In the 1960s, on the heels of the “Greatest Game Ever Played,” professional football began to flourish across the country—except in Texas, where college football was still the only game in town. But in an unlikely series of events, two young oil tycoons started their own professional football franchises in Dallas the very same year: the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys, and, as part of a new upstart league designed to thwart the NFL’s hold on the game, the Dallas Texans of the AFL. Almost overnight, a bitter feud was born.
The team owners, Lamar Hunt and Clint Murchison, became Mad Men of the gridiron, locked in a battle for the hearts and minds of the Texas pigskin faithful. Their teams took each other to court, fought over players, undermined each other’s promotions, and rooted like hell for the other guys to fail. A true visionary, Hunt of the Texans focused on the fans, putting together a team of local legends and hiring attractive women to drive around town in red convertibles selling tickets. Meanwhile, Murchison and his Cowboys focused on the game, hiring a young star, Tom Landry, in what would be his first-ever year as a head coach, and concentrating on holding their own against the more established teams in the NFL. Ultimately, both teams won the battle, but only one got to stay in Dallas and go on to become one of sports’ most quintessential franchises—”America’s Team.”
In this highly entertaining narrative, rich in colorful characters and unforgettable stunts, Eisenberg recounts the story of the birth of pro-football in Dallas—back when the game began to be part of this country’s DNA.
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"Would you be interested in starting up a new league?"
LAMAR HUNT WAS AT 30,000 feet, his head literally in the clouds, when the idea of starting a new professional football league came to him. "The lightbulb just came on," he would say later. That it did so in the sky, on an American Airlines flight, seemed entirely appropriate, for the idea was, if anything, a flight of fancy.
As Hunt flew from Miami to his hometown of Dallas on a February evening in 1959, the National Football League had never been more popular. After grinding along for almost four decades in the shadow of Major League Baseball, the NFL was suddenly taking off like a Russian rocket. Six weeks earlier, a television audience of 40 million had watched NBC's broadcast of the league's championship game, a thriller between the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants decided in sudden-death overtime.
Even though Hunt, as the son of one of the world's wealthiest men, oilman Haroldson Lafayette "H.L." Hunt, had been brought up to think Texas big, he understood it was a long-odds proposition to take on the NFL and survive. Three leagues had tried and failed over the years, most recently the All-America Football Conference, a late-forties start-up that folded after spewing red ink for four years. The NFL's feisty old guard, led by the Chicago Bears' George Halas, had fended off that challenge and celebrated by annexing the dying league's best teams.
Less than a decade later, as Lamar sat in his seat in the plane's first-class cabin and contemplated what he thought was a bright idea, he quickly concocted a list of major questions a new league would face. Why would anyone buy in as the owner of a franchise knowing that he would probably lose millions in the early years? Why would any decent players bypass the NFL to play in the league? Why would any fans care about teams with no history or tradition?
Lamar was just twenty-six, barely removed from his callow days as a fun-loving Kappa Sigma fraternity brother at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. His idea was easily dismissed as a fantasy, the idle stirring of a young man with more money than sense. In the coming years, many people in the NFL would view his new league as just that, a folly.
But they would discover that it was a mistake to underestimate Lamar Hunt.
Yes, he was young, but he had a realistic vision for his new league from the moment he conceived it. His enthusiasm for football, and sports in general, was unmatched. And oh, he was determined. His goal — his sole motivation, at least at the outset — was to bring pro football to Dallas, his oil-rich hometown, of which he was so proud. But as he had learned very quickly, the NFL was not inclined to help.
A year earlier, Hunt had called the NFL's commissioner, Bert Bell, to see about buying his way into the established league, which had been in operation since shortly after World War I. It had seen dozens of teams come and go over the years — the Canton (Ohio) Bulldogs, the Pottstown (Pennsylvania) Maroons — but it had been stable for almost a decade with an even dozen franchises: the Chicago Bears, Baltimore Colts, New York Giants, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers, Washington Redskins, Philadelphia Eagles, Chicago Cardinals, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Los Angeles Rams, and San Francisco 49ers.
Bell told Lamar to call Walter and Violet Wolfner, who owned the lamentable Cardinals, a losing team perpetually overshadowed in the Windy City by Halas's more successful Bears. Representatives from a half-dozen cities without NFL teams, including Minneapolis, Atlanta, Seattle, and New Orleans, had already approached the Wolfners about buying and relocating the franchise. The Wolfners had turned them all down.
Lamar met with the Wolfners in Chicago. The older couple enjoyed his company. He listened intently, spoke deliberately, and kept notes. With his black-frame glasses, neatly parted chestnut hair, business attire, and southern manners, he seemed older than he was.
When the Wolfners turned him down, he offered to take a minority stake, believing he would eventually gain control and move the Cardinals to Dallas. The Wolfners were intrigued by his persistence and especially his money, but ultimately offered him just a 20 percent stake in the team, with no hope of a move to Dallas.
Around the same time, Lamar also joined a group from Dallas and Fort Worth seeking a baseball franchise in a proposed third major league being organized by Branch Rickey, the legendary executive who had integrated the major leagues with Jackie Robinson a decade earlier. Lamar traveled to New York for a meeting led by Rickey. Insightful and forward-thinking at age seventy, Rickey explained that a new league could work because baseball hadn't added a franchise in more than fifty years, stubbornly sticking with two eight-team circuits because the owners distrusted change and didn't want to cut up their revenues any more. Numerous large cities had been frozen out, and yet they were more than capable of supporting teams, Rickey said. He cited Milwaukee, where attendance records had been set since the Braves moved there from Boston in the early fifties.
Lamar was impressed with Rickey, but he preferred football. On the last Sunday of 1958, he sat at home in Dallas and watched the NFL championship game between the Colts and Giants. The Colts, led by a brilliant young quarterback, Johnny Unitas, jumped out to a 14–3 lead and appeared to have the game wrapped up, but the Giants rallied in the fourth quarter to take a three-point lead as a sellout crowd cheered so loudly that Yankee Stadium seemed to vibrate. But Unitas, exhibiting remarkable poise, led a drive that resulted in a last-second field goal, forcing the game into overtime — a first for the NFL. Unitas then led another long drive, which ended with Colts fullback Alan Ameche diving into the end zone for the winning touchdown. On the drives, Unitas connected repeatedly with Raymond Berry, a star receiver with whom Lamar had played college ball at SMU.
As he shut off his television, Lamar was exhilarated. What a sporting event! The game had featured brilliant performances, dramatic momentum swings, breathtaking moments, last-second heroics, and larger-than-life figures — Unitas was as cocksure as any western gunslinger. And NBC had effectively captured it all, bringing the drama right into his den.
Watching the game had a profound effect on Lamar. He saw that pro football, long overshadowed by the college version of the sport as well as by baseball, was becoming quite a spectacle and that television, though barely a decade old as a popular medium, could deliver it magnificently to massive audiences. Pro football just might be the sport of the future, he thought. When he read that millions had watched the game, drawn to their black-and-white sets by the drama, he was convinced the nation's appetite for pro football was growing.
Redoubling his efforts to buy into the NFL, Lamar flew to Miami for another meeting with the Wolfners, this time at their winter home. But the trip was fruitless. The Wolfners simply weren't selling.
As they parted, Walter Wolfner mentioned offhandedly that another young Texan from an oil family had come to Miami to discuss purchasing the Cardinals. Kenneth S. "Bud" Adams, the son of the president of Phillips Petroleum, had wanted to move the franchise to Houston. Like Hunt, he had been turned down.
Digesting this news, Lamar took a taxi to the airport, boarded his American Airlines flight to Dallas, and took stock. He had been trying to secure an NFL team for a year, but the Wolfners weren't selling, and Bert Bell had told him the league wouldn't expand anytime soon, at least not until the Cardinals relocated. Yet a whole group of wealthy people from major cities wanted teams, starting with himself and Bud Adams.
Branch Rickey had said a new baseball major league could work because there was a hunger for the game in so many cities without teams. Was the same not true for professional football?
Lamar asked a stewardess for stationery, took out a pen, and jotted down some ideas for a new league under the heading "Original 6: First Year's Operations." There would be six teams. Each would play three exhibitions and fifteen regular-season games and own territorial draft picks, enabling them to add popular local college players. The home team at every game would receive 60 percent of the "gate" — the proceeds from ticket sales — with the visitors receiving 40 percent or $35,000, whichever was higher. Lamar knew about the game's finances because the Wolfners had let him see their books.
When he finished, Lamar sat back and appraised the in-flight stationery with his writing on it. He smiled. This really could work, he thought. Maybe the idea of a new pro football league wasn't a flight of fancy after all.
H. L. Hunt loved to gamble. There were rumors about the old man betting as much as $50,000 a weekend on college football.
Years earlier, before he entered the oil business, Lamar's father had run a professional card table in Arkansas. After he came to Texas in the twenties, drawn by rumors of vast oil riches, he wagered his future on oil reserves — the profits from crude expected to spew out of the ground. If the wells had come up dry, he would have been sunk.
But the wells were not dry. He backed enough winners to stay afloat and then in 1930 entered negotiations with one Columbus Marion "Dad" Joiner, a former Tennessee legislator turned Oklahoma wildcatter, who had struck oil on the East Texas farm of a widow named Daisy Bradford. Joiner was in a familiar pinch, having oversold shares in his wells to finance more drilling. He needed a bailout. H.L. spent several days with him in a hotel suite trying to strike a deal. Joiner, who was seventy, finally sold his leases to the younger man for $1.5 million. The wells turned out to be worth infinitely more. Within a year it became clear that a vast and unimaginably fertile oil field, perhaps forty-five miles long, lay beneath the red soil and piney hills of the widow Bradford's farm and the properties surrounding it.
By 1932, H.L.'s production company had nine hundred wells in operation in East Texas. Targeted by dozens of lawsuits in the wake of his deal with Joiner, H.L. settled them all and moved on. The owner of the world's largest oil field could afford good lawyers.
Life for the Hunt family changed in a hurry. H.L. and his wife had three teenage children and two other youngsters when Lamar, their sixth child, was born in El Dorado, Arkansas, in 1932. They soon moved into a mansion in Tyler, Texas, a fast-developing oil town, and then on to Dallas, where H.L. purchased a ten-acre estate on White Rock Lake that featured a house modeled after Mount Vernon, George Washington's home.
Growing up with five siblings in the sprawling mansion, Lamar quickly exhibited a taste for sports. One of his first memories was his trip to the Cotton Bowl to see a college football game on January 1, 1937. He pored over baseball box scores in the newspapers, listened to college football games on the radio, memorized statistics, and shot baskets in his driveway for hours. He was so infatuated with sports that his brothers and sisters called him "Games."
By the late forties, H.L.'s Hunt Oil was producing 65,000 barrels of crude a day, generating around $1 million a week in gross income. But while his children knew they were fortunate, they did not grasp the extent of their father's staggering income. It was never mentioned in the media, which H.L. loathed. He did not buy cars or yachts. The subject of money seldom came up at dinner. A servant occasionally drove Lamar to school, which embarrassed him. He just wanted to be a normal kid, and for the most part he was.
For his high school years, he was packed off to the Hill School, an exclusive prep institution in Pennsylvania, which his older brothers, Bunker and Herbert, had also attended. Not surprisingly, the young man known as "Games" focused on football as much as his studies. He had dreamed of being a hero on the field, and as a slender quarterback at Hill, he emulated his idol, Doak Walker, a Heisman Trophy–winning halfback for his beloved SMU Mustangs in Dallas. Wearing Walker's uniform number 37, Lamar sparkled on cool autumn Fridays in the leafy Northeast, ducking prep school tacklers, breaking long runs, and leading his team to a title.
For college, he thought about attending Washington and Lee in Virginia, where Herbert had gone, but he missed Texas, missed football, and ended up returning to Dallas and enrolling at SMU. He was expected to traipse faithfully down a predestined path, study geology, and join Herbert and Bunker at Penrod Drilling, the oil company their father had set up for them.
But all Lamar really wanted to do was keep playing football. Although he had been born into a silver-spoon existence, he was a jock at heart, bored by the cold corridors of business. Attending SMU would give him the opportunity to try to live out his dream. SMU's athletic director, Matty Bell, a former football coach who had directed the Mustangs to a national title in the thirties, was happy to let H. L. Hunt's boy join the program.
The situation was potentially disastrous. The Mustangs competed in the prestigious Southwest Conference against national powers such as Texas, Arkansas, Rice, and Texas Christian. They had a prominent place in the chronicle of Texas college football history thanks to the exploits of Doak Walker and others, and every year they brought in a new group of blue-chip recruits with the talent to continue the saga. The five-foot-eleven, 180-pound Lamar might be out of his league.
Lamar suited up for SMU's freshman team in the fall of 1951. To train, he jogged on the streets alongside a car driven by Bunker. When practice began, he surprisingly held his own. He could take a hit. The coaches rewarded him with playing time. As the team rolled through a five-game schedule without a defeat, Lamar scored a touchdown, carried the ball on ten rushes, and caught eight passes to finish third on the team in that statistic, behind Doyle Nix and Ed Bernet, a pair of future pros. It was enough to earn a letter.
He was listed among the backs on the Mustangs' 1952 varsity roster, but his lack of size and ability finally caught up with him when he found himself on the practice field with Forrest Gregg, Bill Forester, and other rugged upperclassmen destined for long careers in the NFL — real football players. His dream of emulating Doak Walker abruptly ended. Relegated to the bench as a third-string end, he stood forlornly among the other subs during home games, wearing uniform number 80, and didn't make road trips because the "traveling squad" was limited to players who might actually participate.
Yet while his place on the end of the bench appeared irrevocable, he never stopped believing his prospects might change if he worked hard enough and did what his coaches asked. And whether or not he played, he really wanted just to blend in, be a typical college athlete. He hoarded pennies, drove a battered car, and stole socks from the athletic department like everyone else. He never brought up his family's wealth, and the subject seldom came up in conversation. Many of his teammates had no idea he was, in fact, one of those Hunts.
While taking extra geology classes (and escaping the Texas summer heat) in Colorado in the summer of 1954, he became friends with Buzz Kemble, a teammate from Fort Worth who was taking the same classes. They bet on dog races at night and took their girlfriends to a water park that Lamar's family owned. Kemble never realized his quiet friend was H.L.'s son. One evening Lamar had to borrow a dollar to pay for a toll as they drove home from dinner.
Inevitably, word spread. One day in practice at SMU, a younger end outweighing him by fifty pounds literally knocked him off the field and onto a curb, then taunted, "Poor boy, you better get Popsie to cover that curb with foam rubber." Day after day, Lamar absorbed practice-field beatings that left him bruised and sore.
But Lamar was rewarded for his patience and determination. In 1954 he finally made it onto the traveling squad, and then onto the field for the Mustangs in early-season wins over nonconference opponents Kansas and Missouri. Kemble, a fellow third-stringer, carried the ball. Lamar blocked. His limited playing time wasn't enough to earn a varsity letter.
After that season, Kemble quit football to concentrate on swimming, and Lamar decided to hang up his cleats, even though he was eligible to play one more season. He had married a girl named Rosemary Carr, whom he had known since high school. They were considering starting a family. He would be twenty-three in the fall of 1955. It was time to move on.
Excerpted from "Ten-Gallon War"
Copyright © 2012 John Eisenberg.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1. “Would you be interested in starting up a new league?” 3
2. “Those Texas Millionaires” 20
3. “You’re going to break us all” 34
4. “Son, that league isn’t going to make it” 50
5. “Is Big D big enough . . . for two teams?” 61
6. “I trained on biscuits and gravy” 73
7. “Someone is going to get hurt here” 88
8. “This is not a harassment situation” 100
9. “It’s going to take time for this thing to grow” 115
10. “They thought the Texans were a lot more fun” 125
11. “We’ve scared off every fan we have” 139
12. “They should play each other” 157
13. “Did you wear mouse ears or a helmet?” 172
14. “They shouldn’t be able to do this to us” 185
15. “Let’s beat their asses” 201
16. “We are staying” 215
17. “We will kick to the clock” 227
18. “It’s nice to be wanted” 243
19. “There’s something I want to visit with you about” 255
20. “Did Vince really say that?” 271
Author’s Note on Sources 296