The Los Angeles Rams were comfortable in their new home since moving from Cleveland in 1946. The fan base was excellent and growing each season. Their home stadium, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, was cavernous and seated over 93,000; which meant more revenue from each contest. More and more movie and television stars were seen at home games. The franchise had become the most financially solvent club in the National Football League (NFL).
The Rams had plenty of success on the field, winning four division titles and playing in the NFL Championship Game four times, eventually winning it all in 1951. The squad made famous a wide-open offense and led the league in scoring in several seasons.
In 1950, L.A. was the first NFL team to have all of its games televised by the Admiral Television Company. Televising home games ensured that the majority of southern California would get the exposure the NFL—and the Rams—needed week-after-week.
By 1960, those high-scoring teams of the 1950s were gone. The team was in a rebuilding mode after having finished 2-10-0 the year before.
The NFL was finally a national league with the Rams moving to L.A., the San Francisco 49ers joining the league (in 1950), an expansion team in Dallas for 1960, plus a new club to be situated in Minneapolis, Minnesota beginning in 1961. No longer was the league comprised of teams simply east of the Mississippi River.
The Rams had lost their swagger that the club was known for. New blood was needed to turn the franchise around and regain their glory days. Head coach Sid Gillman was gone after being fired, but landed as the head man with the startup Los Angeles Chargers of the newly-formed American Football League (AFL).
The Rams new head coach was Bob Waterfield, who had been a star player for the Rams in the 1940s and 1950s. He was a two-time Pro Bowler and won the NFL Player of the Year award in 1945 and 1950. In 1965, he would be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was also married to the movie goddess Jane Russell.
One thing Waterfield wanted as a head coach was more team speed. Despite the poor showing in 1959, that roster had four players make the Pro Bowl: WR Del Shofner, DE Lamar Lundy, LB Les Richter and RB Jon Arnett. Both quarterbacks, Frank Ryan and starter Billy Wade, would be returning as well.
And the Rams had one more thing: the very first pick in the upcoming NFL college draft.
Back then only college seniors were eligible to be taken in the draft, which lasted 20 rounds. Often, last season’s Heisman Trophy winner was chosen somewhere in the first round or as the very first player taken overall. This year would be no exception.
Running back Billy Cannon was a triple-threat coming out of Louisiana State University (LSU). He had a sprinter’s speed, a golden arm and sure hands. In addition, his strength mirrored a brute mentality, but with an intelligence to digest any offense. He helped LSU win the national championship in his junior year and won the UPI Player of the Year award in 1958 and 1959. Plus, he had just won the Heisman Trophy as college football’s best player.
The Rams’ general manager at the time was Pete Rozelle, who later would be elected the league’s commissioner. For now, he ran the L.A. show. And he wanted Cannon. Badly.
With the first selection in the NFL draft, this was a certainty. Or was it? In past seasons, the only hindrances that prevented a blue-chip player from signing was playing another sport (like professional baseball), or entering the business world with a lucrative offer from a well-established firm. But this year—for the first time ever—there was another obstacle.
The AFL was the new kid in town. Originally, it wasn’t taken very serious with the old guard of NFL owners. The AFL also had a college draft, but wasn’t considered a threat to the tranquility that the older league had enjoyed for decades.
The AFL held its draft on November 22, 1959. Each of the eight AFL teams selected players regionally instead of in reverse order of the previous year’s standings, as was the case with the NFL. The thought was that if more local college stars were playing in the new league, the fan base would follow them and increase ticket sales. The Houston Oilers of the AFL held all rights to players coming out of the state of Louisiana. This meant Cannon was eligible to become property of the Oilers.
To counter, the NFL held its draft on November 30, 1959, at a secret location. With the AFL’s drafting process being strictly regionally, there weren’t any surprises for the older league. However, the secretive method the NFL utilized stymied the younger league from knowing which teams selected which players.
Of course, the Rams selected Cannon with the first overall pick. Now all they had to do was sign him.
At that time, the NFL and the NCAA, college football’s governing body, had lived by the agreement that no NFL club would sign any college player until their college eligibility had ceased. For seniors, this meant after the season was completed. For most teams, this meant the end of November. For the teams playing in a bowl game, this meant eligibility would not be fulfilled until January 1.
But this year, many NFL general managers secretly negotiated with college seniors and signed them contracts after the NFL draft was completed and before the bowl games were played in order to sway players from the startup AFL. If known, this would mean any player signing a contract would not have been eligible to play in their school’s bowl game.
To make things worse, the NFL and the NCAA had peace regarding the professional game not stealing players until their time was over. Throughout the 1920s until the 1940s, college players playing under assumed names was rampant. This agreement between the pros and the colleges was decades old and even today serves as a feeder system for the professional ranks.
On the day of the 1960 NFL draft, held in Philadelphia, Cannon checked into a Philly hotel under an assumed name. The Rams signed Cannon to a three-year deal worth $15,000 a season, a $10,000 signing bonus, plus a $500 expense check. The contract would be undated and was agreed upon that it would begin after LSU had completed its January 1 Sugar Bowl game in New Orleans. All parties were sworn to secrecy.
If it became known, Cannon would have been ineligible for the Sugar Bowl, and the NFL would be in hot water with the NCAA.
In the meantime, Oilers’ owner Bud Adams was getting frustrated with not being able to contact Cannon after the AFL draft was concluded. Adams called the personal phone numbers to Cannon’s parents, his girlfriend and his college dorm room, yet to no avail. Finally, he contacted the gym where he knew Cannon worked out and left a message that he would double any offer the Rams proposed.
Less than an hour later, Adams’ phone rang. The operator said it was a long-distance call. Adams accepted the charges. It was Cannon. During the conversation, Adams found out what he already had guessed—his prized territorial player had already signed with the Rams. True to this word, Adams offered Cannon $30,000 a season with a $20,000 signing bonus.
Cannon verbally agreed. The really interesting occurrence is what the Oilers did next, which was nothing short of genius.
Houston arranged with Cannon that he would sign his new pro contract at the conclusion of the Sugar Bowl. Right there on the field. On national television. With a live audience.
On New Year’s Day, after the conclusion of the Ole Miss-LSU Sugar Bowl, the nation’s most well-known player signed a contract with the Oilers under the aura of the goalposts. Even though Rozelle was at the game, he had not been able to find Cannon until after the final gun in the locker room. He told Cannon that Los Angeles was really excited about having him in uniform next season, to which Cannon calmly explained that he had just signed with the Oilers.
The Rams later sued the AFL because they possessed the first signed contract. The case was heard in Los Angeles County Court. Eventually the courts ruled with the Oilers.
In 1960, wearing the powder blue of the Houston Oilers, Cannon led the team in rushing with 644 yards. The Oilers took the AFL’s first championship with a 24-16 victory over the Chargers. The following season, Cannon gained 2,043 all-purpose yards and led the AFL in rushing with 948 yards while scoring 15 touchdowns on the ground and through the air. He was named to the AFL All-Star team. The team once again won the AFL title, their second in as many seasons.
On January 1, 1960, Rozelle was in New Orleans trying his best to retain his prized bull. Just 26 days later, the NFL owners voted him in as the new commissioner of the league. His experience with the Cannon fiasco and the AFL’s tactics left a bad taste and a disdain in his soul for the younger league for the many years of war to come.
Yet in 1970, when all 10 AFL teams merged into the NFL, it was Rozelle who was there to greet them into the fold as the commissioner of the expanded National Football League.