Note: The following is an excerpt from a forthcoming book, "THE LITTLE LEAGUE THAT COULD: How the AFL changed the NFL forever." The book will be published by Rowman-Littlefield and is due out in 2010.
For a league that lasted just 10 years, the roster of Hall of Famers who came out of the AFL is astonishing. From executives such as Lamar Hunt, Al Davis and Ralph Wilson -- who enters the Canton shrine this year -- to coaches Hank Stram and Sid Gillman, to star players Lance Alworth, Ken Houston and Len Dawson, the impact the American Football League had on the sport is practically immeasurable.
Here's a look at some of these Hall of Famers, listed alphabetically.
An All-American running back at Arkansas, Alworth never even thought about playing pro football while he was dominating the college game. When his father watched the epic 1958 NFL title contest in which the Baltimore Colts beat the New York Giants in overtime, Alworth didn't pay much attention.
"You have to go back to those years and, in 1961-63, pro football was just becoming really popular and had not hit where it is today," says Alworth, inducted into the Hall in 1978. "I played in the South and there were no pro teams in the South at the time. You didn't think about it when playing high school or college ball."
When Hunt's Dallas Texans told Alworth they would draft him to play defensive back, Alworth told them, "Don't waste your time, I am not interested in defensive back. I'll go to law school."
But Al Davis, the receivers coach for the Chargers in 1962, envisioned Alworth as a game-breaking wideout -- even though Arkansas hardly ever threw the ball.
"I love to catch the football, I told Al," Alworth recalls. "And Al said, 'I thought you did, and the only time I get to see you catch the football is during warmups.'"
Davis certainly knew what he was doing, and Alworth became pro football's premier receiver and one of the men who symbolized the AFL's wide-open approach to the passing game.
Best known, of course, as owner of the Raiders, Davis entered the Hall in 1992 for so many roles, including scouting and coaching. He wonders how many of today's fans realize he also was the AFL's last commissioner.
And that the merger agreement reached in 1966 was not his idea.
"I was just trying to lead them in the right direction to get what they wanted," Davis says. "I didn't necessarily want a merger, but they wanted it. And they got it."
What Davis would have liked to get was Pete Rozelle's job as commissioner, but there was no chance for that when the merger was reached. So Davis simply went back to the Raiders and under his ownership the franchise has reached five Super Bowls, winning three.
Davis carried his "Commitment to Excellence" all the way to Canton.
Many people associated with the AFL, including Alworth and Davis, make strong cases for Mix being the best offensive tackle the game has seen. Yet Mix wound up in the AFL in part because he didn't look like a lineman.
When the Baltimore Colts interviewed Mix after the 1960 season, they met a studious young man wearing a tweed sports jacket with patches on the elbows, and glasses. He wasn't all that big, either.
So the Colts passed, and the Chargers pounced, signing the USC tackle and plunking him down on their line. What the Colts overlooked was Mix's athletic ability. And his leadership skills. And his intelligence.
"In high school, he was a receiver," says Al Locasale, an executive for the Chargers, Raiders and Bengals in the AFL. "He then moved to tight end, and then finally to tackle. The reason he moved in actually was he had very poor vision and had a problem picking up the ball until it was almost in his hands.
Turned out to be a blessing for him."
And for San Diego, where Mix was a nine-time all-star who went into the Hall in 1979.
For Baltimore, it was more like a curse.
"I contacted (Colts coach) Weeb Ewbank," Mix remembers of the recruiting battle over him. "Weeb said, `That league's not going to last more than one year, anyway. Sign with the Chargers and we'll see you next year.' "
The only player in the Hall who spent his entire career (1961-69) in the AFL, Shaw was the key to Buffalo's outstanding offensive line that helped the Bills win two league championships.
"The Bills were a perfect fit for me," Shaw says. "We didn't throw the ball as much as the other teams. We were a running team with a lot of wide sweeps and traps. ... Georgia Tech was basically the same way, and Marvin Bass was my line coach in college, and he became my line coach at Buffalo. So all the cards kind of fell right for me, because the system wasn't a lot different."
But the position was. Shaw was a tackle at Georgia Tech, a guard in the pros. It worked because Shaw was quick enough to pull and lead some of the AFL's top runners, including Cookie Gilchrist.
As Shaw developed into a Hall of Famer (class of 1999), he saw the entire league develop, too.
"Well, there were some marginal players that didn't think they could play in the NFL, figuring with the newness of the league that they could play some (in the AFL). That did happen," Shaw says. "But as the league grew, it was satisfying to see the college stars choose to play in the AFL. We drafted some guys that the NFL clearly didn't want to lose, the Namaths and the Lance Alworths, to name a couple. There were some really quality athletes that came to the AFL."
Pro football has prospered in Buffalo because of Billy Shaw, Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Bruce Smith and other Hall of Famers. Credit for the Bills' very survival in a small market, though, belongs to the only owner the franchise has known: Ralph Wilson.
On Aug. 8, Wilson will join those greats in the Hall.
"We're involved in a sport and a sport, to me, is not just to make money," Wilson says. "People in the community become attached to a team. It gives them a quality of life. I had a chance to move that team. I think it would be crazy to do that."