>The AFL’s 10 Most Important Players… I think.

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>A friend of mine recently asked me to give my opinion on who were the 10 most important players in AFL history.  He is planning some sort of memorabilia display for his man cave, a portion of which will recall the AFL.  

I thought this was an interesting question because certainly the most important players doesn’t necessarily mean the best players.  Granted there would be crossover between the two groups, but they are indeed different.  So I took a stab at the request and came up with my version of the AFL’s 10 Most Important.  He immediately came back with a how could you leave him off-type of response, which I enjoyed and attempted to rebut. 
The exercise was enjoyable, and actually took more though than I would have originally imagined.  Now I am making my list available for public consumption, and hoping that it might spark a bit of debate.  Let’s see what you all think!
First off, my friend asked me to rank the players in two groups – the first five and the second five, but not necessarily in a 1-10 order.  So the first group is my top five, listed alphabetically by their last name.  Same thing goes with the second group.
Players #1-5

Lance Alworth was the AFL’s first superstar.  Lightning-fast, with incredible hands and leaping ability, Bambi was the go-to guy in the AFL’s top offense.  He led the league in receptions three times, was a perennial all-star, and the 1963 AFL Most Valuable Player.  Alworth was the first player from the AFL to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Bobby Bell was a dominant linebacker for the great Kansas City Chiefs teams.  A brutal combination of size and speed, Bell was a five-time AFL all-star, who won Super Bowl IV with Chiefs.  Bobby Bell was the AFL’s first defensive player to enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame, when he was inducted in 1983 with another AFL legend, coach Sid Gillman.

George Blanda was one of the NFL castoffs that later found success in the new league.  He won the first two AFL championships as quarterback of the Houston Oilers.  After being traded to the Raiders in 1967, he served as a successful back-up quarterback and kicker.  In all Blanda played 26 seasons of professional football over four decades, and set numerous AFL and NFL records.

Billy Cannon, the 1959 Heisman Trophy winner out of LSU caused the first great player battle between the two leagues.  After signing first with the Rams of the NFL, and then the Oilers of the AFL, the situation went to court where a judge deemed that Cannon’s Rams contract had been signed illegally, and he was awarded to the Oilers.  The Cannon situation generated much excitement around the new league.  For his part, Cannon was a three-time AFL all-star, beginning his career as a running back and then later transitioning to tight end.

Joe Namath.  Does anything else really need to be said about this guy?  The Jets signing the star from Alabama was one of the biggest events in AFL history.  Namath proved his worth by leading the Jets to a surprise victory over the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III; his “guarantee” of victory just added to his legend.  Namath became the poster boy for the cocky and brash AFL.  He was chosen as quarterback of the AFL’s All-Time Team, and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of fame in 1985.

Players #6-10

Willie Brown.  Undrafted out of college and then cut by the Houston Oilers, Brown first found success in Denver and ultimately in Oakland.  He was the first of the great shut-down corners, played in three AFL championships, and five AFL All-Star Games.  Brown was voted to the AFL All-Time Team, and was part of the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 1984.

Dave Grayson was not an imposing figure at 5’10” and 187 lbs.  But the undrafted defensive back more than proved his worth.  Grayson played four years with the Texans/Chiefs before being traded to the Raiders in 1965.  He was a six-time AFL all-star, and a four-time all-pro.  He is the AFL’s all-time interception leader with 47, and a member of the ALF All-Time Team.  In one of pro football’s great injustices, Dave Grayson is not yet a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Abner Haynes, a running back from North Texas, was the first pick of the Dallas Texans in the 1960 AFL draft.  He shined immediately in professional football, earning AFL Rookie of the Year and AFL MVP honors (AP, UPI) in 1960.  He was one of the league’s early superstars, and helped guide the Texans to an AFL championship in 1962.  Haynes played eight seasons in the AFL, and was a four-time AFL All-Star and four-time All-Pro.

Jack Kemp was an early NFL castoff that found success in the new league.  Kemp led the Chargers to western division titles in 1960 and 1961, before being picked off the waiver wire by the Buffalo Bills in 1962.  Kemp led the Bills to league championships in 1964 & 1965, and an eastern division title in 1966.  Kemp was one of the most intelligent men in the AFL, and set his sights on a career in politics after football, and served nine terms as a Congressman for Western New York’s 31st district.  He later served as Housing Secretary in George H.W.  Bush’s administration, and was the Republican nominee for Vice President in the 1996 Presidential campaign.

Jim Otto is Mr. Raider.  An undersized center out of college, Otto’s hard work and determination made him one of the greatest offensive linemen of all time.  He played in all nine AFL all-star games, was one of only three players to play in 140 regular season AFL games (14 games-per-season x 10 seasons).  Otto was the AFL’s only all-league center.  He was named to the AFL’s All-Time Team, and was inducted into the Pro football Hall of Fame in 1980.

OK, so there they are, my 10 Most Important.  Do you agree?  Should I have included Len Dawson, the only AFL quarterback to play in two Super Bowls?  Or Tom Addison, the first president of the AFL’s players union?  Or who is on my list that doesn’t belong?  Let the debate begin!

Todd Tobias (790 Posts)

Todd Tobias's interest in the American Football League began in 1998, when he wrote my master's thesis about Sid Gillman. He created this site to educate and entertain football fans with the stories of the American Football League, 1960-1969. You can follow Todd and get more AFL history on Twitter @TalesfromtheAFL.



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9 Responses to >The AFL’s 10 Most Important Players… I think.

  1. JoJo says:

    >I think they all definitely belong. I'm glad you didn't rank them 1-10, I think that would have been too difficult. If you're going to have a non player on there like you mentioned at the end, it has to be Lamar Hunt.

  2. Bob Swick says:

    >Todd
    All great legends of the AFL.
    All good choices.

  3. Jim from Downingtown says:

    >All good choices. So are Len Dawson, Don Maynard, Ron Mix, Buck Buchannan.

  4. Douglas says:

    >The only other person is maybe mention of Gino Capelletti. For me, growning up in place were only a single NBC TV station had consistently good reception, I have a lot more memories of the AFL games than NFL.

  5. sg9765 says:

    >Perhaps a list of non players an players – the coaches like hank, Sid, Al Davis, Weeb and lou saban. Dawson belongs, cookie belongs and paul lowe…still thinking. The quality of the product was key.

  6. Todd Tobias says:

    >I like this list a lot, but there are certainly other players who could be argued on as well. The tough part is who do you remove?

    As for non-players… Lamar Hunt, Sid Gillman, Hank Stram, Al Davis, Joe Foss, Bud Adams, Sonny Werblin, and the list goes on and on…

  7. Todd Tobias says:

    >Maybe Pete Gogolak could have been added, who introduced soccer-style kicking to pro football?

  8. […] the latter only when a player from the United States was drafted).  Tex was inquiring about Billy Cannon, the highly touted Houston Oilers draft choice from 1960.  His question was how Cannon should be […]

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