By Doug Koztoski
At one point the AFL, as in the former American Football League, could have easily stood for A Fledgling Lot (of dreamers), but it turned into A Formidable Legacy.
Founded in 1959, with their first season in 1960, many looked upon the AFL’s competing with the increasingly popular National Football League as a steep uphill battle that required an experienced mountaineering guide.
Yet within a couple of seasons the AFL’s more wide-open style of play gained traction
against the NFL. By the mid-1960s the young league had not only a strong core of fans, helped by a big network TV contract, and they also possessed quarterback Joe Namath, who signed the largest rookie contract up to that point for a pro football player (a reported $427,000 in 1965, nearly $3.2 million in 2016 dollars). The upstarts had started to make a name for themselves.
Not too long after Namath signed with the New York Jets, and contract amounts in general in both leagues began to skyrocket, the rivals met and negotiated a merger that fully began with the 1970 football schedule. The playing field had gone from a tough climb to level in a surprisingly short time.
Sid Gillman coached the Los Angeles/San Diego Chargers for the league’s entire 10-year run and played a key role in the AFL’s success. Gillman’s wide-open downfield passing plays not only “stretched” the field like few had done before, but successful such ventures ignited excitement at the stadium and on TV.
Fast-forward to the late 1990s and Todd Tobias is interning for the San Diego Chargers while attending the University of San Diego, and that internship introduced him to the former football league at a high stage.
“I developed a passion for the AFL while writing my Master’s thesis on Sid Gillman,” said Tobias.
“I’ve always been a card collector and while doing interviews (for the thesis) with former AFL types I had a number of (AFL) cards signed,” he said. That part of Tobias’ collection soon took flight, like a touchdown pass that spirals most of the field, and before he knew it he had “65 to 75 percent of those cards signed and I thought it was a shame that I had all these cool signed cards and no one saw them but me.”
But his blog about the league, with stories he had collected and then illustrated with cards he gathered along the way, soon followed. Eventually it all morphed into the current version of www.talesfromtheamericanfootballleague.com.
Some Topps and Fleer football sets of the 1960s were either all AFL players or all NFL, but a few represented both leagues. Wherever an AFL card showed up in those vintage sets Tobias decided to collect them, 1,278 in total he said, when adding in the 1970 Topps cards that show a rookie pasteboard of an AFL player from the 1969 season.
“I have about 1,262 signed,” by the player featured on the card, Tobias noted, including a 1965 Topps Joe Namath, his rookie, generally speaking the most in-demand football star card of the 1960s.
“The 1960 Fleer set is tough (to complete autographed) and I am missing about a dozen cards from that set, since about 25 to 33 percent of the players on those (1960) cards did not make an AFL roster.”
And just when you think Tobias cannot take his collection much further, he surprises you. “I have all the AFL error cards (incorrect player images) signed by both the player shown in the picture, and the player who is named on the card,” he said. That is dedication.
The candle is lit
The initial favorite pasteboard he mentioned from the impressive run is a natural: “1960 Fleer Sid Gillman, it was the first AFL card I had signed,” he said. “I got to know Sid and his wife very well.”
Another top pick: a 1963 Fleer rookie card of Hall of Fame receiver Lance Alworth. “A great card from my favorite AFL set, Lance has become a good friend over the years.”
Rounding out the Top 3 on this day, since Tobias said sometimes his favorites move around like a quarterback scrambling to dodge a strong pass rush, a 1964 Topps Kansas City Chiefs team card. It includes signatures of Chiefs’ running back Mack Lee Hill and halfback Bert Coan.” Mack Lee Hill never had a Topps card of his own,” said Tobias, “but some collector had him sign this card, perhaps the only one signed by the running back.” Sadly, after only a couple of seasons playing pro football, Hill died suddenly after having knee surgery in late 1965.
While a few AFL signed cards still elude Tobias, a couple present extra challenges. “A 1960 Fleer Don Hitt is tough, since he died in 1981,” the collector said. Yet, Tobias is hopeful that one will surface at some point.
And then there is George Fleming, who had a one-year stint as a running back and place kicker with the 1961 Oakland Raiders. Fleming later went on to a distinguished career in Washington state politics. Tobias has tried contacting Fleming on several occasions to get him to sign one of his 1962 Fleer cards, to no avail.
“It’s a very fine line between trying to nudge a person into being willing to sign and being overly aggressive, and being the kind of autograph seeker that gives collectors a bad name, which is something I absolutely do not want to do,” Tobias said. The enthusiast hopes Fleming, now 79, someday recognizes the spirit of the hobbyist’s collection and autographs a card for him.
Tobias, who works full-time for PSA, writing for the card grading company’s online CardFacts section, said several former AFL players subscribe to www.talesfromtheamericanfootballleague.com, including Fred Arbanas, a tight end with the AFL’s Kansas City Chiefs for most of the 1960s.
“I think the site is super,” said Arbanas. “It brings back some great memories and to keep the memories of the league alive, he (Tobias) is doing a great service for us (the former players).” That includes the site’s various football card images, Arbanas said. “The cards are fun, I really enjoy them.”
Curtis Burford, another former pass receiver, and one of Arbanas’ teammates for several years, also likes the site’s various elements. “It gets a lot of commentary from different players from back in the day and also fans,” Burford said. “It’s a good way to keep a little contact and bring back a little historical perspective for people who were not around (when the league existed).”
Burford, and many others, hope that additional AFL players make it into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in the coming years, since they currently represent a modest number of inductees. “Some of the fellas have been overlooked, like Johnny Robinson (another K.C. Chief),” whose name pops up a lot because he cannot seem to get into Canton. “Goodness sake,” Burford added about Robinson, “there has never been a better safety, it’s just ridiculous.”
Room to grow
As Tobias continues his quest to locate the few cards he needs to complete the entire run of regular-issue 1960s AFL pasteboards, even more importantly he keeps the league’s legacy vibrant. “The AFL was fantastic,” Tobias said. “I hope more and more people jump on the AFL train. More respect is needed for AFL players getting into the Hall of Fame and for what the players went through to legitimize a brand new league, their history should not be forgotten.”
With the efforts of Tobias and others it is safe to say the AFL story will live on and grow. In fact, kind of like what Joe Namath said before Super Bowl III with respect to his Jets beating the NFL’s heavily favored Baltimore Colts — and delivering: “I guarantee it.”
Doug Koztoski welcomes comments and questions related to this article at firstname.lastname@example.org