By Steve Silverman
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The Super Bowl never would have become the dominant American sports event if not for Lamar Hunt.
It was Hunt who started the American Football League, and without his commitment and deep pockets, the NFL would never have had legitimate competition and would have remained a closed, old-boys club for many years.
Hunt had been trying to get his own NFL franchise for years and had been frustrated by the likes of George Halas and George Preston Marshall. The NFL was not interested in expanding during the 1950s as it didn’t want to divide its pie into more shares. There were 12 teams at the time, and that was enough for Halas and his pal, Marshall.
Those two controlled what happened in the NFL, and commissioner Bert Bell was not interested in starting a war with those two curmudgeons.
Hunt basically realized he was going to continue to get shut out of the NFL, and while that frustrated and angered him, it didn’t stop him from being a fan. However, when he watched the 1958 NFL championship game between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants, he became a man of action.
I interviewed Hunt several times over the years as a senior editor at Pro Football Weekly, and he was always a willing participant. He explained that he found that game so compelling, that he was no longer satisfied to sit on the sidelines.
The Colts, led by Johnny Unitas, defeated the Giants 23-17 at Yankee Stadium. It was the first NFL game to go to overtime and it is regularly referred to as the greatest game in pro football history.
That’s debatable, but it spurred Hunt into action. He watched the game on television from his hotel room, and he was exhilarated.
“It was the best football game I had ever seen,” Hunt recalled. “There was no way I was going to sit on the sidelines any longer. If I had to start my own league, I was going to do it.”
Hunt had substantial money at his disposal as a result of his family’s dominant position in the oil industry. He also had a willing partner in Bud Adams, a fellow Texan who would eventually become the owner of the Houston Oilers (later the Tennessee Titans).
Hunt drew up his plans for a new football league on the back of cocktail napkins as he flew back to his native Dallas. Those napkins became the basis for the American Football League. The league was formed in 1959 and had eight playing members by 1960.
Hunt’s deep pockets allowed the league to remain alive through its early years, and the NFL ultimately decided to let Hunt and his American Football League merge because it feared the spending war for top players that would have cost a fortune.
The merger allowed the AFL to keep its identity throughout the 1960s, and the key factors were the common draft between the two leagues and the annual championship game.
Hunt’s Kansas City Chiefs got overwhelmed by Vince Lombardi and the Green Bay Packers in the first AFL-NFL championship game, and the Oakland Raiders suffered the same fate at the hands of the Packers in the second.
However, Hunt and his band of AFL warriors closed out their run with victories the next two years. By that time, the game had the Super Bowl appellation that is so famous today.
Joe Namath, of course, put the game on the map as he led the Jets to a huge 16-7 upset over the Colts in Super Bowl III. That victory was the most significant game in pro football history as it keyed the sport’s hyper-growth.
Hunt’s Chiefs then hammered the favored Minnesota Vikings 23-7 in Super Bowl IV. The Colts and Vikings were both supposed to dominate their AFL opponents, but neither could even come close to fulfilling expectations, and the AFL went out on glorious terms.
The Seahawks and the Broncos will play Super Bowl XLVIII at MetLife Stadium and the whole sporting world will be watching.
This never would have happened if it had not been for Hunt’s desire and vision. More than anyone else, he is responsible for the growth and dominance of professional football.
Follow Steve on Twitter at @ProFootballBoy
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