Pete Gogolak signed a contract 45 years ago today that sent the AFL and NFL to war over players. Gogolak had played for two straight AFL champions while with the Buffalo Bills. When his contract expired, the New York Giants swooped in, and Gogolak became the first notable player to jump leagues.
"When I signed [with the Bills], I signed for two years," Gogolak told me by phone earlier this week. "You sign for one year, and you're obligated at the end of the year for what they called an option year. You sign for one year but you're obligated to stay with the team for two years. When I signed, I signed for $11,000. That was nothing to sneeze at. It's very good money for a guy who never had a penny in 1964. I had no complaints."
When the season ended, however, Buffalo offered him a small raise despite his great success on the field.
"My deal expired, so they came back to me to sign up again," continued Gogolak. "I was the second-highest scorer in the league behind Gino Cappelletti. They told me I had a great year, so Buffalo came back and said they'd give me thirteen [thousand dollars]. I said, 'Listen, I finished Cornell. I can do other things.'"
Gogolak was upset that the Bills didn't value him as much as other players on their roster despite his high scoring numbers and kicking percentage.
"It was like a slap in the face, frankly," said Gogolak. "We won the AFL Championship. I proved myself. There were No. 1 draft choices later on as kickers, and I know what some of the No. 1 draft choices were getting in salaries and bonuses and everything else."
While the Bills offered him a 30% raise, Gogolak went for the 100% raise to put him where he thought he was worth.
"I asked for twenty [thousand dollars], and they wouldn't talk to me," noted Gogolak. "So I thought they were going to come around, 'cause I liked Buffalo. In any event, they wouldn't give it to me. They never even offered me anything, so I said I would play out my option. That means you take a 10 percent salary cut. You play out your option, take a 10 percent salary cut, and the following year you become a free agent. Then you can sign with anybody, basically."
In 1965, the Bills and Gogolak repeated their great success from 1964.
"My second year I played for $9,900 [in order to play out the option], and again I became the second-highest scorer and the Bills won the AFL Championship again." Laughing with long-remembered frustration, he continued, "Gino Cappelletti again beat me out. I was ahead of him going into the last couple of games, and then he caught a couple of touchdown passes. He played end, a fine kicker, but he beat me out by like six or seven points for the top scorer in the league."
Buffalo finally offered Gogolak the contract he wanted in 1965, but it was too little, too late.
"As I recall, maybe a couple weeks before my contract ran out after they didn't talk to me for two years, then they offered me $20,000," Gogolak recalled. "I said 'no thank you.' It was just unfortunate. And then May the first - I did everything by the book, nobody called me - after May the first the New York Giants gave me a call."
There was a gentleman's agreement in place that AFL owners wouldn't poach players from other teams. The NFL had no agreement about stealing players - in writing or implied - but the two leagues didn't want costs to escalate.
"I was surprised that none of the other AFL teams had called me," said Gogolak. "A lot of teams needed a kicker. I guess there was kind of a gentleman's agreement that we don't take players from other teams. I can understand that."
With more teams competing for the same number of players, salaries would rise dramatically. But the Mara family didn't care. The Giants' kicker, ironically also drafted by the Bills in 1965, missed 13 straight kicks at one point in the 1965 season. They didn't care what the consequences might be.
"The NFL and the Giants called," explains Gogolak. "I signed with the Giants and made three times as much as I made with the Bills. I signed for $35,000. They gave me a four-year, no-cut contract. I went to the Giants and the team wasn't as good as the Bills. Then you know what happened. The AFL started calling NFL players and the war started, and basically a few months later the two leagues merged. So maybe I started something. I not only started the soccer-style kick, but maybe I started the merger."
Gogolak didn't set out to be revolutionary or a trailblazer. He simply wanted what he felt he was worth. That stemmed from his upbringing in Europe.
"No, I never thought of anything [like that]," recalls Gogolak. "I grew up in a country [Hungary], in a socialist economist country where everything was controlled by the government. There was no free enterprise. There was no private business. My dad was a doctor back in Hungary. He worked for the government. He couldn't have a practice. So we came to the States - and the Gogolak family was the luckiest family, because we were able to come to the States. Everything that happened to us - I'm very thankful all my life, and I still think it's a great country. In America, it's a free enterprise and you can ask for whatever you want and either they give it to you or they don't give it to you. I just felt like using a great capitalist system. You have a private service and you feel how much you are worth, and if someone can give it to you, great!"
Despite the lack of contract from the Bills, Gogolak didn't take it personally in the long run:
"It was a business decision," Gogolak said. "It happens in other professions. Maybe Mr. Wilson thought $20,000 was too high, and I felt it was worthwhile. It was 45 years ago."
Gogolak's career with the Giants was wildly successful. He called it "a great honor" to be named to the Giants Ring of Honor.
"[The Bills are] the only championship team I played for in my pro football career, and I have never forgotten that," noted Gogolak. "It was a great place to play, but I was thinking about my future and my life, and in the long run everything worked out for me. I became the Giants' all-time scorer. Actually, we had a very average team. As far as my career with the Giants, it wasn't as productive as it was with the Bills.
"Let me say this, it was the best team I played for," continued Gogolak. "Better than the Giants. Buffalo was a great team, a great city, great bunch of guys. What more pleasure and fun for a young guy to come in and win the AFL Championship?"
The story of Gogolak's selection by the Bills in 1964 has Harvey Johnson's hands all over it, as many did in the first two and a half decades of the franchise. It also is special for Gogolak, since he paid his respects to the friend that set up his first meeting with Johnson this past weekend.
"It's very appropriate that this week is the anniversary of this signing," began Gogolak. "I was away for the weekend and it's coincidental I was in Ithaca because my Freshman football coach at Cornell passed away - a guy named Ted Thoren - and I went back to Ithaca and went to the funeral. When I played at Cornell, we had horrible teams, and in my senior year, two weeks before the draft, he had a friend up in Buffalo with the Bills - a guy by the name of Harvey Johnson - who was a pro scout up there. And Harvey Johnson came down and looked at me. I got a bag of balls and went to Schoellkopf Field at Cornell. I kicked maybe five or six kicks and Harvey said, 'I've seen enough.' Basically that's how the Buffalo Bills drafted me as a kicking specialist."
Gogolak's opinion is that the Bills were willing to try a different style of kicker as long as they got results.
"I think the thinking was that it might be amusing," Gogolak said. "Here's a guy who kicks the ball differently. Let's give him a shot at it. The NFL didn't draft me, but to make a long story short, Ted Thoren was instrumental for me to get a chance in the pro football world. I wasn't drafted by the NFL, and I was very disappointed."
Gogolak contacted me to make sure Buffalo fans share his side of the story. He wants people to know he isn't a bad guy for taking the money, nor skipping from the AFL to NFL.
"I know a lot of people in Buffalo thought I was disloyal," concluded Gogolak. "He was on two championship teams and he was not very thankful, but that's not the case. I tried to tell you the true story from my side. The fans in Buffalo and the team - I just had wonderful experiences. Even playing in War Memorial Stadium."
In fact, my favorite story of Gogolak's was about the Rockpile. It was noted to be in constant disrepair, and Gogolak agreed.
"It happened to me twice - I went in to kick a field goal and before I hit the ball there was a Coke bottle sticking out of the ground," recalled Gogolak, laughing. "It was in my in-step, and if I had kicked it my foot would have fallen off. It wasn't the best-kept stadium in the world, but it was a great way to get a start to a career. I think every game was sold out when we had those Championship teams."