Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Best Super Bowl Ever

I lived in Alaska with my family in those days in a semi-Rip Van Winkled state. None of us had any choice about it. Our delayed access to the news was a fact of life.

Deep into the sixth decade of the 20th Century, Alaskans still had no live TV.

This was a problem! As a teenager hoping to have some kind of life, I already wasn't exactly thrilled when my father's oil company offered him the chance to drag all of us to the Last Frontier. I began 7th grade in Anchorage, Alaska that winter, walking to school in the dark, sometimes in near zero temperatures.

The isolation was annoying, too. With no live TV (because nobody was going to build broadcast towers all the way from Washington state to the far north) you couldn't watch sporting events on weekends. My parents graciously tossed me a bone.

They got me a subscription to Sports Illustrated.

Here's the cover of the first issue I ever received.

I read SI from cover to cover. I didn't even know it, but there were some of the greatest journalists ever writing for the mag in those days. No wonder I lapped up the colorful writing of Tex Maule and Dan Jenkins. These guys could wield a line of prose like nobody's business, even if it was in service of describing big sweaty guys performing an athletic feat or a man in a sweater swinging a golf club.

So I didn't see the football games, football being my main sporting interest, but I read about them. This was a whole different level of involvement. A great game like the 1966 UCLA vs. USC match-up in which Heisman contenders quarterback Gary Beeban and halfback O.J. Simpson created the expected fireworks and then some became, upon reading it, a great short story.

But still...I would have much rather seen the gridiron heroics on TV.

What's the Score?
Before there were iPods...
My Alaskan isolation became pertinent on Super Bowl Sunday January 12, 1969. As I saw it, I had no choice but to secret in my pocket a transistor radio the size of a pack of cigarettes and take it to church.

This was the only way I would know how the game was going as the NFL's Baltimore Colts took on the AFL's New York Jets in the third Super Bowl ever.

Timing was the other problem. In those days the Super Bowl was not about an all-day build-up to the big event in the evening. Kick-off was at 3:05 EST.

In Alaska this meant the first Colt-Jet collision occurred at 10:05 a.m. as I was sitting in Sunday School class at church.

For the next two hours I kept my counsel, the radio burning a hole in my pocket. I couldn't turn it on, even if I used the ear plug. People would see what I was doing. But I just knew the Colts had to be killing the Jets. I wanted to know how bad.

To put it in biblical terms, I was like a Philistine waiting for Goliath to bring back to camp the tiny head of David. In this case the head belonged to a loud mouth guy named Joe Namath.

Earlier in the week, Namath, the Jets young quarterback, said his team would defeat the 11-1 Colts. The Colts were being called the greatest team of all-time. They had allowed a total of 7 touchdowns all season. Their offense was just as potent. The seemingly clueless Namath compounded his sin of hubris by adding to his prediction these words: "I guarantee it."

This guy "guarantees" a win? Over the Colts?
What has he been smoking?

A Tale of Two Leagues
Many people who will tune into the Super Bowl this Sunday weren't even born when the first Super Bowl was played. It might be worth remembering that originally the game was originally marketed as a sort of grudge match, albeit one in which the grudge was being played out to make substantial sums of money via TV broadcast.

In those days the NFL, which had been around for decades, thought they ought to have a lock on lucrative TV contracts in large market cities as well as the high esteem of the American sporting population. But beginning in the early 1960s they were challenged by a new league: The American Football League.

The AFL had "cool" helmets and uniforms...
The AFL set up teams in unexpected places like Kansas City and Denver and Buffalo. They played literally by a different set of rules: for example, a slightly larger football with stripes on it and the option of a two-point conversion. They brought excitement and innovation to a game that had grown stodgy and they carried it, like missionaries, into new venues.

Generally the sports establishment dissed the AFL as a league composed of NFL cast-offs and college talent not good enough to be drafted by the elite league. This was not actually true. The AFL was acquiring talented players the NFL had given up on as well as first round choices and players from all-black colleges that no one had bothered to recruit before.

And the AFL was spoiling for a fight. They had a TV contract with ABC and loyal fans. The NFL, well, they just wanted to crush these guys before they started stealing all their talent and carving up a significant slice of the football pie.

While this was going on, I found a book at the library that told the story of how the AFL survived through pluck and luck, The $400,000 Quarterback: Or the League That Came In From the Cold (1965).

As a kid I loved the true life tale book told. The AFL was the underdog, David to Commissioner Pete Rozelle's NFL Goliath. But the day the AFL announced they were signing a scruffy quarterback from Pennsylvania who had played for Alabama and giving him the unheard of sum of $400,000 that changed. The AFL was on it's way to what the NFL dreaded. National notice and legitimacy.

That's when everybody began speaking of  "parity." The AFL was coming into its own; however, many people assumed it might take years for the new league to ever achieve this golden parity in quality of players and execution. Then, and only then, would the best AFL team be able to beat the best team in the NFL.

In the meantime, the only way to find out where things stood at this point was to bring the two best teams together from each league and let them fight it out. The Super Bowl was born.

NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle was smiling: My league can whip your league!
No parity here. The AFL is a bunch of wannabe's!

As predicted, there was to be no parity for the AFL. In the first two Super Bowls the Green Bay Packers breezed to victories over the Kansas City Chiefs and Oakland Raiders.

Which brought us to Super Bowl III. It promised more of the same. I liked underdogs, but this was ridiculous. Why even tune in? The Jets, a so-so but scrappy team that was lucky to have won the AFL championship, would be crushed by the Colts. We were talking total road kill. The Colts were favored by 18. Most people thought the spread ought to be doubled.

I imagined that in 60 minutes against such a juggernaut of a defense as the Colts fielded, the Jets would be lucky to score a field goal.

Church is Over!
I hurried out the front of the building. My dad wasn't a sports fan; he didn't really care what I was doing. One of my brothers, though, was tuned to my urgency. On the steps of the church building which were covered with deicing salt we bent over the radio's tiny speaker.

Out in front of us Anchorage, Alaska looked normal for January: the downtown "parkstrip" was buried in snow, the streets were a glaze of ice, the temperature stood frigidly in the low twenties. Our breath twisted in front of us.

I couldn't believe what I was hearing. Even the announcer sounded befuddled. I listened again. Surely he had inverted the team names. We were into the second half of the game and the Jets were ahead.

We had been singing hymns, listening to a sermon, taking communion from little cups and the world had inverted. We had on our hands one of the most astounding upsets in the history of team sports. It was historic.

I couldn't see it. I could only listen and imagine...how thousands of miles away
things were unraveling for the Colts.

That same year men would land on the moon, but the American Football League had already landed. It had come down hard on Planet Parity. The NFL had already decided it had no choice. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. The fascinating competition between two styles and ethos of football, the old guys vs. the new ones, was at an end.

The following year the merger of leagues would be realized. Everything would become the NFL with teams ensconced in  two conferences, AFC and NFC. New teams would be added (New Orleans and Cincinnati) and there would be the jarring "realignment" of some of the NFL's most deeply traditional teams, the Steelers and Browns and, yes, the Colts!, as they moved to the AFC.

After that the Super Bowl would never be the same as far as I was concerned. The pigskin sibling rivarlry element would be lost. No more Cain vs. Abel. The Super Bowl would become just a glorified NFL championship game, and the AFL would be mostly forgotten.

But I wouldn't forget the lesson that happened while I was in church, the one that played out on the green grass plains of the Orange Bowl in Miami, Florida as I listened in on a tinny speaker:

- V.W.


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