Merged right out of the record books

A newspaper story on the NFL-AFL merger.

When the merger between the National and American Football Leagues was finalized in early 1970, it brought down the curtain on the AFL’s 10-year run as an independent entity and set the stage for the most successful period of growth in the game’s history.

It also erased more than three dozen accomplishments (some that had stood for decades) from their spots atop the lists of individual records. With the stroke of a pen (or, more likely, some taps on an IBM Selectric typewriter), a handful of star NFL players woke up one day to find they’d been usurped by guys from “that other league.”

A byproduct of the merger agreement signed in 1966 was the NFL’s official recognition of AFL records and achievements as its own (a courtesy not extended to the All-America Football Conference when the NFL absorbed three of its teams in 1950). In one fell swoop, 39 different career, season or single-game records previously held by NFL players suddenly belonged to men who had been in the rival league. One newspaper account called the change “a high-level command decision, made at 410 Park Ave.(the NFL’s address from 1968 to 1996), after three years of pondering, and influenced no doubt by the AFL successes in the last two Super Bowls1“Blanda Now Top Record Holder.” Olderman, Murray, NEA, in Abilene (Tex.) Reporter-News, 21 April 1970, p. 26.”

Longtime Cleveland Brown Lou Groza felt the impact more than anyone, as “The Toe” saw no fewer than seven of his records given the boot in favor of numbers racked up by George Blanda (who had begun his career in the NFL prior to the AFL’s debut in 1960). Going by the wayside were Groza’s records for most seasons as an active player and career games, points, extra points, extra point attempts, field goals and field goal attempts.

Groza’s old record of 12 consecutive made field goals (which he had co-held with Bobby Layne, of all people) also fell, to Jan Stenerud‘s streak of 16 in 1969. Blanda eventually extended all of the marks he took from Groza by the time he retired in 1976, but today holds onto just three of them: most seasons (26), career extra point attempts (959) and career extra points made (943)2Official National Football League Record Manual. National Football League, 1969 and 1970.

Blanda also broke Bob Waterfield‘s single-season record for extra point attempts that had stood since 1950, and, retroactively, Danny Villanueva‘s relatively short-lived (1966) record for extra points made in a season. Finally, in the lead-up to a season in which the then-43-year-old would pull off miracle finishes with his arm and foot in five straight games for the Raiders, Blanda saw his name supplant those of Davey O’Brien, Charley Conerly, Bobby Layne and Sid Luckman atop the single-game passing lists for attempts (68) and completions (47), and the single-season (42) and career (265) lists for interceptions thrown, respectively.

With the wounds from the six-year war for players and territory between the two leagues still raw in some spots, the integration of AFL records into the NFL’s official lore caused a bit of consternation.

“So, AFL records, sometimes scoffed at in the past by NFL supporters, have been given equal weight with the NFL records, creating a situation in which stars such as Gilchrist, Joe Namath, Charley Hennigan and George Blanda are listed as NFL recordholders,” one newspaper story related. “And only Blanda ever played in an NFL game3“Surprises in Store for Readers of New Pro Grid Record Manual.” Rathet, Mike, Associated Press, in Appleton (Wisc.) Post-Crescent, 19 July 1970, p. 39.” Some other bureaucratic record-breakers included:

  • Jim Brown‘s record rushing day of 237 yards (which he accomplished twice, against the Rams in 1957 and the Eagles in 1961) crumbling to Buffalo’s Carlton “Cookie” Gilchrist, who dashed for 243 against the Jets on Dec. 8, 1963.
  • Johnny Morris‘ single-season record of 93 catches and Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch‘s mark of 1,495 receiving yards in one campaign fell behind Charley Hennigan‘s 101 and 1,746, respectively, both set in 1961.
  • Billy Cannon‘s 373 combined yards (216 rushing, 114 receiving, 43 kickoff returns) for the Houston Oilers against the New York Titans on Dec. 10, 1961 broke the existing mark of 341 recorded by the Eagles’ Tim Brown a year later. (Interestingly, Cannon’s record stood for another 25 years before Denver’s Glyn Milburn broke it with 404 against Seattle on the 44th anniversary of Cannon’s performance 4Official National Football League Record Manual. National Football League, 2018..)

In addition to the handful of marks still held by Blanda, these 1970 “paperwork” record changes remain standing as of 2020:

  • You can still find the name of the Raiders’ Tom Morrow today under the record for most consecutive games with an interception. He picked off throws in eight straight games between 1962 and 1963.
  • Charley McNeil‘s 177 yards on interception returns for the Chargers against Houston on Sept. 24, 1961 is still the standard.
  • Steve O’Neal‘s nearly unbeatable 98-yard punt for the Jets in Denver on Sept. 21, 1969 is still tops.

Interestingly enough, the record O’Neal thought he surpassed – a 94-yarder by Canton’s Wilbur Henry against the Oorang Indians in 1923 – was apparently in error. A contemporary newspaper account of the game notes Henry (“the rollypolly [sic] tackle from Washington”) dropped an 85-yard punt on the Indians’ one-yard line in the first half5“Champion Canton Eleven Defeats Akron in Stubborn Battle, 7-3.” The Pittsburgh Post, 29 Oct. 1923, p. 10.

It took until 1974 for the NFL to realize the error on Henry’s punt (after it had stood for 47 years) and remove it from second place on the list6Official National Football League Record Manual. National Football League, 1974. The current NFL Record and Fact Book credits the second-longest punt in league history to Joe Lintzenich of the Bears. A newspaper account notes the former St. Louis University star “got off a punt that soared and rolled for a total carry of 94 yards” for Chicago against the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds on Nov. 15, 19317“Grange’s Eleven Wins. – St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 16 Nov. 1931, p. 6B.

Corrections to the official records are not uncommon as new research occasionally reveals errors or uncovers previously hidden achievements. Blanda’s philosophical outlook upon learning of his ascension to the top of the football record book is perhaps the best one:

“If anybody wants to play 25 years, they can break any of them,” he was quoted as saying, with a shrug. “It’s nice to have your name in the record book, but it’s nicer to play all those years8Quoted in Olderman, 21 April 1970..”

Records are made to be broken, and, as we’ve seen, they can be felled by journeymen as well as by stars. But the 1970 merger marked the only time nearly 40 individual records fell literally overnight. Chances are this revamp of the record book will remain a singular occurrence in the history of professional football.

“Made by the Merger”

NFL records supplanted by AFL records after 1970 merger
+Record still stands as of 2020 | **Later recognized as an error
CategoryOld record (had stood since)New record
Most Seasons, Active Player17, Lou Groza (1967)20, George Blanda
Most Games Played, Lifetime216, Lou Groza (1967)256, George Blanda
Most Points, Lifetime1,349, Lou Groza (1967)1,477, George Blanda
Most PAT Attempts, Lifetime657, Lou Groza (1967)712, George Blanda
Most PAT Attempts, Season58, Bob Waterfield (1950)65, George Blanda (1961)
Most PATs, Lifetime641, Lou Groza (1967)703, George Blanda
Most PATs, Season56, Danny Villanueva (1966)64, George Blanda (1961)
Most Field Goal Attempts, Lifetime405, Lou Groza (1967)490, George Blanda
Most Field Goals, Lifetime234, Lou Groza (1967)240, George Blanda
Most Field Goals, Season28, Bruce Gossett (1966)34, Jim Turner (1968)
Most Consecutive Field Goals12, Lou Groza/Bobby Layne (1953)16, Jan Stenerud (1969)
Most Rushing Yards, Game237, Jim Brown (twice) (1961)243, Cookie Gilchrist (1963)
Most Pass Attempts, Game60, Davey O’Brien (1940)68, George Blanda (1964)
Most Pass Completions, Game36, Charley Conerly (1948)37, George Blanda (1964)
Most Consecutive Pass Completions13, Three players (1961)15, Len Dawson (1967)
Most Passing Yards, Season3,747, Sonny Jurgensen (1967)4,007, Joe Namath (1967)
Most Passes Had Intercepted, Lifetime243, Bobby Layne (1962)265, George Blanda
Most Passes Had Intercepted, Season31, Sid Luckman (1947)42, George Blanda (1962)+
Most Pass Receptions, Season93, Johnny Morris (1964)101, Charley Hennigan (1961)
Most Consecutive Games with a Catch95, Don Hutson (1945)96, Lance Alworth (1969)
Most Receiving Yards, Lifetime9,275, Raymond Berry (1967)10,373, Don Maynard
Most Receiving Yards, Season1,495, Elroy Hirsch (1951)1,746, Charley Hennigan (1961)
Most Consecutive Games w/Interception7, Three players (1964)8, Tom Morrow (1963)+
Most Yards on Interceptions, Season301, Don Doll (1949)349, Charley McNeil (1961)
Most Yards on Interceptions, Game121, Two players (1957)177, Charley McNeil (1961)+
Most Punts, Lifetime703, Sam Baker (1969)712, Paul Maguire (1969)
Most Punts, Season92, Howard Maley (1947)105, Bob Scarpitto (1967)
Longest Punt94, Wilbur Henry (1923)**98, Steve O’Neal (1969)+
Most Punt Returns, Season41, Alvin Haymond (1965)46, Rodger Bird (1967)
Most Punt Returns, Game8, Three players (1950)9, Rodger Bird (1967)
Most Fair Catches, Season19, Charlie West (1969)24, Ken Graham (1969)
Most Punt Return Yards, Season555, Bill Grimes (1950)612, Rodger Bird (1967)
Most Punt Return Yards, Game184, Tom Watkins (1963)205, George Atkinson (1968)
Most Kickoff Returns, Season46, Chuck Latourette (1968)47, Odell Barry (1964)
Most Kickoff Returns, Game8, Two players (1950)9, Noland Smith (1967)
Most Kickoff Return Yards, Season1,237, Chuck Latourette (1968)1,317, Bobby Jancik (1963)
Most Fumbles, Game6, Sam Etcheverry (1961)7, Len Dawson (1964)+
Most Own Fumbles Recovered, Lifetime27, Two players (1962)38, Jack Kemp (1969)
Most Combined Yards Gained, Game341, Tim Brown (1962)373, Billy Cannon (1961)
NOTE: This story was originally submitted – at their suggestion – to the Professional Football Researchers Association for potential inclusion in their bimonthly Coffin Corner newsletter. They either forgot about it or opted not to publish it, so I am posting it here.
Kenn Tomasch

Kenn Tomasch