By Josh Katzowitz, CBS Sports
OAKLAND (CBS Sports) — Forty-five years ago, Al Davis wanted blood. He wanted revenge. He wanted to take the National Football League for all its worth and engulf it, like the NFL had done to so many other start-up leagues before. But unlike those other leagues, the American Football League — which had been established in 1960 and which had been looked down upon by NFL owners — was about to make a real problem.
The AFL had gone through troubles in the early part of its life. The owners had lost millions of dollars, the teams played in terribly unprofessional stadiums and the NFL looked at the AFL as short-term, inferior competition. But the AFL also was building a fan base, mostly due to its high-powered offenses that excited TV audiences — which contrasted nicely with the NFL’s power-run game that put fans to sleep.
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Al Davis started as an assistant coach with the Chargers, signing Lance Alworth and helping Sid Gillman build the most exciting offense in pro football, and then moved on to become the coach — and eventually one of the owners — of the Raiders.
By the mid-1960s, the AFL was becoming a real problem for the NFL. Not only was the new league’s football a more exciting brand, the AFL could offer competitive contracts to the best graduating college players. When Joe Namath left Alabama, he was courted by the AFL’s New York Jets and the NFL’s St. Louis’ Cardinals.
The Cardinals offered him $200,000 to sign. The Jets got him for $427,000. That was the power of the AFL in those days.
Which led the NFL to quickly decide to merge with the AFL — which, by then, employed Davis as its commissioner. At that point, there was a strong belief by some AFL owners that the NFL could be beaten in a head-to-head matchup, and at least one person wanted to try to send the NFL out of business.
“We could have beaten them,” Davis said via Ken Rappoport’s 2010 book The Little League That Could. “I didn’t necessarily want a merger, but they wanted it.” In fact, the AFL owners were so confident in their place in the pecking order that, assuming they didn’t receive a legit offer from the NFL, one owner said, “If they’re lying to us, we’ll have to drop the bomb on them.”
But when the New York Giants signed away AFL kicker Pete Gogolek, who had played out his contract in Buffalo, that’s when the AFL went on the attack. Though a gentleman’s agreement between the two leagues stated that the opposing league wouldn’t sign players in Gogolek’s position, the Giants went ahead with it anyway, inkng Gogolek to a three-year deal worth $96,000.
That’s when Davis knew what he wanted. He wanted to be the one to drop the bomb on the NFL. He wanted blood.
Said Davis: “Now, we can go after their guys. We are going after the quarterbacks, after places they feel it.”
The AFL had been saving money for a scenario like, and the owners went to work going after the top NFL quarterbacks — Roman Gabriel, Fran Tarkenton and Sonny Jurgensen. Then, a bombshell. Bud Adams in Houston signed tight end Mike Ditka, one of the biggest stars in the NFL. Ditka had never made more than $25,000 in Chicago, but Adams gave him $50,000 just to sign (the contract would have paid him $183,000 during the next three years).
While Davis wanted to go after the NFL — or, at the very least, get the best possible deal from the opposing league in the merger — the AFL owners met with their NFL counterparts and negotiated in secret meetings without his knowledge and then signed a deal without his input.
According to Jeff Miller in his 2003 book Going Long, Davis emerged from his commissioner’s office in New York early one afternoon, and Val Pinchbeck — who went on to become a close advisor to NFL commissioners — said, “Are you going to the press conference?”
Said Davis: “What press conference?”
“It seems that there’s an announcement being made by the AFL and the NFL over at the Warwick (Hotel) in a couple of hours.
Said Davis: “Do you remember Yalta?”
Later remarked AFL co-founder Lamar Hunt: “He was a general without a war. “
Davis soon recovered and went on to big success as the Raiders owner. But he had to wonder what could have happened if the AFL had put the NFL out of business, if he had dropped the bomb and taken its blood. Davis’ impact on the NFL was great, but if the AFL had survived and taken down the NFL, Davis could have been the most important figure in pro football.
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