On Sunday, the American Football League’s first star, Billy Cannon, passed away at the age of 80. The former Heisman winning LSU halfback (and later fullback and tight end) helped lead the Houston Oilers to back-to-back AFL Championships in the fledgling league’s first two years. Cannon would later win another AFL Championship in 1967 with the Oakland Raiders, but would go on to lose Super Bowl II against the Green Bay Packers.
What’s truly remarkable about Billy Cannon isn’t so much what he accomplished on the field, but in how he came to play for the Oilers.
After being coerced into signing a bizarrely structured contract with the Los Angeles Rams of the NFL, the AFL’s Houston Oilers and their owner, Bud Adams, tracked Cannon down and convinced Billy to sign with them for double what the Rams had offered (with a less confusing structure to the contract).
As you can imagine, there was a legal battle that ensued and the NFL lost partially because the contract the Rams had Cannon signed had only been partially countersigned by the NFL Commissioner, Pete Rozelle. The other reason the NFL lost was because the NFL had been shady with how they convinced Billy to sign with the NFL.
“Not withstanding his prowess and agility on the gridiron, he is not an astute businessman. He is exceptionally naive for a college senior and a provincial lad untutored and unwise in the ways of the business world,” the judge ruled.
So what does all this have to do with the Denver Broncos?
In the early 1960’s there were winners and losers when it came to the bidding war for players between the AFL and NFL. The Oilers, Jets (following their change in ownership and name from the Titans), and Chiefs were flush with cash and could sign the big name college prospects to keep the league in contention with the NFL. The Denver Broncos, on the other hand never signed their first overall pick until the two leagues merged and held a common draft (enter Broncos legend Floyd Little) in 1967.
Billy Cannon was the biggest name in college football at the time. Were it not for him, other collegiate studs would never have considered defecting to some upstart league. It was a major validation for the Broncos sister franchises and the AFL to be able to convice players to play for the new league. Although the Broncos didn’t have any success of their own in this battle, they were legitimized by the leagues efforts on the whole... and it all began with Billy Cannon signing with the Houston Oilers.
There is a terrific book on just how wild the competition was between the warring leagues. Players being kidnapped, babysat, hidden from the rival league and just about anything you could imagine went down in the epic battle to sign players. If you’re at all interested in this stuff, check out Going Long by Jeff Miller. With first-hand accounts by the players, owners, and executives that lived through it, it’s an invaluable read for football history honks. Plus, it’s got a lot of great stuff in it about the early days of the Denver Broncos. Worth checking out, indeed.
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