by Jim Riggs
September 7, 2002
They Knew The AFL Would Survive
The NFL and its fans laughed at the new league, which featured the two-point conversion, officials with orange-striped shirts and a more stream-lined football to promote passing. But after six seasons, the AFL had a hefty television contract from NBC that allowed it to sign top college draft picks and lure some of the top players from the NFL. In 1966 the NFL surrendered and agreed to a merger that began with the 1970 season.
In 1960 that seemed like a dream, but a couple of non-playing veterans of the Bills thought the AFL would survive.
“I really had great confidence because pro football was just really emerging at that point, was just coming into its own,” recalled the radio voice of the Bills, Van Miller, when he was an inductee into the Chautauqua Sports Hall of Fame back in February. “And there were so many cities crying for the sport, not only Buffalo, but Houston and they put another team in Dallas, and Denver came into the league. So I had every confidence the league would succeed.”
Eddie Abramoski was the Bill’s trainer for their first 37 years and he recalled the team’s beginnings before speaking at a Hot Stove Luncheon prior to a Jamestown Jammers game in July.
“I grew up in Erie, Pa., and my family was either Browns or Steelers fans and they told me the American Football League wouldn’t last,” he said. “But I was only 24 years old and I thought it would look good on my resume if it lasted three or four years, but I stayed in Buffalo for 37 years.”
One reason he came to Buffalo as the trainer was because it was close to home. The 1951 Erie East graduate and 1955 Purdue University graduate took the job as the head trainer at the University of Detroit. He also helped out on game days with the Detroit Lions because their head trainer was also a Purdue graduate. Ralph Wilson was a part owner of the Lions and when he became owner of the AFL’s Bills, he hired Buster Ramsey, who was a defensive coach with Detroit, to be the Bills’ head coach. Abramoski knew Ramsey and asked him to come along to Buffalo.
The first Bills training camp was held at East Aurora High School and the players stayed at the Roy Croft Inn. They also used the Knox’s polo fields for the practice fields.
“There were so many fields there you never had to worry if it ever rained or did anything,” Abramoski said. “You just had to move over because there were just acres and acres of grass.”
He knew a lot about the fields because his duties were more than just being the trainer.
“We cut the grass, lined the fields, did the laundry, we did a lot of things,” he recalled.
Things were rough at the start for the AFL, but it gained attention with its offense.
“They used to kid us we were a basketball league in cleats, the scores were 40-30,” Abramoski said. “But that brought the fans out.”
Miller said, “It was a passing league to begin with. That’s why Houston (with quarterback George Blanda and receivers such as Charlie Hennigan and Bill Groman) did so well in the first couple of years (by playing in the first three title games and winning two).”
Abramoski thought the AFL would last and so would the Bills.
“I knew Buffalo was good because we led the league in everything,” he said. “We had the best attendance, we had the best this, that and the other thing.”
But more importantly for the AFL, Abramoski pointed out, “We had Lamar Hunt (Dallas owner) and we had Bud Adams (Houston owner) and they had money. They couldn’t get into the National Football League, so I knew they’d give it (the AFL) a good shot to try to make a go of it. “
Miller echoed that.
“Ralph Wilson was an owner with deep pockets, a lot of money,” he said. “And Lamar Hunt and Bud Adams.”
Abramoski did have his doubts one year in New York when he tried to purchase some Titans tickets from owner Harry Wismer.
“The ticket office was Wismer’s bedroom,” he recalled. “He had all the tickets laid out on the bed.”
That is when Abramoski began to have some second thoughts about the AFL and recalled thinking “Oh my gosh, I don’t know how this is going to work.”
Miller saw another side of the former New York Titans’ owner.
“You know Harry Wismer had the right idea – share the money, share the television revenue,” he said, “And there wasn’t a lot (of money) at the start, but that helped save the AFL.”
And he added, “Wilson you know saved the Oakland franchise. He loaned money to Wayne Valley who was the principal owner and they were playing in a 20,000-seat stadium out there, Frank Youell Field.”
Abramoski recalled, “At Frank Youell Field the locker rooms were just nails on the wall.”
Both Abramoski and Miller mentioned a name that sends chills up the spines of old NFL stalwarts as the main reason the AFL survived.
“I think it was (Oakland owner) Al Davis becoming the commissioner and he had really stolen all their (NFL) quarterbacks,” Abramoski said. “I forget the names of them now, but he had them under contract and I think the National Football League capitulated to him.”
Miller said, “This league was not going to be denied, especially with aggressive people like Al Davis running the situation. And of course when Sonny Werblin signed Joe Namath.”
Before the first Super Bowl, which was simply called the NFL-AFL Championship Game, the leagues met in preseason games, which were like the Super Bowl to the younger league. Meanwhile, the NFL didn’t take them too seriously.
“I think Chicago went to Denver to play an exhibition game and (Bears linebacker Dick) Butkus said, ‘I’ll walk home if we don’t win this game’ and the Broncos beat them,” Miller said.
And that was a preview of things to come.
“I said the AFL may not win the first Super Bowl game or the second, but they’ll win two of the first four – and they did,” Miller proudly recalled.
And of course it was the AFL’s first win in Super Bowl III in which the New York Jets defeated the Baltimore Colts, 16-7, that always stands out.
Miller recalled, “Norm VanBrocklin (a former NFL quarterback and coach) walked into that press box in Miami and he said, “Joe Namath is about to play in his first professional football game.” And of course, Matt Snell, Joe Namath, 17-7 (Jets win), you know the story from there. That’s when that league really came into its own.”
And as they say, the rest is history.