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More MEMOIRS OF A MICKEY MOUSE FAN
a fan's History of the American Football League

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FOREWORD:   
          The nineteen-sixties were a time of turmoil, vision, and change.  The Cold War; the Kennedys; the race for the moon.  Personally, it was the decade of my marriage, and the births of my children: in short, the best time of my life.  In sports, too, the winds of change were blowing: goodbye, Bronko Nagurski, George Halas, three yards and a cloud of dust.  Hello, Lance Alworth, Tom Sestak, Joe Namath and Johnny Robinson.  So long to the Browns' orange pumpkins, hello to the Bolts!        


The 'sixties: it was Camelot, it was the Beatles, it was Mare Tranquilitatis, it was "Aquarius":
it was the
AFL.

Ange Coniglio ~ December 2004

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CHAPTER 3 - 1961
          By 1961, the American Football League had already existed a year longer than its detractors had predicted. In its inaugural year of 1960, it had put competitive teams on the field,  played exciting games, and introduced a number of new star athletes to the American sporting public. 
           Buoyed by its success in presenting competitive, exciting games, the league looked forward to its second year of play, with some changes in venue and in the coaching ranks, and many new players.  

         The Boston Patriots, the Titans of New York, the Houston Oilers and the Buffalo Bills of the AFL's Eastern Division played in the same stadiums they called home in 1960: at Nickerson (Boston University) Field, the Polo Grounds, Jeppesen Stadium and War Memorial Stadium, respectively. 
            In the AFL West, the Dallas Texans continued to play in the Cotton Bowl and the Denver Broncos remained in Bears Stadium, while the Raiders, for lack of an adequate site in Oakland, played across the bay in the city of San Francisco's year-old Candlestick Park.  In one of only two franchise moves by American Football League teams in the league's ten years of play, th
e former Los Angeles Chargers changed stadiums and cities, moving down the California coast to San Diego and a "new" home in fortyfive-year-old Balboa Stadium.


Candlestick Park


Balboa Stadium
Stadium photos from Bruce D. Krauss

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           Eddy Erdelatz, the former Navy head coach who had been the Oakland Raiders' first coach, was also the AFL's first head coaching casualty, as he was fired after the Raiders lost the first two games of 1961 by a combined score of 99-0.  Erdelatz was replaced by assistant Marty Feldman, who managed to coach the Raiders to two wins in the remaining twelve games.  Later, Lou Rymkus, who had coached the Houston Oilers to the first-ever AFL Championship after the 1960 season and was the AFL's first Coach of the Year, went 1-3-1 in the first five weeks of the 1961 season and was replaced by owner Bud Adams with Wally Lemm, an Oilers assistant.  The other AFL teams' original coaches managed to last out the year.
           When NFL apologists like Tex Maule of Sports Illustrated realized that the new league apparently was not to be "a flash in the pan", they began a flurry of insults and demeaning articles that would last for the AFL's ten-year existence.  Maule ridiculed the AFL champion Oilers and insisted that the NFL's expansion Cowboys were a better team.  He downplayed George Blanda's accomplishments in the AFL and implied that Blanda was an "NFL Reject" who couldn't cut it in a "real league".  History has shown what an astute judge of talent was Tex Maule.   If he was that wrong about Blanda, how accurate were all his other vituperative comments, over the years, about the American Football League? 
            In 1961, all Blanda did, in a 14-game schedule, was throw for 3,333 yards and 36 touchdowns, an all-time AFL record, and get selected as the AP, UPI, and Sporting News' AFL Player of the Year.

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           1961 would be the "year of the lineman" after the AFL college draft (actually, held in late 1960), with the likes of Boston College tackle Larry Eisenhauer signed by the Boston Patriots, along with guard and six-time AFL All-Star-to-be Houston Antwine of SIU, originally drafted by the Houston Oilers; Ken Rice (T, Auburn), Stew Barber (T, Penn State), Al Bemiller (C, Syracuse) and the era's best pulling guard, Billy Shaw (Georgia Tech) all joining the Buffalo Bills; with Mississippi State's tackle Walt Suggs and center Tom Goode going to the Oilers; and E. J. Holub (C, Texas Tech), Jim Tyrer (T, Ohio State), and Jerry Mays (T, SMU) to the Dallas Texans.  The biggest pro football lineman up to that time, Grambling's DT Ernie Ladd and the 1961 AFL Rookie of the Year, Indiana's DE Earl Faison helped form the San Diego Chargers' original 'Fearsome Foursome', a nickname later appropriated by several teams from the other league.  In addition, rookies that year included DB Claude "Hoot" Gibson of NC State, and  receivers Reg Carolan (Idaho) and Glenn Bass (Eastern Carolina), going to the Chargers, and tight end Fred Arbanas (Michigan State) to the Texans.
           
After the AFL-NFL merger agreement in 1966, and after the AFL's Jets defeated the "best team in the history of the NFL", the Colts, a popular canard fostered by the NFL and spread by its media sycophants was that the AFL defeated the NFL because of the "Common Draft" instituted from 1967 on. This apparently was meant to confirm that until the AFL "caught up" with the NFL by drafting without competition, it was a lesser league. But the 1968 Jets had less than a handful of "Common Draftees". Their stars were weaned in the AFL, many of them since the Titans days. The AFL got its share of stars long before the "Common Draft". 
            
An example is cited by the University of Kansas website, which describes the 1961 Bluebonnet Bowl, won by KU, and goes on to say "Two Kansas players, quarterback John Hadl and fullback Curtis McClinton, signed professional contracts on the field immediately after the conclusion of the game. Hadl inked a deal with the [AFL] San Diego Chargers, and McClinton went to the [AFL] Dallas Texans."  Between them, in their careers Hadl and McClinton combined for an American Football League Rookie of the Year award, seven AFL All-Star selections, two AFL All-Star Game MVP awards, two AFL championships, and a World Championship. And these were but two of the players selected by the AFL long before the "Common Draft".
             In addition to big names from big schools, the number of minority players, and those from small colleges, demonstrated the American Football League's continued edge in recruiting from such sources.  The cards below, from
Vintage Football Card Gallery, are 1962 Fleer cards, which show the players in their 1961 uniforms.

Billy Shaw

Ken Rice

E. J. Holub

Jerry Mays

Earl Faison

Ernie Ladd

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          There were several uniform changes in the 1961 American Football League.  The Boston Patriots replaced the three-cornered-hat helmet logo with "Pat the Patriot", a Revolutionary War-clad patriot "hiking" a football; the Titans of New York added gold and blue "UCLA" shoulder stripes, while the Houston Oilers added burgundy numerals to their white and Columbia blue away uniforms.    The San Diego Chargers kept their powder blue and white, but added yellow to the lightning bolts on pants, shoulders, and helmets. The Denver Broncos, incredibly, kept their mustard-and-brown uniforms with the vertically striped socks!
            On the field, stars from the first year continued to glitter.  The Broncos' Lionel Taylor again surpassed 1,000 yards receiving (1,176) and became the first receiver in professional football history to make 100 receptions, while Charlie Hennigan of the Oilers had three games in which he made catches for over 200 yards, with 272 on 13 receptions against the Patriots in a 31-31 tie on October 13.   After George Blanda's backup Jacky Lee threw for 457 yards for the Oilers in that Patriots game, George came back with 464 yards passing against the Bills on October 29, and 418 against the Titans on November 19.  Billy Cannon of the Oilers rushed for 216 yards on 25 carries, with three rushing touchdowns and two scores on receptions in the Oilers' 48-21 defeat of the
Titans of New York at the Polo Grounds on December 10.
            In 1961, the American Football League's annual Thanksgiving Day game was once again hosted at the Polo Grounds by the Titans of New York, this time against the Buffalo Bills.  The Bills scored first on an 8-yard pass to Elbert Dubenion from Johnny Green, but the Titans answered with a score in each of the first three quarters: a 67-yard pass reception by Bob Renn from Al Dorow in the first; a  two-yard plunge by Dorow in the second; and a 55-yard interception return off Green by Dick Felt in the third quarter.  The Bills put on a concerted effort in the last period, scoring on a one-yard plunge by Green's replacement at quarterback, M. C. "Chief" Reynolds, but it was not enough, and the Titans won their second straight Thanksgiving Day game, 21-14.
             One of the most bizarre incidents in pro sports took place in the 1961 AFL game between the Dallas Texans and the Boston Patriots, at Nickerson Field on Friday night, November 3.  After back-and-forth scoring, the Texans had tied the game at 21-21 with a touchdown near the end of the third quarter, but the ensuing kickoff was returned 91 yards for a touchdown by Ron Burton. The
 PAT by Gino Cappelletti gave the Patriots a seven-point lead.  The fourth quarter was scoreless, until with just seconds remaining, the Texans drove within the Patriots' twenty.  Texans quarterback Cotton Davidson dropped back and rifled a pass to his wide receiver Chris Burford, open in the end zone.  Incredibly, as time was running out, a Patriots fan, who had been on the field, unnoticed, at the start of the play, jumped from behind the Boston defense and knocked the pass away!  Wearing a trenchcoat, the unknown fan melted into the Boston crowd that stormed the field to celebrate the Patriots' win.  The Texans protested fruitlessly: the officials had not seen the "linebacker in a trenchcoat", there was no instant replay, and the Patriots had won the game.

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          Again the AFL had played a fifteen-week season, with each team drawing a bye at some point during the season, and playing every other team twice.  And again the combatants in the ultimate game were the Eastern Division Champion Oilers and the Western Division Champion Chargers. However, although the Oilers still represented Houston (with ten wins, three losses and a tie), the Chargers were now the San Diego Chargers, with the league's best record at 12-2.  Sid Gillman's Chargers still had qb Jack Kemp, rb Paul Lowe, te Dave Kocourek, ot Ernie Wright, ot Ron Mix, de Ron Nery and lb-p Paul Maguire, and had added defensive muscle like massive Ernie Ladd and Rookie of the Year Earl Faison.  Oiler coach Wally Lemm, who compiled a 9-0 record after replacing Lou Rymkus, also had returning players qb George Blanda, rb Billy Cannon, fb Charlie Tolar, wr Charlie Hennigan, og Bob Talamini, de Don Floyd, and db Jim Norton. As in 1960, the teams had once again split their two regular season encounters: the Oilers won at home, 34-24, in week three, and the Chargers took their home game 38-13, on December 3.
          The AFL Championship of the 1961 season was played on Christmas Eve, 1961, at Balboa Stadium in San Diego before a crowd of 29,556Pre-game expectations were for a display of offensive fireworks from the highest-scoring teams in their respective divisions. But in a league known (and often demeaned) for its potent offenses, the expected shootout failed to materialize.  Instead, the 1961 American Football League championship game turned out to be what coaches and players on both sides later characterized as the toughest defensive battle they had ever been involved with.  No less than thirteen players suffered injuries and had to be helped off the field.

           The Oilers' relentless blitzes pressured Kemp, recording six sacks. The Oilers' offense, also strongly pressured by the Chargers, eked out a 10-0 lead on a 46-yard field goal by Blanda in the second quarter and a 35-yard Blanda-to-Cannon scoring pass late in the third. Early in the fourth a 12-yard field goal by George Blair brought San Diego within reach of the Oilers, but as the Chargers were driving for the tying score late in the game, Chargers' safety Julian Spence, at 153 pounds one of the AFL's smallest men, stepped in front of tight end Dave Kocourek and picked off Kemp's pass, sealing the victory for the Houston club. Press reports after the game cited Oiler coach Wally Lemm as saying he rated the game as "the most vicious, hard-hitting football game I have ever seen", and AFL author Ed Gruver attributes the following quote to long-time San Diego Tribune AFL columnist Jerry Magee: "Offense was the thrust of the old AFL. The league relied on a lot of big plays. But the 1961 championship was a real hard-hitting game."

 

           The American Football League Champions for 1961 were once more the Houston Oilers,  Just as the Oilers' coach Lou Rymkus in the previous year, Wally Lemm was named the AFL's Coach of the Year for 1961, the first and only time that a team won a championship in two consecutive years, headed by different coaches who received coach of the year honors.  This time, enigmatic owner Bud Adams shelled out for championship rings.  But it still sticks in my craw that the team that won the first two American Football League Championships (and introduced the fans of Houston to major league sports) no longer exists, and that the name Oilers can never be used for any franchise, including Houston's.

Standing: John Breen (Director of Player Personnel), Bud Adams (Owner), Don Suman (General Manager), Dave Smith, Tony Banfield, Orville Trask, Ed Husmann, Al Jamison, Billy Cannon, Dalva Allen, George Shirkey, Jack Laraway, Don Floyd, George Blanda, Joe Spencer (Assistant Coach), Walt Schlinkman (Assistant Coach), and Wally Lemm (Head Coach).
Middle Row: Mark Johnson (#41), Mike Dukes, Julian Spence, Dennit Morris, Bob Talamini, Ron Botchan, Jacky Lee, Dick Frey, Claude King, Freddie Glick, Doug Cline, Jim Norton, and Bobby Brown (Trainer).
Bottom Row: George Greene (Equipment Manager), Bob Kelly, Bob Schmidt, Hogan Wharton, Bob McLeod, Bill Groman, Charlie Hennigan, Rich Michael, Charley Tolar, Willard Dewveall, John White.

Team photo courtesy of Jack Laraway 


1961 AFL ALL-LEAGUE PLAYERS
(selected by fellow American Football League players)

Offense
Defense
Lionel Taylor Denver Broncos End
Charlie Hennigan Houston Oilers End
Ron Mix San Diego Chargers Tackle
Al Jamison Houston Oilers Tackle
Bob Mischak New York Titans Guard
Charley Leo Boston Patriots Guard
Jim Otto Oakland Raiders Center
George Blanda Houston Oilers Quarterback
Abner Haynes Dallas Texans Halfback
Billy Cannon Houston Oilers Halfback
Bill Mathis New York Titans Fullback
Earl Faison San Diego Chargers End
Don Floyd Houston Oilers End
Bud McFadin Denver Broncos Tackle
Chuck McMurtry Buffalo Bills Tackle
Sherrill Headrick Dallas Texans Linebacker
Archie Matsos Buffalo Bills Linebacker
Chuck Allen San Diego Chargers Linebacker
Tony Banfield Houston Oilers Back
Dick Harris San Diego Chargers Back
Dave Webster Dallas Texans Back
Charley McNeil San Diego Chargers Back

The following are representations of American Football League team helmets, worn in 1961.
They are provided by Klaus Gebhard. (Click to enlarge.)

1960Oilers.jpg (31050 bytes)

1960Titans.jpg (30713 bytes)

1960Bills.jpg (30143 bytes)

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1960Texans.jpg (33680 bytes)

1960Broncos.jpg (31247 bytes)

to 1960                                to 1962 (future)

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Click here for an all-time roster of American Football League players.

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2003  American Football League Hall of Fame  All rights reserved. Duplicate in any form you like, if you're an AFL fan.
You have the permission of the American Football League Hall of Fame.  Please credit/link to: http://www.remembertheafl.com
Last revision: 30 April 2012 ~ Angelo F. Coniglio, nospam.RemembertheAFL@aol.com