One of those historic sports things I understand but don’t really get is the state of football leading up to the NFL-AFL merger. It was the first of the three big sports mergers over the next decade, and it’s absolutely alien to me: I’ve never lived through a successful competitor to a Big Four sports league, let alone one where the rivalry actually played out on the field. I can only imagine the tribalism—and the shit-talking—was off the charts.
Nathan Fenno of the Los Angeles Times dug through the archives to describe the scene around the very first Super Bowl, then merely named the AFL-NFL World Championship Game, and held at the L.A. Coliseum on Jan. 15, 1967. It’s a neat piece about a different world, but perhaps more than anything else I enjoyed the linked front sports page of the morning after’s L.A. Times.
You can see the full page in high resolution by clicking here.
(Two notes. First, that’s a different Paul Zimmerman than Sports Illustrated’s Dr. Z. Second, I know Jim Murray was there forever and won a Pulitzer, but that is a bad, bad column.)
It’s the story on Vince Lombardi’s postgame comments I liked best, though. I know, intellectually, that the NFL circles must have had a lot of disdain for the AFL upstarts, but I never really thought about how that might manifest. This story hints that most coaches and players intentionally avoided talking about the NFL’s perceived superiority, either out of politeness or due to an edict handed down from executives eyeing the merger that was announced the previous summer. But after the Packers’ big win over the Chiefs, Lombardi couldn’t stay quiet any longer.
“I don’t think that Kansas City compares with the top teams of the NFL,” said the Green Bay coach whose team had swamped the Chiefs, 35-10, Sunday in the first Super Bowl game.
“That’s what you wanted me to say, and I said it,” shouted Lombardi from a podium in the cramped Packer dressing room. “It [the statement] has been a long time coming out.”
Lombardi also crapped on Hank Stram’s vaunted Chiefs defense, hailed by some as revolutionary. “Detroit has had it for years,” Lombardi deadpanned.
Lombardi was no doubt speaking for a lot of people, and he just reinforced his perception of the AFL with a blowout win over the Raiders in Super Bowl II. The AFL wasn’t considered legit. This is the kind of context necessary—the acuteness of which has been somewhat smoothed over by history, and by the fact that conferences don’t even have distinct identities these days—to understand just how big an upset the Jets’ win over the Colts in Super Bowl III was.
(In something resembling irony, it was familiarity with an ostensibly rare defense that swung the game for the Jets. Just as Lombardi credited having seen the stack defense before playing the Chiefs, the Jets had success against the Colts’ zone defense, which wasn’t used in the NFL but was common in the AFL.)
Reading Lombardi’s contemporary’s comments on the Chiefs and the AFL gives me a better sense of the scale of the underdog story than any history can. Hot damn, it must have been a glorious time for argument. If Twitter or the sports-shouting shows existed during a merger today, it’d be unbearable. You’d never hear the end of moronic, ill-informed opinions on the leagues’ relative strengths. There’d be so many hot takes! God, I feel like I missed out.