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Shirley Povich Tribute

  The Birth of the Hype Was Ho-Hum Humble

By Shirley Povich
Washington Post Columnist
Friday, January 26, 1996; Page C04

It was no big deal in the beginning. As a gate attraction, Superbowl One — as it was called then — was actually a flop, it fizzled. Although 61,946 saw the game, it also played to 32,953 empty seats on Jan. 15, 1967, in Los Angeles' Memorial Coliseum, signifying something less than a boundless enthusiasm for the event.

A factor back then was those hiked-up ticket prices, beginning at $6 and ranging all the way to $12 for the better seats. However, there was no understanding of what was being wrought; that pro football's Super Bowl would become a national frenzy. This one on Sunday in Tempe, Ariz., is being covered by 3,000 accredited football journalists pandering to the hunger for all the news from Arizona.

Would you like a ticket for Sunday's contest between the Dallas Cowboys and the Pittsburgh Steelers, Super Bowl XXX? Will an end zone seat suit your purse? That will be $200, please. Fancier seats are priced $250 and $350. But don't fret, none are available except those in the hands of scalpers who are asking and getting $1,000 per ticket.

It hasn't always been thus. The Super Bowl wasn't even called the Super Bowl 30 years ago when it was regarded as a plain old-fashioned football game between the champions of the National Football League (Green Bay) and the American Football League (Kansas City Chiefs). Not until a later year did commissioner Pete Rozelle add the Roman numerals.

Vince Lombardi, coaching those Packers in January 1967, today would be pilloried before being drawn and quartered for what he said to reporters the day before the game: "I do not regard this as the most important game ever played." Appalling. High treason.

Back in 1967, Los Angeles fans were sore about the whole thing when Rozelle announced that the game would be blacked out for a radius of 75 miles. His excuse: "It wouldn't be fair to those fans who have already paid as much as $12 for tickets."

A federal court upheld Rozelle's decree, leaving L.A. fans in a dark mood. Some of the more innovative attempted to bring in the TV signal by affixing wire coat hangers to their antennas, but that didn't work well. Rozelle was viewed as a villain.

Superbowl One came about because Rozelle and the NFL owners were being bedeviled by the rise of the new American Football League, which had gained a network sponsor and was drawing crowds. And now the NFL was facing a new threat. The bold and daring Al Davis, general manager of the Oakland Raiders, had a plan for the AFL to raid the NFL's best quarterbacks and give his league a new legitimacy.

The AFL wouldn't go away, and the NFL finally consented to a title game between the winners in the two leagues. One story was told about Lamar Hunt, owner of the AFL's Dallas Texans and a son of an oil-rich father. When Hunt senior was told his son was "losing a million dollars a year" the unflappable elder Hunt said, "What do you know about that? Lamar will go broke in a hundred years."

In the 30 years of the Super Bowl there have been notable changes. The TV rights to the 1967 game fetched $2 million from two networks. This year, five networks teamed up to win the rights for $4 billion for the next four years. Thirty years ago each winning player was paid $15,000, each loser $7,500. This year their paychecks will be, respectively, $42,000 and $23,000. In 1967, Kansas City, coached by Hank Stram, came into Los Angeles with a nine-game winning streak including a big win over Buffalo for the AFL title. The team had a mature quarterback in Len Dawson, and up front they outweighed the Packers 15 pounds per man. So what was the upshot? In deference to Mr. Lombardi and his Packers, Kansas City was established as a 3 ½-point underdog.

Lombardi was doing nothing to hype the game. When the question was put to him, bluntly: "How does Kansas City compare to the teams in the National League?" Lombardi answered it bluntly: "They don't," he said. Lombardi's words were respected. He won five NFL titles in his eight years at Green Bay.

Lombardi was bothered a bit by the mouthings of Kansas City cornerback Fred Williamson, who had a reputation as an enforcer. Williamson had said he would intimidate Green Bay runners with his "forearm hammer tackle." He wore white shoes to distinguish himself and adopted the Muhammad Ali "I-Am-The-Greatest" attitude.

Lombardi said nothing about Williamson, but one of his players spoke on that subject: "Vince knows how to deal with this kind. There are tough guys in the NFL and Williamson will find his hammer arm sticking out of his own ear if he tries to do any rough stuff. Vince will order up a sweep with Fuzzy Thurston leading it. The play may not gain much, but we'll be rid of Williamson at the cost of one down." Williamson was almost a non-factor in the game.

It was a severely disciplined Packers team that Lombardi threw at Kansas City. His training routines had his players in top physical shape. Jerry Kramer, in his book "Run to Daylight," had said "Lombardi treats us all alike — like dogs." It was written by one certain sportswriter who will not be named here that Lombardi in his conditioning program "left no stern untoned".

The final score was 35-10, Green Bay, although the Packers' lead was only 14-10 at the half. The Packers were having some trouble with Stram's "moving pocket" for quarterback Dawson, but in the second half, defensive back Willie Wood blew the game right open by snatching a Dawson pass for a 50-yard return to the Kansas City 5-yard line and from there the Packers bumped it over. Did Lombardi make adjustments to combat Kansas City in the second half? Six times the Packers sacked Dawson. Not only was Kansas City scoreless in the second half, it had the ball for only four plays in Packers territory, and never inside Green Bay's 45-yard line. Meanwhile Bart Starr completed eight of his 10 second-half passes. It would be entirely proper later that the NFL chose the name for the elaborate vessel that signifies the Super Bowl title: the Lombardi Trophy.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Companyy

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