They were pioneers and mavericks. They dreamed big and gambled bigger. They were madder than any of Madison Avenue's maddest Mad Men in the 1960s.
They rolled the dice on the popularity of professional football in Texas, where college and high school games were king; in New York, where the Giants were an institution and upstarts were chuckled at; and in Buffalo, where the snow arrived around Halloween and often did not leave before Easter. A small squad of combat veterans, they declared war on the NFL, forced a truce and won the peace more gloriously than any of them could have imagined.
They are all gone now.
Lamar Hunt (1932-2006) was a scion of an oil baron, a young man with a passion for football and perhaps a little more money than good sense.
Kenneth Stanley "Bud" Adams (1923-2013) was a Cherokee Indian, Texas oilman, Pacific Theater naval veteran and former three-sport athlete who yearned for a football franchise in his adopted home state.
Al Davis (1929-2011) was a Brooklyn-raised, middle-class, Jewish kid, too small for college sports but too brilliant and obsessed to stay away, a strategic savant in every sense with the genius and drive to ascend from obscure assistant coach to league commissioner in half a decade.
Joe Foss (1915-2003) was an ace fighter pilot, Medal of Honor winner, former governor of South Dakota and a sports commissioner with no sports experience but the clout to negotiate television contracts and steer the strong personalities in a fledging alliance in the proper direction.
Ralph Wilson (1918-2014) was a Michigan-born businessman and naval veteran, a man eager to place a pro football franchise in sunny Miami but willing to take his chances in Buffalo instead.
There were others. Harry Wismer (1913-1967) was among the founding fathers of sports broadcasting; his New York Titans were brushed off by the Gotham media but kept afloat by the largesse of Hunt, Adams and Wilson. Billy Sullivan (1915-1998) was another charity case: a sportswriter and PR director turned owner of the Boston Patriots, a team that seemed to have one foot in receivership from the Kennedy Administration until just over a decade ago. Bob Howsam (1918-2008) was minor-league baseball executive eager to bring professional sports of any kind to Denver, even at the risk of financial ruin. Barron Hilton (born 1927) was the son of a hotel magnate, innovator of the credit card, and yet another World War II navy veteran. He was willing to dabble in Los Angeles football in his copious free time.
But Hunt, Adams, Davis, Foss and Wilson are the ones we remember best, and they are the ones we lost in the last decade or so. Wilson passed away on Tuesday at age 95. A generation had come to think of him as a hidebound penny-pincher, the old guy slowing down the NFL's supermarket line, a codger intractably running his small-market franchise the old-fashioned way, and subsequently running it into the ground. But Wilson was really the last of pro football's greatest generation, the sole survivor from a group of Young Turks whose unwillingness to take no for an answer -- or view bankruptcy as a deterrent -- transformed a regionally popular sport into an American lifestyle.
Wilson, wealthy because of business interests that ranged from insurance to broadcasting, was a minority owner of the Detroit Lions in the late 1950s. Like Hunt and Adams, he wanted a seat at the NFL table. The NFL would not pull out the slats to make more room; the league had found a comfortable niche and was wary of expansion. Hunt and Adams decided to found their own league. Wilson and Hilton came aboard, Wilson by way of telegram after a plan to expand into Florida fell through: "Count me in with Buffalo." Wismer and Sullivan brought theoretical media savvy to East Coast markets. Foss brought political connections and legitimacy. Davis essentially began working his way up from Hilton's mailroom.
Wilson and the other mavericks forced the NFL to change its policy on expansion. Suddenly, the NFL placed teams in Dallas and Minnesota to take markets and investors away from the AFL. The AFL introduced a wide-open style of play, forcing the NFL to reexamine its cloud-of-dust strategies. The AFL competed for college superstars using Hunt's money and Davis' Machiavellian just-this-side-of-kidnapping persuasion tactics. Salaries rose, and new superstars emerged.
Foss sold the television rights for the AFL to ABC as a bundled package. The NFL followed suit by consolidating its catch-as-catch-can CBS and regional packages. The rights packages gave small-market teams like Wilson's Buffalo Bills a financial puncher's chance against big market teams. With two leagues and three broadcast networks, there was competition for national viewership. Revenues increased. Interest increased.
Pro football was no longer limited to a corridor through New York, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Chicago and Green Bay, with two lonely West Coast outposts. Suddenly, Lance Alworth was sprinting around San Diego (AFL), Don Meredith was dandy in Dallas (NFL), Len Dawson was throwing 30 touchdowns in Kansas City (AFL) and Fran Tarkenton was scrambling for his life through Minnesota (NFL) snowdrifts. The South soon rose. A Lebanese-American lawyer named Joe Robbie joined the mavericks and brought the AFL to Miami. The NFL countered by expanding into New Orleans and Atlanta. The rising tide of competition raised all boats. Pro football's footprint became the map of America.
Hunt and Adams provided the cash. Foss was the superego; Davis, rising to Raiders owner and Foss' wartime consigliore, was the id. Wilson was the glue that held everything together. He pushed for television revenue sharing. He advised Foss and the other owners to postpone AFL games on the Sunday after John F. Kennedy's assassination. He was free with his loans to the other owners, keeping the Raiders afloat until Davis took over and making sure the Patriots did not fold.
He was also incredibly successful. His Bills won the AFL championship in 1964 and 1965. Those teams featured Jack Kemp, the quarterback who almost became Vice President of the United States; and Cookie Gilchrist, the superstar running back who led a boycott of the 1965 AFL All-Star Game in New Orleans after black players faced segregation and discrimination. Wilson kept an icebound small-market team healthy, on the field and the ledger sheet, through tumultuous times. He made pro football fans out of an entire region.
The NFL and AFL merged. In a few years, the mavericks became indistinguishable from the old guard -- except for Davis, who could not really be tamed. Wilson, like Hunt and the others, grew even wealthier as the national appetite for football grew without bound. Kemp and Gilchrist gave way to O.J. Simpson, then Jim Kelly -- and a half-decade of beautiful frustration, fabulous regular seasons and cataclysmic Super Bowls. New owners entered the NFL: real estate tycoons, movie producers, high-tech multi-millionaires. There was a self-made football-obsessed oilman, too, but Jerry Jones was not quite like Hunt and Adams. Everyone was different. The old 1960s "League Think," the philosophy that grew from the league wars and the merger peace, began to be replaced by "Me Think."
Second and third generations took over the family-owned teams that were not sold. Everything became more bottom-line oriented and cutthroat. The idea of the Bills or Chiefs owner handing operating capital over to the Patriots or Raiders sounds positively ludicrous today. Wilson, possibly the last man alive who wrote such a check, remained in control of the Bills, even as the city of Buffalo itself began to disappear around him.
Wilson became a doddering-coot punchline, but the jokes did not fit. Wilson remained outspoken at owners meetings -- sometimes one of the lone voices of dissent -- until the end. The "coupon clipper" wrote a $19 million signing bonus check to Mario Williams two years ago this month. Laugh at the 90-something man spending eight figures at a pen stroke, and voting his conscience surrounded by billionaire sharks, at your own peril. Wilson survived and thrived through a whole generation's worth of last laughs.
One by one, the mavericks and mad men of football's greatest generation disappeared: Foss, Hunt, Howsam, Davis, Adams. Barron Hilton is still with us, but he left the game before the merger, and football is a tiny footnote in his biography. Wilson was our last link to an era when a handful of do-it-yourselfers could start a sports revolution; when an ornery cuss with a playbook and ambition could become one of the most powerful sports moguls in America; when Madison Avenue needed Broadway Joe to pay attention to football, and the NFL needed a poke in its complacency; when there was an actual sense of camaraderie -- of family -- in the not-yet-so-big business of professional football ownership.
Wilson, Hunt, Foss, Adams and Davis are reunited. Heaven may be a little worried they'll take over.