THE AFL 1960–69: A RETROSPECTIVE

Before a distinguished career as a conservative Republican, Kemp quarterbacked the Bills to two AFL championships

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Jack Kemp played in five AFL championship games and won two, both with Buffalo in 1964 and 1965.

Long before Jack Kemp entered the political ring when his football career ended, guard Billy Shaw knew the Buffalo quarterback was headed in that direction.

The proof, Shaw said, was the way the Bills offense operated during the 1964 AFL championship season.

“I swear I think politics dictated our play on that ’64 team,” joked Shaw. “We didn’t run the ball very far to the right or very far to the left because Jack wouldn’t go too far in either direction. …


THE AFL 1960–69: A RETROSPECTIVE

The Jets signed Joe Namath to a record contract, but Buffalo was once again the class of the AFL.

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Rookie Joe Namath signed a pro football record-breaking contract with the New York Jets in 1965.

There had been a cache of players who came to prominence during the first five years of the AFL, but there was a certain ingredient missing: Star power.

Players such as George Blanda, Len Dawson, Jack Kemp, Cookie Gilchrist, Ernie Ladd, Keith Lincoln, Lance Alworth, Abner Haynes and Billy Cannon, just to name a few, became stars in the AFL and they helped the league battle its inferiority complex by proving that quality football did not exist solely in the NFL.

But with no disrespect intended to any of the above, they just didn’t sell seats in and of themselves.

Joe Namath sold seats. …


1968 — A HISTORICAL NOVEL: CHAPTER 18

Patrick McDonald and the members of Kilo Company embark on yet another day of trying to survive in a faraway jungle.

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Rain was pouring down into the Song Lo Dong Valley, making this day like just about every other day in the jungles of Vietnam. Fucking miserable. Patrick McDonald had grown used to the constant barrage from the skies, walking around in a uniform that was either soaked by rain, soaked by sweat, or soaked by traversing through swampy water. He couldn’t imagine what he smelled like, but then he’d catch a whiff of the guy next to him and he’d get an idea. Patrick was convinced that animals were more hygienic than he and the rest of the grunts.

What he hadn’t grown used to is watching comrades die, but if he was being perfectly honest with himself, it was better them than him, which is what any other Marine would say. If that made him a selfish prick, an asshole in a foxhole, so be it, but it certainly didn’t make him different. If there’s one thing Patrick had come to learn during his tour of duty, it was that there’s nothing noble about dying. …


THE AFL 1960–69: A RETROSPECTIVE

Mike Stratton’s big tackle keyed a ferocious defensive performance as Buffalo defeated San Diego for its first title.

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Jack Kemp guided the Bills to back-to-back AFL championships in 1964 and 1965.

For San Diego, playing in the AFL Championship Game had become habitual by 1964.

Since the inception of the AFL in 1960, the Chargers were making their fourth appearance in five years in the final, but they had won in only one of the previous four visits — a 51–10 shellacking of Boston in 1963.

They had ruled the West, but first it was the Houston Oilers who they could not get past, and then after their victory over the Patriots, Buffalo became their kryptonite as the Chargers would lose both the 1964 and 1965 title games to the Bills.

In the first meeting, a 20–7 Buffalo victory played the day after Christmas 1964 at cold and muddy War Memorial Stadium in Buffalo, the Chargers were confronted with a Bills team that had roared through the regular season with a 12–2 record achieved mainly because of a defense that had no equal in the first five seasons of the AFL. …


THE AFL 1960–69: A RETROSPECTIVE

The speedy wide receiver didn’t always catch the ball, but when he did, no one could catch him.

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Buffalo’s Elbert Dubenion still stands fourth in Bills history in career receiving yards, 52 yards since his last game.

As the Buffalo Bills flew home from New York City after losing the first game in franchise history, 27–3 to the Titans in 1960, Elbert Dubenion figured his one-game-old professional football career was over.

“I dropped about four or five balls and fumbled a handoff from Tommy O’Connell on a reverse,” Dubenion recalled. “Buster (Ramsey, the head coach) didn’t take too kindly to that. I didn’t think I’d make it past that first game.”

Ramsey fought off the urge to waive the speedy, brick-handed receiver from tiny Bluffton (Ohio) College, and his instincts proved correct. …


THE AFL 1960–69: A RETROSPECTIVE

The Bills linebacker, who delivered the Tackle Heard ‘Round the World, was a six-time AFL All-Star.

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Mike Stratton of the Bills played 11 seasons in Buffalo and is a member of the franchise’s 50th anniversary team.

At the time, it was just another tackle, one that effectively disrupted a routine play early in a big game. But in the minutes that San Diego Chargers running back Keith Lincoln lay on the frozen War Memorial Stadium muck, clutching his broken ribs, a legend was born.

And by the time that game — the 1964 AFL Championship — ended, linebacker Mike Stratton’s hit on Lincoln had taken on an identity unto itself.

It was the play that turned the game in the Bills’ favor and keyed their 20–7 victory, Buffalo’s first pro football championship. It instantly became known as the “The Tackle Heard Round the World” and longtime observers of the Bills who were there that cold December day or saw it on television still call it the play that changed the course of Buffalo’s football history. …


1968 — A HISTORICAL NOVEL: CHAPTER 17

Lee Trevino, a relative unknown, fell in love with Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester and won his first PGA Tour event.

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Lee Trevino raises his hand in victory after finishing off his final round in the 1968 U.S. Open.

Jack stayed in California for almost a week after the death of Robert Kennedy, spending time with his sister, Mary, and her husband, Carl at their home in Anaheim discussing the problems America was facing in this hellish year of 1968.

Jack was still shaken by the fact that he’d witnessed the final moments of Kennedy’s life, and had watched the vibrant senator walk through a door not 50 feet from where Jack had been standing where, on the other side, he would be shot three times while a couple thousand of his unknowing supporters were still celebrating his California Democratic Primary victory. …


THE AFL 1960–69: A RETROSPECTIVE

Buffalo saw its nine-game winning streak and undefeated season blow up as Boston scored the final 22 points of this East Division showdown.

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Babe Parilli and the Patriots dealt the Bills their first loss of 1964 after nine straight victories.

After winning their first nine games to start the 1964 season, the Buffalo Bills ran into a crisis late in the first half of this Nov. 15 showdown with Boston.

Coach Lou Saban had lifted fullback Cookie Gilchrist from the game earlier in the second quarter, and now he wanted to put him back in even though the Bills were only going to kneel on the ball to wind the clock down to halftime.

Gilchrist, angered by the lack of carries he had gotten to that point in the game, refused to go back in. It touched off a war of words between the coach and player that almost cost the Bills the opportunity to win their first championship. …


THE AFL 1960–69: A RETROSPECTIVE

No one had a more diverse and lengthy coaching resume, but his greatest successes came in the AFL with the Buffalo Bills

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Lou Saban coached the Buffalo Bills to back-to-back AFL championships in 1964 and 1965.

It did not take a genius to figure out what the woebegone Buffalo Bills should do on offense when the 1972 NFL season began.

Then again, it had been pretty obvious ever since O.J. Simpson joined the team in 1969 that he should be the focal point of the attack, yet he gained just 1,927 yards in his first three seasons.

Incredibly, neither John Rauch nor Harvey Johnson — his first two pro coaches in Buffalo — seemed capable of grasping the concept that Simpson was a superstar in the making, and he needed to be unleashed.

Lou Saban was no genius. But he could recognize greatness when it was right in front of him, and only when Saban — who had coached the Bills from 1962–65 in the old AFL — returned to the team prior to 1972 did Simpson become the centerpiece of the Buffalo offense. …


THE AFL 1960–69: A RETROSPECTIVE

After rotting on NFL benches for five years, the Texans-Chiefs quarterback jumped to the AFL and wound up in the Hall of Fame.

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Kansas City’s Len Dawson led the Texans-Chiefs to three AFL championships and a victory in Super Bowl IV.

Five years is a long time to sit around doing nothing, so it stood to reason that when Len Dawson joined the Dallas Texans for the start of the 1962 AFL season, he wasn’t going to be very sharp.

“I was shocked at how bad he was at first,” said Texans coach Hank Stram, who only remembered Dawson as a star passer for Purdue when Stram served at that school as an assistant coach in the mid-1950s. “But I couldn’t help but realize that five years of sitting on the bench or manning telephones didn’t make a man sharp. It took him a couple years to get back into the groove. …

About

Sal Maiorana

I’ve been writing about sports — mainly the Buffalo Bills — for the past 34 years for the Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester, N.Y. Also the author of 22 books.

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