- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The NFL is having a 50th birthday party for the American Football League, and it’s more than appropriate. Without the free-wheeling and ultimately groundbreaking AFL, which was created in 1959 and began play the next year, the NFL as it’s now known would not exist.

Maybe, absent the AFL, pro football would still be an immensely popular (and profitable) sports staple embedded in American culture, blatantly corporate yet vastly entertaining. Maybe not.

But one thing is certain: No AFL, no Super Bowl. Perish the thought.

As part of the season-long celebration, NFL Films has used its considerable resources to produce a five-part documentary. “Full Color Football: The History of the American Football League” starts Wednesday on Showtime.

But NFL Films, which shoots about 25 miles of film for one Super Bowl, had little original footage from the fledgling AFL. Producer Paul Camarata and his staff had to dig up lots of old film from other sources like TV stations in the markets of the eight original teams.

“We found tape and film that they’ve never seen,” he said.

“The opportunity to go back in history and re-examine the whole phenomenon and how important it was to the whole sporting landscape was a great education,” NFL Films president Steve Sabol said.

One reason is that the company that in 1964 became NFL Films, founded by Sabol’s father, Ed, largely ignored the AFL during its early years. But so did most people.

“This was an era totally unexplored by NFL Films and any other filmmakers,” Steve Sabol said. “I was brought up with the NFL, and I have to admit when the AFL started, we looked at it in a disdainful way. To us it was an inferior brand of football.”

Sabol said he “kept his eye on” the so-called other league, and others began paying attention, too. But widespread NFL chauvinism lasted for nearly the entire first decade of the AFL - or until Joe Namath and the New York Jets upset the heavily favored Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III.

“It turned the pro football world upside down,” Sabol said.

The handsome, roguish, rebellious Namath, who spurned the NFL and signed with the Jets (originally the Titans) in 1965, helped spark the AFL’s rise and symbolized the league’s rebellious persona. Plus he had a rocket arm. Where some NFL coaches banned facial hair, preached abstinence and enforced dress codes, Namath sported a Fu Manchu mustache, flaunted his sexual prowess and wore a fur coat on the sideline when he wasn’t playing.

“Before he came along, most of the teams and their stars were really regional,” Sabol said. “Namath became a national star.”

By the Jets’ Super Bowl victory in January 1969, the announced merger was nearly three years old and there would be just one more AFL season until the two leagues became one, divided into the NFC and the AFC. Until then, it was a wild ride for the league - during a jarring and pivotal period in the nation’s history.

Amid war, assassinations, riots, college protests and the most sweeping changes in civil rights laws in 100 years, the AFL mirrored a turbulent, unpredictable decade. Or maybe it flourished because of the times. The league made a concerted effort to find black players, many of whom came from small southern colleges.

“The AFL wasn’t the first to do it, but they did it extensively,” Sabol said.

“We wanted a story that was not only a compelling sports story, obviously, but one that had historic implications and compelling characters,” said Ken Hershman, Showtime sports senior vice president. “It’s a powerful sports story, it’s a powerful business story and it certainly focuses on the underdog getting to the point where they have overtaken the big guy and forced the merger.”

At first it was easy to dismiss the AFL, whose players bore nicknames like “Cookie” and “Wahoo” and wore strange-looking uniforms - the Denver Broncos wore vertical-striped socks. Some of the teams played in high school stadiums or worse.

But the league would become identified with more substantial things. If widespread integration altered the “moral balance” of pro football, as Sabol put it, so did the AFL’s emphasis on offense, especially passing. Some purists hated it.

“Point-a-minute passing games,” Sabol said. “To many people, that cheapened football.”

But it’s what fans wanted to see. Before the NFL, the AFL put players’ names on their uniforms and used the two-point conversion. AFL officials understood that football was entertainment, and they knew how to use television to advance the concept.

Within a few years, new stadiums were going up. The AFL began a bidding war for established NFL stars and college players, like Namath, whose draft rights had only belonged to the establishment league. The new league not only survived but thrived.

Some have argued the NFL, not the AFL, was more eager for the merger, which brought the league to where it is today.

“It’s more than a sports story,” Sabol said.

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