The American Football League (AFL) was a mere seven years old and still did not have what it wanted.
The league's clubs had enjoyed success, and every team except two still remained in its original city. Not a single franchise had dissolved or folded, and expansion was on the horizon in Miami and then later Cincinnati. Most teams made money. The fanbase increased every season and more and more blue-chip players were joining the league.
But yet, the AFL still did not have what it wanted most: respect. That is respect from the National Football League (NFL).
The older, more established NFL had tradition, the best players, franchises located in the largest markets, and the aura of professional football chemistry on its side. The NFL had teams in Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Detroit, whereas the AFL featured clubs in smaller markets such as San Diego, Oakland, and Buffalo.
Several cities spurned the AFL when offered an NFL franchise. Minnesota was originally granted one of the eight charter AFL memberships but bolted for the NFL on the eve of their first-ever college draft. Atlanta was granted an AFL franchise but chose the NFL when pressured to choose leagues.
Both leagues had a gentlemen’s agreement not to sign away players currently under contract. But, the college draft was another matter. The AFL offered more money to the best draft-ready players and signed twice as many as the older league.
The AFL also went after NFL veterans whose contracts had expired and were still negotiating with their NFL club. Suddenly, veterans had an option. And the AFL was either their new home or a valuable bargaining chip to be used against their current home address.
This, obviously, drove up player contracts. Way up. Suddenly, a business war unwittingly had been created between the two leagues. And the owners did not like it - in both leagues.
Changes to the pro football landscape
The financial mess that both the NFL and AFL brought upon themselves was about to change in the mid-1960s. Under the cloak of secret meetings, representatives from both leagues hammered out a merger agreement which focused on 10 issues. The highlights included a championship game between the two league champions after the 1966 season, a common college draft and interleague preseason games beginning in 1967, and a complete merger with all 10 AFL teams joining the NFL beginning with the 1970 season. The championship game originally was called the “AFL-NFL Championship Game” and was later renamed the “Super Bowl" for the third game in the series.
The impending merger meant that 1969 would be the final year for the AFL. And the Kansas City Chiefs would blow out the last candle.
The Chiefs were the most successful franchise in the AFL. They had won the league title in 1962 (as the Dallas Texans) and again in 1966 to go along with their three division crowns. Their combined win-loss record for the first nine years was an astounding 81-47-5. Three Super Bowls had been played already, and the Chiefs had been the AFL representative in one of them.
Their head coach from the inception, Hank Stram, was a master talent evaluator. The franchise was able to nab great college athletes as well as players from smaller, obscure schools (including the black colleges) and NFL castoffs whose potential had yet to surface.
Running back Abner Haynes (North Texas State), kicker Jan Stenerud (Montana State), TE Morris Stroud (Clark Atlanta University), RB Stone Johnson and DT Buck Buchanan (Grambling State), QB Len Dawson (cut by the Cleveland Browns), LB Willie Lanier (Morgan State), CB Jim Marsalis (Tennessee State), RB Mike Garrett (drafted round 20), CB Emmitt Thomas (Bishop College), RB Jack Lee Hill (Southern University), punter Jerrel Wilson (Southern Miss), WR Otis Taylor (Prairie View), DT Jerry Mays and QB Mike Livingston (Southern Methodist), RB Ed Podolak (Iowa), WR Chris Burford (drafted Round 1 by Chiefs, Round 9 by NFL Browns), WR Gloster Richardson (Jackson State) and OG Dan Klepper (Omaha) were all good illustrations of the player evaluation prowess of the Chiefs' front office.
The Chiefs and Broadway Joe
From the AFL’s maiden season until 1967, the league championship game consisted of the two division winners squaring off for the title. Beginning in 1968, the second-place division teams would make the playoffs as well.
For all the success the Chiefs’ franchise enjoyed, the team had reached the playoffs in only three seasons, winning the AFL title twice. The 1968 squad shared the Western Division crown with their heated rivals, the Oakland Raiders, with both teams recording 12-2 records. Then the Raiders embarrassed K.C. in the playoffs 41-6.
The AFL had Broadway Joe Namath and the high-flying New York Jets fresh off their Super Bowl win over the NFL’s Baltimore Colts at the conclusion of the 1968 season. The inferior league had finally won something of importance—and achieved it with its large market team leading the way. Many called the AFL win a fluke, and if those same two teams had squared off 10 times the Colts, these observers said, would win nine.
For the 1969 season, the Chiefs entered the year with a sense of purpose. And some serious changes.
The late 1960s was a time of unrest in the United States, a time of rebellion and the ability to question those in authority. Professional football was no different. Untraditional hairstyles, drugs, loud music, freaky clothes, drugs, the never-ending war in Vietnam, psychedelic music, unkempt facial hair, drugs, free-love and “down with the establishment” were the trends.
Unless you were a member of the Chiefs.
Stram didn’t want any part of this expanding counterculture lifestyle. In the summer of 1969, the head coach released a letter to his players stating that any form of facial hair was not to be tolerated. Hairstyles could not be any longer than the hem of the helmet while sideburns had to be trimmed with lengths no longer than his own. In addition, the team would wear uniformed black jackets and gray pants for all road trips, complete with white shirts and matching black ties.
The team would even line up for the national anthem in a straight line in jersey numerical order. The huddle was constructed in the choir formation instead of the usual circular arrangement. For his efforts, Stram was often referred to as “Little Caesar.”
But for all his strictness and rules, the Chiefs were the most racially diverse team in all of professional football. Coach Stram cared for one thing only; that was talent and an eagerness to do great things on the field. Roommates were not chosen by color, but by playing positions. And Stram didn’t care if players didn’t like it.
The final AFL season
The 1969 season began promising as the Chiefs posted a 6-0 preseason record which included four victories against NFL clubs. After winning their first two regular-season games by a combined 58-9 score, the season looked exceedingly bright.
However, starting QB Len Dawson suffered a small ligament tear in his left knee. Against the Cincinnati Bengals the following week, the team lost 24-19 with backup QB Jacky Lee at the helm. More importantly, Lee suffered a separated shoulder.
After the loss, second-year backup QB Mike Livingston took the reins, found his rhythm and guided the squad to four more victories including a 24-0 shutout over the Houston Oilers. This stretch would later be listed by NFL Network as the sixth-greatest Cinderella story in pro football history.
In Week 8, Dawson returned to help defeat the Buffalo Bills 29-7. Then, just two days before playing the mighty Jets at Shea Stadium in New York, his father passed away. Dawson played an inspiring game throwing three TDs as the Chiefs spanked the Jets, 34-16.
The rest of the season the Chiefs won two and lost two, with both losses at the hands of the hated Raiders. At season’s end, Oakland had won the division, posting an impressive 12-1-1 record while KC procured second place at 11-3.
The league’s new playoff format that allowed second-place teams to qualify for the playoffs (for a new total of four teams) breathed new life into the Chiefs postseason prospects.
However, that first playoff game was against the Weeb Eubanks coached Jets. The defending Super Bowl champions were led by the league co-MVP Namath. The Jets offense alone was worth the price of admission as it featured WRs Don Maynard and George Sauer, plus RBs Emerson Boozer and Matt Snell.
The game was predicted to be high scoring, but after three quarters, the score was 6-6, with Kansas City's points coming on two Stenerud two field goals. Dawson then tossed a 61-yard strike to Taylor and on the ensuing possession, Dawson found Richardson for the go-ahead score. After two separate defensive stops, the good news became a hard-fought Chiefs victory. The bad news was that the club was now destined to face their bitter rivals once again—and on the road.
The final AFL Championship Game
54,443 patrons crammed Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum for the 1969 AFL Championship Game on Jan. 4, 1970. The Raiders exuded confidence, having defeated the Chiefs 27-24 and 10-6 already this season and winning seven of the last eight meetings.
As if to maintain a theme, Oakland boasted the other half of the co-MVP award with their own quarterback, Daryle Lamonica, who just happened to be another two-time league MVP. In addition, Raiders head coach John Madden had been named the AFL Coach of the Year.
Oakland dominated the first half, but the score was knotted at 7-7 late in the second quarter. With the Raiders driving midway in the third quarter, Chiefs’ CB Emmitt Thomas picked off Lamonica and was tackled at Kansas City's own 6-yard line. With a 3rd-and-14, Dawson dodged on-rushing defenders and floated a pass from his own end zone to which Taylor miraculously caught over-the-shoulder in double coverage for a first down.
The Chiefs drove the remainder of the field for the go-ahead touchdown on Robert Holmes’ five-yard run with less than four minutes left in the third. Stenerud would add a field goal, and miraculously the Chiefs had secured their third AFL title with a 17-7 victory.
Madden would later comment that Taylor’s catch on third-and-long was the difference maker in the tight contest. It was also noted how violent the competition was. Chiefs CB Jim Marsalis bruised a kidney; linebacker Jim Lynch broke his belt while making a vicious tackle, and safety Johnny Robinson cracked several ribs. Lamonica had torn tendons in his hand.
The club was once again AFL champions. But instead of cleaning out lockers, ticker tape parades, champagne toasts and being presented with the key to the city, the Kansas City Chiefs had to get ready to play arguably their most fierce opponent to date: the Minnesota Vikings.
Next up: Purple People Eaters
The Vikings. Of the NFL. The Purple People Eaters. Terror Twas the Norsemen. The Four Norsemen. The Black and Blue Division.
And worse yet, the Chiefs only had one week to prepare for Super Bowl IV in New Orleans.
The Vikings had a memorable defense spearheaded by its defensive line: Gary Larsen, Jim Marshall and future Hall of Famers, Carl Eller, and Alan Page. This bunch was nicknamed “The Purple People Eaters” and had as their motto, "Meet at the quarterback.” Among them, they would ultimately combine to play in 19 Pro Bowls. In fact, this 1969 season, all four men made the Pro Bowl.
This defense was the NFL’s stingiest, giving up the fewest points and fewest yards. It also registered 50 sacks.
On the other side, the Chiefs defense was every bit as tenacious. LB Bobby Bell was a six-time AFL All-Star, three-time NFL Pro Bowler, was named to the AFL All-Time Team, later named to the NFL’s All-1970s team, and the first Chief elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame (HOF) in 1983. DT Buck Buchanan would make six AFL All-Star games plus two Pro Bowls, and later be inducted into the HOF in 1992. Defensive end Jerry Mays would appear in the AFL All-Star game seven times and be later named to the AFL’s All-Time Team.
LB Jim Lynch was selected to one Pro Bowl. DT Curley Culp was chosen for one AFL All-Star team and later for five Pro Bowls. He was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 2013. CB Emmitt Thomas went to five Pro Bowls. LB Willie Lanier was named to the AFL All-Star squad twice, the Pro Bowl six times, and later named to the NFL’s 75th Anniversary Team. Safety Johnny Robinson was six times named to the AFL All-Star team, three Pro Bowls, appointed to the AFL All-Time Team and has been inducted into four different sports Hall of Fames.
Of that 1969 defense, nine players have since been elected to the Chiefs’ Hall of Fame.
The week leading up to Super Bowl IV, the oddsmakers immediately made the Vikings the clear winner and a 13-point favorite. The New York Times predicted a 31-7 Minnesota victory. The fact that the previous year’s Super Bowl saw a huge AFL underdog topple a heavily favored NFL squad had little bearing on this game. Simply put, the AFL was once again being ignored as a viable, competitive pro football league.
Yet again, the league’s talent level was being underestimated.
To make things more difficult, a controversy was added to the Chiefs‘ agenda. A story broke on the NBC Network that Kansas City quarterback Len Dawson and five other players were involved in a web of bookmakers. In the past, the NFL had several instances of players linked to shady characters and gambling, which in the league's eyes represented a breach of public trust. The NFL dealt with each instance swiftly and unhesitatingly, usually with players being heavily fined and/or banished from the game.
The NFL did not play when it came to gambling, especially from players.
While the game itself brought a multitude of media to New Orleans, this story saw hundreds more suddenly descend on the “Big Easy” wanting a chance at a colossal story prior to the enormous game. Dawson and Chiefs‘ publicist Jim Schaaf called a press conference to which Dawson took the podium, and said, “I have known (one of the bookmakers) for about 10 years. My only conversations with him in recent years concerned my knee injury and the death of my father. On these occasions, he called me to offer his sympathy. These calls were among the many I received. Gentlemen, this is all I have to say. I have told you everything I know.”
And with that, the story ended. None of the players were ever subpoenaed and were subsequently cleared of anything unethical or iniquitous.
Another problem for the Chiefs was the physical condition of All-Star safety Robinson. His rib injuries continued throughout the week and were questionable at best. Robinson was considered the best to ever play his position and was the team’s interception leader in five different seasons. His contribution to the game was critical.
Super Bowl IV
The day of the game was overcast and dreary. The site of the game was Tulane Stadium, an outdoor venue. The rain came down in the early morning and later the entire city was under a tornado warning. When the Chiefs arrived at the stadium and entered their locker room, a special moment was waiting for them: Stitched to each jersey was a patch commemorating the 10-year anniversary of the founding of the AFL.
The players were in awe and wore that patch with pride. Their entire league was like a brotherhood. They fought each other every week, but also fought against the very league they would soon be joining to gain respect and recognition as an equal. For years.
As for the game, the Vikings did not use tricks or try to camouflage their offense. They simply ran the ball down the throats of other teams from all angles and dared opponents to stop them. The Chiefs’ coaching staff noticed something that perhaps their NFL counterparts had missed: Vikings center Mick Tingelhoff was undersized at 235 pounds and although quick-footed, had trouble with heavier nose tackles.
DT Buck Buchanan stood 6'7" and weighed 285. The other DT, Curley Culp chimed in at 265 pounds. The Chiefs were going to disrupt the Vikings run game by jamming the interior of the offensive line. Another defensive tactic was triple-stacking linemen with linebackers and safeties. This aspect confused the Vikings’ offensive line with so many defenders going off in different directions.
Another tactic that Coach Stram implemented was that when the Chiefs had the ball, they double-teamed both Eller and Page, thus eliminating their All-World presence. With this one piece of strategy, Kansas City’s offense was able to move the ball but had to settle for three Stenerud field goals to go up 9-0 midway through the second quarter. After the third FG, Vikings return man Charlie West fumbled the kickoff and the Chiefs recovered on the Vikings 19. All it took was three plays for RB Mike Garrett to find the end zone and give the Chiefs an astonishing 16-0 halftime lead.
The Vikings were able to drive the field in the third quarter and put together a 69-yard drive that culminated with Dave Osborn scoring from the 4-yard line. That cut the Chiefs edge to 16-7 and made the deficit a more manageable one for the heavily favored Vikings.
Kansas City’s response didn’t take long—all one minute and 22 seconds, to be exact. The Chiefs drove from their own 22 to Minnesota’s 46 in five plays. On first down, the Vikings blitzed and Dawson gently swung a short pass to Taylor who broke the tackle from the cornerback. He raced down the field and stiff-armed safety Karl Kassulke at the 10 before going in for the score and a 23-7 lead.
The Chiefs would intercept Minnesota three times in the fourth quarter along with several sacks. The defense smelled victory and snuffed out any possibility of a Viking comeback. For the day, Kansas City had three interceptions, recovered three fumbles and forced six costly offensive penalties. The game ended, and fittingly Coach Stram was hoisted onto the shoulders of the men in whom he believed the most.
The Chiefs’ locker room was chaotic with multitudes of reporters. Several AFL coaches edged their way into the pandemonium as well, wanting to celebrate their league’s success, as well as congratulate Stram. NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle presented franchise owner Lamar Hunt and Stram with the championship trophy.
Finally: Respect for the AFL
The President called. The end result was that the Chiefs had put their league in a 2-2 tie in Super Bowl wins with the established league. The Chiefs had won the AFL title and now celebrated their second championship in the same season with winning Super Bowl IV.
The American Football League, all the coaches and owners, every equipment manager and front office person, current and former players, scouts and ticket-takers, finally had gained what each had been searching for after 10 long years: respect.
And it was at that very same moment that the league ceased to exist.
Barry Shuck is a pro football historical writer and a member of the Professional Football Researcher’s Association