Green: Super spectacle got off to a humble beginning

Jerry Green
A young fan attends the Patriots' send-off event Monday in Boston.

Phoenix — The coach flipped the football up as high as his rimless eyeglasses and it came down in a spiral. He caught it and cradled it in his huge hands. Then, he flipped the game-scarred ball upward again and grinned through his gapped teeth as he caught it.

"That an NFL ball?" I asked outside the Packers locker room at the Los Angeles Coliseum.

Vince Lombardi tossed the football up again and again caught it.

Again, I asked the question.

"This is an NFL ball," Lombardi said. "And it kicks a little bit better, and it throws a little bit better, and it catches a little bit better."

Lombardi's Packers had just won the first AFL-NFL World Championship, defeating the Chiefs, 35-10.

"I don't think Kansas City compares with the best teams in the NFL," Lombardi continued. "Dallas is a better team."

He glared at me.

"There," Lombardi said, hugging the fully inflated NFL ball the Packers had used on offense. "You made me say it. Dammit, now I've said it."

Modest expectations

We had no idea what to expect about this championship game — then or in the future.

Neither did Lombardi.

Before this game he admittedly had jitters.

"We're representing the entire NFL," he said. "I cannot embarrass our league."

Afterward, he was overjoyed. As ebullient as Lombardi could be.

And soon, this game would be renamed Super Bowl I.

Lombardi rolled through his wave of emotions that January day in 1967.

Nobody could envision what this extravaganza would develop into. No one could imagine 5,000 journalists with old-fashioned ballpoint pens and notebooks, tape recorders, digital motorized cameras and hulking video cams attached to boom microphones would descend today on Seahawks-Patriots Media Day for ... Super Bowl XLIX (that's Super Bowl 48 for the non-Romans).

Lombardi would have erupted in a ballistic tirade.

Far-off outpost

The first Super Bowl did not stage any event as fancy as a Media Day.

Indeed, the word media was not even in common usage then. All of us were lumped together as press.

The athletes welcomed the journalists in their hotel rooms. The Chiefs were billeted in at a motel in Long Beach. The Packers were hidden 95 miles up the coast in Santa Barbara.

So, some reporters drove up to Santa Barbara to visit Lombardi and Bart Starr and the Packers.

"What are you guys doing here?" Lombardi said at the front door of the hotel.

He had been miffed the Packers had been relegated to a hotel far from a football atmosphere.

"This place is beautiful," said Jerry Izenberg, who worked then and now for the Newark Star-Ledger. "On the ocean."

"What do you mean this is a beautiful place," Lombardi told Izenberg and the late Jack Murphy, a legendary San Diego columnist. "This is hell. Look how beautiful it is."

It brings giggles now, all these Super Bowls later.

How Lombardi — the best coach in history — might have simmered at these week-long press ... oops, media ... interview events.

This week, Bill Belichick will do the simmering — the sinister, tricky and excellent coach.

But don't anyone ever try to compare Belichick to Vince Lombardi.

Retired Detroit News sports writer Jerry Green has covered every Super Bowl.