“Caught In The Draft” – The Cowboy Who Spurred the AFL/NFL Merger

Dallas Cowboys, Sneak Peek

TO WATCH THE TRAILER FOR “CAUGHT IN THE DRAFT: 1965” CLICK ON THE PHOTO BELOW OF RALPH NEELY,
AN OFFENSIVE TACKLE ON THE PRO FOOTBALL HALL OF FAME’S “TEAM OF THE DECADE” FOR THE 1960S.

Ralph Neely Smile Still

By David Plaut, Series Producer

This season the NFL will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Super Bowl, the world’s biggest one-day sporting spectacle — and the crown jewel event of the pro football calendar. But there would not have been a Super Bowl if there hadn’t been a merger between the rival National and American Football Leagues. And there wasn’t even going to be a merger until the resolution of the incredible Ralph Neely court case.

Who is Ralph Neely? How did one man’s legal issues nearly derail one of the biggest sports deals ever? And what happened to bring about a legal battle that took nearly two years and a pile of cash to resolve? The answers to these questions and more are revealed in NFL Network’s upcoming anthology Caught in the Draft, which returns for its second season beginning April 2.

Neely was an All-American lineman at Oklahoma in late 1964 when he was drafted by both the NFL’s Colts and AFL’s Oilers. As a southwest native Ralph had little interest playing in Baltimore, so he agreed to a contract with Houston, prior to his final college game. It was a practice that was against NCAA rules, but routinely flouted by both pro leagues and many college seniors of the era. Ralph was awarded a $25,000 advance but stuck it in a drawer until after his final game had concluded. The existence of any such deal was to remain confidential until then.

Within hours after signing with Houston, Neely learned the Colts had traded his NFL rights to Dallas. Much as Ralph might have wanted to now play in Texas for the established league, he still planned to honor his commitment with the Oilers. But when word leaked out that Neely had signed prior to his bowl game, he and several other Sooner teammates were declared ineligible and immediately dropped from the squad. Because the Oilers had been unable to keep the signing from going public, Neely felt he was free to negotiate with Dallas. “I figured that the contract was undated. I sent all of their money back. As far as I was concerned, I was in the clear.” Neely quickly came to terms with the Cowboys and enjoyed a successful rookie season in 1965.

But at year’s end a panel of federal court judges upheld an appeal by Houston and awarded Ralph’s rights back to the Oilers. “At that time, there were negotiations going on between the AFL and NFL for a merger,” Ralph remembers. “In order for the merger to happen, my case had to be settled.” What that courtroom resolution was is fully revealed in the 1965 episode of Caught in the Draft. It enabled Neely to enjoy a 13-year career that included multiple All Pro and Pro Bowl honors, along with three Super Bowl starts and two world championship rings. No less an authority than Willie Davis, the famed Packers Hall of Fame defensive end viewed Neely as “the best offensive tackle I ever played against.”

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Caught in the Draft premieres exclusively on NFL Network Thursday, April 2 at 9 PM Eastern, featuring the 1965 draft show “Spies, Superstars and Babysitters.” New episodes will follow each week focusing on the ’75, ’85, ’95 and ’05 NFL Drafts.

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The Caught in the Draft series is produced by David Plaut and Neil Zender
The episode “Spies, Superstars, and Babysitters” was produced by David Plaut, Jeff Larsen, and Paul Camarata

 

 

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