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Scott Allen
What’s With the Uniforms? The Stories Behind the AFL Throwbacks
by Scott Allen - October 23, 2009

The eight charter members of the American Football League are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the league’s launch by wearing throwback uniforms for select NFL games this season. At various times before the AFL merged with the NFL in 1970, the Titans played in New York, Tennessee and Kansas City’s current franchises were in Houston and Dallas, respectively, and a penny-pinching—and possibly colorblind—general manager in Denver told everyone who would listen that his team’s mustard- and brown-colored uniforms were actually gold and copper. Here are the stories behind the nicknames and uniforms of the AFL’s Original Eight.

Denver Broncos

broncos2All throwbacks are not created equal, as the Denver UPS Deliverymen, er, Broncos can attest. It’s a wonder that Kyle Orton and Co. have managed to play so well—they’re one of four undefeated teams entering Week 7—while looking so heinous. At their best, the Broncos’ throwbacks are charming; at their worst, they are “perhaps the ugliest uniforms of all time,” according to New York Times columnist Lynn Zinser.

There’s a perfectly good explanation for this. Operating on a tight budget, Denver’s first general manager, Dean Griffing, purchased the team’s original uniforms from a defunct college football All-Star game, the Copper Bowl. The vertically striped socks, which Griffing claimed made his players look taller, were purchased for cheap from a sporting goods store and only made his players look ridiculous. “They certainly didn’t build confidence,” former player Frank Bernardi told former Broncos announcer Larry Zimmer. To make matters worse, the uniforms didn’t fit. “I used to cut the armpits of them so I could raise my arm to pass,” Denver quarterback Frank Tripucka said. As Ed Gruver recalls in The American Football League, when Denver hired its second coach, Jack Faulkner, the Broncos declared “There’s Lots New in ’62!” Mercifully, that included the uniforms. Faulkner invited players to burn the vertically striped socks at the intrasquad game and designed the team’s new uniforms, which introduced the orange and blue color scheme that Denver has maintained to this day. [Image credit: Eric Lars Bakke/DenverBroncos.com.]

New England Patriots (Boston Patriots)

pats3
The Patriots are celebrating their AFL heritage by sporting the uniforms that they began wearing in 1961, including helmets featuring legendary Pat Patriot. The logo, which was designed by Boston Globe cartoonist Phil Bissell adorned the Patriots’ helmets until 1993, when a more modern-looking design, since dubbed Flying Elvis, was introduced.

pats2While Pat Patriot remains an iconic representation of New England’s football history, the Patriots wore an entirely different, often forgotten logo on their helmets for their inaugural season in the AFL. After Patriots was selected as the team’s nickname from among more than 1,000 entries in a public contest, railroad conductor Walter J. Pingree submitted four designs for the team’s logo to owner Billy Sullivan, all of them variations of a three-cornered hat. Sullivan ultimately chose this design and rewarded Pingree with lifetime season tickets and invitations to private team functions. The team switched to Bissell’s design at the end of the 1960 season and, rather than purchasing new helmets, scraped off Pingree’s original tricorne logo. [Image credit: BuffaloBills.com; Boston Magazine.]

Tennessee Titans (Houston Oilers)

oilHouston, we have a problem, and it’s not the Tennessee Titans’ throwback digs. The Houston Oilers-turned-Tennessee Titans are winless this season, though they’ve managed to look pretty sharp in defeat, thanks to owner Bud Adams’ decision to make Columbia blue his team’s primary color in 1960. Adams, who made his money from oil, said that he selected the nickname Oilers “for sentimental and social reasons.” The Oilers’ red, white, and blue color scheme and the oil derrick on their helmets were staples of Houston’s uniforms until the team left for Tennessee in 1997. The franchise remained the Oilers for two seasons before becoming the Titans. The NFL retired the Oilers nickname after the 1998 season. [Image credit: TitansOnline.com.]

Kansas City Chiefs (Dallas Texans)

KCAny non-football fans who happened upon the game between the Chiefs and Cowboys earlier this month would have assumed that the Cowboys were the team in red. After all, they were the ones with the silhouette of Texas on their helmets. Before they moved to Kansas City and were rebranded in 1963, the Chiefs were the Dallas Texans. Owner Lamar Hunt, who along with Adams was the driving force behind the creation of the AFL, reportedly wanted his team’s colors to be Columbia blue and orange. Adams beat him to the punch and claimed Columbia blue for his Oilers. Hunt was forced to settle for red and gold, which remain the Chiefs’ colors today.

The Texans enjoyed two successful seasons in Dallas, winning the AFL Championship in 1962, but struggled to compete for fans with the NFL’s Cowboys. Hunt began looking for a new home for his team and found a welcoming suitor in Kansas City. The Chiefs nickname is derived from the nickname of Kansas City mayor H. Roe Bartle, who promised Hunt attendance of at least 25,000 fans per game if he moved the Texans to his city. [Image credit: DallasCowboys.com.]

Oakland Raiders

raidChet Soda, Oakland’s first general manager, sponsored a name-the-team contest in 1960. Helen A. Davis, an Oakland policewoman, submitted the winning entry, Señors, and was rewarded with a trip to the Bahamas. The nickname, an allusion to the old Spanish settlers of northern California, was ridiculed in the weeks that followed, and fans also claimed that the contest was fixed. It was well known that Soda greeted people as “Señor.”

Scotty Stirling, a sportswriter for the Oakland Tribune who would later become the team’s general manager, provided another reason to abandon the nickname. “That’s no good,” Stirling said. “We don’t have the accent mark for the n in our headline type.” Responding to the backlash, Soda and the team’s other investors decided to change the team’s nickname to Raiders, which was a finalist in the contest along with Lakers.

There’s some dispute over who designed the Raiders’ logo, a helmeted pirate with an eye patch and a pair of crossed swords behind him. According to former Raider Jim Otto’s autobiography, a high school teacher in Oakland claimed that one of his students designed it, while a man in Hawaii claimed that he modeled the pirate after actor Randolph Scott. [Image credit: Chargers.com.]

New York Jets (New York Titans)

jetsBefore they were the Jets, New York’s AFL team was known as the Titans. The nickname was chosen by egomaniacal owner Harry Wismer, because, as he put it, “Titans are larger than Giants.” (The New York Giants were already an established team in the NFL.) Wismer, who was a former broadcaster at Notre Dame, reportedly designed the Titans’ navy blue and gold uniforms to resemble the Fighting Irish’s uniforms.

The Titans’ uniforms weren’t exactly easy on the eyes, but they were less garish than the Broncos’ original threads, which is supposedly why fullback Joe Pagliei signed with New York instead of Denver. Wismer ran the Titans into the ground financially and the team required a $40,000 bailout from the rest of the league to survive the 1962 season. An ownership group led by Sonny Werblin purchased the franchise in 1963, moved home games to Shea Stadium in 1964, and renamed the team the Jets. The team’s new colors, green and white, were symbolic of Werblin’s birthday—Saint Patrick’s Day. [Image credit: NewYorkJets.com.]

San Diego Chargers (Los Angeles Chargers)

chargeTeam owner Barron Hilton sponsored a name-the-team contest and promised a trip to Mexico City to the winner. Gerald Courtney submitted “Chargers” and Hilton reportedly liked the name so much that he didn’t open another letter. There are varying accounts as to why Hilton chose Chargers. According to one story, Hilton liked the name, in part, for its affiliation with his new Carte Blanche credit card. The owner also told reporters that he was fond of the “Charge!” bugle cry at the University of Southern California’s Coliseum. The Chargers’ original logo featured both the jagged lightning bolts that remain on the team’s uniforms today and a charging horse. Hilton unveiled the Chargers’ uniforms, which his wife Marilyn had approved, at a cocktail party in Santa Monica in 1960. [Image credit: Chargers.com.]

Buffalo Bills

billsOwner Ralph Wilson solicited potential nicknames from fans for his new franchise and chose Bills over several other worthy suggestions, including Nickels and Bison. Bills, a reference to the American frontiersman Buffalo Bill Cody, had been the nickname of Buffalo’s football team in the defunct All-America Football Conference. That team began play in 1946 as the Bison and was renamed the Bills in 1947.

Buffalo’s original AFL uniforms were silver and blue and styled after the NFL’s Detroit Lions. In 1962, the Bills underwent a makeover. The team ditched the silver and blue color scheme, as head coach Lou Saban added red and white shoulder stripes to the uniforms. The team also introduced a new logo, a standing red buffalo on a white helmet. In Rockin’ the Rockpile: The Buffalo Bills of the American Football League, authors Jeffrey J. Miller and Billy Shaw describe the logo as “remarkable in its simplicity—a perfect symbol for the no-nonsense, blue-collar city the team represented.” [Image credit: BuffaloBills.com.]

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