The American Football League was a 63 1/2-point underdog when it opened for doom in the 1960 season. History said it had no chance. Only the All-America Football Conference had been able to compete with the NFL for any length of time to that point. Even then, only three of the nine AAFC teams were invited to join the established league.
What’s more, the NFL was at the height of its popularity at the time. It had the best players, played in the best stadiums and had franchises in the largest markets.
The original AFL consisted of eight teams — the Boston Patriots, Buffalo Bills, Dallas Texans, Denver Broncos, Houston Oilers, New York Titans, Oakland Raiders and Los Angeles Chargers. Sure enough, they struggled to tread water in the early years, mostly with veteran has-beens, younger no-names and a few hidden gems out of small colleges. If not for an entertaining, bombs-away brand of ball and a five-year television deal to broadcast it around the country, the new league would have gone belly up in two or three years at most.
In 1965, the AFL made its first big break. One year after the New York Jets moved into brand-new Shea Stadium, they drafted and signed high-profile Alabama quarterback Joe Namath to an unheard-of $400,000 contract to became the sexy face of an emboldened league. The first big domino had been tipped over. Jaws dropped. More young talent followed him. The product improved noticeably. Attendance spiked. Rather than get involved in costly bidding wars, concerned NFL team owners decided it would be wiser to merge leagues. Every one of the 10 AFL teams (the Miami Dolphins and Cincinnati Bengals were the others) made the cut.
Here’s a tribute to the best players who beat the odds. While there was no set formula to rank them, career statistics and achievements as well as Approximate Value (courtesy of Pro Football Reference) were heavily considered.