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Sacco Sez: The NFL way back when ... and Thelma Elkjer

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The NFL is the most popular sports league in the country, according to Gallup polls since 1972 and according to television viewership metrics of sporting events in recent history.

And just about every fan knows (or could look up) the fact that the NFL has eight divisions — four in the National and four in the American Football Conferences. But where did they come from? And when? How were they determined?

Well, the AFC is primarily the conference of the original American Football League teams, plus three, plus expansion within the game.

The AFL divisions changed a bit as more teams were added, but the Denver Broncos are members of the only division that is playing with the exact same franchises as it had at the beginning, in the AFL's first season of 1960.

Of the four AFC West teams, the Broncos are the only one that has not changed cities, but they have changed colors, going from brown and yellow to orange and blue in 1962.

The Kansas City Chiefs have never changed colors, but they did change cities, having begun as the Dallas Texans. Following the 1962 season, they moved to Kansas City and have never looked back.

The Los Angeles Chargers began as the Los Angeles Chargers, but moved to San Diego for the bulk of their existence before relocating back to the city of their birth three years ago.

The Las Vegas Raiders were the Oakland Raiders, then the Los Angeles Raiders, then they moved back to Oakland, and now to Las Vegas. The Raiders did not become the Silver and Black until Al Davis took over in 1963, as previously their uniform ensemble included gold trim. After Davis was hired, the team dropped the gold element of their uniforms.

And the Seattle Seahawks played in the AFC West from 1977-2001, but since they moved into the NFC, the Broncos' division stands just as it was in 1960.

The NFC gets a bit more complicated, and that is where Thelma Elkjer entered the picture.

Who the heck is Thelma Elkjer, one might ask?

She was the most significant woman in the first 50 years of NFL history, I would respond.

Thelma was born in the tiny hamlet of Hampton, Nebraska, in 1922. The population of Hampton was 423 in the 2010 census, so one can imagine that it was not exactly a boomtown in 1922.

She was raised on a farm, and despite outstanding grades, college was out of the question, even with a scholarship available to her. Instead, Thelma developed secretarial skills, and with limited prospects in Nebraska, she drifted west like so many others.

In the 1950s, she went to work for the Los Angeles Rams, where the public relations man was Pete Rozelle.

Pete went on to become general manager of the Rams, and when NFL Commissioner Bert Bell died, there was great disagreement on the issue of a new boss for the NFL.

After more than 20 contentious ballots a compromise candidate was chosen: Pete Rozelle. On his way to New York, he took Thelma with him as his secretary, right-hand woman, gatekeeper and confidant.

She knew every owner and became one of the most trusted people in the NFL.

In 1966, the NFL-AFL merger took place, but to balance things out, three NFC teams had to move over to the AFC. Making a book-sized story very short, those three franchises became the Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Colts.

But the owners had huge disagreements as to how the three NFC divisions would be configured.  

Finally, the week before Super Bowl IV, they all convened in New York for a contentious discussion. Rozelle came up with five potential plans for the NFC divisions, and they argued and argued, with each owner having his own thoughts about where his team would best be placed. 

Coming to no conclusions, they adjourned to New Orleans, the site of the Super Bowl, and resumed their confrontations in that locale.

It was the Saturday before Super Bowl IV, and finally they agreed on the formula.

Rozelle wrote out the five division plans, one each on five pieces of paper, and they would literally pull it out of a hat.

Well, not actually a hat — it was an empty flower vase.

But who could be trusted to choose the winning slip of paper?  

They all agreed on one person: Thelma Elkjer.

Pete then brought her into the room full of owners, Thelma having just then been told what her role would be.

Thelma was considered the most trustworthy person in the NFL by the owners, and she reached into the vase after they had all verified the papers, and Thelma pulled out option No. 3.

And so it was.

Thelma Elkjer had created the "Black and Blue" division, and had placed the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL East with New York, Washington and Philadelphia.

No. 3 was the only one that had both of those possibilities. Secretly (not really so secretly), Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm was delighted to be in the same division as the Giants. Ever the showman, he knew the long-range potential of that New York television exposure.

And there were no further discussions or arguments. Such was the trust placed in Thelma that those 13 wealthy owners accepted where she had placed them.

Those NFC divisions chosen by Thelma existed for over three decades, until NFL expansion forced new divisions. 

She worked for Pete Rozelle for 36 years, including as his personal secretary after he retired and moved to California. She devoted her life to Pete and the NFL.  

Thelma Elkjer passed away in California in 2000, four years after Rozelle's death.

Personally speaking, one of my greatest professional regrets involves Thelma.

When I worked my first of 28 Super Bowls, Super Bowl XVIII in Tampa, I received my stipend check from the NFL several weeks after the game.

And it was signed, personally and not by any machine, by Thelma Elkjer. The immortal Thelma.

And before I thought of the future significance, I cashed the check.

I have kicked myself many times for not framing that check with the signature of Thelma Elkjer, the most important woman in the first 50 years of the National Football League.

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