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What's With the Uniforms? The Stories Behind the AFL Throwbacks

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The eight charter members of the American Football League are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the league's launch by wearing throwback uniforms for select NFL games this season. At various times before the AFL merged with the NFL in 1970, the Titans played in New York, Tennessee and Kansas City's current franchises were in Houston and Dallas, respectively, and a penny-pinching—and possibly colorblind—general manager in Denver told everyone who would listen that his team's mustard- and brown-colored uniforms were actually gold and copper. Here are the stories behind the nicknames and uniforms of the AFL's Original Eight.

Denver Broncos

All throwbacks are not created equal, as the Denver UPS Deliverymen, er, Broncos can attest. It's a wonder that Kyle Orton and Co. have managed to play so well—they're one of four undefeated teams entering Week 7—while looking so heinous. At their best, the Broncos' throwbacks are charming; at their worst, they are "perhaps the ugliest uniforms of all time," according to New York Times columnist Lynn Zinser.


There's a perfectly good explanation for this. Operating on a tight budget, Denver's first general manager, Dean Griffing, purchased the team's original uniforms from a defunct college football All-Star game, the Copper Bowl. The vertically striped socks, which Griffing claimed made his players look taller, were purchased for cheap from a sporting goods store and only made his players look ridiculous.

"They certainly didn't build confidence," former player Frank Bernardi told former Broncos announcer Larry Zimmer. To make matters worse, the uniforms didn't fit. "I used to cut the armpits of them so I could raise my arm to pass," Denver quarterback Frank Tripucka said. As Ed Gruver recalls in The American Football League, when Denver hired its second coach, Jack Faulkner, the Broncos declared "There's Lots New in '62!" Mercifully, that included the uniforms. Faulkner invited players to burn the vertically striped socks at the intrasquad game and designed the team's new uniforms, which introduced the orange and blue color scheme that Denver has maintained to this day. [Image credit: Eric Lars Bakke/DenverBroncos.com.]

New England Patriots (Boston Patriots)

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The Patriots are celebrating their AFL heritage by sporting the uniforms that they began wearing in 1961, including helmets featuring legendary Pat Patriot. The logo, which was designed by Boston Globe cartoonist Phil Bissell adorned the Patriots' helmets until 1993, when a more modern-looking design, since dubbed Flying Elvis, was introduced.

pats2While Pat Patriot remains an iconic representation of New England's football history, the Patriots wore an entirely different, often forgotten logo on their helmets for their inaugural season in the AFL. After Patriots was selected as the team's nickname from among more than 1,000 entries in a public contest, railroad conductor Walter J. Pingree submitted four designs for the team's logo to owner Billy Sullivan, all of them variations of a three-cornered hat. Sullivan ultimately chose this design and rewarded Pingree with lifetime season tickets and invitations to private team functions. The team switched to Bissell's design at the end of the 1960 season and, rather than purchasing new helmets, scraped off Pingree's original tricorne logo. [Image credit: BuffaloBills.com; Boston Magazine.]

Tennessee Titans (Houston Oilers)

oilHouston, we have a problem, and it's not the Tennessee Titans' throwback digs. The Houston Oilers-turned-Tennessee Titans are winless this season, though they've managed to look pretty sharp in defeat, thanks to owner Bud Adams' decision to make Columbia blue his team's primary color in 1960. Adams, who made his money from oil, said that he selected the nickname Oilers "for sentimental and social reasons." The Oilers' red, white, and blue color scheme and the oil derrick on their helmets were staples of Houston's uniforms until the team left for Tennessee in 1997. The franchise remained the Oilers for two seasons before becoming the Titans. The NFL retired the Oilers nickname after the 1998 season. [Image credit: TitansOnline.com.]

Kansas City Chiefs (Dallas Texans)

KCAny non-football fans who happened upon the game between the Chiefs and Cowboys earlier this month would have assumed that the Cowboys were the team in red. After all, they were the ones with the silhouette of Texas on their helmets. Before they moved to Kansas City and were rebranded in 1963, the Chiefs were the Dallas Texans. Owner Lamar Hunt, who along with Adams was the driving force behind the creation of the AFL, reportedly wanted his team's colors to be Columbia blue and orange. Adams beat him to the punch and claimed Columbia blue for his Oilers. Hunt was forced to settle for red and gold, which remain the Chiefs' colors today.


The Texans enjoyed two successful seasons in Dallas, winning the AFL Championship in 1962, but struggled to compete for fans with the NFL's Cowboys. Hunt began looking for a new home for his team and found a welcoming suitor in Kansas City. The Chiefs nickname is derived from the nickname of Kansas City mayor H. Roe Bartle, who promised Hunt attendance of at least 25,000 fans per game if he moved the Texans to his city. [Image credit: DallasCowboys.com.]

Oakland Raiders

raidChet Soda, Oakland's first general manager, sponsored a name-the-team contest in 1960. Helen A. Davis, an Oakland policewoman, submitted the winning entry, Señors, and was rewarded with a trip to the Bahamas. The nickname, an allusion to the old Spanish settlers of northern California, was ridiculed in the weeks that followed, and fans also claimed that the contest was fixed. It was well known that Soda greeted people as "Señor."


Scotty Stirling, a sportswriter for the Oakland Tribune who would later become the team's general manager, provided another reason to abandon the nickname. "That's no good," Stirling said. "We don't have the accent mark for the n in our headline type." Responding to the backlash, Soda and the team's other investors decided to change the team's nickname to Raiders, which was a finalist in the contest along with Lakers.

There's some dispute over who designed the Raiders' logo, a helmeted pirate with an eye patch and a pair of crossed swords behind him. According to former Raider Jim Otto's autobiography, a high school teacher in Oakland claimed that one of his students designed it, while a man in Hawaii claimed that he modeled the pirate after actor Randolph Scott. [Image credit: Chargers.com.]

New York Jets (New York Titans)

jetsBefore they were the Jets, New York's AFL team was known as the Titans. The nickname was chosen by egomaniacal owner Harry Wismer, because, as he put it, "Titans are larger than Giants." (The New York Giants were already an established team in the NFL.) Wismer, who was a former broadcaster at Notre Dame, reportedly designed the Titans' navy blue and gold uniforms to resemble the Fighting Irish's uniforms.


The Titans' uniforms weren't exactly easy on the eyes, but they were less garish than the Broncos' original threads, which is supposedly why fullback Joe Pagliei signed with New York instead of Denver. Wismer ran the Titans into the ground financially and the team required a $40,000 bailout from the rest of the league to survive the 1962 season. An ownership group led by Sonny Werblin purchased the franchise in 1963, moved home games to Shea Stadium in 1964, and renamed the team the Jets. The team's new colors, green and white, were symbolic of Werblin's birthday—Saint Patrick's Day. [Image credit: NewYorkJets.com.]

San Diego Chargers (Los Angeles Chargers)

chargeTeam owner Barron Hilton sponsored a name-the-team contest and promised a trip to Mexico City to the winner. Gerald Courtney submitted "Chargers" and Hilton reportedly liked the name so much that he didn't open another letter. There are varying accounts as to why Hilton chose Chargers. According to one story, Hilton liked the name, in part, for its affiliation with his new Carte Blanche credit card. The owner also told reporters that he was fond of the "Charge!" bugle cry at the University of Southern California's Coliseum. The Chargers' original logo featured both the jagged lightning bolts that remain on the team's uniforms today and a charging horse. Hilton unveiled the Chargers' uniforms, which his wife Marilyn had approved, at a cocktail party in Santa Monica in 1960. [Image credit: Chargers.com.]

Buffalo Bills

billsOwner Ralph Wilson solicited potential nicknames from fans for his new franchise and chose Bills over several other worthy suggestions, including Nickels and Bison. Bills, a reference to the American frontiersman Buffalo Bill Cody, had been the nickname of Buffalo's football team in the defunct All-America Football Conference. That team began play in 1946 as the Bison and was renamed the Bills in 1947.


Buffalo's original AFL uniforms were silver and blue and styled after the NFL's Detroit Lions. In 1962, the Bills underwent a makeover. The team ditched the silver and blue color scheme, as head coach Lou Saban added red and white shoulder stripes to the uniforms. The team also introduced a new logo, a standing red buffalo on a white helmet. In Rockin' the Rockpile: The Buffalo Bills of the American Football League, authors Jeffrey J. Miller and Billy Shaw describe the logo as "remarkable in its simplicity—a perfect symbol for the no-nonsense, blue-collar city the team represented." [Image credit: BuffaloBills.com.]

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Pop Culture
The Time a Wrestling Fan Tried to Shoot Bobby Heenan in the Ring
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For a man who didn't wrestle much, Bobby “The Brain” Heenan wound up becoming more famous than a lot of the men flexing in the squared circle. The onscreen manager of several notable grapplers, including André the Giant and “Ravishing” Rick Rude, Heenan died on Sunday at the age of 73. His passing has led to several tributes recalling his memorable moments, from dressing up in a weasel suit to hosting a short-lived talk show on TNT.

While Heenan’s “heel” persona was considered great entertainment, there was a night back in 1975 when he did his job a little too well. As a result, an irate fan tried to assassinate him in the ring.

According to the Chicago Tribune, Heenan was appearing at the International Amphitheater in Chicago as part of the now-defunct AWA wrestling promotion when his performance began to grate on the nerves of an unnamed attendee seated on the floor. Eyewitnesses described the man as friendly up until wrestlers Verne Gagne and Nick Bockwinkel started their bout with Heenan at ringside in Bockwinkel’s corner.

“Get Heenan out of there,” the fan screamed, possibly concerned his character would interfere in a fair contest. Heenan, known as “Pretty Boy” at the time, began to distract the referee, awarding an advantage to his wrestler. When the official began waving his arms to signal Heenan to stop interrupting, the fan apparently took it as the match being over and awarded in Bockwinkel’s favor. He drew a gun and began firing.

The man got off two shots, hitting three bystanders with one bullet and two more with the other before running out of the arena. (No fatalities were reported.) Security swarmed the scene, getting medical attention for the injured and escorting both Heenan and the wrestlers to the back.

According to Heenan, the shooter was never identified by anyone, and he was brazen enough to continue attending wrestling cards at the arena. ("Chicago really took that 'no snitching' thing to heart back then," according to Uproxx.)

Heenan went on to spend another 30 years in the business getting yelled at and hit with chairs, but was never again forced to dodge a bullet.

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History
Hans Schmidt, the "Nazi" Wrestler Who Incited Riots
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Waiting inside the locker room of the Pioneer Memorial Stadium, The Des Moines Register reporter Walter Shotwell thought he had found a clever way to discredit a visiting professional wrestler named Hans Schmidt. Just a few days prior, on August 1, 1953, Schmidt had been seen on national television barking into a microphone using a thick German accent. He dismissed the concept of sportsmanship and vowed to “win ze title and take it back to Germany vere it belongs.”

In the years following World War II, a German nationalist was not likely to be cheered on anywhere in the United States, but the vitriol Schmidt encouraged was unlike anything pro wrestling had ever seen. Schmidt had fans practically frothing at the mouth, stabbing him with hairpins, waving cigarette lighters in his face, and vandalizing his car. Fearing for his safety, police would often have to escort him through angry mobs. It didn’t really seem to matter whether Schmidt was truly anti-American or just playing a role. Either one seemed egregious.

Shotwell suspected the latter. During his interview with Schmidt, he handed him a newspaper clipping and asked him to read it out loud in German. Schmidt refused, saying that Shotwell wouldn’t understand him. Looking at it closely, Schmidt could see it quoted residents of Munich, where he claimed to hail from, who said they had never heard of any Hans Schmidt.

Shotwell pushed it a little further, until Schmidt made it clear he wasn’t going to continue to play along. Had he admitted the truth—that he was not an actual Nazi, but a French-Canadian named Guy Larose—then he likely would have missed out on a career that would eventually make him one of the highest-paid and most reviled athletes in the world.

Courtesy of Dave Drason Burzynski

If pretending to be an enemy of the state was his destiny, then Larose was born at the right time. He was 24 in 1949, the year he decided to become a pro wrestler; his dream of joining the Royal Canadian Mounted Police had ended while he was still in training after the police and several RCMP students tried to enforce an alcohol ban on a nearby Native community and had their vehicles pummeled with baseball bats.

Eager to exploit his six-foot-four, 240-pound frame, Larose turned to wrestling. In Michigan and across Canada, he was able to book contests but found that neither his persona nor his real name was drawing a crowd.

Arriving in Boston in 1951, Larose met wrestling promoter Paul Bowser, who took one look at the stern-faced wrestler and declared that he should adopt a Nazi persona. Larose wouldn’t be the first—Kurt Von Poppenheim had already devised a similar gimmick—but he’d have an opportunity to do it on television.

At the time, ring sports like boxing and wrestling were ideal for the burgeoning medium. Cheap to produce, they could easily fill programming schedules on networks like the DuMont Television Network, a onetime rival to CBS, NBC, and a burgeoning ABC that aired grappling contests from Chicago. Although Larose—now Schmidt—had been stirring up attention prior, it was his August 1953 appearance and interview with Chicago Cubs announcer Jack Brickhouse that drew more disdain than usual.

After declaring “Germany has been good to me” and claiming that he believed there was no place for sportsmanship in wrestling, Schmidt was cut off by Brickhouse. With the emotional wounds of World War II still fresh, his appearance had struck a nerve. DuMont, Brickhouse would later recall, received more than 5000 angry letters from viewers who were disgusted by Schmidt. At least one viewer recommended he be deported.

Larose, however, exercised some restraint. The word “Nazi” was rarely tossed around, and he never goosestepped or carried a swastika with him. The implication of his allegiance seemed to be more than enough to stir the crowd into a frenzy, especially when he would remain seated during the National Anthem or turn his back at the sight of the American flag. He had been a motorcycle dispatcher during the war, he told journalists, and was once shot down while in a plane.

Although those details weren’t true, on many nights Larose may have felt as though he was in a war zone. Walking to the ring, he’d often be jabbed by women using their hairpins, or by men trying to singe him with their cigarettes. During matches, his “cheating”—using chairs to brain opponents, or kicking them in the groin—would draw crowds toward the ring in an effort to start a riot. At one engagement in Milwaukee, the ensuing chaos led to a brief ban on pro wrestling in the arena.

When the journalist Shotwell asked him what kind of car he drove, he hesitated. “A Lincoln,” he said. “I don’t want to describe it any more than that. I don’t want it wrecked.” He often came out of arenas to find ice picks in his tires.

Whatever argument existed about the good taste of Larose’s performance, there was no question it was lucrative. People who wished to see him get beaten in programs against the likes of Verne Gagne or Lou Thesz filled arenas. Once, special guest referee Joe Louis decked him in a staged climax. There was some kind of catharsis in watching Larose get pummeled.

Photo (C) by Brian Bukantis, www.wrestleprints.com

According to pro wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer, who inducted the Schmidt character into the Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame in 2012, Larose made roughly $1 million in his 20-year career, which wound to a close in the mid-1970s. Other “foreign menaces” like Nikolai Volkoff and the Iron Sheik were coming in, diversifying wrestling’s villain culture.

The kind of loathing he had drawn from the crowd remained rare in wrestling, which hates its heels but usually doesn’t attempt to stab them or burn them with fire. It wasn’t until Sergeant Slaughter turned away from his patriotism and became an Iraqi sympathizer in the early '90s that emotions got a bit too heated for entertainment’s sake. The WWE (then WWF) was forced to assign security to Slaughter’s family until the act was dropped.

By that point, Larose had long been out of the spotlight, having returned home to Quebec. He died in 2012 at the age of 87, his status as one of the most infamous performers of the 20th century having been largely forgotten. Never once did he admit during his prime that he was from Canada.

“Of course I’m from Germany,” he told Shotwell. “Do you think I’d go on television and say things that weren’t true?”

Additional Sources: Mad Dogs, Midgets, and Screw Jobs: The Untold Story of How Montreal Shaped Wrestling; The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Heels.

Unless otherwise credited, all photos (C) Dave Drason Burzynski from the book This Saturday Night: Return to the Cobo, available at Wrestleprints.com. Used with permission.

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