The words stuck in the craw of the proud, fiercely loyal American Football League players and coaches like a popcorn kernel under the furthest molar.
“I think the Kansas City Chiefs are a tough football team,” Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi said in the afterglow of his team’s 35-10 win over them in Super Bowl I.
So far, so good. Then Vince laid down the hammer.
“But I don’t think the Chiefs compare to the teams in the NFL. There—I said it. That’s what you wanted me to say, right?”
The NFL beat writers, and commissioner Pete Rozelle, who had just presented Lombardi with the trophy that would later bear the coach’s name, roared with laughter.
Edwin Pope of the Miami Herald ran back to the Chiefs’ locker room. He went straight for coach Hank Stram.
“Henry! Henry!” Pope screamed, according to his account given to the NFL Network. “Did you hear what Lombardi said about the AFL?”
Pope told Stram about Lombardi’s zinger. What Stram said in reply isn’t fit for this column. It isn’t even fit for a John Edwards biography.
A year later, Lombardi’s Packers again dominated, this time destroying the 13-1 Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl II. Lombardi didn’t need to talk after that one.
After the first two Super Bowls—they were more popularly known as the AFL-NFL Championship Games back then—the nickname of the AFL’s founding fathers seemed to fit them like a glove.
“The Foolish Club,” they called them—eight men who dared to place pro football franchises in cities like Houston and Buffalo (BUFFALO!), and in the backyards of already existing NFL organizations in Los Angeles and New York.
The Packers won the first two championships played between the two leagues by an aggregate score of 68-24.
Lenny Dawson quarterbacked the Chiefs on that day in January, 1967 in the Los Angeles Coliseum, when the Packers ran away from the Chiefs in the game’s second half. And he was in the stands in the Orange Bowl in Miami two years later, biting almost clear through his tongue.
On the field, Joe Namath and the New York Jets were running roughshod over the venerable Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. It wasn’t even close—much worse than the 16-7 final score indicated.
Dawson was sitting among a group of NFL loyalists. As the game went on, and as the Jets’ destiny was evident, it was all he could do to contain his glee. Dawson was an NFL castoff, foundering with the Pittsburgh Steelers when Stram plucked him off the scrap heap.
“Hank Stram saved my pro career,” Dawson has said.
So while the Jets were humiliating the Colts, Dawson bided his time.
Finally, he could contain himself no longer.
Sometime in the fourth quarter, Dawson stood up, proudly, among the NFL folks.
“Well, well,” he crowed, “what do you think of the American Football League NOW?”
Ah, but it was a fluke. A blind squirrel finding a nut. The Colts were overconfident. If the two teams played again, the Jets would surely go down.
Dawson and his AFL brethren had to hear that for a year.
Such was the stage when Dawson, in uniform now, and the Chiefs made it back to the Big One—Super Bowl IV in New Orleans to face the Minnesota Vikings in January 1970—40 years ago and some change.
The Vikings, like the Colts before them, seemed unstoppable. They breezed through the NFL with a 12-2 record, then demolished the Cleveland Browns in the NFL Championship Game, 27-7.
Despite the Jets’ victory one year prior, the Chiefs were still “just” an AFL team. They had no chance against the mighty Vikings.
What is it they say about the fate of those who forget history?
As Stram—now famously miked up for NFL Films—hooted and hollered on the sidelines, the quarterback he rescued from the NFL’s trash bin and his 10 offensive teammates razzle-dazzled and powered their way around and through the vaunted Vikings defense.
The Chiefs won, 23-7.
Who was foolish now?
Al Davis was the AFL’s last commissioner. And he was smelling blood. The two leagues had already announced a merger, partly designed to put an end to the talent war that was escalating faster than anything the United States and the Russians were engaged in at the time.
But after the AFL won the IIIrd and IVth Super Bowls, Davis, who was opposed to the merger to begin with—a merger that was agreed to behind his back—snarled.
“Davis thought the AFL had its boot on the NFL’s throat,” Scotty Stirling, a Raiders executive at the time, recalled to the NFL Network. “And he didn’t want to let up. He thought the AFL could have brought the NFL to its knees.”
But the merger was already a done deal, and the two leagues joined forces for the 1970 season. The 10 AFL teams, plus the NFL’s Colts, Steelers, and Browns, formed the American Football Conference.
Two years later, some NFL people were still showing themselves to be slow learners.
The Miami Dolphins, born in 1966 to the AFL, finished the first 14-0 season in history. They advanced to Super Bowl VI with a 16-0 record. Their opponents were the NFL-rich Washington Redskins.
On the cab ride to the stadium, radio host Larry King rode with bookmaker Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder. King noted that The Greek had instilled the 11-3 Redskins as a three-point favorite over the undefeated Dolphins.
How could that be, King, a Dolphins fan and ever inquisitive, wanted to know.
“You’re still the AFL,” Snyder told him.
The Dolphins won. Easily. Then they won the next year, too—also easily.
To this day, you won’t find a group of workers more respectful of their roots than the American Football League players and coaches. Even after years of playing in the NFL, those whose pro football careers began in the AFL will always consider themselves “AFL guys.”
Forty years ago, in New Orleans, the AFL squared the Super Bowl series with the NFL at two wins apiece. And, as Davis says, they might have kept it up, had the merger not been in place.
The fools rushed in, after all.