Now that it has the requisite tradition, it can truly be called great

John Steadman

January 31, 1993|By John Steadman

PASADENA, CALIFORNIA — Editor's note: Evening Sun columnist John Steadman is one of only 10 sportswriters who have witnessed every Super Bowl.

PASADENA, Calif. -- Memories crowd the mind, a rotating telescope focusing on a vast panorama of the past and present. So it is with the Super Bowl, the Americanized version of the Roman holiday -- numerals and all.

This orgy of football and entertainment, not necessarily in that order, has become an obsession in excess, staged with a dazzling flair that would cause P. T. Barnum, Mike Todd and Julius Caesar to forget their original game plans and hire the National Football League.

At the first Super Bowl, in 1967, two years before it was actually called the Super Bowl, the learned coach of the Green Bay Packers, Vince Lombardi, was asked if he thought his impending meeting with the Kansas City Chiefs might qualify as the most important in history.

And Lombardi, ever-realistic, answered sternly: "No. For something to be great it has to have tradition. This game doesn't have it. I think the Green Bay Packers playing the Chicago Bears means a lot more. That's been going on since 1920."

But now the Super Bowl is 27 years old and the elegantly created trophy, designed by Tiffany, is named in honor of the late Lombardi. Even he would agree that the game has grown into adulthood and established more than a presence for itself.

The venue for Super Bowl XXVII is the Rose Bowl, where the august membership that administers this 103,000-seat stadium at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains, was once reluctant to play host to the game. It had this uncomfortable, antiquated feeling that professional football carried a stigma of sorts.

But that has changed. Even the Rose Bowl couldn't resist and, for the fifth time in the series, will provide the staging location this afternoon. It's difficult to imagine, considering the gala it has become, that for the initial event at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum there were 30,000 empty seats and the top ticket price was $15.

Today, tickets are $175, the highest cost for a one-day contest in all the world of team sports. So much ballyhoo leads up to the kickoff that it might be a contributing reason to why most of the games have been no better than ordinary, or even worse. Pressure does have a way of tightening chin straps.

The most pulsating finish of any Super Bowl was, oddly enough, the most poorly played. That would be the Baltimore Colts' victory over theDallas Cowboys in 1971 at the Miami Orange Bowl.

Jim O'Brien's 32-yard field goal with five seconds left gave the Colts a 16-13 victory after his team had fumbled five times and had three passes intercepted. All told, there were 12 turnovers. Exciting? Yes. But not with the style expected when the sport's finest teams are cast in the NFL showcase.

Another game, only two years ago, was decided on a kick. This was a miss, by Scott Norwood of the Buffalo Bills as the New York Giants held on to win, 20-19, so it carries a different impact than O'Brien's effort.

Norwood was tagged the goat, which was grossly unfair. He didn't exactly have a chip shot. The attempt was from 47 yards.

The most controversial of all Super Bowls also involved the Colts, when the New York Jets' Joe Namath "guaranteed" victory over a rival that was installed as a 16 1/2 -point favorite. But the Jets were to score one of the most astonishing upsets in sports history.

Off the field, earlier in that Jets-Colts week, there was a confrontation between Lou Michaels, the Colts' end/place-kicker, and Namath in a Fort Lauderdale bar. Michaels resented Namath's bragging ways and invited him to step outside.

Namath talked his way around having to do battle with Michaels and remained seated. Had there been an encounter, Michaels, strong enough to knock holes in a building, might have eliminated Joe from Super Bowl III. It was the best call Namath ever made.

The 1975 Super Bowl in New Orleans was a historic highlight for the Pittsburgh Steelers, a team that had never won a title in the 40-year span of the franchise. When it was over and the Steelers had finally reachedthe summit, the venerable and much-beloved Art Rooney, team owner, put it in personal perspective when he said:

"I used to hear how dumb I was when we were doing all that losing. Now I hear how smart I am because we won. I don't notice any difference."

If there's a favorite place for the game, this reporter's vote would go to San Diego, where the weather and the setting make for a scenic and comfortable presentation. Put New Orleans, because its outstanding accommodations, a close second.

As for the most hospitable of all Super Bowls, the vote goes to Pontiac, Mich., in 1982. Civic volunteers extended warm greetings everywhere you turned -- a contrast to the bitter cold that prevailed outside the Silverdome.

Any reflections on the Super Bowl from a sportswriter's standpoint would have to include the first visit to New Orleans, when Milton Richman of United Press International and Dave Bready of The Washington Post drove to a Louisiana leper colony to interview the patients to learn their thoughts about Kansas City playing the Minnesota Vikings.

As for the most bizarre play in a Super Bowls, it would have to be the pass Colts quarterback John Unitas intended for Eddie Hinton but was deflected by Mel Renfro of the Cowboys into the hands of John Mackey for a 75-yard touchdown in the 1971 game. An accident? Yes. Also miraculous.

So the Super Bowl plays on, the fun, frolic, festivities and, almost as an afterthought, the football. It's beyond the normal saturation point, but the public has this insatiable desire for wanting more of it.

Makes you wonder what Super Bowl C might be like.

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