The year was 1966, and war was raging in professional football. It was a bidding war for talent and it had been going on since the American Football League came onto the scene in 1960 to challenge the National Football League, 40 years its senior. At first, the battles were for college players, and the AFL scored an early victory when a court ruled in favor of the Houston Oilers over the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams after both clubs had signed Billy Cannon, the Heisman Trophy winning halfback at Louisiana State.
Although the leagues agreed to a “no tampering” rule on existing player contracts, the stakes became high for college talent. Bonuses went sky-high. The AFL’s New York Jets signed Alabama quarterback Joe Namath in 1965 to a $400,000 contract, the largest amount ever for a collegian. In 1966, the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons gave Texas linebacker Tommy Nobis a $600,000 package and the Green Bay Packers forked over $711,000 to Texas Tech running back Donny Anderson.
Meanwhile, veteran players were settling for small raises on relatively small salaries. For example, John Brodie, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback, received $35,000 in 1965 and was asking for a raise to $65,000 after leading the NFL in completions, completion percentage, yardage and touchdown passes. Then came a back-breaker. Buffalo placekicker Pete Gogolak, who had played out his option in 1965, signed with the NFL’s New York Giants. The “no tampering” code had been broken. The conflict was in the open, and it was time for action.
On April 7, 1966, peacemaker Joe Foss resigned as AFL commissioner and the next day Al Davis, general manager of the Oakland Raiders, took over. Davis was a hawk in regard to the NFL, and he had a plan. Davis organized an AFL war chest and urged owners to start talking to established NFL stars. The NFL had bragged of its superiority because of the caliber of its quarterbacks. Davis wanted to sign those quarterbacks for the AFL.
The Raiders quickly signed Los Angeles quarterback Roman Gabriel to a commitment starting in ’67. Houston offered the 49ers’ Brodie $75,000, spread over 10 years, to sign a five-year deal with the Oilers. Reportedly, eight of the NFL’s starting quarterbacks were dickering with the AFL. The NFL had no choice. On June 8, 1966, two months after Davis became the AFL commissioner, a merger agreement was announced. There would be a common draft starting in 1967, interleague preseason games starting in ’67 and regular-season play combining the leagues in 1970. Territorial indemnification of $18 million was to be paid to the 49ers and Giants over a 20-year period. Most important, from the standpoint of football fans, was the immediate establishment of a championship game between the leagues. This was the AFL-NFL World Championship Game — which was popularized as the Super Bowl from its inception.
Gabriel never went to the Raiders and Brodie never left the 49ers, but Brodie collected a million dollars on the agreement he had made in his talks with Houston. Davis resigned as AFL commissioner a month after the merger. He clearly had won his battle.
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