Hunt shaped what we now know as the NFL

Thursday, December 14, 2006

It's been well documented that the late, great, Lamar Hunt founded the AFL in 1959, and that the legendary owner of the Kansas City Chiefs coined the term "Super Bowl."

But what you may not know is exactly what this visionary man contributed to the game that has supplanted baseball as America's favorite sport.

A genuine man who, despite his wealthy upbringing, didn't reek of arrogance, Hunt was what I would call a "real" person.

There are those who sit aloft in their high positions, nose upturned to those whom they think are unworthy of their time. Hunt was not of this ilk.

I had talked to Hunt a couple times, both after Kansas City victories while in the bowels of Arrowhead Stadium.

He was engaging. It didn't matter that I was just a young sportswriter from small town Nevada, Hunt looked me in the eye, half-smiled and talked to me the same way he would if I were Joe Posnanski of the Kansas City Star.

He usually wouldn't talk long, his health obviously wasn't great, but he would talk nonetheless.

The Chiefs were his baby. The same excitement I get when I talk to someone about their son or daughter, that's what Hunt had when you talked to him about the Chiefs.

But Hunt was more than just an owner.

When Hunt created the AFL in 1959, he had many detractors.

For one, his father didn't even think it was a good idea. And in the middle of the AFL "project" Hunt was offered an opportunity to begin an NFL franchise in Dallas. It was Hunt's original intent before starting the AFL, he simply had wanted an NFL team in Dallas and was turned down.

After generating enough interest nationally to form the new league, Hunt's AFL held a draft and was getting ready to play its first season in 1960.

That's when the NFL came knocking and offered to allow Hunt to begin a franchise in Dallas.

It would have been easy for Hunt to drop what he was doing -- he lost the potential franchise he had lined up in Minneapolis to the NFL just weeks before.

But Hunt wasn't going to leave the other six potential AFL franchise owners in limbo, so he saw his idea through.

It's not usually reported how close Hunt was to accepting the offer in Dallas. Had he done so, it's quite possible (even probable) that the Kansas City Chiefs wouldn't exist today.

Instead Hunt continued with his Dallas Texans' franchise in the AFL and the NFL moved on without Hunt and had another team started in Dallas, the Tex Schramm-owned Cowboys.

The first few years were lean in the AFL as the NFL continued to thrive.

One who would not let his pride get in the way of his vision to succeed, Hunt and the Texans struggled in Dallas despite winning the league championship in its third season (1963).

So Hunt moved his team to Kansas City and the Chiefs were born.

Meanwhile the AFL started to pick up steam, taking more and more players away from the powerful NFL, and when the upstart league signed a lucrative television contract with NBC prior to the 1965 season, it was a statement to the world that the AFL was not going to go away.

Instead, Hunt and Cowboys owner Schramm started meeting secretly in 1966 where they hammered out the preliminary details of a merger between the two leagues.

The first step in the merger began in 1967, when the two leagues merged their drafts and decided to play a World Championship Game between the two league champs.

The NFL's Green Bay Packers obviously won the first two title games, but when the New York Jets beat the Baltimore Colts in 1969, the AFL was legitimized among football fans throughout the country.

The two leagues completed their merger prior to the 1970 season and all of the AFL's teams (then numbering 10) were admitted to the National Football League.

To have all the teams from an upstart league included in a genuine merger with a powerful, well-established sports league was unheard of before the AFL-NFL venture.

Just looking down the list of past Super Bowl champions will tell you that the AFL has brought nearly as much to the league as the original NFL teams have.

With 40 Super Bowls now in the books, 12 of them have been won by teams that were part of the 10-squad AFL.

The Miami Dolphins, the Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders, the Boston/New England Patriots and the Denver Broncos have all won Super Bowl titles after being part of the AFL.

Of course the Chiefs also won in 1970.

Hunt's contributions to pro football didn't end when the two leagues merged.

Always considered an innovator in the sport, Hunt was one of the main driving forces that allowed the NFL to adopt the two-point conversion after touchdowns, as college football has used for years.

Hunt also advocated rotating games on Thanksgiving Day so that more teams than the Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions could host on the holiday.

This season that push finally became a reality as the Chiefs hosted the Broncos in what has promised to be an annual third Thanksgiving Day game for the league, which will be rotated throughout the league.

It all started with a man simply wanting to bring pro football to Dallas. Had the NFL not been short-sighted and been worried about over-saturating the market or expanding too fast, the league as we know it would not exist. Hunt would have gotten his team, the AFL would not have been founded and who knows if the popularity of the league would be where it is today.

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