Jerry Rice gets the nod as top Super Bowl star ever. He played in four of them, winning three and losing one. (Eric Gay / Associated Press)
New York — We glowered across the no-man’s land and the other guys glowered back at us — like two rival gangs. Enemies separated.
Separated by a dance floor.
This was the night before the first Super Bowl pitting the NFL against the seven-year-old American Football League. A championship game between the Packers and the Chiefs.
Seven months earlier the two leagues that were in hand-to-hand warfare agreed on a truce — a merger, terms to be negotiated. The result would be a matchup between the champions of the two leagues. The First Annual AFL-NFL World Championship Game — sort of a shotgun wedding — that would reveal the superior league.
And Pete Rozelle, the NFL commissioner, had arranged for a press party in the Statler Hotel’s ballroom in downtown Los Angeles.
So the warriors who covered the NFL for newspapers from Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, San Francisco, Green Bay and other towns well-rooted in pro football stared at the guys from AFL cities, Buffalo, Denver, Houston, Kansas City and elsewhere.
We — the journalists from NFL waypoints — were quite smug about it all. We didn’t know them and those guys from AFL cities didn’t know us. And the truth was — we reveal 47 years later — we knew darn well that we covered a superior brand of football.
Until Joe Namath delivered some realism two years later when the AFL’s Jets won Super Bowl III.
Now this weekend the solidified, united — and certainly smug — NFL is presenting the 48th Annual All-NFL World Championship game across the Hudson River in New Jersey.
And as one of two newspapermen — survivors, I say — who covered the first Super Bowl and every one since I have a huge storage box of memories.
The other newspaperman who has covered the first 47 Super Bowls and now is covering XLVIII is Jerry Izenberg, sports columnist emeritus of the Newark Star-Ledger. Our friend, Edwin Pope, columnist for the Miami Herald is breaking his streak this year. Dave Klein, founder of e-Giants.com, also is at No. 48, having started with the Newark Star-Ledger.
So, out of my archives.
The greatest games
For the first 10 years or so, the Super Bowl games were duds. There was history made. Vince Lombardi and Bart Starr led Green Bay to victories in the first two before Namath delivered. There was Don Shula’s undefeated season, 17-0, with the Miami Dolphins in 1973. There was Terry Bradshaw winning four Super Bowls with the Steelers. Joe Montana later would match that achievement, winning four with the 49ers.
But the greatest Super Bowls, in my opinion, occurred after the dominance of Shula, Bradshaw and Montana.
1. Super Bowl XXXIV: It ended with Kevin Dyson of the Tennessee Titans catching a pass and trying to reach into the end zone. It ended with Mike Jones of the St. Louis Rams dragging Dyson to keep the ball a half-yard from the goal line. Close as could be on the final play after the Rams had squandered a 16-0 lead, then broke a 16-all tie on Kurt Warner’s 73-yard pass to Isaac Bruce. Rams 23, Titans 16.
2. Super Bowl XLII: The Patriots were going for a perfect season. But the game had a perfectly climactic ending. The Giants’ Eli Manning scrambled and escaped being sacked twice before heaving a desperation pass 35 yards downfield to David Tyree. Tyree caught the ball against his helmet. Then Manning passed to Plaxico Burress for the winning touchdown. Giants 17, Patriots 14.
3. Super Bowl III: Not the greatest of games, but the most meaningful. The Baltimore Colts of the NFL were 17-point favorites. But the NFL learned all about Joe Namath. He guaranteed that the Jets would win and bring equality to the AFL. Namath delivered and the AFL teams were able to become members of the NFL as fulltime partners. Pro football was changed. Jets 16, Colts 13.
4. Super Bowl XXIII: Joe Montana huddled the 49ers at the goal line with the Bengals leading 16-13. He guided them from the San Francisco 8-yard line to the Cincinnati 10, passing brilliantly to Jerry Rice, Roger Craig and John Frank. With 39 seconds to play, the Niners lined up wrong in the backfield. The play went off anyway. Rice was covered, and Montana passed the 10 yards to John Taylor, a decoy on the play. 49ers 20, Bengals 16.
5. Super Bowl XXXVI: Tom Brady was in his first Super Bowl, and the Patriots were on their 15 after the Rams had tied the game 17-17 with 1:30 left. The clock was down to 1:21 and Brady had no timeouts left. Brady slickly passed the Patriots to the Rams’ 31 and with seven seconds left he spiked the ball. Then Adam Vinatieri kicked a 48-yard field goal as the clock went to 0:00. Patriots 20, Rams 17.
1. Jerry Rice: OK, I did not select a quarterback. Rice played on three Super Bowl winners with the 49ers and a fourth Super Bowl as a beaten up old-timer with the Raiders. He was always spectacular. In his four Super Bowls he caught 33 passes, eight for touchdowns. In Super Bowl XXIV he caught three touchdown passes from Montana and Super Bowl XXIX he caught three more TD passes from Steve Young.
2. Terry Bradshaw over Joe Montana? Or Montana over Bradshaw? This is a grab-bag and blindfolded I pick Bradshaw. He was more flamboyant than Montana. With the Steelers he had two Hall of Fame receivers in Lynn Swann and John Stallworth and an HOF runner in Franco Harris. Bradshaw was the first quarterback to win four Super Bowls.
3. Montana. He also won four and was spectacular with in teaming with Rice. And he performed in the clutch with his 92-yard drive against the Bengals.
4. Eli Manning. He won two Super Bowls with spectacular drives for the Giants against the Patriots and outdueled Tom Brady both times.
5. Desmond Howard. As a return man, he delivered a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the Packers’ 35-21 victory over the Patriots. The Patriots had no comeback after the 99-yarder, Overall, Howard contributed 90 punt return yards and 154 kickoff return yards.
6. Tom Brady. He played quarterback in five Super Bowls, winning three. Twice he took the Patriots on winning drives against the clock.
Others: Reggie White, Jim Plunkett, Joe Namath, Phil Simms, Aaron Rodgers, Kurt Warner, Bart Starr, Willie Wood — and Max McGee.
McGee gets special mention. While we went to Rozelle’s party the night before the first Super Bowl, McGee crept out of the Packers’ headquarters and away from Vince Lombardi. Max was out on one of his nocturnal expeditions. Lombardi had used him sparingly during the 1966 season. He did not expect to play in the Super Bowl. But then Boyd Dowler was injured blocking on the fourth play.
“Get in the game,” Lombardi told McGee.
“I thought he was going to fine me five grand,” McGee said after the Packers’ 35-20 victory over the Chiefs. “I almost fainted.”
McGee scored the first touchdown, reaching back for a pass from Bart Starr, a 37-yarder, and later caught a second TD pass.
Jerry Green is one of two newspaper writers who have covered every Super Bowl. Jerry Izenberg of the Newark Star-Ledger is the other.