At the end of the 1950s, there were few American institutions as well established as the National Football League. Under Commissioner Bert Bell, the league had a stable hand at the rudder. Bell had guided it through a difficult stretch that included a challenge from the All-American Football Conference, as well as a period of unprecedented growth that had made a motley collection of owners who were teetering on the brink of financial ruin into a unified group of wealthy individuals. By 1959, they were able to stand side by side with Major League Baseball as a viable professional entity.
And why not? They had more money than most third-world countries. They had owners who were willing to pour cash into their product. They had larger-than-life coaches like Vince Lombardi and Paul Brown, square-jawed Midwestern men of honor who put team above everything in the quest for a title. And it had the stars needed to rival baseball: Johnny Unitas, Sam Huff, Paul Hornung, and Jim Brown; all joined the league within a four-year span in the late 1950s and went on to become authentic American pop culture archetypes, larger-than-life characters who loomed over the sports landscape.
And most importantly, the owners had television. While baseball was distrustful of television, the NFL embraced it. In 1950, the Los Angeles Rams and Washington Redskins had all their games televised, while other teams were able to strike separate deals that would ensure at least some of their games were on television. The following year, the DuMont Network paid the league $75,000 to televise the 1951 NFL Championship Game nationally. The ratings were enough to draw attention from other networks, and NBC upped the ante in 1955, becoming the official televised home of the NFL Championship Game—and paying $100,000 to the league for the privilege. But the league entered a new realm on December 28, 1958, when a nationwide audience watched the NFL Championship Game at Yankee Stadium between the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants. In a game that went into sudden-death overtime, Johnny Unitas, Alan Ameche, Roy Berry, Sam Huff, and Frank Gifford became household names. Known since as the Greatest Game Ever Played, the images from that game—Unitas masterfully leading his team down the field, the physical charisma of Huff, the heroics of Ameche—built a passion for the game that would grow throughout the rest of the century. “Three days later, Castro’s forces would overthrow Cuba. But on December 28, 1958, America witnessed the beginning of its own revolution—and this one would be televised,” said Michael MacCambridge in America’s Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation. “Like a rebel army seizing the seat of power, pro football had announced its insurgency with an epic football game at the most hallowed ground in baseball, the House That Ruth Built.”
Into this climate came a rich young Texan by the name of Lamar Hunt. Hunt had watched the 1958 title game, and like the rest of the American sporting populace, he was transfixed. He had petitioned the NFL for a team, but had been turned down. Despite their level of success, the thinking among NFL executives was that the league must be careful not to “oversaturate” the market by expanding too quickly.
In response, Hunt decided to start his own league—the American Football League, or AFL. Hunt’s new league boasted all kinds of cash. He was the heir to a fortune built on Texas oil—in 1948, Fortune magazine said his father, H. L. Hunt, was the richest man in world—and would never have to work a day in his life if he didn’t want to. In New York, he got the support of Barron Hilton of the Hilton hotel chain. Houston’s Bud Adams, the wealthy scion of another Texas oil family, was also part of the group. These were men with deep, deep pockets. Many others who were soon involved weren’t as wealthy as those men, but they at least owned their own stadium, like Denver’s Bob Howsam. Hunt quickly found like-minded millionaires who were interested in replicating the success of the NFL, inking deals in New York and Los Angeles. By the end of the summer of 1959, they had six teams, two shy of their goal to start a new league.
That’s when Boston entered the picture.
Pro football and New England never seemed to fit. It started in the early stages of the twentieth century, when the Boston Redskins began playing in 1932 at Braves Field. Owner George Marshall was the man at the controls of the Redskins—who were originally named the Braves, because they shared Braves Field with their baseball brethren. They moved their base of operations to Fenway in 1933, and were a perfectly pedestrian 15–15–4 over their first three seasons. As a result, the city’s sports fans paid relatively little attention. For Marshall, the final straw came in 1936, when Boston won its last three regular season games to vault into the NFL Championship Game—and only 4,813 showed up for the regular-season finale. Despite the fact that Fenway was to host the NFL Championship, an enraged Marshall moved the game to the Polo Grounds in New York, where the Redskins were handed a 21–6 loss by the Green Bay Packers. Marshall soon gave up on Boston, as the Redskins moved to Washington a year later.
In 1944, pro football gave Boston another shot with the Boston Yanks. Ted Collins—known as the manager for singer Kate Smith—tried to get a team in New York, but had to settle for Boston. The Yanks merged with Brooklyn in 1945 and joined the All-America Football Conference a year later. But no series of moves could help the troubled franchise, which would go 9–24 over three years before moving to New York.
As the world of professional football continued to grow throughout the 1950s, Boston sports fans were left on the sidelines, content to watch a budding Celtics dynasty and the final act of Red Sox legend Ted Williams. Instead, they adopted the Giants as their football team. New York games were broadcast throughout New England, and generations of football fans were raised on stories of Huff, Gifford, and Charlie Connerly.
But that wasn’t going to stop Billy Sullivan. The Boston businessman and former Notre Dame public relations man spent the better part of the 1950s trying to obtain an NFL franchise for the city. He had a grand vision of a pro football team in Boston, complete stadium having a retractable roof and plenty of luxury boxes. After all, Boston was the biggest city in the country lacking a football team. Why shouldn’t Bostonians be able to watch football? Throughout the decade, he had a team squarely in his sights: the lowly Chicago Cardinals. The Cardinals had lost more than a hundred games and roughly $1 million in the 1950s, thanks in large part to the Bears, who ruled the hearts and minds of the Chicago football fans. Sullivan, as well as a small group of Boston-area businessmen, believed they could attract the Cardinals to New England.
But while Sullivan was long on charm and guile, he was short on cash—at least, the kind of cash needed to land an NFL team. “Billy Sullivan was a great character,” said sportswriter Leigh Montville, who covered the team for The Boston Globe for almost twenty years as a beat writer and columnist. “I’ve always felt he was like Frank Skeffington in The Last Hurrah. You know, the ultimate Boston Irish bullshitter.”
Sullivan loved football, but was in way over his head when it came to raising the kind of dough needed to support a professional football team. And there were several other people—many of whom had deeper pockets than Sullivan and his investors—who were interested in the Cardinals. Ultimately, he lost out to St. Louis. He then turned his attention to Hunt and the AFL. And after some creative politicking—he fended off last-minute attempts to put a team in Philadelphia or Atlanta, and helped sway the other AFL owners with testimonials from former Notre Dame coach Frank Leahy—and even though he had to borrow $17,000 of the $25,000 entry fee, Hunt and the boys allowed him to join what they had started calling the Foolish Club on November 17, 1959. There was no money, no stadium, no head coach, and no general manager, and the first league draft was in six days. But just like that, Boston was officially in the business of professional football. Sullivan had almost single-handedly won over the AFL with charm and guile. In retrospect, Hunt was a bit bemused by the whole thing.
“We talked to people from anywhere and everywhere, including Atlanta, but none of them were very good because, obviously, we would have taken somebody good in another city that had a stadium before we would have taken a city without a stadium. It shows how desperate we were to take a man we’d never met and who had no money and no stadium,” Hunt said in The New England Patriots: Triumph and Tragedy.
“Boston probably had the most unusual beginnings of any franchise in history; in fact, I’d call them very improbable, especially from the standpoint of how we do things today: all the research that goes into the people, the city, the Stanford Research Institute reports, all that kind of thing,” he would add. “But I guess there never would have been an American Football League if we’d had enough sense to do those things.”
There was little time to pat each other on the back, however, as the front office had to get to work quickly: Forty-one players were taken by the Patriots in that first draft, with the top pick being Ron Burton, an All-American running back out of Northwestern. In addition, Syracuse halfback Gerhardt Schwedes was the first player taken by Boston in the territorial draft. Shortly afterward, the Patriots announced that Mike Holovak was the director of player personnel, while Ed McKeever was tapped to be the first general manager. The team immediately began adding players, with Clemson quarterback Harvey White becoming the first to sign a contract with the Patriots. And on February 8, 1960, Lou Saban was named head coach.
Now, all they needed were some team colors and a mascot. Sullivan had a letter from artist Walter Pingree which he liked that read:
Dear Mr. Sullivan,
As a rapid [sic] football fan and delighted with our new Boston Patriot’s [sic], Pro-football team, I would respectfully like to submit my original idea for the Patriot’s [sic] uniforms. Red, white, and blue colors are a symbol for patriotism. I believe this uniform to be unique and colorful, and indeed worthy of the fine team I know we will have here in Boston. I am looking forward the the [sic] coming season with eagerness and much enthusiasm and you can count on me as one who will be there to root the team on, win, lose, or draw.
Walter J. Pingree
Sullivan quickly responded in kind, sending Pingree a letter dated April 7, 1960. On a letterhead bearing the Metropolitan Coal and Oil Company—of which Sullivan was president—he replied with the good news:
Dear Mr. Pingree:
I can’t begin to tell you how much we appreciate your thoughtfulness in reference to the uniform. I am sure it will please you to learn that we are planning to adopt it, and, as the first step, we are having a uniform designed along the lines of that which you suggested. A couple of changes have been made, but they are relatively slight. I think you will be happy to learn that The Boston Globe is taking a color picture of one of our players wearing the new uniform, and it will appear before long in that fine publication. I will look forward to meeting you in the near future, but meanwhile, I do want you to know that we are very grateful for your thoughtfulness.
William H. Sullivan
The local entry was named the Boston Patriots, and there was cause for real optimism as they began their first season. From 1962 through 1964, Mike Holovak guided them to 26 wins in 42 games, and they did make an appearance in the 1963 AFL title game. They were part of a new and exciting league, a wide-open counterpart to the three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust conservatism that dominated the buttoned-up world of the NFL. It was the league that delivered mavericks like Al Davis to the world of professional football and appealed to younger fans by offering a flashier alternative to the more conservative NFL. Team uniforms were bright and colorful. Wide-open offenses were commonplace, led by talented quarterbacks like John Hadl, Daryle Lamonica, and Len Dawson, all of whom led deep passing attacks. It certainly caught the eye of a Maryland teenager named Bill Belichick. “It was kind of exciting,” Belichick would recall years later. “You had some guys there like [Hank] Stram, and the two-point play and [Joe] Namath, and there seemed to be something that was a little bit different than the NFL. . . . It seemed like there was less defense. A lot of high-scoring games. There were a lot of exciting players in that league—maybe it was because there wasn’t much defense, I don’t know. It seemed like there was a lot of 41–38, some of those kinds of games. It was entertaining. It really was.”
In Boston, they were able to boast an impressive offense of their own. That talented team included running back Jim Nance, who won a pair of AFL rushing championships. Quarterback Vito “Babe” Parilli was the starting signal caller for seven years, leading the offense throughout the 1960s and making three AFL All-Star teams. On defense, the Patriots also boasted a nucleus of talented young players. Linebacker Nick Buoniconti made five consecutive AFL All-Star Games over the course of his career with the Patriots. The pass rush was manned by Bob Dee, who became one of the most dependable players in franchise history, never missing a game from 1960 through 1967. He was joined by defensive tackle Jim Lee Hunt, who had twenty-nine sacks in his career. But the best-known star of the 1960s was Gino Cappelletti, the team’s placekicker and ace wide receiver. The Minnesota product, who was working as a bartender when he tried out with the team, became the AFL’s all-time high scorer with 1,100 points. He was a five-time AFL All-Star, and one of only three players to play in every game in the AFL’s ten-year history.
But as the 1960s wore on, it was clear that there would be more cases of low comedy than high drama. That was first evident during a late season game at Boston University in 1961, when the Patriots were involved in a tight contest in front of their first home sellout, and the overflow crowd had surged forward onto the sidelines in anticipation of a Boston win. Down the stretch, the Patriots held a 28–21 lead and were desperately trying to hold off the Texans as the clock ticked down. Dallas wide receiver Chris Burford shook clear in the end zone and appeared to have a game-tying touchdown pass from quarterback Cotton Davidson well within his sights. But a man in a London Fog trench coat burst from the sidelines, knocking down the pass. The officials never saw the play—despite the protestations of Burford—and Texas officials only realized what had happened after they watched the game film later that week.
In 1968, in hopes of trying to increase media interest in the team, the franchise invited reporters to sit in with them during the college draft. Head coach Mike Holovak, general manager Ed McKeever and the rest of the assistants were with them as they prepared to draft defensive lineman Dennis Byrd of North Carolina State. Holovak told reporters he was going to give Byrd a call at home to let him know he has been taken by the Patriots. The writers in the room listened in on the conference call, which, by all accounts, went something like this:
Holovak: “Is Dennis there, please?”
Answer: “He’s not.”
Holovak: “This is Mike Holovak, the coach of the Boston Patriots, and I’d like to get in touch with him. Do you know where I can reach him?”
Answer: “The hospital.”
Holovak: “Hospital? What’s he doing in the hospital?”
Answer: “He’s just had a knee operation.”
All in all, it was a less than memorable draft for Boston. Later in the day, the team came close to drafting a wide receiver . . . who had been killed in an accident a month earlier.
In 1969, the franchise introduced Clive Rush as vice president and head coach. Rush was nearly killed in one of his introductory press conferences when he grabbed an ungrounded microphone. And in his first season with the Patriots, he was caught shorthanded before a game when starting defensive back John Charles was getting his ankles taped. Sullivan burst in with a contract in an attempt to get him signed. Charles refused the deal, and was released on the spot. Moments later, sitting in the stands, Bob Gladieux—who had been cut by the team ten days earlier—told his friends he was going to get a hot dog. Gladieux then heard his name over the public-address system, asking him to report to the locker room. When his friends saw him thirty minutes later, he was in a Patriots uniform making the tackle on the opening kickoff. (Gladieux would later tell reporters he had drunk too much earlier in the day and came to the sidelines after the tackle and got sick.)
Later in 1969—after the Patriots lost their first seven games—Rush decided on a new plan of attack. Prior to the eighth game of the season, against Houston, reporters would later reveal that Rush came up with the idea for the Black Power Defense. He told his team he’ll be the first coach in the history of the NFL to put eleven black players on the field at the same time. However, Rush failed to see the error in his logic—he didn’t have eleven black players on defense at the time. As a result, he was forced to convert a handful of offensive players to defense. After Houston quarterback Don Trull was sacked midway through the first half, forcing the Oilers into a third-and-long situation, the Black Power Defense made its one appearance on the field—and Trull fired a pass down the middle for an easy first down.
“The whole Clive Rush era was amazing. He just did a bunch of goofy things,” recalled Montville. “Every day when you went in to talk to him, he had a big glass of scotch, and he’d be drinking scotch with the big bottle right on the desk. I was new, I thought, ‘Hey, maybe all these guys drink scotch.’
“You’d come in there as a reporter, and he’d say, ‘What are you, fact or flair?’ I thought it over, and said, ‘I’m probably more flair,’” Montville said. “He said things like, ‘You know who you should talk to? [Legendary Oklahoma football coach] Bud Wilkinson. Here, I’ll get him on the phone.’ And he’d call up Bud Wilkinson and Bud Wilkinson wouldn’t know what to say and I wouldn’t know what to say.”
It wasn’t just the coaches who were colorful. In 1973, linebacker Steve Kiner managed to write his name in franchise infamy. According to a Will McDonough story in 1999, Houston ran a pass play early in a game against the Patriots, and Kiner never moved. “Throughout the play, he stands with his hands on his shell pads in a two-point stance, and simply watches,” recalled McDonough. “Fellow linebacker Edgar Chandler asks him what he is doing. Kiner says he doesn’t know, and adds, ‘I think I better leave the field now.’”
Kiner was unique. McDonough recounted another incident that took place the year before, while Kiner was driving a rental car in Tennessee, when he was stopped by a sheriff. “The sheriff had questions about Kiner’s license and registration, so he told Kiner to follow him to town,” wrote McDonough. “Which he did. The sheriff stopped at the police station, but Kiner kept going, out the other side of town. The sheriff chased him down and said, ‘Didn’t I tell you to follow me to the station?’ Kiner replied, ‘But you didn’t say anything about stopping.’” Copyright © 2007 by Christopher Price. All rights reserved.
Christopher Price has covered the Boston sports scene for the last ten years, working for ESPN.com, SI.com, and Baseball America, as well as The Boston Globe, The Washington Post and The Miami Herald. In that time, he's established himself as an award-winning sportswriter who has been honored by Northeastern University, the New England Press Association, and the North Carolina Press Association. He's currently the football writer for Boston Metro, a job he's held since 2001. He lives in Boston with his wife, Kate.