The NFL lost a legend recently with the passing of Al Davis. To younger Chiefs fans, this may seem like an odd and out of place statement. The last several years, Davis had become a caricature of his former self. His mind was stuck in the 70’s and his body bore an increasing resemblance to the Crypt Keeper. The phrases ‘Just win baby’ and ‘Commitment to excellence’ had become punchlines. That is not the Al Davis that I come to praise. The Al Davis I come to praise was the Al Davis that played a huge role in the AFL/NFL merger. To appreciate him, we have to take a history tour.
At the end of the 1950s the NFL was King. The NFL had swallowed a couple of teams from the rival AAFC (The Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49’ers surviving to this day) and divided up the rest of the defunct league’s players. While it was officially a merger, in reality, the NFL was the clear winner. The irony is that the Browns, with players like Jim Brown and Otto Graham, were the best team in football. Any doubt was removed in 1950 when the Browns played the defending NFL champion Philadelphia Eagles in their first regular season game. The Browns won, 35-10.
Then, in 1960, the AFL launched as another rival to the NFL. Yes, Lamar Hunt was the seminal figure, but Al Davis played a very key role. Like any upstart league, the AFL needed to make waves. So, they hired WW2 ace fighter Joe Foss. Foss served seven years as AFL Commissioner and was effective in growing the league. By 1966, each AFL team was getting almost as much TV money as each NFL team. The AFL had reached effective parity with the NFL, even though the NFL continued to look down on the AFL. The leagues were locked in a bidding war for college talent, though they maintained a unspoken agreement to honor each other’s contracts, once signed. That, Addicts, was about to change.
When Joe Foss stepped down as AFL Commissioner, Al Davis, the managing general partner of the Oakland Raiders was named as his replacement. Naming Davis as Commissioner had the effect of tossing Napalm on an situation ripe for all out war. Davis’ offensive philosophy has always been the vertical attack game. That is, going for the big play, early and often. His approach to business was no different. Davis wanted to go on the attack against the NFL. The NFL had already destroyed the unspoken agreement to honor each other’s contracts, signing kicker Pete Gogalak. Davis’ approach was to target a single team, trying to effectively destroy their talent base, in essence taking that team hostage. Then, he wanted to sign as many marquee players (mostly quarterbacks). Quickly, star players, including Mike Ditka, John Brodie and Roman Gabriel signed AFL contracts. At the same time, Tex Schramm and Lamar Hunt were conducting secret meetings, trying to work out a merger.
No one knows really if, without the big signings Davis orchestrated, the AFL and NFL merger may have been delayed or taken on a different form. Suffice to say that Davis probably added a huge sense of urgency to those discussions. The fact that the AFL brought the NFL to its knees and entered the merger as an equal partner is partially attributed to Al Davis. I am a huge AFL fan and Al Davis has my thanks. I believe he deserves all of our thanks.