Ask anyone about the fathers of the modern NFL, and you’ll probably hear some familiar name: Halas, Lambeau, Lombardi, Leaf. One name any football enthusiast ought to get familiar with, though, is the founder, owner, and president of the Buffalo Bills, Ralph Wilson. Wilson, like semi-human horror show Al Davis, was one of the originators of the AFL, which eventually merged with the NFL in the mid-’60s. But as the new book, The Birth of the New NFL points out, that merger (and Super Bowl and half the NFL) almost didn’t happen without some financial heroics on Wilson’s part.
(Is Ralph Wilson frightening compared to his wife? Sure. But next to Al Davis, he looks… more like his wife.)
Take, for example, the beloved New England Patriots. Back in the AFL Era, they were still the Boston Patriots, and unlike today, they were not doing so hot. Their records were middling-at-best, not terrible, but they were not the class of the league. Worse, they were in dire financial straits. As the author, Larry Felser explains: “they were very rocky and probably about to close business and Ralph lent the owner Billy Sullivan a great deal of money to keep the team afloat.”
Another time, Wilson had to save a fellow team–and to bend the rules doing so. While Wilson made a loan to help the Patriots, that was at least allowed under the league’s constitution. But when Al Davis and the Raiders weren’t doing so hot either, in order to avoid the ignominy of a folded franchise (something from which nearly every league never fully recovers), Kraft went one step further. Felser, again:
“He secretly invested in the Oakland Raiders and bought about a third of the team, which was against the constitution of the league.”
The story was played off at the time as a loan rather than a purchase in order to keep appearances on the up and up, but since the statute of limitations has probably expired on this one (being that the AFL ceased to be almost 40 years ago), the truth is clear to come out.
All in all, it’s one of the great stories to come out of the wild and wonderful era of the decade-long AFL/NFL struggle. Would any of this have flown in the 24-hour sports news era of ESPN and the internet? Oh, lord no. Mark Schlereth would likely be yelling at the camera something ridiculous like “if you’re at the point where you’re borrowing money to keep the team alive, that’s your sign that you need to leave football to the big boys and pack it in, because brother, it’s not working.” Yeah, you can hear that coming out of his stupid goatee, can’t you? Uh huh. But those were simpler times, and the NFL is much better off now for it.