I am pleased to announce that our first-ever guest blogger on Tales from the American Football League is Dave Steidel, author of Remember the AFL; The Ultimate Fan’s Guide to the American Football League. In his piece, Rookie of Renown, Steidel takes a look at two successful 1960s running backs, and ponders why one has a bust in Canton, Ohio, and the other does not.
While fairy tales are among some of the most loved stories in literary history, at times even the best of them are hard to believe. They can even be the things that legends or worse, reputations, are made from. Back in the sixties during the days of the AFL/NFL wars many veteran columnists around the country and some writers of SPORT magazine, Sports Illustrated wrote the story of the American Football League as if it were a fairy tale – a myth. During the early years of the AFL journalist wrote about those who played the game in new league as if they could never and would never be on the same level as anything the NFL had to offer. And in 1965, six years beyond their opening kickoff, those types of stories still described the players and events of the AFL.
Once upon a time there came to pro football a scintillating and talented rookie of renown. Drafted by both the AFL Kansas City Chiefs and the NFL Chicago Bears this rookie listened to his suitors and weighed all of his professional options. He was carefully counseled in great detail by his mentors, and when he had finally arrived at his momentous decision, he signed a contract with the team he felt was best for his career; and oh, what a career it would be! It started with a bigger bang then anyone could have imagined. As a rookie this shining star ran for 1,374 yards and 5.2 yards per carry. He scored 22 touchdowns from his halfback position and even scored a record 6 touchdowns in a single game. The quickness of his transition to the pro game and the ease with which he ran through the opposition’s defense was astounding. He was so good during his first season that one may have been warranted to ask the question, “Was he in the weaker league?”
During this time most young players who signed with the AFL were looked down upon as second tier talent. But nothing could have been further from the truth. The problem, as usual, was that the truth was rarely reported. Those halfbacks who gained big clumps of yardage in the AFL were written about as players who could not make it in the NFL. Or, if they could make it, would be nowhere near the star quality that was afforded them in the other league. Such was the stigma presented by the writers who cared little for the American Football League and had no respect for those who settled for what they deemed as, second best, or shied away from the real pro football league.
But in the case of the rookie halfback described above and his ability to make opponents look inferior or even non-existent, those stories of fantasy and fairy tale were never written. His talented performances were only written about with awe and adulation. He was cut from a better cloth and was most assuredly headed for the Hall of Fame they wrote. He was simply that great! Naturally, and as expected, this rookie of renown played in the NFL, for the Chicago Bears! But during this period in pro football history, and with most writers wearing their NFL bias on their sleeve and embossed on their pens of partiality, if Gale Sayers had posted the same numbers during his rookie campaign for the Kansas City Chiefs of the AFL instead of Chicago, one can only wonder how trivialized his HOF career statistics would have been described. The Kansas Comet was truly one of the all-time greats and one of my favorites. His induction into the PFHOF is a warranted and much deserved honor. Gale Sayers ran through and around every team he faced in the NFL during his rookie season and for most of his all too short career. But… had the incomparable Mr. Sayers signed with the Kansas City Chiefs instead of the Bears in 1965 and did what he did in the AFL rather than the NFL – would he have been viewed with the same illumination? Would he have been afforded that same honor, with his same talent, had he played in the American Football League? Or would he have been described as many continue to be described today, as just good players in a second class league that was not taken seriously and therefore cannot be compared with the greats who played in the NFL, even if some of those who vote each year for induction to the PFHOF may never have had the opportunity to see them play or witnessed and AFL game? Such is the continued indignity given the league that came in from the cold.
One year after Sayers rookie season Mike Garrett signed with the Kansas City Chiefs instead of the Los Angeles Rams after his Heisman Trophy winning career at USC. The NFL and its writers described Garrett, who stood 5’ 9” and weighed 191 lbs., as being too small to withstand the rugged week to week torture of the senior league. Never mind the fact that the Rams halfback at the time Garrett was drafted was Dick Bass (5’ 10”, 197 lbs.). Bass gained over 1,000 yards for LA in 1962 and again in 1966. He was not too small for the NFL.
As a rookie in 1966 Garrett gained 801 yards and was the second leading rusher in the league. He scored two touchdowns in the AFL championship game that moved his Chiefs into the first Super Bowl. He also played in Super Bowl IV, scoring a touchdown on the immortalized 65-toss-power-trap and was the game’s leading ground gainer against the vaunted Purple People Eaters of the losing Minnesota Vikings. Could Mike Garrett have done the same in the NFL? Sports writers would tell you that Mike excelled in the AFL because it was the AFL, not the NFL. Yet Sayers was Sayers because he played in the NFL and not the AFL. But the question continues to beg for an answer. Would Gale Sayers have been given the respect and accolades his greatness earned him had he done what he did if he had played his seven year career in the American Football League? Based on how the writers who adored the HOF Bear wrote about and described most of the players and the caliber of play in the AFL – I believe Mr. Sayers may not have been viewed in quite the same way that he was. And only because he would have played in the AFL! The truth about those who played in the AFL rarely made it into print without a cynical slant designed to trick the reader into thinking that the league and its players lacked the talent and tenacity to be considered real professionals. Sadly those attitudes that still exist were created by some of the best fairy tale writers and propagandists of the 1960’s. Those who were also considered to be some the best writers the NFL had.
Today, as much as they did in the sixties, pro football writers still seem to wear those NFL bias’ on their sleeve and continue to glance at them before voting each year for those who will be bestowed the honor of induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. AFLers Johnny Robinson, Dave Grayson, Abner Haynes, Lionel Taylor, Charlie Hennigan, Ed Budde, Clem Daniels, Cookie Gilchrist, Jim Tyrer and more should all be there, along with the other greats to have played the game – despite what league they played in! And those so called reporters who penned the fairy tales and myths about the AFL back in the day, those anti-AFL journalists who designed their reports to demean and discredit the accomplishments of the AFL and its players Once Upon a Time need to finally be over-ruled with the facts by what can still hopefully be a true and impartial forum for greatness. Only then will we able to insure an outcome that will live Happily Ever After!