When the late Milt Woodard was a Stadium High student contemplating a livelihood as a sportswriter, he couldn’t have known he’d retire as an executive who played an influential role in pro football’s development from seedling to sequoia.
But because career paths have a way of taking uncertain and sometimes fortuitous turns, Woodard graduated from the sports section of this newspaper to the presidency of the American Football League — the operation responsible for the world’s most watched single-day sporting event.
If not for the AFL, there would be no such thing as the Super Bowl, created by the league’s 1966 amalgamation with the NFL. Before he helped make the merging complete in 1970, Woodard served the AFL in a quiet but forceful way, first as right-hand man to original commissioner Joe Foss, then as the league president who succeeded Al Davis.
“Woodard operated in the background, but his work was vital to the success of the new league,” Larry Felser wrote in “Birth of the New NFL: How the 1966 NFL/AFL Merger Transformed Pro Football.”
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Having never met Woodard, who had relocated to San Jose, California, before he died in 1996, I’m not sure whether he craved the spotlight. Foss didn’t give him much choice. A World War II fighter-pilot ace — he received the Medal of Honor for his valor during the Guadalcanal Campaign — Foss was a larger-than-life figure elected as governor of South Dakota before the birth of the AFL and as president of the National Rifle Association after it.
The events of Nov. 22, 1963 offer a glimpse of Woodard’s steady, behind-the-scenes stewardship. President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated, and the question of canceling games scheduled 48 hours later was up to Foss. But the commissioner was in transit, telephones weren’t mobile, and Woodard had to make the call.
“Playing football,” he said, “is not the right thing to do.”
Meanwhile, NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, in a decision he would describe as the most profound regret of his Hall of Fame career, decreed that the league’s games would go on.
Woodard’s comprehensive résumé had prepared him to exercise common sense. In addition to writing about sports as varied as boxing and track and field, he ran two minor-league baseball teams before his 10-year stint as president of the Western Golf Association in Chicago, home of the PGA’s Tour’s oldest event. (Renamed the BMW Championship in 2007, it had been known as the Western Open since 1899.)
Participation in the nurturing of an upstart football league obviously appealed to Woodard. So did the AFL’s determination to cast itself as Don Quixote, impossibly dreaming about challenging the NFL after three other leagues had failed.
Securing national-network television deals enabled the AFL to lure the likes of star Alabama quarterback Joe Namath, a 1965 first-round draft choice of the Cardinals, then based in St. Louis. Given the choice between St. Louis and New York — not to mention the unprecedented $427,000 contract the Jets offered — Namath needed all of one day to conclude he was a Jet all the way.
But the AFL’s legacy is deeper than the lucrative contracts the league used to pry first-round talent from its smug counterpart. Visionaries such as Davis and Sid Gillman saw the quick-strike benefits of stretching defenses with deep passes. Touchdowns presented coaches the option of going for two-point conversions. Players’ names were stitched on the back of their jerseys.
Most meaningful was the AFL’s aggressive pursuit of players from historically black colleges. Starters on the 1969 Kansas City Chiefs, for instance, included cornerback Emmitt Thomas (Bishop), linebacker Willie Lanier (Morgan State), defensive tackle Buck Buchanan (Grambling), running back Robert Holmes (Southern), cornerback Jim Marsalis (Tennessee State) and wide receivers Gloster Richardson (Jackson State) and Frank Pitts (Southern).
That 1969 Chiefs team won the AFL championship in the final season it was distinguished as a sovereign league. It also happened to be the NFL’s golden-anniversary season, noted by a 50-year shoulder patch put on players’ uniforms.
Angelo Coniglio, a fan from Buffalo, led a drive for the AFL champs to wear a shoulder patch marking the league’s 10-year anniversary. Woodard considered the request and, sure enough, the Chiefs wore a shoulder patch for Super Bowl IV.
“You could not believe it when you saw the faces of those players,” Chiefs coach Hank Stram would recall. “These were great men and great pros, but they were like kids in a candy store when they saw that patch.”
Concurred Lanier: “It lit us up. We knew what it meant.”
It’s crazy to think something as mundane as a shoulder patch would be a source of motivation before the Super Bowl, but the Chiefs beat the prohibitively favored Vikings, 23-7. Suspicions that Namath and the Jets were the fluke champions of Super Bowl III were gone, once and forever.
Parity was achieved, thanks to the efforts of a man who grew up in the City of Destiny.
John McGrath: firstname.lastname@example.org