The Dual Draft of the Early 1960s

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Autographed 1965 Topps Joe NamathPrior to the AFL and NFL coming to an agreement on a merger in 1966, the two leagues held independent drafts for players coming out of college.  That meant that a given player would often be drafted by one team from the NFL and another team from the AFL.  This gave certain players something of a bargaining chip, as the more highly desired players could play the two teams off each other during contract negotiations.  This in turn caused the salaries of incoming rookies to escalate, and more than anything else, forced the two leagues to meet and hash out a merger agreement.

One of the earliest, and most well-known double draft conflicts was the case of Heisman Trophy winner and LSU running back, Billy Cannon.  Cannon had been drafted by the Los Angeles Rams of the NFL and Houston Oilers of the AFL.  The Rams illegally signed Cannon to a contract prior to the conclusion of his college career.  When Cannon learned that the Oilers were offering him significantly more than the Rams contract was worth, he signed with Houston as well.  The case ended up in court, where a judge released Cannon from his NFL contract, freeing him to sign with the Oilers.

The double draft also inspired teams from both leagues to conduct espionage-like missions to whisk college players away into hiding in the days leading up to the draft, thus ensuring that the player in question would not be tempted away by promises from the other league.  In his classic piece of AFL literature, Going Long, author Jeff Miller dedicated a chapter called Planes, Trains and Automobiles to the hijinks that occurred by “babysitters” from both leagues.  The story of the wide receiver Otis Taylor, who ultimately had a long and successful career with the Kansas City Chiefs, is particularly entertaining, and involves the bribery of hotel employees, phony business cards, 3:00 AM telephone calls, jumping out of hotel windows and hoping on chartered airplanes.

It was Joe Namath and his then-outrageous $427,000 contract that started the wheels in motion for a merger between the leagues and the end of the dual draft.  Neither league could afford for salaries to continue to rise at such an alarming rate, and so backroom meetings were held between team owners from the two league, and a plan for the merger was created.  Joe Namath was drafted in 1965, and just two years later the AFL and NFL held their first common draft.  It took four season for the merger to be complete, but the draft was dealt with immediately.

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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7 Responses to The Dual Draft of the Early 1960s

  1. chris burford says:

    Todd, I was in a hotel room with Billy Cannon at the Waldorf Astoria when he took a call from the Rams. He was asked what it would take for them to sign him …he said ‘a ton”…then they agreed on $20,000 . Billy later signed with Houston for the reported $100,000 paid over 3 years ($33,000/yr ) and an oft reported but unconfirmed interest in some hydrocarbon (gas station) opportunity. We were in New York to appear on the Ed Sullivan show as part of the Coaches 1959 All American Team , back in the day when there were only 11 selected. We played both ways in the middle to late 50’s.. Nothing like inflation, players and teams. Dallas Texans roster was 33 in 1960, dropped to 32 in “61 as the teams were losing money….far cry from the 54+ of today. A bit less money also!

  2. Todd Tobias says:

    Chris, as always, great contribution. Thank you for being a part of Tales from the American Football League! I had also heard that Billy Cannon told Bud Adams that he would need a Cadillac with his first contract. Adams then handed over the keys to his wifes car, which Cannon supposedly accepted.

  3. Todd Tobias says:

    I tried to email Johnny Robinson on Friday night about the possibility of doing an “Email from the American Football League” story. I haven’t heard back yet. Hopefully I have the correct email address. I did just hear from Jerry Cornelison, who has agreed to particiate.

  4. Tom says:

    Pete Rozelle was the LA Rams GM from May 1 1957 to prior being named NFL Commisioner on January 26 1960.

  5. Howard says:

    I believe that the Gogolak signing by the Giants was the real catalyst for the eventual merger. AFL clubs went after NFL stars like Mike Ditka and John Brodie. I think both sides realized this was an eventual suicide pact.

    • GregF says:

      With both leagues bidding for established players plus rookies, chances are a few teams would have eventually folded. Perhaps Pittsburgh and St. Louis in the NFL, and/or Boston, Miami and Denver in the AFL. Some teams were already picking players based on signability rather than ability, and the leagues were starting to get top heavy.

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