By the mid-1960’s, surveys taken by the media showed that pro football had overtaken major league baseball as America’s Pastime. For most observers the turning point took place in 1958 when the Baltimore Colts led by the legendary John Unitas, defeated the New York Giants with its glamorous running back, Frank Gifford in overtime earning them the NFL Championship. Football was made for TV and CBS was willing to pay some big bucks to put the NFL on its network.
In 1946, the All America Football Conference was formed to challenge the NFL but failed because it had no draft which allowed one team to dominate, the Cleveland Browns. The Browns and two other teams were absorbed by the NFL in 1950. It took ten years for another challenger to enter the list.
That Challenge came from men who initially wanted an NFL franchise but were rebuffed. They had money. Lots of it. They had determination, and they had patience. Ralph Wilson, a Detroit business man, was one of them. Wilson was denied in his efforts to form an NFL team in his vacation home of Miami. In the new league, he was offered Buffalo, and paid the $100,000 dollar entry fee ($25,000 down) to start a franchise there. A bargain. The new pro league was called the American Football League.
The AFL was largely ignored by the smug and dismissive older league which had been around since the 1920s. For most of its history, baseball, college football and horse racing were far more popular. Now, as the turbulent sixties rolled in, they had gained the public’s favor. They sat in the catbird seat. No wonder Wilson and his pals called themselves, “the Foolish Club”.
So in light of all that, what would transpire in May of 1969 seems almost incredible. These are the words of Larry Felser, sportswriter for the Buffalo Evening News when he described these events in his book, The Birth of the New NFL:
On the sixth day, with progress neck-deep in disagreement, the velvet glove was slipped off Rozelle’s mailed fist. The commissioner locked the door on his collection of tycoons, captains of industry, and power brokers accustomed to being the masters of their own fiefdoms. In the parlance of mobsters readying for gang warfare, they “went to the mattresses” until Rozelle could squeeze an agreement out of them.
Felser goes on to say that these movers and shakers were relegated to sleeping on cots.The allusion to The Godfather begs another. In that room a facsimile of the Oscar nominated film Twelve Angry Men, doubled to 24, was enacted.
Acrimony bordering on outright hostility existed in that meeting. A deadline was looming and these men were having their feet held to the fire by probably the only man who could do it, the NFL Commissioner.
Pete Rozelle had shepherded the League into an unprecedented period of prosperity, but now here they were, the owners of the NFL clubs locked in a room with “The Foolish Club” trying to hammer out a merger. Meanwhile, at the posh St. Regis Hotel, the media too was sequestered, evoking another scene… that of throngs of worshippers in St. Peter’s Square awaiting the white smoke.
Incredibly, the impetus for what brought this about revolves around a young Hungarian refugee who, for much of his life, didn’t know a football from a cumquat. A young man who eventually would ply his trade playing for Ralph Wilson’s Buffalo Bills.
Post War Eastern Europe was held in the iron grip of the Communist superpower, the USSR. Hungary attempted to free itself in 1956 only to be crushed underfoot by Soviet tanks.
Peter Gogolak and his parents fled to the United States and settled in Ogdensburg, NY. The 15 year-old Hungarian was heartbroken that his high school had no soccer team, a sport he’d played for ten years. The cool guys played football so he went out for the team without knowing there was any kicking involved.
A couple of weeks went by and just before the initial game, goal posts were erected on the field. The coach asked the players if anyone could kick a ball through the uprights. Gogolak’s first effort failed but he liked the idea, practiced it and revolutionized the art of placekicking in American football.
Peter kicked the ball “soccer-style”… approaching the ball at a forty-five degree angle and kicking with his instep instead of his toe. His first holder protested that Gogolak was going to kick him in the butt (he actually used the familiar term for donkey).
After working on his kicking fanatically for a year, Gogolak was ready in his junior year. He was a revelation, but colleges ignored him. Finally, Cornell offered him an academic scholarship and he kicked three field goals against Yale in his first game.
Four years later, the Bills drafted him in the 12th round. The NFL ignored him.
For four years a “gentleman’s agreement” existed between the two leagues. Any player signed by one team would not be pursued by a team in the other league. That was about to change in 1965.
Gogolak, who was hugely successful as the Bills’ kicker, helping propel them to two league championships, had signed a one year deal with an option year. For his second year he felt he was worth a lot more money. He took a pay cut and played out his option.
The Giants, a dismal team, badly needed a kicker. They offered him a big contract and “Gogo” signed. He was now a New York Giant and playing in the NFL, enraging Ralph Wilson among others. The football world exploded.
The arrival of Gogolak had followed other events of significance. In 1963, Sonny Werblin, the President of MCA, a giant talent agency, had “ purchased” the bankrupt NY Titans. Werblin was a star maker who represented Jackie Gleason, Andy Williams and Ed Sullivan.
A “tell all” book written by him could exceed the OED in length and detail. He rebranded his team the New York “Jets” and changed their colors to green and white. His signing of Alabama rookie Joe Namath to a record three-year $427,000 dollar contract was an example of his belief in star power.
The team was moved from the shabby Polo Grounds to the brand new Shea Stadium and the Jets began to outdraw the Giants in attendance. But it was when NBC agreed to a contract with the AFL comparable to the one CBS signed with the NFL, that the conflict with the rival league really heated up.
Al Davis, the dynamic and combative GM of the Raiders signed three prominent NFL players in retaliation for the Gogolak “theft”. Both sides threw big money at draft picks, sometimes kidnapping them and hiding them from the other league until a deal was signed.
Secret drafts were held and draft picks were willingly swapped to teams with a better prospect of signing a draftee. The AFL had the wherewithal now to continue the fight in the hopes of gaining an equitable merger. As player salaries began to skyrocket, the NFL gave in.
By 1966 it was agreed the two leagues would merge in 1970. The particulars of the shape of the new league would have to be hammered out while the bitterness and distrust lingered. In this atmosphere the merger meetings described above so eloquently by Felser took place in May of 1969.
There is little doubt Gogolak was a central figure in all of this. He is to this day, the greatest kicker in New York Giants history. Prior to him, the gold standard for kicking was Cleveland Browns Hall of Famer, Lou ’The Toe” Groza, but even he made a relatively low percentage of kicks.
The soccer style was more accurate so more teams tried to find their own Gogolak. A strange bunch they were. Often they were foreigners whose broken English and lack of football knowledge was mocked (I going to ‘keeek’ a touchdown now), and like Miami’s Garo Yepremian, looked more like your tax man. But they were so effective that more and more teams were kicking field goals rather than go for first downs. The NFL moved the goal posts to the back line as a remedy in 1974.
Today, Gogolak lives in Connecticut where he is a successful businessman running a printing business. The little boy who fled a communist country with his parents had fully embraced the American way, and in many ways changed the face of its most popular sport.
Editor’s babble: These posts by Vito are a treasure. I remember the AFL/NFL merger being quite antagonistic, as it happened when I was entering high school. Thanks, as always, to Vito Perricelli for his tremendous contributions to our blog.