Joe Namath almost a Cardinal? 50 years later, the NFL-AFL draft wars that birthed a league

Quarterback Joe Namath with New York Jets coach Weeb Ewbank (left) and Jets owner Sonny Werblin (right).  

Underwood Archives/Getty Images

The Hall of Fame defensive lineman nicknamed "Mr. Cowboy" once had the chance to become a maverick.

Bob Lilly was drafted by franchises in two leagues in 1961. One option was following the conventional path of other standout college players at the time by signing with the NFL team that selected him in the expansion Dallas Cowboys. Lilly also could roll the dice and join the Dallas Texans in an upstart federation called the American Football League.

"I asked my (Texas Christian) head coach Abe Martin, ‘What would you do?’" Lilly said. "He said, ‘Well, the NFL has been here a long time and there have been several other leagues that haven’t made it … I think I would go with the Cowboys.’ That’s how I kind of made my decision."

Lilly’s choice would have been tougher four years later.

The AFL not only had survived. It was starting to thrive.

This led to an event that would not only change pro football but lead to a shift in the entire sports landscape — the 1965 drafts.

The thought of a rival league emerging now to challenge the NFL’s current supremacy is laughable. The odds of doing the same in the early 1960s were considered so long that the eight original AFL franchise owners nicknamed themselves the "Foolish Club."

The 1965 draft helped give those businessmen the last laugh.

Sparked by an infusion of capital from a television contract with NBC, the AFL finally had the financial means needed to vie for prospects on a level playing field — although the ethics used by both leagues were hardly on the level.

"Teams were hiding prospects and trying to sign guys right after their bowl games ended," said Barry Wilner, co-author of a new book entitled "On the Clock: The Story of the NFL Draft." "The fact that 1964 was a big year for college football kind of intensified everything."

The shenanigans were such that then-Oakland Raiders head coach Al Davis signed wide receiver Fred Biletnikoff under the goal posts immediately following Florida State’s bowl game as Detroit Lions officials were held at bay.

The Cowboys tried to sequester Prairie View A&M wide receiver Otis Taylor in a hotel until he signed only to have a Kansas City Chiefs scout sneak into his room and lead him out a window to ink with the Chiefs. One coveted offensive lineman, Ralph Neely, signed with both Dallas and the AFL’s Houston Oilers to spark a court battle for his services.

Of the five future Hall of Fame players chosen that year (the 1965 NFL and AFL Drafts were held in November 1964), none was a bigger star than Joe Namath. The University of Alabama quarterback was more than just a fantastic passer. His charisma and good looks were tailor-made for an era where television viewing was skyrocketing.

Baseball and college football were still the nation’s most popular team sports at the time — but not for long.

Namath received far more enticing offers than Lilly a few years earlier. Namath would brazenly ask the St. Louis Cardinals for what would have been a then-record $200,000 annual contract along with a new Lincoln Continental convertible. The Cardinals, who chose him with the No. 12 pick in the NFL Draft, initially feigned consternation but were willing to meet the price as long as Namath signed immediately, though doing so would have made him ineligible to play for Alabama in the Orange Bowl.

Cross-town competition sparked the rush. The Cardinals were reportedly working covertly on behalf of the New York Giants, who didn’t want to risk being embarrassed if the AFL’s New York Jets were able to land Namath, instead.

BIGGEST DRAFT BUSTS IN NFL HISTORY

That’s exactly what happened. Namath signed a three-year, $427,000 contract — which was a staggering sum at the time — on national television the day after spectacularly leading the Crimson Tide to victory over Texas in Miami. The Jets even threw in a new car and employment for Namath’s siblings to seal the deal.

Like Lilly, Namath received guidance from his college head coach before making up his mind. But the words of wisdom from Alabama’s Bear Bryant were different.

"He didn’t have any favorites himself," Namath recalled. "He just asked me to give some thought to the people I was going to work for, the coaches and the ownership. Get to know them the best I can before I make a decision.

"That was some wonderful advice."

The AFL-NFL merger was inevitable no matter what league Namath chose. Concerned about the damage that escalating player salaries was causing to their bottom line, the two sides were already having behind-the-scenes talks in 1965 when the AFL upped the ante by signing veteran NFL players like Mike Ditka and John Brodie to contracts. Those pacts eventually were negated as part of the merger negotiating process.

In June 1966, the NFL and AFL agreed to combine franchises and began playing as a unified group starting in 1970. There also was the creation of an annual title game between the champions of each league that became known as the Super Bowl.

That’s where Namath continued to have a huge impact. He guaranteed a Jets victory over Baltimore in Super Bowl III and delivered in one of the biggest upsets in NFL history.

"Namath was a big star right away off the field but he didn’t become an iconic football player until the 1967, ’68 and ’69 seasons," Wilner said. "In fact, Namath today would virtually have no shot at being a Hall of Famer. His production was not of Hall of Fame numbers. The role he played in football history is why he’s in there."

Namath said he had no worries about whether the AFL would survive when signing with the Jets. But one moment in Denver during his rookie season did give him pause.

"We walked into the locker room and the floors were brown dirt with nails in the wall and rusty tin chairs at your locker," Namath said. "I thought to myself for the first time, ‘Did I make a mistake? Is this the big league?’"

It ultimately became the biggest sports league of them all.