This week we sat down with Todd Tobias, publisher of Tales From the American Football League. His interest in the American Football League began in 1998, when he wrote his master’s thesis about Chargers legend Sid Gillman. His blog was created to educate and entertain football fans with the stories of the American Football League, 1960-1969. If you love football or have an interest in the AFL, this blog is a must read.
In our interview with Todd, he talks about who was responsible for the launch and success of the AFL, the role Al Davis played in the AFL / NFL merger, why the Chargers moved to San Diego after just one year in Los Angeles, and much more.
San Diego Chargers Tailgating (SDCT): You obviously have developed a love for the AFL. When did you first become interested in the historic league?
Todd Tobias (TT): I first began researching the AFL in 1998, when I was writing my master’s thesis on Sid Gillman. I became fascinated with the AFL’s “David and Goliath” story. I also found the stories about the racial prejudice that the players faced to be very interesting. Modern athletes have little-to-no idea what their predecessors went through to bring about the opportunities that athletes have today.
(TT): Lamar Hunt, owner of the Dallas Texans and Kansas City Chiefs, first had the idea of beginning a new professional football league. He gathered together several other potential team owners, and built the AFL.
(SDCT): Fill in the Blank: Without ______________ the AFL never would have launched.
(TT): There were a lot of very important figures in the overall success of the AFL. However, I would have to cast my vote for Lamar Hunt.
(SDCT): Can you point to a player, coach, or moment that legitimized the AFL across the nation and in the eyes of the NFL?
(TT): Well, there are different points of view regarding when the AFL was legitimized. Some say when the merger was announced, others say Super Bowls III or IV. I tend to think it came earlier. I think that the league was first legitimized in the eyes of many when the Chargers beat the Patriots 51-10 in the 1963 AFL championship game. The Patriots had a tough defense that season, and Sid Gillman and his Bolts thoroughly dismantled it.
The NFL champions in 1963 were the Chicago Bears. They, too, had a tough defense, but not much in the way of an offense. Many people, and I am one of them, believe that the Chargers stood a very good chance of beating the Bears that season. Sadly, we will never know for sure.
(SDCT): Rumor has it that the NFL secretly contacted the AFL about the merger without knowledge from AFL commissioner Al Davis? Is this true and what role did Al Davis play in the negotiations.
(TT): Well, there were really two different factions dealing with the AFL/NFL merger. Davis was in the forefront. After the New York Giants signed former Bills kicker, Pete Gogolak, to an NFL contract, in May 1966, thus breaking the unwritten rule in which the leagues didn’t raid each other for talent. Davis then instructed AFL owners to go after NFL stars, and sign them to huge contracts in an effort to cripple the NFL.
Meanwhile, Lamar Hunt was meeting with Tex Schramm and Pete Rozelle to iron out details for a merger between the leagues. Ultimately it was the Hunt-Schramm plan that brought the leagues together, though Davis certainly helped force the issue.
(SDCT): The NFL obviously considered the AFL a threat. What did the NFL consider their biggest threat when it came to the AFL?
(TT): The biggest problem was that both leagues held separate drafts, meaning that most college players would be drafted by both an AFL team and NFL team. This gave incoming players bargaining power, which kept driving up the numbers in their contracts. One of the main reasons that the leagues merged was to put a halt to the increasing prices for rookie talent.
(SDCT): How did the AFL run a successful league, ultimately ending in a merger with the NFL, when other rival leagues didn’t succeed?
(TT): With just a couple of exceptions, the original AFL owners were exceedingly wealthy. They only put up money that they could easily afford to lose. This, and the influx of cash that came with a couple of important television contracts, allowed to AFL to be in the fight longer than other leagues might have.
(SDCT): The Chargers played their first season in Los Angeles. What prompted the move to San Diego? Who were the key players involved in the move?
(TT): They simply didn’t draw fans in LA. The Chargers averaged around 15,000 fans per game in a stadium that held roughly 105,000. Barron Hilton (Chargers owner) and Jack Murphy of the San Diego Union, were the key individuals involved in the move. Of course, once the idea of the Chargers moving became public, many San Diego officials helped lure the team to San Diego.
(SDCT): The Chargers were loaded on the offensive side of the ball in the 60s. Alworth, Mix, Lowe, Lincoln, Mix, Kemp. Could any of these guys have similar success in today’s NFL?
(TT): With the size increase in players over the past 40 years, it would have been difficult for anyone to make that transition. Of the names that you listed, Alworth and Kemp likely had the best shot. Mix played tackle at around 260 lbs, which is far too small for the modern game. Lincoln was a 205-lb. fullback which is non-existent today. Lowe would have similar problems.
While there are certainly taller receivers and quarterbacks today, Alworth and Kemp would have been of sufficient size to play today. Both were highly-intelligent athletes, and had physical qualities that are still desirable at their positions today.
(SDCT): Who would you select as the top offensive and defensive player from the AFL?
(TT): Frankly, I don’t know if that is even possible. There were several players that could be counted near the top at their position in all of professional football history – Alworth, Ron Mix, Walt Sweeney, Jim Otto, Jim Tyrer, Bobby Bell, Willie Brown and more. Factor in guys of huge historical importance such as George Blanda and Joe Namath, and it makes things even more difficult.
(SDCT): With the NFL and AFL holding separate drafts for the same college prospects, it must have been difficult deciding who to select knowing there was a chance the player may not suit up for your team and choose the other league.
Todd Tobias (TT): – Absolutely. As I mentioned above, this is one of the main reasons that the leagues merged. Some teams had to alter their drafting schemes by selecting players that they could afford to sign, rather than simply drafting the players that would most help their team.
(SDCT): Best AFL uniforms?
(TT): The 1963 Chargers are the popular choice, and I would be hard-pressed to find another that was better. I do also like the clean red, white and blue of the Patriots, as well as the red and white of the Chiefs.
To read more about the American Football League (AFL) visit Todd’s blog Tales from the American Football League @ www.talesfromtheamericanfootballleague.com.