Monday, February 5, 2007

Super Bowl I

Football isn't a contact sport; it's a collision sport. Dancing is a contact sport. ~ Vince Lombardi

I'm writing this prior to the playing of Super Bowl XLI, so there will be no pithy analysis of how well or poorly the respective quarterbacks played, no in-depth look at the Bears' “Cover 2” defense (whatever the hell that is), no postmortem about the errors that led to one team beating the other. Nope. Between the hype leading up to the game and endless recaps afterwards, I should think most people would be tired of hearing about this particular game.

Never let it be said that this blog will bore you with the same ol' drivel you've been listening to and reading about from the mainstream media. I can find ways to bore you on my own, by golly.Actually, I wanted to talk about the original Super Bowl game, which, if I recall properly wasn't even called the Super Bowl. If memory serves, it was called the NFL-AFL Championship game, which, while accurate, wasn't particularly catchy. However, thanks to Lamar Hunt, the game eventually got a name. Whose idea the Roman numerals were is not as well known.

At any rate, for the huge number of you who weren't even born at the time, it might be hard to understand just what an anti-climax the whole thing was. For NFL fans, like myself, Green Bay and Dallas had settled this issue on the “frozen tundra of Lambeau Field”. This was just a glorified exhibition game to celebrate the coming merger of the two leagues.

The whole merger itself was rather remarkable. Fans who were old enough could remember the last upstart competitor to the NFL, the All-American Conference, which struggled along for four years in the late 1940's. The league might have done better, but it was utterly dominated by the Cleveland Browns, who along with San Francisco, and Dallas (which ultimately became the Baltimore Colts) joined the NFL in 1950. To teach the upstarts a lesson, NFL schedule-makers set the Browns, who had swept the final AAC schedule without losing a game, to open the season against the previous year's champions. The Browns shocked the league by winning the game and ultimately winning the NFL championship in their first year in the league.

Those of us who were Browns fans did recall that, and I won't say that it didn't give us a sense of unease about this NFL-AFL Championship thingy.

For those who've seen the passing of the USFL, the XFL, and the World League of American Football (which I guess still exists in Europe as a minor league for the NFL) probably wonder how the AFL managed to force the big guys to a merger. Actually it was easy. First, the NFL didn't have as many teams back then, so there were more good players and pro-football-hungry cities available. Second, the AFL had lots of money to throw around. Third, the AFL was willing to play more of a college-style wide-open sort of game, while the NFL had pretty much gotten down to a run-dominated, split-T formation game, that simply looked a little dull.

Funny how things don't change much. Oh, there's all sorts of motion now and fancy formations, but essentially everyone runs the same thing. That's why a Michael Vick running all over the place or a Peyton Manning actually calling his own plays gets everyone excited.

Of course, we NFL snobs likened the AFL to pickup football and sneered at their I-formations with men in motion and moving pockets and whatnot. We looked down even further at the AFL because many of their star players were guys who had failed in the NFL. For example, Kansas City quarterback Len Dawson had been a backup for the Cleveland Browns and had never managed to beat out a major mediocrity named Milt Plum. So the fact that he would be a star in the AFL just meant that they weren't all that good.

(A brief digression: When Otto Graham retired, Paul Brown, coach, owner, and general-in-chief of the Browns, wanted very much to draft a quarterback in the first round. His first choice was Milt Plum, who was drafted by someone else; his second choice was Len Dawson, who was drafted by the Steelers. Ironically, Brown would acquire both of them within a couple of years. Who did he draft when those two weren't available? He went to his third choice, Jim Brown, which turned out pretty well, actually.)

When the big game rolled around, I was a college freshmen. A small group of us got together around a 15-inch TV in our dorm to watch the game, which was broadcast on both the NFL network, CBS, and the AFL home, NBC. This happened because the existing TV contracts didn't really cover a game between both leagues. Of course, being that the TV belonged to an NFL fan, we watched CBS.

I guess you'd call it a Super Bowl party, but we didn't know we were ground-breakers. I don't recall exactly how many were there, but I remember that we had two-count-'em-two guys from Buffalo who were holding the fort for AFL fans everywhere. Their problem was that the rest of the crowd was made up of Browns fans, a Bears fan, a Steelers fan or two, and two dyed-in-the-cheese Packers fans, who were from Wisconsin. One of these last actually came from Green Bay. The Packers fans gave us concern for the safety of the AFL guys, not because they were violent or anything of that sort. No, what they were was excessively demonstrative in their loyalty. More than once we had to pry their noses away from the tiny TV set so the rest of us could see.

On one play, three of the Packers defensive linemen met at quarterback Len Dawson, sacking him convincingly. The Packer guys looked and saw that Henry Jordan was the one lineman who wasn't in on the hit. From then on, they screamed that Jordan had to make a sack by himself to make up for it. Thankfully, he did make a solo tackle (though not a sack) soon afterwards or we wouldn't have heard any of the rest of the game.

Packers fans looooooooove their team.

Believe it or not, that first Super Bowl wasn't even a sellout, selling only 61,000+ seats in the cavernous Los Angeles Colosseum. If anyone had told us then that this would become the biggest sporting event in the U.S. someday, we would have laughed in their faces.

But, then what do a bunch of college freshmen know, anyway?

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