all existing franchises would remain intact. "It was the right thing to do," Hunt said. "It consolidated the sport. It assured the continuity of every team in both leagues. There have been mergers in sports before, like between the NFL and the All-America Football Conference (in 1950), where only three teams out of that league came in and four others went out of business. What's happened has gone beyond anyone's expectations. This gave the public the Super Bowl." When Hunt and the seven other original owners of the AFL -- better known as "The Foolish Club" -- plunked down $25,000 apiece plus a performance bond of $100,000 for their franchises in the fall of 1959 and formed their league, he didn't envision an eventual merger with the NFL. "The new league was to create a structure similar to baseball, where there was an American and a National League," Hunt said, "and I was vaguely aware the American League in baseball was a rebel league. It started in 1901 and fought with the National League ... and then they agreed to have a World Series. "In a naïve sense, I was looking at the structure that a second league could survive and go from there." Once the merger talks began, Hunt wanted to keep the leagues separate, have a common draft, and meet in a championship game. "The first thought was to have the champions of the two leagues play each other," Hunt said. "The fans wanted it, the media wanted it. ... My personal druthers were to keep the AFL teams pure as a separate league. There were strong feelings on both sides. "When Paul Brown came into the AFL after the merger, he felt strongly he was an NFL-oriented person, and he felt he paid for an NFL franchise and wanted equality." Hunt still closely monitors the interconference games between the AFC and NFC and takes great pride in the AFC's overall lead of 952-866. The Chiefs won the AFL championship in 1966 and went on to play in the first AFL-NFL World Championship Game, losing 35-10 to Green Bay. By the next year, the title game was called the Super Bowl, a nickname coined by Hunt's children, based on a toy known as a "super ball." Kansas City also won the last AFL championship in 1969, leading up to beating Minnesota 23-7 in Super Bowl IV. "That was a wonderful culmination of the 10-year history of the American Football League," Hunt said.

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