AFL vs. NFL: The battle for Jim Grabowski, 50 years later

By Shane Monaghan

Nearly 50 years ago, Jim Grabowski found himself in the Green Bay Packers boardroom, sitting directly across from Vince Lombardi, a man he considered “next to God as far as the NFL goes.”

“He was direct and straightforward,” Grabowski says of the legendary Packers coach and eventual Super Bowl trophy namesake. “He told me exactly what he could offer.”

The upstart American Football League and established National Football League were waging a bidding war over the University of Illinois fullback and other college stars. Grabowski had been drafted No. 1 overall by the AFL’s new Miami Dolphins in 1966 and No. 9 overall by the NFL’s Packers.

“I had the ability to try and play off one against the other,” says Grabowski. “It was a very interesting time for a kid who was 21 years old, grew up in Chicago and didn’t know too much about anything.”

He is 71 now, and this is the 50th anniversary of that memorable time in his life and for those leagues. That would be the last time the AFL and NFL held competing drafts en route to a full merger in 1970.

As the NFL prepares for its latest draft Thursday through Saturday in Chicago, Grabowski is retired and living in suburban Inverness. He grew up on Chicago’s Northwest side, a highly sought recruit coming out of Taft High School. He went on to a successful career at Illinois, even finishing third in the 1965 Heisman Trophy voting.

A team full of Grabowskis

“Some teams are fair-haired. Some teams aren’t. Some teams are a Smith, some are a Grabowski. … We’re a Grabowski,” Bears coach Mike Ditka told the media Jan. 6, 1986, in advance of Chicago’s playoff game against the Los Angeles Rams.

Bears fans knew what he meant. Chicago Tribune columnist Paul Galloway would write, “Ditka was speaking symbolically, and it is what Grabowski connotes that is important. Grabowski means people who come from a working-class, immigrant background, people who work hard and have nothing handed to them, people who have struggled against discrimination, people who are honest and tough, people who persevere and prevail.”

Grabowski represented not only the blue-collar makeup of the Bears, but of the city and fans supporting them. The Chicago phonebook at the time had 94 listings for Grabowskis, but Ditka apparently knew what his comment could do for the one who played for the Bears in 1971. According to the Tribune, after Ditka made the remark, he walked out of the press conference, smiled and said to nobody in particular, “Jim needs the pub.”

–Shane Monaghan

Heading into the 1966 draft, Grabowski decided to hire an agent, which was uncommon back then. He chose Arthur Morse, a Chicago attorney who represented Dick Butkus, another Chicago native and former Fighting Illini star. Grabowski says he knew Morse would be invaluable in picking between the NFL and AFL.

When the two drafts were held Nov. 27, 1965, Grabowski was in New York to be honored as an All-American on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” To keep him him from anyone involved with the Dolphins or the AFL, the NFL had set up Grabowski with a “babysitter.”
It was common for the NFL to babysit top draft picks during the time period as the two leagues battled for players. Ken Rappaport, co-author of “On the Clock: The Story of the NFL Draft,” said the struggle for players “included many double-dealings.” He noted that in 1960, Billy Cannon signed a contract with two teams, Los Angeles in the NFL and Houston in the AFL. After a lawsuit, Cannon ended up in the AFL.

“There were a lot of shenanigans going on,” Jon Morris, a six-time AFL all-star with the Boston Patriots, said in Rappaport’s book. “They were signing players before the draft. They were giving money to agents.”

The NFL was on high alert after star Alabama quarterback Joe Namath signed with the AFL’s New York Jets the previous season.

Grabowski’s babysitter was Vern Buol, a Chicago meatpacking company executive and a Bears fan. According to David Maraniss’ book, “When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi,” while Grabowski was in New York and staying at the Waldorf-Astoria with the other players for the Sullivan show, Buol and his wife brought Grabowski’s then-fiancee to town, and the three stayed at the Plaza.

Grabowski says he and Buol would remain friends for years, but Buol’s job at the time was selling him on the NFL.

“He would list all of the things that were in the NFL’s favor,” says Grabowski. “ ‘It’s an established league. You will have significantly more prestige being in the NFL. They (the NFL) are going to be around, and will that be the case for the AFL?’ ”

Grabowski (33) and backfield mate Donny Anderson (44) were nicknamed the "Gold Dust Twins" during their time with the Packers (Photo Courtesy of the Green Bay Packers)
Grabowski (33) and backfield mate Donny Anderson (44) were nicknamed the “Gold Dust Twins” during their time with the Packers (Photo Courtesy of the Green Bay Packers)

Initially after the Dolphins and Packers drafted him, Grabowski says, Green Bay seemed more attractive option, but he needed to hear what the Dolphins had to say. Both teams’ offers were similar in monetary value, he says, but the Dolphins packaged their offer differently, including money that would be available from an offseason job.

“The Dolphins kind of cloaked their offer with things that would be hard to quantify,” says Grabowski. “I was confused about how much everything would be worth and exactly how much I would have to work.”

The Dolphins were an expansion franchise that had not yet named a head coach, which Grabowski saw as drawbacks. With the Packers, he could play for Lombardi, immediately compete for championships and stay in the Midwest.

When it became clear Grabowski had no interest in signing with the Dolphins, they were willing to trade his rights to the New York Jets. Grabowski says the chance to play in the “Big Apple” with its exposure gave him pause about signing with the Packers.

As a final pitch to Grabowski, the Packers flew him to their team facilities on a private jet. On the fight, Grabowski says, Morse was hesitant to discuss anything with his client because he did not know what the pilot might reveal to the Packers.

Morse also told Grabowski not to commit to anything during the meeting. But when Lombardi concluded his presentation, Grabowski says, he was ready to be a Packer.

“Without thinking, or being able to control my reaction I shook my head and said yes,” he says.

Grabowski would play for the Packers teams that won the first two Super Bowls, but knee problems limited his effectiveness. He finished his career with his hometown Chicago Bears, retiring in 1971 after one season with the team. He then worked as a manufacturing and telecommunications representative, and he was the University of Illinois football radio analyst for nearly 30 years.

He says he does think about what might have happened if he had signed with the Dolphins or Jets, but he does not regret his decision.

“I have two Super Bowl rings,” he says. “Who knows what would have happened with wherever else I might have gone.”

Photo at top: Jim Grabowski won two Super Bowls during his time with the Green Bay Packers (Photo Courtesy of the Green Bay Packers)