Houston — The chartered bus laden with curious, grousing sports journalists rolled south on Figueroa in downtown Los Angeles toward the Memorial Coliseum. It stopped for a red light and we peered out the window.
“Wow, five bucks,” I said to the guy standing next to me in the aisle.
It was a stiff price to park a Studebaker for a football game back then, 50 years ago.
Two warring pro football enterprises had merged, and none of us had the vaguest notion what would happen that morning of Jan 15, 1967. The Green Bay Packers, champions of the venerable National Football League, versus the Kansas City Chiefs, champions of the wannabee American Football League.
We were headed toward the first AFL-NFL World Championship Game. We all lugged portable typewriters and would transmit our articles via Western Union. Our words appeared in ink on newsprint.
I had led off my piece for the Sunday Detroit News: “A colossus or a resounding dud?”
In the prelude to what we newspapermen already were terming the Super Bowl, we had access to any player we wanted to interview in their hotel rooms. The celebrated coaches, Vince Lombardi and Hank Stram, would talk to us in the lobby or the hotel tavern.
The night before, Pete Rozelle had tossed the first of the Super Bowl’s first commissioner’s parties — journalists only — in the ballroom of LA’s Statler Hotel.
We all sat on the edge of the dance floor glaring across at the other guys. Writers from NFL towns —Detroit, Chicago, Green Bay, New York, Atlanta — glaring at guys from AFL towns — Boston, Buffalo, Denver, Kansas City.
We had not mixed, we had not met. Not yet.
And we the guys from the NFL towns all felt smug and superior.
Just a bit different
The participants themselves did not have the vaguest idea what would happen.
Lombardi, later, would confess that before the game as standard bearer for the NFL that he had been nervous and jittery: “What if we’d lost to this team?”
But the first championship game evolved into a resounding dud: Green Bay 35, Kansas City 10.
There were large patches of empty seats in the Coliseum that Sunday. The ticket price was a hefty $12. The game between rival leagues was televised on rival networks: The NFL’s CBS, the AFL’s NBC. The rival quarterbacks, Bart Starr and Len Dawson, passed with different footballs, marked NFL or AFL.
No press conferences were organized for the coaches in the aftermath. Those of us who wanted trooped down the tunnel at the Coliseum to the locker rooms. Lombardi stood in the lobby of the Packers’ room talking about the game. He kept flipping up a trophy and then catching it. A football, a victory game ball.
There were perhaps 10 of us around him listening and watching.
“That an NFL ball?” I finally asked him.
Lombardi grimaced and did not answer. He flipped the ball again and caught it. The question was repeated; silence; and asked a third time.
“This is an NFL ball,” Lombardi said through his teeth, “and it kicks a little bit better, it throws a little bit better and it catches a little bit better.”
He tried to stop himself, but now he was issuing a monologue.
“I don’t think Kansas City compares with the best teams in the NFL,” Lombardi said, egged on. “Dallas is a better team. There, dammit, you made me say it. Now I’ve said it.”
There can be no such frivolity this prelude week to Super Bowl LI, a half-century later here in Houston.
Every press session is organized and monitored by the NFL’s cadre of propagandists.
The week started with a huge media session — sponsored by Gatorade — the other night. Thousands of journalists shouldered and shoved and bashed toward the athletes seated at podiums. A countdown clock ticked off the 60 minutes of availability.
Then the athletes and their coaches were whisked off in a caravan of buses headed by a posse of some 15 motorcycle police officers.
Bill Belichick is here with his New England Patriots. Of all the 30 coaches in the amalgamated NFL, Belichick is the one most closely compared to Lombardi. Both have been associated with dynasties in different centuries.
Lombardi coached the Packers to five NFL championships during the 1960s, the last two topped with victories over the AFL in Super Bowl I and Super Bowl II.
Belichick has coached the Patriots to four Super Bowl championships since 2002 and seeks a fifth in Super Bowl LI on Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons.
He is dour and unsmiling man. Lombardi did smile, upon occasion. Belichick was forced Monday night to face the mobs of journalists.
Thousands of spectators, at $20 per ticket, watched us work and often cheered the imprisoned athletes.
Belichick was forced by league rule to sit at a podium. He issued his usual flavorless answers.
“I like this team because they work hard,” Belichick told the assembled journalists. “They don’t make excuses. They are tough.”
Somehow, I could not picture Lombardi sitting at a podium in raucous mob scene flipping out platitudes.
Jerry Green is a former columnist who has covered every Super Bowl for the News