When the Super Bowl had small letters and little hype
Published: Saturday, February 2, 2013 at 4:50 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, February 2, 2013 at 4:50 p.m.
I had just turned 19 and was going through basic training at Lackland Air Force Base outside San Antonio on Sunday, Jan. 15, 1967, when the first super bowl was played. Officially, it was called the NFL-AFL Championship, but the term “super bowl” was already being informally kicked around by some fans and more than a few sportswriters. But it didn't have capital letters yet and it had neither hype nor a Roman Numeral attached to it.
We were given a break from our training, and many of us filed into a recreation hall to watch this first super bowl on a small black-and-white television screen with the jacked-up volume coming through a tiny speaker that made the announcers at the Los Angeles Coliseum sound like they were inside a tin bunker.
We were young men — still boys, really, in so many ways — from several scattered states, who had one thing in common other than having enlisted in the Air Force because we weren't college types and it seemed a reasonable way to beat the draft and avoid being sent to Vietnam as an Army infantryman: We were football fans.
Several of us weren't just fans. We were aficionados (precursors to sports geeks). Sure, being freed up to go to the rec center was a break from the military routine we had been undergoing for several weeks after a lifetime of, predominantly, harmless idleness and general goofing off. And sure, it was a wonderful distraction, with the possibility of dramatic entertainment. What else were we going to do with this window of free time? Off-base was still off-limits. This, though, this “super bowl,” was a big game, a new kind of big game, and a lot of us cared, passionately, about the outcome.
There were about 100 of us, and the rooting interest seemed to be equally divided between the American Football League champion Kansas City Chiefs and the National Football League champion Green Bay Packers. Friendly, modest wagers were made — a few dollars, a pack of cigarettes, candy bars. Yeah, a more innocent time.
The guys rooting for the Packers, none of whom, as I recall, were from Green Bay or Wisconsin, were a bit patronizing toward those of us rooting for the Chiefs. They were fans of the Dallas Cowboys, San Francisco 49ers, L.A. Rams, Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions and Cleveland Browns. They were fans of the New York Giants, Baltimore Colts and Washington Redskins, too. They were young fans who represented the old guard of pro football, the traditionalists, the keepers of the status quo. At least that's how we AFL fans saw them. They also knew that in the Packers, the NFL had one of the greatest teams ever. In the previous seven seasons, Green Bay had played in five NFL championship games and had won four. They were coached by Vince Lombardi, who was already a pro football patron saint who had come to represent no-nonsense hard work, American success personified, the Establishment.
The guys rooting for the Chiefs, none of whom, if I remember correctly, were from Kansas City or Missouri (or Kansas, for that matter) thought of the Packers rooters the way we used to think of teachers' pets — as sort of squirrelly. I mean, come on, how hard could it have been to root for the Packers in January of 1967? We AFL fans, on the other hand, had had the guts to break from tradition (which meant, naturally, our fathers) and boldly pledged our impressionable teenage psyches to teams such as the New York Jets (guilty as charged), Boston Patriots, Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers, Buffalo Bills, Denver Broncos and Houston Oilers. We thought of ourselves as rebels, visionaries. Our league, after all, had players' names on the back of their jerseys. Our league had the two-point conversion. Our league had Joe Namath.
And the Chiefs in that first super bowl had Len Dawson, one of the many NFL-reject quarterbacks who would shine in the AFL (Jack Kemp, George Blanda, Frank Tripucka, Tobin Rote and Babe Parilli were among others).
For 30 minutes, the AFL upstarts held their own against the mighty NFL machine, trailing only 14-10 at halftime.
But when Willie Wood intercepted Dawson in the second half and returned the ball 50 yards to set up an easy Packers' touchdown, AFL fans knew it was the beginning of the end. And then the Packers, like the big, bad NFL bullies they were, packed it on. Final score: Green Bay 35, Kansas City 10.
At Lackland Air Force Base, the next big thing we had to look forward to was a visit to the Alamo two weeks later.
That turned out to be more disappointing than the first super bowl.
Robert Rubino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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