“Look, that league’s going to fold anyway, so we’ll see you next year.” 

Those were the words uttered by then-Colts owner to Carroll Rosenbloom to Ron Mix in the spring of 1960. A standout offensive lineman at USC, Mix had been drafted by both the NFL’s and the brand new American Football League’s Boston Patriots. Mix was offered more money to play for the AFL, so he asked Rosenbloom if there was any wiggle room in regards to his possible salary if he chose to play for the two-time defending NFL champions. Rosenbloom, in so many words, dismissed Mix’s request while banking on Mix being available when the new pro football league inevitably closed shop the following spring. 

“That was the opinion of the National Football League and the teams at the time, that the new upstart league would fold,” said Mix who currently serves as president of the Pro Football Retired Players Association

To the surprise of many, the AFL never folded. In fact, each of the AFL’s 10 teams currently play in the NFL: the Chargers, Broncos, Bengals, Dolphins, Patriots, Jets, Raiders, Bills, Chiefs, and Titans. On Monday night, millions will watch as the Chargers and the undefeated Raiders square off in an AFC West showdown. While the AFL technically ceased to exist following the league merge in 1970, the impact of the AFL is very much alive and well. 

Mix, who went on to enjoy a Hall of Fame career with the Chargers before spending his final season with the Raiders, recently spoke with CBS Sports about the AFL’s enduring legacy. With Mix’s experience serving as our compass, we created a list of the five things fans should know about the AFL heading into Monday night’s game between the Raiders and Chargers. 

The AFL’s enduring ‘brand’ 

Created in 1960, the AFL aspired to be a hipper, fresher alternative to the NFL. Teams had flashy names and wore bright-colored uniforms. The AFL product was also more exciting in that it featured significantly more passing than their counterpart league. 

The AFL had several household names at the quarterback position that included “Broadway” Joe Namath, pro football’s first 4,000-yard passer. Other notable AFL passers included Chargers quarterback John Hadl, Kansas City’s Len Dawson, Buffalo’s Jack Kemp, Oakland’s Daryle Lamonica, and Miami’s Bob Griese. Hadl, who was drafted by both the NFL’s Lions and AFL’s Chargers in 1962, led the Chargers to consecutive AFL title game appearances in 1964 and ’65. Both years, the Chargers fell to Kemp and the Bills. 

“John was an outstanding player,” Mix said of his former teammate. “You ask who he reminds me of today, I would say [Patrick] Mahomes in that John could run. He was an excellent athlete. He was also an immediate leader.” 

Hadl replaced Tobin Rote as the Chargers’ starting quarterback after Rote helped lead the franchise to its first and only championship in 1963. Similar to today’s offenses, the Chargers’ offense featured two running backs in Paul Lowe and Keith Lincoln. Lowe ran for 1,010 yards and eight touchdowns while averaging 6.5 yards per carry during the Chargers’ championship season. Lincoln ran for 826 yards and five scores while averaging 5.7 yards per carry. 

No skill position player took more advantage of the AFL’s wide-open attack than Chargers receiver Lance Allworth. Nicknamed “Bambi” for his gracefulness on the field, Allworth dominated AFL defenses for nearly the entire 1960s. He retired a year after catching a touchdown pass from Cowboys legend Roger Staubach in Super Bowl VI. 

“Lance was the best I’ve ever seen, including the present time,” Mix said of Allworth, who in 2019 was included in the NFL’s 100th anniversary team. “He never dropped a pass. He played at a time when cornerbacks could be hitting the players all the way down the field. But more importantly, he played on a team where we had so many offensive weapons and Sid distributed the ball among those guys. In today’s game, Lance would have twice as many catches. 

“We had a lot of great players, but all of us on the team thought that Lance was special.”  

Mix shared a story that sums up how much he and his Chargers teammates revered Allworth, who in 1978 became the first AFL player to receive induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. 

“We’re flying back from an eastern road trip, and we hit some horrific weather,” Mix recalled. “And the plane is shaking and going up and down, and I’m convinced that the plane is going to crash. Then I remembered that Lance was on board, and I relaxed as I thought, ‘Oh, God wouldn’t kill Lance (laughs).’ Lance loves that story because it’s true!” 

The AFL’s incredible coaching fraternity 

Evan as a young assistant, Al Davis championed a deep-passing attack. Before rising to prominence as the Raiders principal owner and general manager, Davis served as Mix’s position coach at USC before joining the Chargers’ inaugural coaching staff. 

“I remember when Al was my position coach at USC,” Mix said, “and occasionally, he would say to me, ‘Ron, I’m trying to get these coaches to chuck the ball, but I’m not making any progress at all. So, keep working on your blocking technique.'”  

Davis came to the right place, as the Chargers head coach, Sid Gillman, was an innovator in his own right. The first coach to be inducted into the College and Pro Football Hall of Fame, Gillman has one of the greatest coaching trees in history. The list of coaches associated with Gillman’s coaching tree includes Bill Walsh, George Allen, Noll, Al Davis, Ara Parseghian, Bo Schembechler, Chuck Knox and Dick Vermeil. 

Following his team’s 51-10 win over the Patriots in the ’63 title game, Gillman approached NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle about the Chargers facing the NFL champion Bears. Gillman’s idea was rejected, but it planted the seeds for what would eventually be known as the Super Bowl. 

“Sid was something of a rocket scientist when it came to offensive football and the passing game,” said Noll, who served as an assistant on Gillman’s staff in Los Angeles before leading the Steelers to four Super Bowls in the 1970s, via The San Diego Union-Tribune. “He saw things other coaches hadn’t seen. And he wasn’t afraid to put his ideas into action.”

“His dedication was infectious,” Mix said of his former coach. “You saw how hard he was working and the amount of time he put in. I think it had an influence on a lot of players about how serious they should take their craft.”

The AFL also included coaching legends in Kansas City’s Hank Stram, Oakland’s John Madden and Buffalo’s Lou Saban. Weeb Ewbank, who led the Colts to back-to-back NFL championships in 1958-59, orchestrated the AFL’s signature victory. More on that in a second. 

An even Super Bowl record vs. the NFL 

By the mid-1960s, the NFL grew tired of fighting against the AFL, who by that point had successfully landed some of college football’s premier players while building a solid fan base. A future merge of the two leagues was announced on June 8, 1966. Until their merger in 1970, the leagues would feature their two champions in a game that would eventually be known as the Super Bowl. 

The first AFL representative against the NFL’s champion was the Chiefs, who won their second league title after trouncing the Bills 31-7. The Chiefs were a worthy champion, with a roster that featured eight future Hall of Famers, with six of those players on defense. 

Kansas City’s opponent in what was then known as the AFL-NFL Championship Game was the Packers, who laid waste to the rest of the NFL during most of the 1960s. Vince Lombardi’s team boasted 11 future Hall of Famers. The Packers had won NFL titles in 1961, ’62 and in ’65 before defeating Tom Landry’s Cowboys in a classic championship duel in 1966. 

The Chiefs fought gamely, but a critical interception at the start of the second half turned a 14-10 deficit into a 35-10 defeat. The lopsided final score reinforced the national media’s narrative of the AFL’s inferiority. 

“We looked at them very carefully in the film, and we realized they had excellent personnel,” Packers Hall of Fame linebacker Dave Robinson said of the Chiefs. “The man power was great, really great football players. But they lacked a little bit of the techniques that we were used to. So we had to take advantage of the different techniques. It wasn’t so much their fault as it was the rest of the AFL. The defense weren’t that strong in the AFL, and so they had never experienced the things we did and the type of football we bring. We had an advantage right there. That was the big thing going for us. 

“After they had interleague play, the Kansas City Chiefs and Oakland Raiders showed their true mettle, and they became very very good teams. All they need was interleague play so they had that experience playing against better defenses.”

That perceived superiority was reinforced when the Packers dominated the Raiders in the second AFL-NFL Championship Game. The 33-14 win was the fifth and final NFL title for Lombardi’s Packers. Many viewed the Packers’ success in those games as not a validation of Green Bay’s greatness but a disparity level between the two leagues. 

“The national press was unkind to the AFL,” Mix said. “It was irritating and it did bother us. The first two Super Bowls were lost by the AFL team and the national press gloated that it proved how inferior the league was. It was really a very false assessment, because what it proved was that Green Bay had a great team.”

Because of that perceived dominance, the Jets’ history-making victory over the Colts in Super Bowl III did little to vindicate the AFL. The AFL had defeated the NFL, but the media had proclaimed New York’s win as an all-time upset. AFL’s vindication did come one year later in the final game before the merger. A heavy underdog, the Chiefs ran around, over and through the NFL champion Vikings in Super Bowl IV 23-7. The AFL went into the merger having won the last two Super Bowls and half of their Super Bowl matchups against the NFL. 

“Here’s why I love the Kansas City Chiefs: the Kansas City Chiefs crushed Minnesota, crushed them, in Super Bowl IV, and that absolutely validated the careers of all of us,” Mix said. “And when I say I love Kansas City, I mean it. They are one of my favorite teams now, and so are the Jets.” 

Several enduring impacts 

The NFL adopted several of the AFL’s trademarks. Among them was names on player jerseys, a 14-game schedule (the NFL had 12-game seasons until 1961), and the two-point conversion. 

The AFL also gave pro football players more bargaining power. For example, upon being drafted by the Colts and the Patriots, Mix told the AFL that he would “definitely go with the Colts” if he had to leave the West Coast to play in Boston. Determined to have Mix as part of their league, Boston and Los Angeles worked out a trade while offering Mix a significantly better contract than was presented to him from the Colts. By virtue of a new TV deal in 1964, the league was able to better financially compete with the NFL. So it was that in 1965, Namath signed a then-record three-year, $427,000 deal with the Jets. 

The AFL also broke racial barriers by drafting Black players that included players from historically Black colleges. While teams like the Packers had already begun these practices, the AFL’s inclusion of more Black players led to more NFL teams doing the same. 

“In the early AFL days, I would venture to say that the average AFL team had at least twice as many Black players as the average NFL teams,” Mix said. “In the Chargers first year of operation, the team had to stay at a low-rent hotel outside of Houston because none of the good hotels permitted Blacks as guests, including the Hilton Hotel in Houston, owned by a franchisee, not the Hilton organization. [Chargers owner] Baron [Hilton] spoke to the team and apologized, and told us this would not happen again. True to his word, the next year, we stayed at the Hilton in Houston.”

The 1965 All-Star Game 

Mix points to the 1965 AFL All-Star game as the league’s most enduring legacy. The game was slated to be played in New Orleans, who was hoping to land a pro football team of its own. But due to mistreatment from several Black players throughout the week, the players decided to boycott the game. 

“It ushered in racial justice at a time that none existed,” Mix said. “We were to report to our first practice. We get on the bus and our coach is doing roll call. Buck Buchanan. No Answer. Bobby Bell. No answer. The coach says, ‘Where is everybody?’ One of the players said, ‘All of the Black players are in the conference room. They’re talking about boycotting the game because the way they’ve been treated.’ 

“So, I get off the bus and the first player I saw was [then-Broncos fullback] Cookie Gilchrist. I asked him what happened, and he said, ‘It was almost impossible to get any cab to take us to the hotel. When we got to the hotel, they told us to enter through the back. We couldn’t get admitted to any restaurants. Some of our players were turned away from a bar at gunpoint. We’re not going to play in this game. We’re boycotting.’ 

“I said, ‘What about staying, because now we’ve got some national attention called to this. If we stay, then you’ve got a format.’ Cookie said, ‘No, the only thing that works is us leaving.’ I said, ‘Alright, I’ll go with you.'” 

With that, the AFL All-Stars left New Orleans and would ultimately play the ’65 All-Star Game in Houston. The racial climate improved in New Orleans over the next few years, and the city was given a NFL team in 1967. 

“New Orleans, which was trying to get an NFL franchise, knew they would not get a franchise because of the national attention,” Mix said. “They voted to desegregate the city. So, a bunch of Black athletes from the AFL desegregated a city. It’s just kind of amazing.”  

The 1965 AFL West All-Stars. The players’ decision to boycott the All-Star game inspired a shift in racial equality in New Orleans. 
Getty Images

The AFL is still very much alive in today’s NFL. The AFL logo is included on the left chest of the Chiefs’ jerseys. Passing games are operating at an all-time level. Players have more contractual freedom than ever before. Rosters now include players of every size, color and institution. Fittingly, the Chiefs, Raiders, and Chargers — three of the AFL’s bedrock franchises — possess fast, high-powered passing attacks that feature three of the league’s hottest quarterbacks in Patrick Mahomes, Derek Carr and Justin Herbert. Along with those quarterbacks, Mix includes Baltimore quarterback Lamar Jackson as one of his favorite current players to watch. 

Mix is happy with the current state of football. He’s also proud of the role his league played in making pro football what it is today. 

“The AFL game has been built upon as the years went on,” Mix said. “As outstanding as it was, now, it’s progressed into almost perfection. The game is so much more fun to watch now that it’s so wide open.”


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