The Patriots’ bizarre early days

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The colorful and checkered history of the long-gone American Football League is littered with outrageous stunts, half-assed promotions, and sub-par football. No team was more of a reflection of that than the Boston Patriots, who played in four different stadiums during its 10-year existence, including Cawley Stadium in Lowell, Mass., the hometown of owner Billy Sullivan, located 30 miles northeast of Boston. The Patriots had just five winning seasons, and closed out its AFL odyssey by going 11-30 over their final three years.

The franchise, which became the New England Patriots when the AFL and National Football League merged in 1970, certainly had its share of bright spot, with stars including wide receiver and kicker Gino Cappelletti, running back Jim Nance, quarterback Babe Parilli, linebacker Nick Buoniconti, and defensive tackle Houston Antwine. Cappelletti and Nance were AFL Most Valuable Player award winners and Buoniconti and Antwine were later named to the AFL’s All-Time Team.

The 1963 team won its division with a 7-6-1 record and defeated the Buffalo Bills in an AFL Eastern Division playoff game before getting rocked, 51-10, by the San Diego Chargers in the league championship game. It was the franchise’s lone trip to the playoffs.

In between, there was plenty of lunacy and sideshows. A fire broke out in the stands during a preseason game at Boston College’s Alumni Stadium, forcing fans to congregate at the 50-yard line until the blaze was doused. Referees refused to take the field unless they were paid up front. One ex-player was coaxed out of the stands to suit up, then made the tackle on the game’s opening kickoff.

From a Jan. 27, 2012, New York Times story:

Little about the 1960s Patriots fits the orderly and self-sufficient modern-day image of pro football. The Patriots’ daily practices, for example, ended at 2 p.m. so some players could scurry to their other jobs. A few worked at city car dealerships, insurance companies or restaurants. Linebacker Nick Buoniconti was earning his degree from Boston’s Suffolk University Law School. The players were paid from $7,500 to $11,000 annually and the Patriots withheld 25 percent of that salary until the season was over.

“That was to keep you from leaving,” tackle Tom Neville said.

But perhaps the strangest incident in Boston Patriots history occurred on Nov. 3, 1961, in the final seconds of a game against the Dallas Texans. With Dallas trailing 28-21 and at the Patriots’ 1-yard line, quarterback Cotton Davidson lofted a pass to Chris Burford in the end zone that was batted down at the last instant by a fan. Yes, a fan, who had snuck under the rope cordoning off the field, sidled up next to the unsuspecting referee, then reached out to deflect the pass, preserving the Patriots’ victory. The fan, who has never been publicly identified, disappeared into the surging crowd, and most of the Texans players didn’t realize a fan was the culprit until they viewed the game tape the next day.

For people like then-Texans coach Hank Stram, it was just another day in the life of the American Football League.

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