Skip to main content

For an upstart league, AFL rivalries developed quickly

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.

It was the 1960s when "Broadway Joe" met the "Mad Bomber."

Joe Namath vs. Daryle Lamonica. The New York Jets vs. the Oakland Raiders, a rivalry with no holds barred.

"I always enjoyed playing against Joe because we both liked to put the ball in the air and make the game exciting," said Lamonica, known as the Mad Bomber for obvious reasons.

The Jets and Raiders played each other twice a year for the most part in the '60s -- a game on each coast. And Lamonica and Namath, the flamboyant "Broadway Joe," never met a pass they didn't like.

The rivalry reached a fever pitch when the Raiders' Ike Lassiter broke Namath's jaw in a 1967 game. Raiders coach Al Davis and Jets coach Weeb Ewbank kept the fires burning with their own personal rivalry -- no love lost between the two.

Davis' feelings were obvious. For many years, he had an enlarged photo hung at Raiders headquarters showing Namath sprawled on the field, his helmet flying, after a vicious Raiders hit.

"The Raiders were always a cheap-shot bunch taking shots at Joe," remembered the Jets' Larry Grantham. "One of their defensive ends, Ben Davidson, broke Joe's jaw on a play well after it was over. So we got up in arms and it was ironic and sweet to beat them (27-23 in 1968) and go to the Super Bowl."

The Jets weren't the Raiders' only red-hot rival. Another rivalry existed with the Kansas City Chiefs in their own Western Conference. These rivalries became hot-tempered in the mid-to-late '60s, when all three teams developed into powerhouses.

The Chiefs were also involved in other strong rivalries earlier in the decade -- when they were first known as the Dallas Texans.

"San Diego and Houston were the main ones early on," remembered Len Dawson, the Chiefs' quarterback. "Oakland was not very good until Al Davis got there, then he changed things around."

A three-sided rivalry developed between the Oilers, Chargers and Texans at the beginning of the decade. The Oilers won the AFL's first championship when they beat the Chargers, then located in Los Angeles. They repeated the following season after the Chargers had moved to San Diego. The Texans knocked off the Oilers in the third AFL season in one of the most memorable games in the league's history -- a 20-17 double-overtime thriller.

"The Chargers were in our division and the best team," Dawson remembered of the AFL's early years. "With Houston, we would have that rivalry because of both teams being in Texas and a lot of (players from Texas) were on both teams."

The Raiders-Jets rivalry was especially compelling when Lamonica and Namath hooked up in one of their high-flying aerial shows. The landmark game of the series occurred in the 1968 season, in the contest that became known as the "Heidi Game."

In an amazing finish, the Raiders won this one 43-32, scoring two touchdowns in nine seconds. Most of the nation's football fans missed it, though, because the NBC television network broke into the game to start showing the famous children's story at 7 p.m. ET to fulfill a contractual agreement.

Remember the AFL

The upcoming season marks the 50th for the original member franchises of the American Football League. Relive its brief, yet colorful, history with this celebration. **More ...**

At first, the Raiders-Chiefs rivalry wasn't much of a rivalry at all.

"(Their team) was so bad that (Chiefs owner) Lamar Hunt traded Cotton Davidson (to the Raiders) to help them try to survive," Dawson said. "We'd heard that Lamar loaned the Raiders money to keep going, too."

The Raiders-Chiefs rivalry developed into a good one when both teams were peaking in the late 1960s. In 1969, the Raiders beat the Chiefs twice during the regular season, including a 27-24 thriller that San Francisco sports writer Glenn Dickey called "the best football game I ever saw."

Their playoff meeting was another story. The year before, the Raiders had walloped the Chiefs, 41-6, in a showdown for the Western Conference title. But this time, Warren Wells, one of the Raiders' top receivers, was injured and Lamonica played with a bruised thumb.

"Lamonica couldn't really throw the ball that effectively," Dickey said.

The result: a 17-7 victory for the Chiefs and a spot in the fourth pro football championship game, which they eventually won.

"When you played the Raiders, you just tried to avoid getting hurt," Dawson said. "There were guys on our team who truly did not like them. I never had the personal feeling but I didn't ever turn my back on them after a play. Their philosophy was to take a cheap shot at the quarterback and see if you can knock him out of the game. Even if you get a 15-yard penalty."

Dawson said that Davis, the Raiders' longtime boss, "brings out the worst in everybody.

"I remember our guys getting ready for a game with them and (coach) Hank (Stram) wanting to beat them badly. We'd think that it was just another game, and he'd say, `No, this is Raider Week, these are the Raiders, it is different.' I thought, 'Should we bring our brass knuckles?'"

In 1969, the Raiders beat the Chiefs twice during the regular season, including a 10-6 decision in the final game.

"I must have thrown only six or eight passes in the game," Dawson said. "My knee had been a problem that year and Hank wanted me as the quarterback in the playoffs. Some of our guys were perturbed we kept the wraps on it."

When the Cincinnati Bengals joined the AFL in 1968 and eventually started playing games against NFL teams, they would have a natural rival in the Cleveland Browns -- same state and an owner/coach familiar to both teams. That would be Paul Brown, who had built the Browns into a dynasty in the old All-American Football Conference before joining the NFL.

Of course, the biggest rivalry of all in this time probably was the AFL vs. the NFL - and that one lasted 10 seasons en route to the merger.

"I guarantee you, it was a war," said Jack Steadman, who assisted Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt in getting the AFL started. "I lived that war, every day of it. It took a while for the NFL owners and the AFL owners to really be civil to each other. The NFL did everything they could to kill the league ... and we were successful in spite of it."

This article has been reproduced in a new format and may be missing content or contain faulty links. Please use the Contact Us link in our site footer to report an issue.

Related Content