AFL exhibition games in Fort Worth helped shape pro football landscape

Star-Telegram/Max Faulkner

As the story goes, oil tycoon H.L. Hunt was asked about the financial losses his son, Lamar, had sustained as owner of the AFL’s Dallas Texans in their first season of operation in 1960.

The total was reportedly in the neighborhood of $1 million.

“Well, at that rate, he can go another 100 years,” the Hunt patriarch was said to have replied in words similar to those and perhaps a suggestion that this Texas family wouldn’t be bullied by the bigger and more established NFL, which showed nothing but contempt for the competition.

Yet, business needed an enhancement.

Lamar Hunt was in a pitched battle of pro football survivor with the Dallas Cowboys. It was becoming clearer by the day that there wasn’t enough room for both franchises in the Dallas marketplace, much less the Cotton Bowl, where both played.

So, in a decision designed to expand his fan base and boost both his team’s finances and his foothold in the Texans’ turf war, Hunt looked west.

The result: Long before the Denver Broncos ever dreamed of Santa Clara, Calif., and Super Bowl 50, they traveled to Fort Worth for exhibition games with the Texans in 1961 and ’62 at the 20,000-seat Farrington Field and a third in 1964 to play the relocated and renamed Kansas City Chiefs.

The first game on Aug. 25, 1961, was the first professional football game played in Fort Worth, according to reports at the time.

Taking the field that day in Cowtown was an attractive football product.

Coach Hank Stram’s Texans featured the 1960 AFL player of the year, Abner Haynes, and were the prohibitive favorite to win the title that December.

“We didn’t pay much attention to the Cowboys,” and the NFL, said Jack Spikes, then a Texans fullback and one of three former TCU players who took the field that day. “Mr. Hunt kept telling us all we had to do to beat the Dallas Cowboys was win.

“We just tried to go about our own business.”

Spikes, quarterback Hunter Enis and linebacker Sherrill Headrick, the three former Horned Frogs standouts, all were catalysts in the Texans’ rally from a 14-0 deficit in a 29-27 victory in front of a crowd of more than 20,000, who took up every seat and then some at the Fort Worth school district site.

Spikes, an All-American at TCU, had 146 total yards from scrimmage, a 2-point conversion and three successful extra-point attempts. Enis, a backup behind Cotton Davidson of Baylor and now a member of the TCU board of trustees, had two touchdowns passes.

The Texans played almost the entire game without their star runner, Haynes, the former North Texas star who left with an injury.

For Spikes, in his second season, the game was a meeting with his original team. Denver had drafted him out of TCU in the first round of 1960 before Hunt traded for him.

He ultimately signed a contract for $12,000 a year with Dallas, including a $2,500 bonus, over an offer nowhere near that amount from the Pittsburgh Steelers, who drafted him in the NFL.

“I told the Steelers what Mr. Hunt had [offered] and they said ‘that’s OK, we’re not interested in you and we’ll come talk to you when Mr. Hunt folds his tent,” Spikes recalled.

That sneer of condescension was common among NFL owners, though Hunt, not yet 30 in 1960, never would actually fold his tent. He did ultimately move his team to Kansas City after the 1962 season and renamed the club the “Chiefs.”

A $36 million television contract propped up the league and eventually helped force the NFL to the negotiating table for merger talks.

Steelers owner Art Rooney, whose team was eventually moved to the AFC, got in one last shot when the merger was announced: “They no longer have to address us as ‘Mister.’ 

But in a history-making 1962 season, the Texans did what their owner asked and what the Cowboys couldn’t: win.

And it started on the corner of University Drive and Lancaster with a second and final appearance in Fort Worth under a new quarterback, future Hall of Famer Len Dawson.

This time around the result went in Denver’s favor. Gene Mingo kicked a 17-yard field goal in the AFL’s first sudden-death game, a 27-24 Texans loss to the Frank Tripucka-led Broncos.

Nonetheless, despite the loss, the experience in Fort Worth that preseason would come in handy at the most critical juncture in the biggest game in the Texans’ history.

The Texans advanced to the AFL Championship Game in December, closing the regular season at 11-3 and winners of the Western Division. On the other sideline were the two-time defending champion and host Houston Oilers, led by George Blanda and Billy Cannon and owned by Bud Adams.

Overtime was prescribed yet again at Jeppesen Stadium in Houston. In fact, the two needed two overtime periods to decide the championship in only the second OT period in a professional football game.

Tommy Brooker booted a 25-yard field goal to break a 17-all tie and make the Texans winners in their last game as the Texans.

Taking over at midfield on a Blanda interception, Spikes set up the Texans’ game-winner, taking a pass from Dawson for 10 yards and another 19 yards on a run play.

Haynes, the franchise’s first 1,000-yard rusher that season, had two touchdowns, Spikes was selected game MVP, and the eccentric Stram was ecstatic.

“This was the greatest team effort I have ever seen,” said Stram, the AFL’s coach of the year, shouting. “This team never gave up. They just stayed in there and fought.”

Spikes, 77, played two seasons in Kansas City before finishing his career with a season in Buffalo in 1966. Ironically, Spikes found himself playing his former team in the AFL championship for a berth in Super Bowl I.

He never harbored any ill will about the missed opportunity.

“Lamar Hunt was a fantastic person and I was happy to play for him for five years,” Spikes said. “He was the best thing to happen to me as far as my sports career.”

And if only for a couple of moments in time, he was able to return to his college stomping grounds as a professional football player.

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