By Tom Flores
In 1960, I didn’t know much about the American Football League. I was recovering from shoulder surgery, had given up the thought of playing again and was working on my master’s. All of a sudden this new league started up and I said, ‘What the hell is that?’ I got a call from the Oakland franchise and they got the juices flowing again. I had a job teaching high school in Fresno and was going to move up to junior college the following year as soon as I had my master’s. But I turned that down to give it one more shot. What did I have to lose? I didn’t own a car, I had no debt. I was happy to do it because of the love of the game.
It was an opportunity to do something you loved and maybe make some money out of it. We had guys that didn’t get an opportunity in the NFL, guys who had been in the NFL for a year or two, and some like George Blanda who had been in the NFL for 10 years. We had players who enjoyed playing the game and their passion was stronger than anything else.
When I got sick with tuberculosis in 1962, I missed the whole year and it was not a very good time in my life. My wife Barbara just had a our twin boys and she had to go back to work to support the family, and I had to rehab. After a year I went back with the Raiders and there was no guarantee that I was going to even recover. But I did. Then Al Davis came to town, and I got my opportunity. We had a lot of fun then because we started winning. In 1964 things started looking rosier because we were winning and we were getting a stadium. Lots of teams were getting new stadiums, Kansas City had moved from Dallas, and then television stepped in. Had it not been for television, how big television was and is now, the AFL would have never made it. Television made the game.
During the 1960s, discrimination was still prevalent in the United States. We got a taste right off the bat when we went to Dallas on our first big road trip in 1960. We were just outside of Dallas and the African-American players weren’t going to be able to eat in the same dining hall as the rest of the team. Our head coach Eddie Erdelatz said, “We’re leaving.” and they immediately changed their policy.
Then we found out we weren’t going to play in the 1965 AFL All-Star Game in New Orleans because the African-American players weren’t going to be able to stay in the same hotel with the white players. The AFL chose to leave town and play the game in Houston. The AFL opened the doors to African-American players and that changed the course of the game.
The AFL also featured a different style of football. The philosophy in the NFL was to put more trust in the run game. The AFL, they didn’t have the depth of players, so they used a more wide-open, big play approach. The NFL was mostly in cold weather cities, it’s cold, snowy there in December. Are you going to throw the ball in December? The AFL looked to make some big plays – rain or snow.
When we first started they didn’t know where we were from, Oakland wasn’t even on the map. All of sudden we’re playing on the East Coast and we get noticed. Because of television, we were always part of a double-header. I was bigger in New York City than in Oakland. I attribute that to television.
Al Davis was very important to the success of the AFL. He was there from day one as wide receivers coach with Sid Gillman with the Los Angeles Chargers in 1960. Then he became our guy (head coach and general manager) in 1963 and immediately came in and knew what he was doing. The NFL had control, they were dictators with no competition and all of a sudden there was this new league. I also have to give Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson a lot of credit. He was very powerful in his own way, loyal to the league and responsible for the continuation of the Raiders. He came to their assistance with a loan and kept them going in the early 1960s. I thought he was one of the great owners of all-time.
The AFL is everything to me because they gave me an opportunity.