The sellout crowd crammed into Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri, on October 11, 2009, was taken aback when the Dallas Cowboys and Kansas City Chiefs took the field wearing “throwback” uniforms from a half-century earlier, when they represented the same city, played in rival leagues, and fought bitterly for the hearts and minds of the same fans.
What was this? Putting aside their famous metallic-blue colors for a day, the Cowboys wore dark blue jerseys with white numerals, white pants, and white helmets with dark blue stars on the sides—their uniform from the early sixties, when they were a pitiful expansion team rather than one of the most popular sports franchises on the planet. The Chiefs wore white pants, bright red jerseys, and bright red helmets with the state of Texas outlined on either side—their attire from when they were known as the Dallas Texans of the American Football League.
Their surprising apparel was part of the National Football League’s yearlong celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the AFL’s birth—an ironic commemoration in a way, considering the AFL had been the NFL’s fierce adversary at first, an upstart seeking to muscle in on the established league’s turf. The two had stabbed each other in the back, told lies, fought over players, gone to court, and practically pushed each other to bankruptcy before agreeing to merge. But all that was ancient history now. They had long ago joined hands to become America’s preeminent sports league.
A half-century later, the NFL readily admitted that the AFL had contributed enthusiasm, bright ideas, and some damn good football teams to the merger and willingly commemorated its birth. During the 2009 season, former AFL teams such as the Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers, and Buffalo Bills were donning replicas of their old uniforms to play each other in what were being called “AFL Legacy Games.” The Cowboys, now an iconic franchise known as “America’s Team,” were the only pre-merger NFL team playing in such a game, the league having decided it simply couldn’t pass up an opportunity to pit the franchises that had once fought over Dallas.
The Cowboys and Texans had shared a home stadium for three years in the early sixties, playing on alternate Sundays at the Cotton Bowl, the concrete colossus then known as one of college football’s grandest stages. Both teams drew meager crowds, sometimes giving away as many tickets as they sold. They never faced each other on the field, but they battled in every other way, resorting to trickery and lawsuits to try to gain an edge, fighting over players, and stealing each other’s ideas as they sought to elbow the other out of town. Both franchises were owned by young men from oil-rich families unaccustomed to failure.
Spotting the AFL Legacy Game on their 2009 schedule, the Chiefs had run with the idea, selling it as “The Game That Never Was,” a reprise of the Cowboys-Texans battle. Sadly, most of the frontline warriors from those rollicking days were gone. Lamar Hunt, the sports pioneer who founded the AFL and owned the Texans, had died, as had Clint Murchison Jr., the Cowboys’ original owner. Both coaches, the Cowboys’ Tom Landry and the Texans’ Hank Stram, were gone. So was Tex Schramm, the Cowboys’ general manager, who had battled as fiercely as anyone.
Much of the bitterness from those days was gone too. The franchises had operated in different cities for more than four decades, dulling the distrust and dislike that boiled over back in the day. When Lamar Hunt was alive, he lived near Cowboys owner Jerry Jones on Preston Road in Dallas, and when their teams played, they lightheartedly competed for the “Preston Road Trophy.” Their teams had played a handful of regular-season games against each other over the years as part of the NFL’s regular schedule rotation.
But while games between the Cowboys and Chiefs had become routine to most people, there were exceptions—old lions from the early sixties who, like southerners who still pledged allegiance to Dixie, swore they would “never forget.”
Sitting in his den in Dallas on that October afternoon in 2009, a seventy-two-year-old car salesman named Jack Spikes watched on television as his former team took on the Cowboys in the uniform he had worn when he was a hard-hitting fullback for the Texans in the early sixties. He worked at a BMW dealership now, occasionally selling expensive cars to Cowboy players, some of whom he liked. But his dislike for their high-and-mighty franchise, which dated to when he played for the other team in town, had never abated. He didn’t like the Cowboys one bit.
I hope to hell the Chiefs beat the crap out of them, Spikes thought, just like we would have back then.
The sight of the teams in their old uniforms startled Mike Rhyner, a well-known sports radio talk-show host in Dallas, who was ten years old when the Cowboys and Texans started up a half-century earlier. Rhyner had sided with the Texans at first, mostly because his father demanded it, but later switched to the Cowboys. Having lived through those days, he knew this wasn’t just any game from a historical standpoint.
Wow. Too bad they never played like this, in those uniforms, all those years ago, he thought. That would have been some war.
Watching the game in person, from a private box at Arrowhead, Chris Burford had the same thought. Like Spikes, he had played for the Texans and continued with the franchise when it moved to Kansas City. He had been a pass-catching fiend in those days, a wily receiver whose meticulous routes and sure hands befuddled opponents. Now seventy, a spry and sharp Bay Area lawyer, he had put football behind him, but he enjoyed coming back and mingling with other former Chiefs at the franchise’s annual alumni weekend. That occasion had brought him to Arrowhead on this Sunday.
To most of the other former Kansas City players in the box, a game against the Cowboys carried no extra significance. But Burford felt a tingling in his stomach. The smug preeminence of the Cowboys and their fans irritated him, as it did Spikes and the other former Texans who had fought the Cowboys long ago.
The game that never was? Sheee-it.
This one, in 2009, wasn’t a fair fight, Burford thought. The struggling Chiefs were 0-4. The Cowboys were perennial playoff contenders.
But that wasn’t the case when they shared Dallas in the early sixties and everyone had wanted them to settle their differences on the field.
“‘The game that never was’ . . . what a bunch of horse crap,” Burford snorted later when asked about sitting at Arrowhead that day. “We would have kicked the shit out of the Cowboys back then. I would have loved to have played them every week. We were the better team. No one thought so, but we would have whipped them.”
Hell, yeah, he remembered those days.
“Would you be interested in starting
up a new league?”
LAMAR HUNT WAS AT 30,000 feet, his head literally in the clouds, when the idea of starting a new professional football league came to him. “The lightbulb just came on,” he would say later. That it did so in the sky, on an American Airlines flight, seemed entirely appropriate, for the idea was, if anything, a flight of fancy.
As Hunt flew from Miami to his hometown of Dallas on a February evening in 1959, the National Football League had never been more popular. After grinding along for almost four decades in the shadow of Major League Baseball, the NFL was suddenly taking off like a Russian rocket. Six weeks earlier, a television audience of 40 million had watched NBC’s broadcast of the league’s championship game, a thriller between the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants decided in sudden-death overtime.
Even though Hunt, as the son of one of the world’s wealthiest men, oilman Haroldson Lafayette “H.L.” Hunt, had been brought up to think Texas big, he understood it was a long-odds proposition to take on the NFL and survive. Three leagues had tried and failed over the years, most recently the All-American Football Conference, a late-forties start-up that folded after spewing red ink for four years. The NFL’s feisty old guard, led by the Chicago Bears’ George Halas, had fended off that challenge and celebrated by annexing the dying league’s best teams.
Less than a decade later, as Lamar sat in his seat in the plane’s first-class cabin and contemplated what he thought was a bright idea, he quickly concocted a list of major questions a new league would face. Why would anyone buy in as the owner of a franchise knowing that he would probably lose millions in the early years? Why would any decent players bypass the NFL to play in the league? Why would any fans care about teams with no history or tradition?
Lamar was just twenty-six, barely removed from his callow days as a fun-loving Kappa Sigma fraternity brother at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. His idea was easily dismissed as a fantasy, the idle stirring of a young man with more money than sense. In the coming years, many people in the NFL would view his new league as just that, a folly.
But they would discover that it was a mistake to underestimate Lamar Hunt.
Yes, he was young, but he had a realistic vision for his new league from the moment he conceived it. His enthusiasm for football, and sports in general, was unmatched. A...