by Brule Eagan
Football was The Old Man’s TV sport of choice.
This was when baseball was still the undisputed king of American spectator sports, but he didn’t watch much. I’ve written before how Pop had a cup of coffee with the Yankees, but while he could hit and throw, he couldn’t outrun a guy on crutches, so that ended that. Plus, he liked doing stuff outside during spring and summer. So, he always looked forward to football every fall.
I suppose his being born in Canton, Ohio helped. Canton was the birthplace of the NFL, too, and that’s why its Hall of Fame is there.
Pop and I enjoyed those old NFL games with those granite-tough players. Ed Sprinkle, Jim Brown, Night Train Lane, Concrete Chuck Bednarik, Otto Graham…it’s like a Litany of the Saints.
But as much as he enjoyed the NFL, he loved the AFL even more.
The American Football League was the brainchild of Dallas oil scion Lamar Hunt, who founded it because he thought the people of Dallas would cherish a football team. He was right, but it wasn’t his. Hunt’s Dallas Texans left for Kansas City, where they became the Chiefs, shortly after the NFL expanded to Dallas with the Cowboys.
That ended the intrastate rivalry with the Houston Oilers, whom Pop loved.
And there wasn’t an Oiler he loved more than fullback Charlie Tolar.
Tolar is best-remembered (when he’s remembered at all) for charging fearlessly into opposing linemen.
He was 5’ 6” and 210 pounds. Linemen couldn’t see him coming. They called him the “Human Bowling Ball”.
Tolar fought oil well fires with Red Adair in the off-season, so he really was fearless.
The Oilers won the AFL’s first two championships in 1960 and ’61.
Their arch rivals were the Kansas City Chiefs, and, because I was a little contrarian even then, I became a Chiefs fan just to annoy Pop.
Not in an over-the-top way, though. He had a temper. Just the occasional needle. He’d give me a good-natured hard time too.
I did rub it in a bit when the Chiefs finally beat the Oilers for the AFL Championship in ’62.
Anyway, we really loved those old AFL games, no matter which teams we watched. The AFL was a passing man’s game, and Hunt and the owners knew that numbers on the scoreboard equaled money in the bank, which is ultimately why they were able to force a merger with the NFL.
Not that the NFL was pleased with the arrangement. Their owners and their fans regarded the AFL as an inferior product.
When the first Super Bowl was played (before the merger), NFL owners ordered — ordered Packers head coach Vince Lombardi to beat Hank Stram’s Chiefs, which they did, 35-10. I was rooting for the Chiefs, but I confess, I didn’t think they had a chance against Lombardi’s Packers, and they didn’t.
The Packers crushed the Raiders the next year, 33-14.
Now comes Super Bowl III. The NFL Champion Baltimore Colts vs. the AFL Champion New York Jets.
Pop could not stand the Jets. Pop especially could not stand their flamboyant quarterback Joe Namath.
He hated his cockiness, he hated his partying, he hated that fur coat Namath wore on the sidelines.
But he really hated Joe Namath for his remark just before the game against the heavily- (and I mean HEAVILY) favored Colts.
Pestered by one mouth too many about how badly his team was going to get beaten, Namath spat back “We’re gonna win the game. I guarantee it.”
Between then and the game, Pop did a slow burn that Oliver Hardy and Edgar Kennedy couldn’t touch, combined.
From out of nowhere, Pop would suddenly blurt out “(Colts starting QB) Earl Morrall’s gonna make that god damn Namath eat his words!”
“That god damn Namath’s gonna get CREAMED!”
“The Jets don’t stand a chance. It’s already over!”
Here I come with the needle: “Pop…what happens if the Colts lose?”
“…God damn Namath and his big mouth. Baltimore’s going to win that game. I guarantee it! YA HEAR ME? That god damn Namath…”
I think I heard Mom somewhere in the house stifling a laugh. Could have been a sneeze. She didn’t want to poke that bear, either.
Well, you know the rest. The game was played, the Jets stunningly upset the Colts 16-7, and even though he didn’t throw any touchdown passes in the game, or any passes at all in the fourth quarter, Joe Willie Namath was named Super Bowl MVP.
We all watched. Mom didn’t say a word. I looked over at Pop, who just sat there, seething with rage.
I was happy I kept my mouth shut.
I stayed quiet about that game, too, at least while I was in The Old Man’s presence. He never talked about the game, either, but he never trashed Joe Namath after that.
And we never again talked about the AFL, which vindicated its existence with that win. Fifty years ago, now, and only yesterday.
The Super Bowl that made me the happiest happened the next year. The Chiefs won Super Bowl IV, beating a great Vikings team 23-7.
That game featured a dozen players who would go on to the Hall of Fame, along with both head coaches (Stram and Minnesota’s Bud Grant).
And the merger of the leagues was complete at the end of that game.
The Chiefs have never been back to the Super Bowl, although they came close this year. The Jets have never been back, either. Pop’s beloved Oilers never went until after they moved to Tennessee and became the Titans (They lost to the Rams in Super Bowl XXXIV in January, 2000).
And although I came out ahead in the rivalry I instigated, I’m not quite the fan I used to be. Maybe it’s because I don’t have The Old Man to rib, or because the AFL’s just a memory, or because football’s overtaken baseball in the hearts of its countrymen.
Thurber was right: progress was all right. Only it went on too long.