When you’re a kid, things get poured into your brain that never leave. That’s how most of us become sports fans. We get infected before we’re able to build our natural defenses.
What I remember most about 1959 was watching professional football, on Sunday afternoons, in my living room, with my father. Being an especially astute 10-year old, I noticed a big difference in the way Dad watched baseball and the way he watched football.
When we watched Red Sox games, he would glance at the newspaper, leave the room or talk on the phone, then returning his attention to the game, he would ask: “What did I miss? But when he watched football, he watched every play. If the phone rang, he would hold it to his ear and talk, but his eyes would be focused on the screen. He had an on-off switch in his head, so that if I spoke during a play, he heard my voice, with all of the words filtered out. It converted my chatter into white noise.
In Boston, in the 1950’s, we did not have a professional football team of our own. We watched the New York Giants. We rooted for the Giants, but we knew that they were not really ours. It was like we were borrowing them.
I’m going to have to correct a previous statement. I rooted for the Giants. Dad rooted for a different team every week. When I asked him why, he explained that when he bet on a game, it only made sense to root for the team that his money was riding on. He added, instructively, that I should never, ever make a sentimental bet.
Some fathers preach safe sex, mine preached safe gambling. I suppose all vices can get you into trouble, so you need to watch the ones that you think are most likely to entrap your kid.
One Sunday afternoon, the Giants were about to play the Baltimore Colts. When quarterback, Johnny Unitas took the field, my father said, without taking his eyes off the set, “He’s the best there ever was.” Dad was not one for superlatives. With all the games, in all the sports that we watched before and after this one, he only said that about one other player, running back, Jim Brown.
For me, this was one outstanding piece of information. I knew that I would walk into school the next day and let my friends know how smart I was. The method chosen for this sort of announcement would be critical. If I stood up and blurted it out, it would be obvious that I was simply passing on information that I just received from someone else. So I knew that I would have do it with a kind of casual thinking-out-loud delivery:
Hey, did you guys watch the Colts game yesterday? Man, Unitas has to be the best there ever was.
It has been said about Unitas, that for most of any game, he was great, but there were other quarterbacks who were his equal, that is, until the final two minutes. Back in those days, quarterbacks called their own plays. Unitas was completely in charge, and he was a master. For him, being down by a touchdown, with two minutes to play was like playing with the game tied.
Johnny U. (as he was called) completed a touchdown pass in 47 consecutive games. A feat, often compared to Joe DiMaggio’s 56 game hitting streak. The 1959 season ended with the Colts beating the Giants in the championship game, which is still often referred to as the greatest game ever played. For most fans, it solidified Unitas’ position as football’s number one QB.
Finally, in 1960, we got our own team, the Boston Patriots. They were the last franchise awarded in the upstart American Football League. Mainstream pundits everywhere said the league wouldn’t last. Earlier attempts to challenge the NFL had failed, and surely this one would be no different.
That old AFL were a fun gang to watch. With wide-open offenses, they scored a lot of points. The uniforms were colorful and so were the players – like Abner Haynes, Clem Daniels, Elbert “Golden Wheels” Dubenion, Cookie Gilchrist, Gino Cappelletti,Wahoo McDaniel, Big Daddy Lipscomb and Lance Alworth.
But it was not always easy being a fan. For one thing, the Patriots had no home of their own. They borrowed playing time at Harvard Stadium, Boston University Field, Boston College’s Alumni Field, and Fenway Park. Following the Patriots, literally meant following them around.
Worse than that –much worse than that– was the putdown factor.
NFL fans, players, and most sportswriters looked down upon the AFL as a junior league. I heard this a lot: Any AFL team could be beaten by a good college team. AFL teams can’t play defense. Their biggest stars wouldn’t even be starters in the NFL. No matter how much success the league began to enjoy, the insults never let up.
You’d be sitting at a bar, watching the Chargers and the Chiefs, or the Pats and the Raiders, and someone would yell to the bartender to switch channels to the real game, meaning the NFL game, regardless of how dull it might be. You might protest, but you would usually be shouted down.
The AFL wasn’t going to go away. AFL teams were attracting more talented players, which included opening the doors to more and more black players, never an NFL priority. We AFLers were extremely loyal fans. Our days of borrowing an NFL team were over for good. We were not going to let this league die.
Seeing the writing on the wall, the NFL made a big strategic move. They would merge with the AFL. Well, imagine that!
The merger would not be fully completed until 1970, but in 1967 they would begin their new relationship with a slate of inter-league exhibition games. On August 13, the NFL Baltimore Colts played the AFL Boston Patriots at Harvard Stadium.
That morning, my father put down the newspaper, and said, “We should go to the game.” I probably told him I was busy. After all, I was now a semi-rebellious 18-year old, living THE Sixties.
He probably told me to stop thinking I was so cool. We drove to the stadium, bought tickets and ended up in about the fifth or sixth row. The announcer began calling the names of the Colt’s starting offense. With their helmets tucked under their arms, Each player trotted onto the field, right up to the section of stands where we were seated.
We all gave each Colt a warm welcoming applause. And, then, the announcer’s voice said, “at quarterback, Johnny Unitas.”
And, instantly, I was 10 years old.
He trotted toward us and stopped, as had each of his teammates. But this time, the crowd rose to its feet, clapped – louder than any clapping I had ever heard – and cheered, and didn’t stop. The slender man wearing the white uniform, the crew cut, and the boyish smile seemed genuinely touched. He nodded a thank you. Near me a man with a small boy had tears in his eyes. And so did another. And another.
Mind you, this was years before men got together for the specific purpose of group crying. Public tears, in the men’s department of life, were not yet fashionable.
My father looked at me with a grin. The grin said, well you hot shot, smart-ass, think you know everything little punk, you will never forget this moment as long as you live.
And he was right about that. Actually, he was right about all of it, but that’s another story.
The Colts beat the Pats 33 to 3. I didn’t remember the score; I had to look it up. The score really didn’t matter. It was just a meaningless exhibition game. But for the fans of the Boston Patriots, of the American Football League, who happened to be in the stands that afternoon, this was Validation Day.
If you happen to be an old AFL fan, I do not need to explain what we felt on that August afternoon, watching our guys, the new guys, the cast-offs, the disrespected, playing on the same field with the Baltimore Colts.
Or, how it felt having The Greatest There Ever Was as a guest in our home.
My father has been gone for nearly two decades. Often, when I think of him, I think of that day.
But there is more to this story.
In fact, this is really just background information, intended to put the real story more squarely in perspective.
TO BE CONTINUED…