I sometimes wonder if Lamar Hunt ever regretted merging the AFL with the NFL. He certainly never let on if he did, but I suspect there were times. Hunt, after all, was the man who made pro football what it is today.
Sure, there were seven other groups and individuals who joined Hunt to form the "Foolish Club," but the AFL would never have existed if it hadn't been for Hunt. There would never have been a Super Bowl. For that matter, the NFL would probably still be a 12-team league if Lamar Hunt had not been made of the Right Stuff.
Pretty heady stuff for a man who never intended to set the pro football world on its ear; all he wanted was a pro football franchise for his hometown of Dallas, Texas. He tried to purchase the Chicago Cardinals and was told that it wasn't for sale (less than a year later, the Cardinals were sold and moved to St. Louis). He tried to get an expansion club and was again shot down. A lesser man would have accepted defeat and gone on to other endeavors. The then 26-year-old Hunt founded a league.
The AFL, however, was more than a league; it was a brotherhood. Certainly, the owners were bound together by the common dream to own a pro football franchise. The players were bound to the dream as well; there were so many, who had either failed to make an NFL roster or, like Len Dawson, just sat on the bench if they did make a team. African-American players played in the NFL, but most clubs adhered to an unspoken quota system that limited how many played for each team. That quota didn't exist in the AFL and many of the early AFL stars (e.g., Paul Lowe, Clem Daniels, Abner Haynes, Ernie Ladd, Cookie Gilchrist, and Earthquake Hunt) were African Americans.
Late in 1960, the AFL laid the groundwork for a player's pension fund by establishing a benefit fund. The actual pension and hospitalization fund became effective with the 1964 season. In January, 1964, the AFL voted to recognize the AFL Players association. The AFL also instituted TV-revenue sharing and permitted the TV cameras to broadcast any portion of live action (in other words, no censorship). The NFLPA, the networks, and ESPN would do well to remember what the AFL did.
Throughout the early years, Hunt was the glue that held the AFL together. Despite his importance, however, he remained humble and always put the league first. Players, coaches, staff, and even the team ball boys were family to him and that never changed.
The NFL was finally forced to accept the fact that the AFL wasn't going to go away and quiet talks soon began to discuss a merger of the two leagues. Discussions soon floundered, however, and Hunt and the other AFL owners replaced Commissioner Joe Foss with Al Davis. Davis began to escalate the war with the NFL and announced that the AFL would begin signing established NFL stars to future contracts. Not surprisingly, merger talks heated back up and it was Hunt who successfully concluded the merger agreement. With the merger, came peace. With peace, came prosperity. With prosperity, came expansion. With expansion, came more exposure for pro football. With more exposure, came more prosperity. Today, the NFL is the most successful sports league in the world. Hunt had a big hand in that, too.
So what makes me think Hunt may have regretted the merger?
In 1960, the NFL was a stodgy, elitist corporation. To the NFL owners, The AFL was an inferior product staffed with second-rate players, owned by people who weren't good enough to belong to the NFL fraternity, and coached by unknowns and NFL has-beens. The AFL proved them wrong and I think the NFL has always resented it. Look how few AFL stars have been enshrined in Canton. Look how long it took the NFL to incorporate the AFL's two-point conversion. Look how long it took for the NFL to allow a team other than the Lions and Cowboys to host a Thanksgiving Day game. The NFL would like nothing more than to see the AFL fade from memory.
Today, the NFL has reverted to being a stodgy, elitist corporation. I have to wonder if Hunt sometimes didn't feel a pang of disgust when he looked over that group at each Owner's Meeting and think back to the days when the "Foolish Club" was struggling to survive. He had to shake his head when he looked at the pampered, selfish players like Terrell Owens and wonder what happened.
But on the other hand, Hunt wanted the AFL to survive and he did what he did to ensure its survival. Despite Hunt's death, the NFL still can't erase the memory of the AFL - John Madden, Paul Maguire, Marty Schottenheimer, Ralph Wilson, Bud Adams, and Al Davis will see to that. I expect the same from Clark Hunt. Writers like Jerry Magee, guys like Ange Coniglio (who operates a website devoted exclusively to the memory of the AFL), and old fossils like me who grew up with the AFL will see to that. The brotherhood Lamar Hunt created remains intact.