Rozelle's seed has sprouted into the NFL's Super spectacle

January 28, 1996|By John Steadman

TEMPE, Ariz. -- When others doubted, Pete Rozelle believed. The Super Bowl now celebrates its 30th birthday, moving into young adulthood while at the same time evolving into a Mardi Gras-like event that has become more of a national holiday than a football game.

America has the vision of Rozelle to thank for it. Every one of the coveted 76,300 tickets has long been exhausted at prices of $200, $250 and $350. Scalpers are quoting pre-kickoff figures of $1,500 for a single seat to see the Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers roll around on the grass of Sun Devil Stadium.

Some 30-second television spots on NBC will go for $1.3 million. Estimates are that the viewing audience will reach 124 million, with viewers in 187 foreign countries also looking in on the proceedings and wondering why soccer in the United States never has achieved similar acceptability.

This isn't the coronation of a king, the confirmation of a pope or a world-shaking development that is reshaping history, but rather a football game between professional teams of migrant athletes. Truly a phenomenon. Thank you, Mr. Rozelle.

In Phoenix, it's a financial bonanza, with an economic impact that is staggering. Not incidental is the estimate by transportation executives that an additional 30,000 tourists are in the city without tickets, coming here to be a part of the party and then look in on the game via the magic of the TV screen.

Meanwhile, Las Vegas, only an end run away, claims 180,000 spenders, bringing fresh money to enjoy the artificial mood of a Super Bowl extravaganza in the comfortable surroundings of casinos, where the visitors can eat, drink, make merry and, of course, if so inclined, bet on the outcome.

Oh, yes, the game? Pittsburgh, the choice of only us sentimentalists, against Dallas, a 13 1/2 -point favorite.

Rozelle, after being the Super Bowl's architect and breathing his own life into the idea, will miss his second Super Bowl in a row. He and his wife, Carrie, are at home in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., holding hands, caring for each other during battles with their cancer and remembering well the good times.

Rozelle, given a respect approaching that of a retired chief of state, was provided a conference-call connection to a reception current NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue held for the nine sportswriters who have been around long enough to have attended all the Super Bowls.

It was an emotional moment for both Rozelle and the senior citizens of the press box, especially for the man from Baltimore whom he first tried to hire as his assistant, then for the general manager's job he was leaving with the Los Angeles Rams, and, finally, as executive director of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

"I'd say my top thrill was when I handed the Vince Lombardi Trophy to Art Rooney, of the Steelers," Rozelle was pleased to recall. "That was in Super Bowl IX in New Orleans. It was his first championship after 40 years in the game. None of us ever knew a more beloved individual."

The reporters Rozelle was talking to had been through the wars with him, not always in accord on the issues, but involved on the same battlefield. In three decades, the Super Bowl has come from a mere thought in Rozelle's fertile imagination to an awesome spectacle.

Overkill? Absolutely. Gross excessiveness? No question. Yet the country keeps asking for more. Rozelle made it happen. He would not be deterred. He was the game's master inventor and director, deserving of an Academy Award.

Instead of playing the championship game alternately in the home city of the Western or Eastern division winners, he introduced an entirely different concept. It was to become the Super Bowl.

Growing up in Southern California, he marveled at the Rose Bowl and the immensity of its appeal. He believed that if warm weather could be reasonably assured, the league would accept a site at which crowd comfort was the first priority for deciding the National Football League championship.

But an even more compelling reason was the better show teams could put on if they performed in good weather, with sure footing instead of having to slip and slide around on a frozen field or in the midst of a driving snowstorm. This way, natural conditions would be fair for both sides.

That's one of the reasons Super Bowl XXX is in the Phoenix area, giving the game a desert setting and the flavor of a western hoedown. The first time Rozelle tried the formula, in 1967, there ,, were 40,000 vacant seats at massive Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum as a comparatively modest turnout of 61,946 fans watched the Green Bay Packers pound the Kansas City Chiefs.

Ticket prices didn't keep the crowd away, since you could walk up to the gate that afternoon and buy a preferred location for $6, $10 or $12. Every game since that first one has been a sellout, including the two played under domes in the frigid north -- Minneapolis and Pontiac, Mich.

For the first two Rozelle presentations, with Green Bay beating Kansas City and then Oakland, the showdown was simply called the championship game. The "Super Bowl" tag came from Lamar Hunt, owner of the Kansas City Chiefs, who remembered one of his children played with a ball that was called Super.

For lack of a better name, they tried it and, on the field, it has for the most part been a misnomer, since so few Super Bowls have even remotely fulfilled such a superlative designation. But in generating interest and money, it has become a bonanza -- again attributable to Rozelle's farsightedness.

As a personal aside to this friend of long standing, America thanks and respects him for the immensity of his contribution . . . a game that always will carry the signature of Pete Rozelle.

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