by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

The NFL preseason action always gets us in a wistful mood at TGS. And it’s not just because another gridiron campaign is ready to commence. Rather, it’s the preseason itself that gets us in a reflective mood, and harkens back to a time when the results of these exhibition games really meant something, not only to the fans, but to the players and teams themselves.

That’s not to say there isn’t any significance attached to the preseason games of today (especially to players fighting for jobs), but, frankly, the modern NFL preseason exercise is easy to disdain. With most pointspreads in a narrow range, there is the sort of “sameness” which might be what Pete Rozelle once had in mind when expounding the virtues of parity in the league, but the distinctions between the teams are becoming harder to identify, especially in preseason action, when most of the teams follow the same formula throughout the exhibition slate. Starters will receive limited work in the opening game, with first-string quarterbacks unlikely to play more than two series. The frontline players will get more work in the second and third exhibition games, with the latter more closely resembling a dress rehearsal for the regular-season opener two weeks hence. The final preseason contests, however, will often more resemble the first preseason outings, with starters likely to see little if any action, with coaches apt to give their reserves extended looks in order to evaluate the periphery of the roster before the final cuts are made. For the most part, the majority of squads employ the same formula throughout the exhibition slate.

Of course, the scripts can deviate somewhat from team to team, and the naturally competitive instincts of players and coaches means that teams would rather win these affairs than lose them. Indeed, some teams and coaches seem to take the results more seriously than others, and handicapping value can be uncovered. But most of the teams approach results to these affairs in the same, benign manner; there is not much significance placed upon them in preseason games.

Forgive us, then, for recalling fondly one of the most colorful chapters of pro football history that has been either ignored or forgotten by a generation of football fans and media sorts weaned on the “ESPN generation” of sound bites and Sports Center highlights. We have always felt one of the most exciting periods in gridiron annals was the late ‘60s. And it might surprise some that pro football in those days had a lot more character and personality than references to Vince Lombardi and Green Bay’s “frozen tundra” that have been promulgated by modern-day sports media personalities, many of whom were not even born during what was a true golden era of pro football. Moreover, it was the preseason action of the time that might have been the most interesting of all.

We know, no one under the age of 50 might believe that preseason football could have ever been such a big deal. But trust us, it really was.

Indeed, it would surprise a lot of current-day pro football fans that the old rivalry between the AFL and NFL did not rage as much in the early, pre-merger editions of the Super Bowl as it did during the preseasons of 1967, 1968, and 1969, when there were 72 total games between entries from the upstart AFL and miserly NFL. The contests were byproducts of the merger between the two leagues that was announced in 1966 and resulted in the first-ever Super Bowl (and it was indeed referred to as the “Super Bowl” in the media, despite its official moniker of “AFL-NFL World Championship Game”) between the Chiefs and Packers, champs of the respective leagues during the ‘66 campaign, on January 15, 1967 at the L.A. Coliseum. From the outset, there was disdain on the NFL’s part toward the upstarts from the “newer” league, and those NFL supremacists were further emboldened by Green Bay’s 35-10 romp over Kansas City in that initial clash between the two leagues. Nonetheless, sixteen interleague clashes were part of the preseason schedule for the following 1967 campaign. And the teams, and fans, took the results of those games very seriously.

The importance of those ‘67 preseason affairs was reflected in a piece by the Buffalo News’ Larry Felser, which appeared in a ‘67 summer edition of The Sporting News as well. "Exhibition is hardly the word,” said Felser. “From the talk around both leagues, at least some of those games, if not all of them, will take on the characteristics of a vendetta.” Meanwhile, Cleveland Browns star lineman Dick Schafrath echoed the sentiments of most in the established NFL. “Our pride is at stake,” said Schafrath before the preseason games of summer ‘67. “No NFL team wants to be the first to lose to the AFL.”

Detroit’s All-Pro DT Alex Karras went one step further. Before the Lions’ preseason opener on August 5 at Denver, which was to be the first interleague exhibition game of the 1967 summer, Karras announced that he would “walk back to Detroit” if his Lions were to lose to the lowly Broncos. Staying in character, Karras refused to shake hands with Denver team captains during the traditional coin-toss ceremony before the kickoff of that game, which was played not at the Broncos’ Bears (later Mile High) Stadium home, but rather Denver University’s home field.

Although the sports media was not nearly as oversaturated in the late ‘60s as it is today, these preseason games nonetheless generated a lot of national interest. Felser’s aforementioned story in The Sporting News was just one of many featuring the upcoming interleague preseason slate. Sports Illustrated, then the defining element of sports journalism and validator of big stories of the day, devoted space that summer to the AFL-NFL exhibition phenomenon. Indeed, the ‘67 preseason was unofficially dubbed by some as the “Summer of the Little Super Bowls,” which has been chronicled online by author Mark Bolding.

The Lions-Broncos game kicked things off for interleague play that summer of ‘67, and though the game was not televised, it generated a lot of curiosity nonetheless, especially when the final scoreline hit the wires: Denver 13, Detroit 7! The Broncos were in their first season under new HC Lou Saban, and were outfitted in a rare combination of their old and new uniforms, sporting their 1966 outfits (while waiting for their newly-designed unis to arrive) while donning their new helmets for ‘67, which were blue in color but logo-less on their sides (which would be the case for the entirety of the ‘67 campaign as the new logo, ordered by Saban, wouldn’t be ready to be added to Bronco helmets until 1968). Karras and company were indeed a bit embarrassed, allowing Denver to churn out 227 rushing yards, including 89 by veteran Cookie Gilchrist, who also scored the only Bronco TD from close range. A key play was a fake punt from Denver P Bob Scarpitto (when was the last fake punt you’ve seen in a preseason game?), which set up Gilchrist’s TD. In a strange twist, Denver’s deciding points were actually tallied by PK Errol Mann, who ironically would surface as the Lions’ PK later in his career. As for Karras, he was the target of good-natured ribbing from the Denver media in the week following the game. as local media outlets would jokingly report on Karras’ “progress” back to the Motor City (“Today, Alex Karras reached Omaha,” or “Alex Karras is scheduled to arrive in Des Moines later tonight”).

That first preseason featured another upset win by the Broncos over an NFL team, with the Vikings falling, also at DU Stadium, by a 14-9 count. Denver’s win featured a TD by then-rookie RB Floyd Little, whose long-overdue enshrinement into the Pro Football Hall of Fame had to wait until 2010. Although the most memorable encounter in that ‘67 exhibition slate came in Kansas City, where the Chiefs, still seething from their Super Bowl loss to the Packers, decided to take out their frustrations on the older league and one of its flagship entries, George Halas’ Chicago Bears. “Remember, this is not just another exhibition,” said K.C. coach Hank Stram before the game, as reported in Sports Illustrated. “They (the Chiefs) know it’s the Bears they’re playing.”

Although Chicago moved easily downfield in its first drive behind QB Rudy Bukich, resulting in a 35-yard FG by rookie PK Bruce Alford (who, also ironically, would end up employed in the AFL), and the Chiefs were temporarily stalled by Dick Butkus & Co., Stram’s bunch quickly made adjustments. By snapping on quicker counts, QB Len Dawson was able to constantly catch the Chicago “D” in the middle of its shifts, and soon the night became child’s play for Kansas City. “I figured,” said Dawson, “that once we got them playing our type of game, we could do anything we wanted.

“They were covering Otis (Taylor) too close. I don’t think they knew our personnel, because otherwise they would have known that you can’t cover Otis too close or he’ll be gone all of the time.”

Sure enough, Taylor burned the Bears. Badly. In the first quarter, operating out of the variation of the I formation that Stram called the “Cock-I” featuring Taylor in motion, Dawson hit Taylor along the sidelines, and he soon broke clear from the fast-approaching Bennie McRae and high-stepped his way for a 70-yard TD that began the onslaught. Kansas City then scored TDs on its next four possesions, including another Dawson-to-Taylor 29-yard TD pass, and by halftime the score had ballooned to 39-10, with Chicago’s only TD courtesy a 103-yard kick return by WR/KR Dick Gordon. As the score mounted, veteran Bears DB Richie Petitbon asked Kansas City WR Chris Burford if the Chiefs planned to ease up. “Not tonight, Richie,” said Burford, as the carnage continued.

Adding insult to injury, Kansas City backup QB Pete Beathard (who would be traded to the Oilers later that season) called a timeout rather than allowing the clock to run out in the final seconds and the ball on Bears’ 2-yard line and the Chiefs up 60-24. A perfectly executed bootleg followed, with Beathard disdainly walking into the endzone with the Chiefs’ 66th point. About the only merciful element of the evening came on the final conversion try, which was bobbled. Nonetheless, the 66-24 final marked the most points ever allowed by a Halas team, and the Papa Bear, in his last season on the Bears sidelines, was reportedly in tears at the end of the slaughter. “Man alive, look down there at the Papa Bear,” said Chiefs All-Pro LB Bobby Bell, before Beathard’s final, exclamation-point TD. “I believe I see him cryin’. He can’t believe all this stuff. Man, but it’s time for another touchdown.”

Those two wins by Denver and the one by Kansas City were the only ones by AFL sides in the sixteen exhibitions that summer, but many of the games were competitive affairs. Philadelphia, down 30-24 in the final minute against Buffalo, highlighted the must-win theme of those games when it still had starting QB Norm Snead in the game at the end, and he fired a 40-yard TD pass in the final seconds to get the Eagles over the hump. Elsewhere, the Redskins were narrow 13-7 winners over the Patriots, the Lions only a 19-17 winner over the Bills. Expansion New Orleans squeezed by second-year Miami by a 20-17 count in a game played at Charleston, South Carolina (preseason games were often contested at neutral sites in those days). The 49ers topped the Raiders by a narrow 13-10 margin. Meanwhile, the Chiefs, just a week after their massacre of the Bears, played George Allen’s emerging Rams in what was dubbed the “Summer Bowl” at the L.A. Coliseum. In front of 73,990 fans, Kansas City jumped to a 24-13 halftime lead, but the Rams, playing their first-stringers almost the entire way, scored four second-half TDs on a pair of Roman Gabriel-to-Jack Snow bombs, a Les Josephson short TD plunge, and a late interception return by starting CB Clancy Williams to eventually prevail, 44-24. Although Allen was notorious for going all-out to win exhibitions, in those days of interleague battles, almost all of the teams took the same approach.

All, that is, except Lombardi’s Packers, who arrogantly refused to schedule AFL teams in the exhibition season. Another old-line NFL fixture, the Giants, also mostly resisted, although pressure to meet the crosstown Jets was eventually too much to avoid. That matchup didn’t take place until the summer of 1969, however, and wasn’t even played in New York, instead 74 miles north at New Haven, CT, whose exact distance from the Big Apple was significant because Rozelle’s TV blackout rule of the day (which stated no game could be televised within 75 miles of its origin) guaranteed a sellout at the Yale Bowl.

And after that Chiefs win over the Bears in ‘67, there might have been no more satisfying preseason triumph for the AFL over the more-established league than the Jets’ 37-14 bombardment of the establishment Giants that August 17, 1969 afternoon at Yale. To say the win was satisfying for the Jets would be an understatement. It sure meant something to many Jets, like star RB Matt Snell. "Did we prove anything?,” said Snell afterward. “I mean to the fans, the old NFL fans, they will cop out, they'll find a way to rationalize not how we won, but how the Giants lost. But to me, it was a good victory. I remember how the Giants never called us by name. They used to refer to us as ‘‘What's Your Name’’ and 'Whatchamacalls It.”

"They know our names now."

Indeed the Giants did, after being shredded by Joe Namath, who completed 14 of 16 passes and was still in the game in the 4th quarter when he threw his third TD pass of the game to TE Pete Lammons. Earlier in the game, the Yale Bowl crowd was thrilled by Jets rookie Mike Battle, from Southern Cal, taking back a punt 86 yards for a score.

As for Namath, he was brash as ever, especially after being asked when he thought the Jets assumed command of the game. “The first time we had the ball,” said Broadway Joe. It was also the Giants’ only game vs. an AFL entry in those three preseasons in the late ‘60s.

Throughout the summers of 1967, ‘68, and ‘69, the interleague battles raged. After dropping 13 of 16 in the ‘67 preseason, the AFL took the upper hand in 1968, winning the exhibition battle by a 13-10 count that summer. Included in that tally was an emphatic 35-13 win by Sid Gillman’s Chargers over George Allen’s Rams, a delicious bit of revenge for San Diego and its delirious fans after being routed 50-7 by L.A. the previous preseason. The expansion Cincinnati Bengals scored their first-ever win that preseason at the expense of the NFL Steelers, by a 19-3 count. Another “Summer Bowl” version in 1968 was played in Oakland, where the defending AFL champ Raiders hosted Johnny Unitas and the powerful Baltimore Colts, who survived by a 14-12 count at the Oakland Coliseum.

How big was that Colts-Raiders game that preseason? Big enough to draw the top sports page headline in the Los Angeles Times the following morning.

That Colts-Raiders battle, like all interleague games in 1968, featured teams being forced to run or pass for one-point conversions after touchdowns. Believe it or not, there were no PAT placeckicks during the 1968 interleague preseason slate.

The interleague preseason games were so popular that by 1969, an additional ten AFL-NFL games were added to the exhibition slate, bringing the total to a whopping 33. And the teams continued to contest the games in a win-or-else fashion. In a particularly pulsating encounter that preseason, the Oilers and Colts waged in a back-and-forth donnybrook at the Astrodome, and when Houston rookie PK Roy Gerela’s 23-yard field goal put the Oilers up 29-27 with 37 seconds left, the home crowd almost blew the top off the dome. But Baltimore was not finished; the previous season’s NFL MVP, QB Earl Morrall, was in the game at the end, and on the game’s final play heaved a 58-yard TD bomb to first-string WR Willie Richardson for an unbelievable 33-29 Colts win. No PAT was even attempted after that final tally.

Elsewhere in 1969, President Richard Nixon even took time out to catch a pair of preseason games. Imagine President Obama doing the same today? Nixon, at the San Clemente “Western White House” that month, took in the Chiefs’ 42-14 rout of the Rams at the L.A. Coliseum on August 23 (a forewarning to the NFL that Kansas City would mean business a few months later in the Super Bowl vs. the Vikings), then was on hand a week later at San Diego Stadium when the Chargers fell to the same Rams by a 24-14 count.

When the dust finally cleared after all of the pre-merger preseason action of those three summers, the tally stood at 42 wins for the NFL, 29 for the AFL, and one tie. The star team of the preseason in that period was Baltimore, which to its credit scheduled eight games over those three preseasons vs. AFL teams and won them all, with not a one contested at home in Memorial Stadium. Meanwhile, the Packers didn’t engage in a single exhibition vs. the “other” league. But the rest of the teams didn’t miss Green Bay one bit, creating memories that hardcore football fans of the day can never forget.

Preseason football was never quite the same thereafter, as the merger between the AFL and NFL took effect in 1970. As the league blended into one, the old battle lines between the AFL and NFL began to disappear. But for a few years, the rivalry raged in the summers of the late ‘60s, featuring preseason games in which results really mattered.

And for those of us who recall those exciting times, forgive us for getting so wistful at this time of the year!

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