May 17, 2010

1966: Pete Gogolak Jumps From AFL to NFL

Pete Gogolak had a place in American football history just by being the first to use the soccer-style approach to kicking the ball that is now standard practice. His success at Cornell led to him being drafted by the AFL’s Buffalo Bills in 1964 and in two seasons he made good on 47 of 75 field goal attempts (62.7 %) including an AFL-leading 28-of-46 record in ’65.

However, on May 17, 1966 Gogolak took a pivotal step in the battle between the AFL and NFL when, having played out his option in Buffalo, he signed a contract with the NFL’s New York Giants.

No player had jumped leagues since offensive end Willard Dewveall went from the Bears to the Oilers in 1961, and there had been an unofficial understanding in place that, while rookies were fair game, no veteran would be signed by a team from the other league until it was clear that no other club in his own circuit was interested. That was hardly the case with Gogolak, who had shown that soccer-style kicking was effective and thus helped Buffalo to back-to-back AFL titles.

It was no surprise that the Giants would be interested in Gogolak as they certainly had a need to upgrade the kicking game - their placekickers in 1965 were successful on a woeful 4 of 25 field goal attempts. But it was stunning that they would abrogate the understanding between the leagues and that Commissioner Pete Rozelle would approve the deal.

For Al Davis, the head coach/GM of the Oakland Raiders who had succeeded Joe Foss as AFL commissioner just five weeks before, the Gogolak signing was an unquestioned declaration of war by the NFL. As he told a sportswriter, “It was a declaration of war all right. And we had to do what the generals do in a way. Go after the supply lines. Hit the enemy where it hurts most.”

It didn’t take long for the repercussions to be felt. The day after Gogolak switched leagues, the Associated Press reported that two AFL teams had been in contact with at least four members of the Giants. Rumors spread very quickly thereafter that several NFL veterans had expressed interest in entertaining offers from the rival league, and that AFL teams were actively pursuing veteran NFL players.

Commissioner Davis promoted a strategy of signing select NFL quarterbacks to future contracts, and in the next few weeks it was reported that Roman Gabriel of the Rams had come to an agreement with Oakland and San Francisco’s John Brodie had accepted a significant offer from the Houston Oilers.

The war was escalating quickly, but in fact negotiations between the two leagues that had already been occurring behind the scenes reached fruition a short time later. While there was plenty of bad feeling and suspicion between officials of the NFL and AFL, they came to a merger agreement less than a month after Pete Gogolak became a member of the New York Giants. Of course, the player raiding came to an abrupt end.

The pairing of Gogolak and the Giants proved lasting. The Hungarian refugee, who had originally signed a one-year contract with Buffalo, received a four-year deal at significantly more money from the Giants. He ended up staying nine seasons (he missed a few games in 1967 due to military duty) and connected on 57.5 % of his field goal attempts (126 of 219).

Gogolak never matched his best season in Buffalo, and didn’t have great range. Reliable inside of 30 yards but spotty from beyond, he connected on just one kick longer than 50 yards – it was a then-team record 54-yard boot during the 1970 season in which he reached his high for field goals in a Giants uniform (25). Still, he stabilized the placekicking game and was generally consistent. And by his last season, 1974, nearly half of the teams in the league were using soccer-style kickers.