Al Atkinson’s journey to the Jets wasn’t easy, but it certainly paid off.
An offensive and defensive tackle at Villanova, in 1965, he was selected by Buffalo in the AFL Draft and Baltimore in the NFL Draft, and chose to sign with the Bills.
“They called more often than Baltimore,” Atkinson said with a laugh. “I got like four or five phone calls from the Bills and I only one from the Colts. So, I went with the Bills.”
While Buffalo was persistent in its effort to sign the two-way standout tackle, once in training camp, they decided to make him a middle linebacker.
“They had five exhibition games, I played in two of them and tried my best to learn a new position in about three or four weeks. I was never a linebacker until I went into the pros,” Atkinson said. “They won a championship in ’64 and were getting ready to repeat in ’65. I think of the 23 (first-year) fellas that came to camp, only about two made the team to start the season.”
Atkinson was not one of them.
“The Jets claimed me off waivers. (Three-year veteran defensive back) Ray Abruzzese and I left the Bills and drove from Buffalo to New York,” said Atkinson, who was joining the Jets less than a week before their season opener in Houston. “I was curious to find out what it was like. Everything worked out to my benefit. I got closer to home. Philadelphia to New York is 80 miles and Buffalo was probably 300. So, that was the good part.”
Being closer to his Philadelphia suburb hometown of Upper Darby wasn’t the only good part. After going 5-8-1 and 6-6-2; with an 8-5-1 mark in 1967, the Jets posted the first winning season in team history. The following year, they improved to 11-3, won the AFL Championship over the Oakland Raiders, and upset the NFL Champion Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. What was the key to the team’s success that year?
“You had Joe (Namath), who I thought was the best quarterback in football, throwing to three good receivers and a couple good backups,” Atkinson said. “A lot of guys were young. We had a good draft from what I saw in ’64 and ’65. And in ’66, ’67 and ’68, they matured and got better with winning and got better because there weren’t that many injuries.
“We were confident. We won eight of our last nine games. The only defeat was the Heidi Bowl out in Oakland. They scored two touchdowns in eight seconds in the last minute to win. So, you’re young and you’re winning and you think you can beat anybody. And if the breaks go your way, you end up beating everybody.”
Atkinson capped off the championship season by playing in the AFL All-Star Game a week after the Super Bowl. What did that mean to him after only beginning to play linebacker three years earlier?
“Well, I had a good coach in Walt Michaels. I didn’t really have a linebacker coach when I was with Buffalo, so I kind of had to learn the position by looking at other people,” Atkinson said. “But Walt, he was tough. He didn’t fool around. There were no excuses with him. It was either play or go home. That was the way Walt Michaels was and he ended up being the fella I looked up to.”
With the Jets for 10 seasons, 1965-74, Atkinson collected 21 interceptions, co-leading the team with five in 1967. Following football, he made his home in Springfield, PA, and was a partner in the Atkinson & Mullen Travel Agency, now called Apple Vacations.
“It was a pretty good venture,” Atkinson said. “It was all group tours to say Germany for 11 days, and then coming back and the next day heading out to Hawaii for two weeks, and then coming back and going down to the Caribbean.
“I mean it was nice, but I just got tired of the travel. I remember the years of just motels and hotels, flying, subways, busses, cabs, trains. I was with the travel agency for three and a half years and I didn’t want to travel anymore.”
After putting his suitcases in the closet, Atkinson began his third career in the car sales business.
“I worked locally. From my home, the Golden Mile is one block up, and that’s about 15 dealerships. I worked for three of them over 20 years. All were about a minute to work which is what I always wanted,” he laughed. “I wanted to get as close to home as possible so I could go home for lunch and for dinner.”
Now retired, Atkinson lost his wife, Peg, in March. He spends his time with his son, Stephen; daughter, Kate; and his four granddaughters.