The first shot in the war between the AFL and NFL was fired 45 years ago today, and unsurprisingly involved a major figure from the Buffalo Bills' two AFL Championship teams. On this date in 1966, the New York Giants signed Bills free agent kicker Pete Gogolak, opening the floodgates for teams from both leagues to begin poaching players from one another.
RememberTheAFL.com's Ange Conigilio calls Gogolak the "father of the merger," but he is also the "father of the foreign kicker" and the "father of the soccer-style kicker." He made a huge impact during his career with the Bills.
"Before 1964, every kicker in the AFL and the NFL was a 'straight-on' kicker (called a 'conventional' kicker)," explains Coniglio. "The Bills' general manager, Harvey Johnson, recognized a revolutionary trend and gave the soccer-style kicker Gogolak a chance. The NFL writers snickered about the 'foreign kicker' until they saw his stats compared to the conventional kickers."
Gogolak was part of the team that won back-to-back AFL Championships. His biggest impact on the game came off the field, however. Coniglio broke down why Gogolak's jump from the AFL to the NFL was such a big deal.
"The AFL and NFL had a 'gentlemen's agreement' not to sign players who were under contract to the other league." said Coniglio. "The Giants were under pressure in NYC because they had a lousy team with a worse kicker, and the Jets had Matt Snell, $400,000 Joe Namath, and were playing in shiny new Shea Stadium. Turns out the 'gentlemen' in the arrangement were the AFL owners, as the Giants' Mara family ignored the agreement and signed Gogolak."
Gogolak had been second in the league in scoring behind Patriots kicker/flanker Gino Cappelletti in both of his first two years out of Cornell. Gogolak, being only a specialist and not adding anything offensively or defensively, was valued, but not as highly as someone who could also do other things. Buffalo offered Gogolak a contract, but he felt it was a little on the short side, so he waited.
Bob Timberlake, whom the Bills had also drafted in 1965, was a disaster in New York. He had kicked for the Giants in 1965 and was their third quarterback, but went a dismal 1-for-15 in field goal attempts - and the Giants were looking to improve. They were not bound by the restricted free agency of the AFL, and signed Gogolak despite Buffalo's offer still on the table.
"Playing out your option meant that your team could match any other team's offer", explains Coniglio. "Of course, that meant any other AFL team's offer, and there was nothing binding the NFL to abide by that rule, except honor, which had always been in short supply in the NFL."
After Gogolak was signed, Al Davis of the AFL's Oakland Raiders began signing NFL players, and the contracts went through the roof as AFL and NFL owners started competing for players. By July, the two leagues had signed a merger agreement to put a stop to the war.
"The whole Gogolak story is another chapter in the lack of respect given the AFL by the NFL-dominated media," recalls Coniglio. "Many Bills and AFL fans, however, were crushed not only by the loss of Gogolak, but by the subsequent merger brought on by the player raids that followed Gogolak's jump to the hated NFL. Most AFL fans in the day would have been perfectly happy to have separate leagues."
Gogolak went on to become the Giants' all-time leading scorer, and was inducted into their Ring of Honor last year when the team moved into the New Meadowlands Stadium.
Stay tuned for my interview later today with Gogolak. We discuss his time with the Bills, the inner workings of his contract negotiations, how he was drafted by the Bills and more.