1963 BOSTON PATRIOTS,
The Boston Patriots were in the fourth year of their existence as the 1963 American Football League season began and the time was ripe for a young organization to make inroads into the Boston sports culture. While the Celtics were winning championships, the Red Sox and Bruins were both at the opposite end of the spectrum. The Sox were in the midst of a funk that wouldn’t end until the 1967 Impossible Dream, while the B’s were in the midst of long stretch without a playoff berth. If the Patriots wanted to get some attention, the time was now.
Babe Parilli, who enjoyed a long career as an AFL quarterback for different teams was behind center, and the Pats got out of the gate with a big win over the Jets at Fenway. From there they embarked on a four-game road swing that took them out west. They were competitive in a loss at San Diego, who had established themselves as one of the league’s better franchises. They snuck out a win against an above-average Oakland team, before losing at Denver and in a return game against the Jets. Still, to be 2-3 with more than half of their road schedule behind them was a reasonable start.
The 2-3 start was even more manageable given how top-heavy the AFL was to the West at this time. The league was split into two divisions of four, but you played everybody twice. The West teams mostly beat up on the East, and it’s a pretty reasonable conclusion to say that San Diego and Oakland were the league’s two best. Somebody out of the Patriots, Jets, Bills and the geographically displaced Houston Oilers was going to get a shot at the championship, and with six of their last nine games in Fenway, the Pats had a shot.
Victories over the Raiders and the lowly Broncos pushed them back over .500. A key road game at Buffalo loomed. But for the next three weeks, Boston would stay at the .500 mark, dropping a close 28-21 decision to the Bills, and then splitting a pair at home. They were 5-5, but the competitive road losses at San Diego and Buffalo continued to suggest this team could do some damage in the final four games, with the Eastern Division title on the line.
There was no shortage of defensive talent on the roster. Both starting ends, Bob Dee and Larry Eisenhauer would make the All-Star team. The AFL was built on pass-happy offenses, being able to pressure the pocket was invaluable. The defense also had the presence of Nick Buoniconti at linebacker, who would ultimately make his name as part of the 1972 Miami Dolphins unbeaten team. Buoniconti was joined by fellow All-Star Tom Addison, who contributed to a formidable front seven for head coach Mike Holovak.
Boston put it all together in a 45-3 demolition of Houston, but they dropped a heartbreaker at home to San Diego one week later. This was followed up by a tie game against Kansas City at the Fens. The Patriots were missing their chance to take their home-heavy schedule and take control of the division. But one week later, those problems would look trivial.
The nation in general and Boston in particular was rocked by the assassination of President Kennedy on November 22. Professional sports took a hiatus and play resumed after a week delay. The Patriots’ first game after the tragedy was at home against the Bills and they delivered a big win, one in which they followed up by beating Houston on the road. In a tough three-team race, the Pats finally had the edge on Buffalo and Houston. But they couldn’t stand prosperity and were blown out on the road at Kansas City. The defeat dropped them to 7-6-1 and into a first-place tie with the Bills.
In those days, both the AFL and NFL settled their tiebreakers with a head-to-head playoff. It’s a luxury the league can’t afford today, with a 16-game schedule, bye weeks and wild-card teams making the playoffs. But when you had to win a division to qualify, and “qualifying” meant going straight to the championship game, it was worth the trouble to clear an extra week on the calendar in case of a tie. One wonders if the 2008 Patriots, who lost both the AFC East and the wild-card on a non head-to-head tiebreaker might have fared if given a chance to play it off.
Boston would have to go on the road to War Memorial Stadium in Buffalo to settle the Eastern Division championship. For a team who had lost five of the seven games played away from the comfort of the Green Monster, this was hardly reassuring. But the Patriots had the best-balanced team in their division. They led the East in both scoring offense and scoring defense. In addition to Parilli, the offense had a top receiving threat in Gino Cappelletti, who starred for eight years as both starting wide out and kicker, and ended up making the Patriot Hall of Fame. Running back Jim Crawford was also an All-Star in 1963.
But neither of these skill players would be the difference-makers in War Memorial. The man Parilli would target for an early touchdown strike was fullback Larry Garron who caught a 59-yard scoring pass. Cappelletti kicked three field goals and the Pats built a 16-0 lead at halftime. Buffalo cut the lead in half with a big play of their own, a 93-yard touchdown play from Daryle Lamonica to Elbert Dubenion. Lamonica would go on to quarterback the Oakland Raiders to a Super Bowl in 1967 and several more playoff appearances, gaining renown as one of the most fearless deep passers in an era where everyone attacked deep. Buffalo also had Jack Kemp, whose greatest renown would be in politics, as a Cabinet office and 1996 vice-presidential candidate, but he was a pretty good quarterback in his day, keeping Buffalo in contention after Lamonica left. On this day, with a title in the balance, the Patriots rendered both ineffective. In the fourth quarter, Parilli again found Garron for a touchdown pass, Cappelletti kicked another field goal and the game ended 26-8. Boston was the champion of the Eastern Division.
The finish would be anticlimactic. Though Boston had played San Diego close in their two regular season meetings the trip west for the championship game went awry from the start. The Chargers had league MVP Tobin Rote at quarterback and a dynamic receiver in Tobin Rote. They scored the game’s first two touchdowns, led 31-10 at half and pulled away to a 51-10 victory. It was a score that almost took on bitter irony in the 1985 Super Bowl when New England fell behind Chicago 44-10 and it looked it might be a final that would live in Boston sports infamy. “Fortunately” the Bears got a safety.
A return to contention would be a long time coming for the Patriots. While the Bills would stay a contender, competing for the league championship in 1966, the first year it meant a Super Bowl berth. And San Diego would make the AFL title game four times in five years, with this being their lone crown. For the Patriots, 15 years in the wilderness were ahead before postseason play would return. But the 1963 team still made its mark as the first champion in franchise history.
|07/10/1963||Veterans signed contracts|
|07/15/1963||Tryouts at East Boston Stadium|
|07/19/1963||Camp starts at Andover Academy|
|07/20/1963||Camp starts with Family Day activities|
|07/26/1963||Patriots veterans play against rookies|
|07/30/1963||Intra squad scrimmage in Weymouth|
|08/04/1963||at Oakland Raiders||
|08/11/1963||San Diego Chargers||
|08/13/1963||First cuts made|
|08/20/1963||Don Webb and Ron Burton out for the season|
|08/23/1963||Five defensive starters out|
|08/25/1963||at Buffalo Bills||
|09/02/1963||Coach Holovak's concerns|
|09/08/1963||1-0||-||New York Jets||W||38-14|
|09/14/1963||1-1||-||at San Diego Chargers||L||17-13|
|09/22/1963||2-1||-||at Oakland Raiders||W||20-14|
|09/29/1963||2-2||-1||at Denver Broncos||L||14-10|
|10/05/1963||2-3||-1||at New York Jets||L||31-24|
|10/26/1963||4-4||-1||at Buffalo Bills||L||28-21|
|11/10/1963||5-5||-1||San Diego Chargers||L||7-6|
|11/17/1963||5-5-1||-1||Kansas City Chiefs||T||24-24|
Game postponed (President Kennedy's assassination)
|12/08/1962||7-5-1||-||at Houston Oilers||W||46-28|
|12/14/1963||7-6-1||-||at Kansas City Chiefs||L||35-3|
|12/17/1963||Patriots players on the mend|
|12/23/1963||Gino Cappelletti wins scoring title|
|12/24/1963||Ron Burton activated|
|12/28/1963||8-6-1||-||at Buffalo Bills||W||26-8|
|THE AFL CHAMPIONSHIP GAME|
|01/05/1964||at San Diego Chargers||L||51-10|
Coach Holovak's plans for next season