10/13/2007 12:04 PM ET
Remembering the AFL
Dedicated fan of the old football league is on a mission
By Barry Wittenstein / SNY.tv
Ange Coniglio at home with memorabilia from the American Football League. (AP)

Angelo Coniglio is a publicity hound. Angelo Coniglio is living in the past. Angelo Coniglio is a hothead.

"I am passionate and I'm sarcastic, too," the 70-year-old resident of Buffalo and die-hard Bills fan tells me. "But all that I do is not for my own glorification, but to get the AFL the respect that I feel it deserves."

The 'AFL' Coniglio is referring to is not the Arena Football League, but the old American Football League that existed from 1960 until 1970, when it merged with the National Football League.

But even though Coniglio says the NFL was "embarrassed and outflanked" by the AFL, the younger upstart league lost its name, its identity and its history once the merger was completed.

And, to borrow from a movie title, that's 'What's Eating' Angelo Coniglio.

"I do get frosted when NFL Films calls the Jets' Super Bowl win one of "The NFL's Greatest Games," Coniglio continues, "or when the Pro Football Hall of Fame has a display on the AFL boycott of New Orleans over that city's mistreatment of the black 1965 AFL All-Stars, and essentially gives the NFL credit for that seminal civil-rights action. The main reason I'm so passionate is that I believe in justice and fairness, and the AFL was not fairly treated by the NFL-dominated sports media during the 1960s. That mistreatment has spilled over to this day."

For those who don't know, the history of the AFL and its attempt to join the established NFL is a fascinating one. It is a story of money, politics and power.

In the late 1950s, led by the late billionaire Lamar Hunt, then 27, an upstart eight-team league was formed when the NFL refused to expand or offer franchises to the founding members of the AFL. Self-described as "The Foolish Club," these businessmen joined Hunt and set up teams in Oakland, Kansas City, San Diego, New York, Houston, Buffalo, Boston, Miami, Cincinnati and Denver.

Compared to the NFL's plodding "three yards and a cloud of dust" offense, the AFL's offense was wide-open and exciting, and featured Joe Namath, the Chargers' acrobatic wide-receiver Lance Alworth and running backs O.J. Simpson and Cookie Gilchrist of Buffalo.

Coniglio contends that the NFL took advantage (read: stole) many of football's innovations without giving proper credit to the younger league. To support his point, he lists the many rules that the NFL incorporated from the AFL after the merger following Super Bowl IV.

"Fans should know," Coniglio reminds me, "that with the official scoreboard clock, names on jerseys, revenue and gate sharing that helps small market teams compete, the two-point conversion and the emergence of black athletes, today's pro football is really the American Football League. They just call it the NFL."

"For those who were around for the AFL, I want to help them remember. For those who weren't around, I want them to hear the truth, which they don't get much of regarding this topic"
-- Ange Coniglio

The 1960s featured an intense rivalry between the two leagues fed by the stubborn dictatorship of NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, who represented the old-school owners.

With each league holding its own draft, bidding wars for the top players escalated to the point when the Jets drafted and were able to sign University of Alabama star quarterback Joe Namath for an astronomical $400,000 -- huge money for that era. But the signing, and the Jets' Super Bowl victory five years later, facilitated the end of hostilities and essentially gave the original owners in the AFL what they wanted -- entry into the NFL.

So, why wasn't everybody happy when the merger occurred?

"The owners got what they wanted," Coniglio maintains. "They ignored the pleas of fans to keep the leagues separate, or at least to retain the name and logo of the AFL. The players lost out because there was no more competition for talent.

"History is written by the winners," he continues. "The NFL downplays the existence of the AFL."

Coniglio has gone so far as to build a website devoted to the history of the old league. Called Remember the AFL, it is a respository of articles, links, cards, letters and memorabilia. Basically anything that has to do with the history of the AFL. Without advertising, smooth pull-down menus or flash introductions, it is a jewel.

Conliglio's site is also important in that it provides a bulletin board in an online meeting place for former AFL players and fans to correspond with each other.

Recently, when Coniglio found out that former AFL and Bills star running back Cookie Gilchrist was seriously ill, he posted the news on the website and sent out an e-mail to his extensive mailing list (which includes 300 former AFL players or relatives) with contact information to send Gilchrist get-well wishes. Many did and Gilchrist, once he recovered, wrote back to Coniglio thanking him and his fans for showing their concern.

But this effort by Coniglio, who is a retired civil engineer and former university professor, isn't a yearning for his youth nor a way to fill up his golden years. This mission to keep the memory of the old league alive dates back 39 years to 1970 when he made a prediction that would make Nostradamus proud. While working for Pro Football Weekly, he wrote:

"The year 2009 will be praised in song and story, not as the 50th anniversary of the AFL, but as the 90th of the NFL. And no one will remember the AFL existed, except for a few fans with scrapbooks and long memories."

That this prophesy is about to come true is not something Coniglio wishes to see. Which is why he he has begun his current campaign two years in advance to give the NFL enough time to plan, organize and produce the throwback memorabilia and events for a proper celebration.

To that end, he recently sent out another e-mail to the 1000 members on his mailing list urging a letter-writing campaign to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

Among some of his suggestions, he says, are a commemorative AFL patch to be worn by all AFL teams for the entire 2009 season, original AFL logos to appear on the fields of the former AFL teams, and an "AFL Sunday" where each former AFL teams plays another former AFL team, both wearing AFL uniforms.

So far, he hasn't heard back from Goodell nor Mitchell and Ness, the clothing company which he asked to produce a throwback collection.

"In response to my letter to Goodell urging a 'Celebration of the AFL' in 2009, with AFL throwback uniforms, an AFL players' reunion, etc.," Coniglio says, "I got a form letter back."

"It said, 'Thanks for your interest in the NFL.'"

Barry Wittenstein is an editorial producer for SNY.tv.
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