XLI Years Ago, the Super Bowl Was Just An X-Small

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 3, 2008

Steve Sabol, who filmed the first Super Bowl and has attended every one since, can tell you this about that first big game: It wasn't all that big. And it certainly wasn't super.

More than one-third of the seats in Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum were empty when Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers played the Kansas City Chiefs that afternoon in January 1967. A ticket went for as little as $6; Sabol couldn't even give away half of the 10 freebies he had.

The event was so lacking in razzle-dazzle that the halftime entertainment consisted of college marching bands; so modest in its mercenary intent that advertisers could buy 30 seconds of TV airtime for about $40,000 (top price today: $3 million); so un-super that it wasn't officially called the Super Bowl. (The first game was clunkily dubbed "the AFL-NFL World Championship Game" by the two pro leagues.)

The game, Sabol says, was "an afterthought. It really was just not considered a compelling event at the time."

Few people have had a better perspective on the development of the national beer- and salty-snack-food orgy that we will reverently observe for the XLIInd time today than Sabol. The 65-year-old filmmaker and president of NFL Films was on the sidelines during the first interleague championship game as a young cameraman. He says he's one of only eight people on the planet who can document his attendance at every Super Bowl (he filmed each one up till 1988; since then, he's directed NFL Films' coverage of the game, including today's in Arizona).

Sabol's footage of Bart Starr and Max McGee's heroics for the Packers during Super Bowl I now rests in the cavernous vaults of NFL Films, the Philadelphia-area company started in 1962 by Sabol's father, Ed, now 92. The film's historic value grows by the year; it remains the only complete visual record of the event.

Neither CBS nor NBC, both of which carried the game, preserved its broadcast, says Ron Simon, curator of television and radio at the Paley Center for Media in New York. Following their standard practice at the time, the networks recorded over their tapes of the first two Super Bowls. (Simon says his organization is negotiating with a private collector to secure a nearly complete recording of the first game.)

Sabol picks up the story: "As far as the networks were concerned, there was never any reason to look at [the first game] again. You have to remember that this was before ESPN, before the Internet, when there weren't any shows about the history of sports. You'd think there would have been more interest in it back then, but there wasn't."

Sabol remembers that first game as a somewhat haphazard, even slapdash affair. Pete Rozelle, whose NFL had agreed in 1966 to merge with the upstart AFL, picked the date and location of the first championship just a few weeks before it was played. The pregame atmosphere was so low-key that Sabol remembers sharing a press bus to the Packers' training camp with just five other reporters, and snagging interviews with players and coaches simply by walking into their hotel rooms.

A few media outlets, including TV Guide, referred to the game as the "Super Bowl" or "Superbowl," a coinage supposedly credited to Lamar Hunt, who owned the Chiefs. But Rozelle reportedly hated the name, as did Lombardi, who wanted the media to call it simply "The Bowl."

Over the years, Sabol's original Super Bowl footage (along with action shot by 14 other NFL Films cameramen that day) has found its way into several NFL Films documentaries, including a 2004 HBO film called "The Wild Ride to Super Bowl I." It's part of the company's vast trove of material on pro football -- more than 100 million feet of film -- housed in a secure, fireproof facility at headquarters in Mount Laurel, N.J. Sabol says the archive is big enough to house a Boeing 727.

Try an even more super analogy: "The only other human endeavor on which there's more 16-millimeter film than pro football is World War II," he says, "and we're going to pass that in 2013."

As for the Game That Started It All, Sabol has two distinct recollections.

One is the wild celebration in the Packers' locker room after the NFL champions beat the Chiefs, 35-10. Lombardi, under intense pressure to deliver a victory for the supposedly superior league, was so nervous that he'd knotted his tie too tightly around his neck. When he was unable to loosen it during a postgame interview, Lombardi called over to the team's equipment manager, who grabbed a pair of scissors and snipped it off.

Steve and Ed Sabol included that moment in the highlight film they screened for the coach and his wife, Marie, in the Lombardis' basement a few weeks later. When the projector stopped, the Lombardis went upstairs to their kitchen. As father and son sat in uncomfortable silence, the legendary coach got a royal tongue-lashing from his wife. "Apparently, the tie had been a special Christmas gift from her," Steve Sabol says. "She wasn't pleased."

While making another film of the game, Sabol synced up a piece of footage with an audio track of play-by-play announcer Ray Scott. Sabol recites Scott's excited call of the play from memory: "Bratkowski pitches to Grabowski and he fumbles. Skoronski scoops it up!"

"You don't hear names like that anymore," he says. "If anything tells you how much the NFL has changed over the years, that's it."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company