Football Short Story
AFL Tales - 1: The First Game
When the Grass Was Real, Bob Carroll (1993)
At a few minutes after 8 P.M., on Friday, September 9, 1960 ... Tom Discenzo did something at Boston University Field that a lot of people never thought would be done. He kicked a football and thus launched the American Football League's first official game. Discenzo, a 245-pound Boston Patriots' tackle out of Michigan State, would play only one season in the AFL, but with that boot he secured his place in trivia history.
There had been exhibitions going on for nearly six weeks ... so the first official game was only a surprise in relation to the many predictions of the previous spring that the AFL would never get off the ground. By midsummer, with eight teams in training camp, most doomsayers were willing to admit that the new league would, against all odds, play its first season - or at least part of it.
The crowd of 21,597 at BU Field for that first game was paltry by NFL standards, but encouraging for a league materializing out of dreams and promises. ... The players on the field typified AFL rosters in that brave new year: rookies like Denver's Bob McNamara and Discenzo, NFL castoffs like Denver HB Al Carmichael and Canadian Football League imports like Denver QB Frank Tripucka. Quite a few had been out of football for years. One of those was Boston's Gino Cappelletti, who scored the first AFL points before the quarter ended on a 34y field goal. Cappelletti had been recommended to Boston coach Lou Saban by McNamara, his old college roommate at the University of Minnesota. Ironically, McNamara, a college star in the mid-1950s, was dealt to Denver before the end of training camp and lasted only two seasons in the AFL while Cappelletti, who'd played briefly in Canada after not even being drafted by the NFL, went on to become the AFL's all-time scoring leader.
Action from the first AFL regular season game between Boston and Denver.
The Broncos' vertical-striped socks lasted only one year.
"At the time, I didn't have the luxury of thinking I had made history by scoring the first AFL points ever," Cappelletti explained. "We didn't have much time for history. We were concerned about surviving. I knew that if I messed up that first kick, I might not get a chance to try another one. In the beginning, you never really knew if you had made the team. I had been out of college since 1956. Then I played ball in Ontario for two years. When Bob McNamara mentioned me to Lou Saban, I was working at my brother's bar in Minneapolis, wondering if I'd ever get a chance to play pro football."
In that first game, Cappelletti played defensive back - "You couldn't be just a kicker then because the teams carried only 33 players" - but he was slow afoot and Denver took advantage of that. Shortly afterward, he was switched to wide receiver where his soft hands enabled him to catch anything he could reach. By the time he retired 11 seasons later, he had made 292 catches good for 42 touchdowns.
The first AFL touchdown came on the first play of the second quarter when two old pros combined for Denver. Tripucka fired a short pass to Carmichael in the right flat. Al reversed the field and zipped 59y down the left sideline to score.
L-R: Bob McNamara, Al Carmichael, Frank Tripucka, Gino Cappelletti
Carmichael, a scatback out of USC, spent six seasons with the Green Bay Packers in the pre-Lombardi years, specializing in kick returns. "I saw the AFL as a chance to play more pro football," he said. "I didn't think of it as a step backward to play in the new league. It never mattered to me who was hitting me when I was playing. You felt it just as hard in the AFL as you did in the NFL."
Tripucka had been a standout quarterback at Notre Dame in 1948. After four so-so years in the NFL, he headed for Canada where he became a star. At 33, he was ready to forego the aches and bruises so "when they asked me to come to Denver, I thought I would be only a coach. I thought I was through with playing." With that understanding, he signed with the Broncos for $15,000 - $20,000 less than he was making in Canada.
Also pressed into surprise service for Denver in that first AFL game was Gene Mingo, the team's placekicker. "I didn't expect to be returning punts that night," he remembers, "but someone had gotten hurt and so the coach asked me to go in and return kicks." In the third quarter, he brought a Boston punt back 76y for a touchdown. "I was so tired I couldn't get the full leg strength I needed for the extra point, and I hit it weak and it went off." It wasn't needed. The Broncos held on to win 13-10.