The Boston Patriots’ First Big Moment: A 1961 Battle With Houston
The Houston Texans might be the #1 seed when they come to Foxboro on Monday Night to play the New England Patriots, while the Pats are the ones fighting to avoid the first round. But Houston is also the team playing with something to prove, as they try and show their championship mettle. It wasn’t always the case when these two cities squared off in professional football. Today, let’s go back to 1961. It was the second year of the AFL, but when the then-Houston Oilers visited Boston to play the Patriots, it was the home team that needed to prove it can compete.
1960 didn’t go well for the Boston Patriots in their first year of existence, as they struggled to a 5-9 record. Houston was the king of the eight-team league, winning the inaugural championship over the Chargers—who were then based in Los Angeles, but already establishing their knack for coming up short.
As 1961 began, the early returns didn’t give the Boston faithful any reason to get juiced about this whole pro football idea. The Patriots got wins over Denver and Buffalo, but both teams were also at the bottom of the AFL pecking order, while two losses came to the New York Titans—a team that had finished 7-7 a year ago and stood between the Pats and a clear challenge to Houston in their division. Then a 38-27 loss to San Diego marked a quick end to an era—head coach Lou Saban was out, and Mike Holovak took his place. His debut game would be against the defending champs.
Holovak could take consolation in the fact that Houston didn’t look like champs. In fact, they were off to a worse start than the Pats, with their opening day win followed by three quick losses. What Houston did have was extremely good balance overall. The Oilers had the AFL’s two best backs in Billy Cannon and Charley Tolar. They had the two best receivers in Bill Groman and Charley Hennigan. They had the two best cornerbacks in Tony Banfield and Mark Johnston. They had one talented young quarterback in Jacky Lee and one savvy veteran in George Blanda.
Against all this, the Patriots were outmanned. They had talented defensive lineman in Bob Dee and Jim Hunt, and a good linebacker in Tom Addison. But ultimately they had to rely on special teams—kicker Gino Cappelleti was outstanding, and Fred Bruney was the best punt returner in the young league. A lot would have to go right for Boston to pull an upset.
The Boston-Houston game was one of two Friday games the Patriots played in 1961 and the Oilers visited Nickerson Field (then a part of Braves Field and now owned by BU) in a game which was officially a survival test for both teams, though undoubtedly the league was only paying attention to Houston.
Boston used a quarterback tandem of two veteran castoffs, in Babe Parilli and Butch Songin, and it was Parilli who got the Pats on the board with an early run for a touchdown. By the second quarter, the Houston offense opened up. Lee hit Groman from 44 yards and Hennigan from 48, both good for touchdowns. It was part of a huge day for Hennigan, as he caught 13 passes for 272 yards. But Boston scraped out a field goal and it was still 14-10 at halftime.
Special teams—the Patriots hidden weapon delivered them immediately out of the halftime gate. Larry Garron brought the second-half kickoff back and it was 17-14. The teams traded short TD runs before the third quarter was out, but a Cannon touchdown gave Houston a 28-24 lead.
Cappelleti was most known for his ability as a kicker, but he also played receiver, and caught six passes for 131 yards on this day. One of them was a short touchdown pass that put Boston up 31-28. Before it was over, Blanda was able to tie it with a field goal and the game ended 31-31.
The tie doesn’t look dramatic, but it was the first seminal moment in Boston Patriots’ lore. They went 7-1 the rest of the way and finished with a 9-4-1 record. It might have been good enough for a championship game berth, but the game was a turning point for Houston too. A coaching change followed, and with Wally Lemm installed as head man, the Oilers reeled off nine straight wins—one of them a 27-15 victory over the Pats a month later down south. Houston went on to claim its second straight title.
Holovak’s Patriots had championship days around the corner though—by 1963, they would be in the AFL title game. The seeds of success were planted in the head coach’s first game and even in a tie game, it was his franchise’s first big statement moment.