Monday, November 30, 2009

The AFL Comes to Tampa Stadium, 11/30/69

This season, the NFL has celebrated the 50th anniversary of its one-time rival, the American Football League, by allowing former AFL teams to wear their original uniforms. This year also marks the 40th anniversary of the league's final season before merging with the NFL in 1970.

During that final season in 1969, Tampa played a small part in the league's final days. Having previously hosted three exhibition games, the November 30 contest at Tampa Stadium between the Miami Dolphins and Boston Patriots would be the first regular-season professional football game ever played in Tampa. In front of a national audience on NBC, the Tampa Bay area would get a chance to show that it should one day merit a franchise.

Ticket sales were expected to approach 35,000, despite the less-than-marquee matchup. The Patriots entered the game with a 3-8 mark, while the Dolphins enjoyed a slightly worse 2-8-1 record. Not helping matters, the Dolphins announced that star quarterback Bob Griese would miss the game due to a season-ending knee injury.

A blackout on local television coverage meant anyone interested in seeing the game would have to attend in person. For a city hoping to impress the brass from the AFL and potentially even lure the Patriots out of Boston, the lack of local television coverage certainly guaranteed more butts in the stands. AFL president Milt Woodward, director of pro football Jim Kensil and Patriots president Billy Sullivan planned on attending the game to scope out Tampa's viability as a pro market.

A crowd of 32,121 -- below expectations, but still the largest crowd to attend either a Dolphins or Patriots game -- enjoyed a back-and-forth contest.

The Dolphins motivated the partisan home-state crowd by jumping out to an early first quarter lead. Behind the leg of kicker Karl Kresmer, Miami capitalized on their opening drive to take a 3-0 lead.

Boston's first offensive possession proved costly, as an interception by Miami's Bob Perella set up the Dolphins at the Boston 27. Running back Jim Kiick extended Miami's lead six plays later on a 3-yard touchdown run and the Dolphins went ahead 9-0. Kresmer failed to make it a 10-point game, however, and made the Miami record book by recording the first missed extra point in franchise history.

Boston rebounded on the following drive, going 80 yards on 4 plays, the capper a 46-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Mike Taliaferro to former Florida State All-American Ron Sellers. Miami blocked the extra point attempt to hold a 9-6 lead.

Kiick added another touchdown for the Dolphins early in the second quarter, this one from a yard out, to give Miami a 16-6 lead, and it began to look like the Dolphins would cruise to their third win of the season.

Boston reversed Miami's momentum courtesy of a special-teams gaffe by rookie Mercury Morris. With 6:05 left in the first half, Morris fielded a punt at his own 5-yard line. Then, in a move Dolphins head coach George Wilson later called "a high school play," Morris ran into the end zone to try and buy some running space. The Patriots tackled Morris for a safety, cutting Miami's lead to 16-8.

This began a sequence in which Boston scored 16 unanswered points and began taking control of the game. Taliaferro connected on touchdown strikes of 50 and 14 yards to Charlie Frazier and Bill Rademacher to give the Patriots a 22-16 lead at the half.

Miami briefly regained the lead late in the third quarter, again behind the legs of Kiick, who fumbled while heading into the end zone for the go-ahead score. Ocala native Gene Milton, however, recovered the ball, enabling Miami to take a one-point lead over Boston.

Things quickly fell apart for the Dolphins. On their first drive of the fourth quarter, Boston's Larry Carwell intercepted a Rick Norton pass and returned it all the way to the 2-yard line. Running back Jim Nance would punch it in from the one with 10:12 left to regain the lead for Boston, 28-23. Another Miami miscue effectively put the game out of reach. Miami punter Larry Seiple fumbled a low snap at his own 2 and Boston's Jim Hunt recovered to set up the Patriots' final touchdown, another 1-yard score by Nance.

A late field goal by Gino Cappelletti provided the game's final margin as the Patriots reeled off 16 unanswered points for the second time to cap a 38-23 triumph.

The Tampa Bay area triumphed as game's host, scoring high marks from league officials and visiting journalists. Today, the game is just a footnote in Tampa Bay's quest to land an NFL franchise but its most lasting connection to the old AFL.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this story! So good to see that someone has written about this nearly long-forgotten footnote of AFL history.