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Vikings Join American Football League

Becomes part of the newly-formed eight team league

New Orleans Saints v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

In the late 1950’s, several cities across the United States were earmarked for possible expansion for the National Football League (NFL). Not that the league was going to expand – in fact it was adamant about not expanding into new cities.

Over the years several wealthy businessmen had inquired about being owners of an NFL team, mainly expansion into their hometowns. What the NFL told them instead was if they wanted into the league they needed to purchase an existing team. Period.

Lamar Hunt of Dallas was a young rich oilman. He had tried for years to buy the Chicago Cardinals but to avail. He again went to the NFL and was told by the league commissioner to stop his inquisition about expansion. So, he began his own league in 1959 and called it the American Football League (AFL). With his negotiations with the Cardinals, he knew of a man from Houston who wanted in on the pro football scene by the name of Bud Adams. In addition to his own team called the Dallas Texans, Hunt contacted Adams and asked if he had any interest in a pro football team. Adams’ new team would be labeled the Houston Oilers.

And so, the new league was off and running. Approximately 250 college football players graduate each year with only around 60 that make NFL squads. That left about 190 players available and football ready.

At this point, Hunt began to seek out potential owners for the AFL. He knew that for the new league to have credibility he needed franchises in New York and Los Angeles, but knew of other men who had tried to buy the Cardinals as well from the cities of Denver and Minneapolis. Hunt felt the Minneapolis franchise was just as crucial to the new league because of the location in the upper Midwest; and at this point, the NFL was basically an Eastern and Midwestern league only.

The State of Minnesota was not new to professional football with clubs in the past such as the Minneapolis Marines (1905-1924), Duluth Kelleys (1923-1925), Duluth Eskimos (1926-1927) and the Minneapolis Red Jackets (1929-1930).

Which brings us to the Vikings of the American Football League.

One of the men who had petitioned the NFL about an expansion team was Max Winter; who had once been part owner of the Minneapolis Lakers of the National Basketball Association. When contacted by Hunt, Winter (along with business partner Bill Boyer) jumped at the chance to rekindle pro football back to the state. Suddenly the AFL had confirmed clubs in Dallas, Houston, Denver and now Minneapolis-St. Paul. Besides Los Angeles and New York, other cities on the agenda were Seattle, Kansas City, St. Louis, Buffalo, Louisville, and Boston. In the end, Buffalo and Boston would round out the final alignment.

Max Winter - Minneapolis

The AFL was complete - eight teams to begin in the fall of 1960. The next step was to set up a college draft. Meetings and the draft would be held November 21-23, 1959 at a hotel in Minneapolis. Representatives and owners from every club were on hand. The assembly was arranged by Winter, Boyer and minority owner H.P. Skoglund.

In the meantime, the NFL decided that another pro football league was not in their best interests, so they devised a plan to try to squash the new entity before it had time to gain momentum. When only a year ago, the NFL was dead set against any expansion. Now suddenly, two new clubs were planned for 1960 and another two shortly thereafter.

So, various representatives from the NFL contacted several of the new owners of AFL teams to inquire if they would prefer to have an NFL expansion team instead of a team in a brand new league devoid of any fans, smaller cities, unknown financial stability, no television contract, sub-standard stadiums and rosters that would apparently be formed with castoffs from the NFL and the Canadian Football League.

Crude tactics indeed, but the NFL’s thought process was that if at least two owners accepted expansion franchises now, quite possibly the entire structure of the newly-formed league would implode and simply close up shop before it got going.

The NFL had experienced plenty of headaches with the rival All-America Football Conference from 1946-1949 and didn’t want to trudge down that financial explosion and talent exodus again. Back then, quite a few NFL clubs were about to fold because of the competition for players, fans and advertisers - not to mention escalating player salaries. The feeling was that right now it would be more cost-effective to simply admit a few teams immediately, promise a few more a spot in future years and go about business as usual.

And be done with the AFL before they played their first game.

Houston owner Adams was offered an NFL expansion for $650,000, to which Adams declined (he explained he was a man of his word). The owner of the Los Angeles franchise was offered part ownership in the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams. Even Hunt, the founder of the league, was offered half stake in the newly-formed Dallas expansion club.

George Halas of the Chicago Bears was the head of the NFL’s Expansion Committee. He set up two meetings with Hunt to discuss closing up the AFL to avoid a financial war. Hunt countered that he wanted all of the committed AFL teams to merge into the NFL right away if they really wanted to avoid the economic repercussions. Halas’ response was that the NFL would add teams in Dallas and Minneapolis in 1960, then add Houston and Buffalo in 1961 but had no interest in adding a second team in Los Angeles or New York; and had zero attraction in fielding a team in Denver whatsoever which they claimed was small market material.

Halas then contacted the principal owners of the Minneapolis AFL team and told them the NFL was definitely expanding into Minnesota and offered them the ownership group if they wanted to join the older league right away.

All of the AFL owners were in a meeting room at the hotel in Minneapolis on the eve of the inaugural draft. The owner of the New York Titans burst into the room holding a local newspaper with the headline “Minnesota to Get NFL Franchise.” The article explained how Halas had gotten the Minneapolis group to bolt the AFL for the established league and that the new team would begin to play in 1961 instead of 1960. At the time this was considered a major blow to the infant league. Other owners had the chance to become partners in NFL teams and yet, had passed; and all of these other men that said no to the NFL had dreams of one day being involved with the NFL.

Despite Minneapolis’ defection, the AFL draft went on as scheduled. The irony was that the one club that defected was also the team that hosted the event. The AFL looked for a suitable new home for the now-vacant eighth franchise, and several months later announced that Oakland, California would be given the opportunity especially since there was another team in Los Angeles and gave that club a natural rival.

Prior to Hunt’s idea of a rival league, the NFL had said that expansion would be out of the question. After only a few weeks after the announcement of the birth of the AFL, suddenly there were two new franchises and an announced expansion of two more in 1962 (which did not happen).

On September 27, 1960, the Minnesota Vikings were officially announced as the NFL’s 14th franchise. They drafted future Hall of Fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton in the third round of their inaugural draft, who was later traded to the Giants in 1967 and then traded back to the Vikings.

Barry Shuck is a pro football historical writer and a member of the Professional Football Researcher’s Association.