How Sunday became so Super

SUN JOURNAL

Football: A bitter rivalry between a giant and an upstart brought us the biggest game day in America.

January 26, 2001|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

This is the weekend when pastors weave football phrases into their sermons. When brides and grooms would never presume to have their weddings. When people think in Roman numerals. It's the time when big-screen TV sales jump IV-fold. When supermarkets peddle mountains of deli fixings. When Silicon Valley consumes more chips than it cranks out.

All because of a football game, Super Bowl XXXV.

But in 1967, when Green Bay and Kansas City met in Super Bowl I, few cared.

A sellout it wasn't. Held in the cavernous Los Angeles Coliseum, that first game lacked the pizazz (and the prices) of today's version. One-third of the Coliseum's 94,000 seats went empty as fans balked at then-hefty ticket prices of $12. Sunday's game in Tampa between the Baltimore Ravens and New York Giants will be played to a full house, with tickets sold for a face value of up to $400.

Super Bowl I had no pre-game television show. Sunday's coverage starts six hours before kickoff; the teams could play two regulation games in the time CBS will devote to hyping the contest.

Thirty-five years ago, TV ads for Super Bowl I cost $40,000 for a 30-second segment that was aired coast to coast. Sunday's game will be broadcast in 180 countries and territories, and the price of 30-second commercials has risen to $2 million.

The Super Bowl has mushroomed into a worldwide wingding, though few recall its modest beginnings, much less its original moniker: The AFL-NFL World Championship Game.

Born of the marriage of the rival American and National football leagues in 1966, the Super Bowl became the flashpoint of the merger. Bitter enemies since the AFL's inception in 1960, the two leagues at last agreed to integrate schedules, beginning in 1970. The leagues also agreed to match their respective champions in an annual one-game playoff, before the overhaul of schedules.

The seminal contest would take place Jan. 15, 1967 - just 26 days after the armistice was signed.

The NFL, organized in 1920, was the old guard, with bigger stars and deeper pockets. Through the years, the NFL had chased off or absorbed several challengers, but the headstrong AFL refused to go away. To the NFL's chagrin, the AFL had successfully wooed some of the established league's top players prior to the peace talks.

"The rivalry was intense; the hatred deep. It was like Michigan and Ohio State," recalled Ravens owner Art Modell, then NFL president.

A Super showdown would settle grudges, determine sovereignty.

The site? Someplace warm, all agreed.

"Under no conditions should this classic-to-be ever be entrusted to the whims of the weatherman," wrote Arthur Daley, of the New York Times. "By mid-January, it's possible that snow in Green Bay or Buffalo might be piled higher than the goalposts."

The cities of Miami and New Orleans were considered, but officials chose Los Angeles instead. In retrospect, it was a terrible choice: Two-thirds of the seats in the spacious Coliseum could have been in the Orange Bowl in Miami, for all that the fans could see.

Meanwhile, representatives of the two leagues fought for an edge in the game. They dickered over everything from sideline rights to the shape of the ball. Finally, agreement was reached. The NFL club would receive the bench on the shady side of the field; the AFL, grumbling, got the sun. In all else, the teams would be even: six officials, three from each league. On offense, each side could use its own ball. (The AFL version was thinner and longer, with more lacing.)

Even the VIPs invited for the contest were to be divided equally: Ten astronauts were expected to attend, so five would sit behind each bench.

Each league had its own regular-season TV pact, so two networks aired the game - the only Super Bowl to have dueling announcers. NBC, which broadcast AFL games, and CBS, the NFL outfit, carried the game under a simmering truce: Feuding technicians had to be segregated by a chain-link fence.

Nicknamed the Super Bowl by the press from the start, the title was not formally adopted until Super Bowl III. Credit goes to Lamar Hunt, owner of the Kansas City Chiefs, who had a brainstorm while watching his children play with a kinetic toy called a Super Ball.

Fittingly, Hunt's Chiefs won the AFL title and the right to play the Green Bay Packers, dynastic champs of the NFL.

Few gave Kansas City a shot. The Chiefs had not lost a game for two months; the Packers had swept four NFL titles in six years. Kansas City boasted the most explosive team in pro football; Green Bay, the hardest to rattle.

The Chiefs had a dynamic young coach named Hank Stram, who, dolled up in his trademark red vest, prowled the sidelines clutching a rolled-up game plan and barking commands.

"We are playing this game for every player, coach and official in the AFL," Stram said.

The Packers had the legendary Vince Lombardi.

"I have no idea what kind of a coach Stram is," Green Bay lineman Fred "Fuzzy" Thurston told a Sun reporter before the game. "But if he is better than Lombardi, he is God."

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