When Lamar Hunt decided in the winter of 1959 that he wanted to start his own football league, he didn’t simply change the course of professional football. His passion revolutionized the landscape of American sports and, by extension, American popular culture. As much as any single event, Hunt’s decision to found the American Football League was the catalyst that transformed sports into a coast-to-coast, wall-to-wall, 24-hours-a-day, 365-days-a-year enterprise.
In 1959, there were just 12 teams in the National Football League. By September of 1960, when the eight teams of the American Football League took to the field, there were 21 professional football teams. A decade later, after watching his Kansas City Chiefs defeat the Minnesota Vikings, 23-7, in Super Bowl IV, Hunt celebrated the full integration of the AFL into the enlarged National Football League. All eight of the original franchises are still in the NFL today, making the AFL the only upstart American sports league started in the past century that still survives intact.
During the tumultuous decade of the AFL’s existence, pro football became the nation’s most popular sport, and the NFL-AFL merger created a signature game, the Super Bowl, which was destined to become the largest unofficial holiday in American culture. Hunt’s league made the game possible, and his restless intelligence shaped the contest’s identity: he not only suggested the Super Bowl’s name, but also that the games be identified by roman numerals, and that the Super Bowl trophy should be named n honor of Vince Lombardi.
Hunt was also the patron saint of two soccer leagues, including Major League Soccer, and was for decades the unofficial ambassador of American soccer for the rest of the world. In 1969, he helped found World Championship Tennis, ushering in the open era of honest professionalism in the sport.
Along the way he established himself as a paragon of decency, someone who despite his wealth exhibited no evidence of pretense, and who everyone he met – from royalty to regular folk – with a steadfast kindness and generosity of spirit.