“The First Championship Game”
By ED WETTERMAN
The freshly challenged Oilers raced from the locker room to tangle with the Los Angeles Chargers for the first AFL title.
That first championship game on New Year’s Day 1961 at Houston’s Jeppesen Stadium was a close one and was marred by many fights and ejections, including Oiler safety Julian Spence and right guard Hogan Wharton.
The Chargers scored first with two field goals by Ben Agajanian. Then Oiler fullback Dave Smith caught a 17-yard touchdown pass from George Blanda, and Houston followed that with an 18-yard field goal by Blanda.
Before the half, Los Angeles added another field goal to trail the Oilers 10-9.
In the third quarter, Blanda found Bill Groman on a 7-yard touchdown pass to make the score 17-9.
A short time later, the Chargers finally found the end zone on a 2-yard Paul Lowe rush to trim the Oilers lead back to one at 17-16.
In the fourth quarter, the Oilers faced a long third-and-nine situation from their own 12-yard line.
Cannon raced 88 yards to give the Oilers a 24-16 lead.
Late in the game, the Oilers failed on a fourth-and-one attempt, giving the Chargers one last chance, but despite moving the ball deep into Houston territory, time ran out on LA, and the Oilers became the first AFL champions.
Blanda played a great game, throwing for 301 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions.
Cannon was named MVP. He rushed 18 times for 50 yards and caught three passes for 128 yards and one (game-winning) 88-yard touchdown.
After the game, a triumphant Blanda praised both the owner and the coach: “Bud Adams pays a man what he is worth,” and “[Rymkus] treats you like a man.”
The winner’s share came to $1,016.42 per player, and Adams promised his players championship rings. He did not deliver until over 10 years later.
In postseason honors, Rymkus was named the AFL Coach of the Year. Rich Michael, Dave Smith, and Bill Groman made the 1960 All-AFL team.
Cumulatively, Blanda threw for 2,413 yards and 24 touchdowns on the season, while Bill Groman led the team with 1,472 yards on 72 receptions and scored 12 touchdowns.
Cannon was the leading rusher with 644 rushing yards, edging out Dave Smith, who had 643.
Defensively against the rush, the Oilers were dominant. They only allowed 1,027 yards for the season, averaging 73 yards a game and setting a team record that would last for 30 years.
On the other hand, the secondary gave up 3,784 passing yards (270 yards per game).
On the business side, all AFL teams lost money during the league’s inaugural season, and those losses were compounded by head-to-head weekly market competition against the NFL.
The NFL began broadcasting two of its games to the Houston market each week, promoting the Dallas Cowboys and stoking the future well-deserved animosity that would emerge between the two cities and their storied sports teams.
As the NFL’s broadcast partner, CBS refused to give AFL scores during telecasts.
By this time, Pete Rozelle had been freshly appointed NFL commissioner, and he refused to mention the AFL by name (likely at least in part because he was still stinging from losing Cannon to the upstart league during his time as general manager of the Los Angeles Rams).
Some so-called experts even stated that none of the Oiler players could break the starting lineup for an NFL team.
John Breen disagreed, believing that the Oilers could hold their own against the average NFL team.
Despite the loss of money and the problems of NFL competition (among others), the AFL completed its first season and looked forward to 1961.
With the league’s coach of the year, an exciting offense, and lots of potential for the future, the Oilers did, too.
UP NEXT – The 1961 Season series begins
Ed Wetterman is a native Houstonian and lifelong Oiler fan/historian. He is a teacher, genealogist, game creator, and writer who lived and died on Sundays with the Oilers. Ed has created many games such as “East Texas University: Degrees of Horror” and written short stories such as “HellFighter,” published by Pinnacle Entertainment Group. Football has always been one of his greatest passions. He experienced the highs and the lows of being an Oiler fan, and like many others, he was crushed when the Oilers left Houston. Writing for Miss Ya Blue! gives him an outlet for his Columbia Blue love.
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