Miami — Dinner was over, and it was time to relax in the middle of my vacation. A little bit dreary on a warm June night, just meditating about my new assignment.
I was the freshly minted pro football writer for The Detroit News, awarded the coveted Detroit Lions beat early in 1966. I’d finished up the ’65 season as the interim guy the last two games in San Francisco and Philadelphia. I rode the Lions’ team charter a few seats from the eminent Van Patrick, the Lions’ nationally renowned broadcaster.
I felt I had reached the big leagues of sports journalism. And I guess I had.
It was a dream, of course. Never a nightmare. Never with the glimmer of a notion that I’d become the last surviving newspaperman to cover every game of the new event called the Super Bowl. A streak of 54, more than Tom Brady.
My new beat in ’66 meant I’d be busting my back daily when the Lions training camp started in July through December. No day off, my choice, for four months.
I mused that the newspaper likely would send me to the NFL championship game after Christmas. A fair fantasy.
The dang telephone snapped me out of it.
“You gotta come in,” said Ben Dunn, downtown in the office. “The leagues just merged.”
Ben was my predecessor on the Lions beat.
“I told you what it would be like covering pro football,” he said. “I know you’re on vacation.
I was in The News building within 25 minutes. I was welcomed with a stack of wire copy.
And I started making some phone calls. First, I called Ralph Wilson Jr., a prominent local businessman, one of the founders of the American Football League. He owned the AFL’s Buffalo Bills and had managed to outbid his hometown Lions for a couple of precious college draft choices.
Ralph confirmed that the AFL was in agreement to merge with the NFL, established for 46 years.
“Yes, we have a deal,” Ralph told. “It’s going to take time to put it all together.
“How it will all work out, I can’t tell you. But we’re going to have a championship game this season. And we’re going to play them in exhibition games this year.”
Wilson gave me names and numbers of some other AFL folks to call. I phoned some new sources in NFL.
Then I started to pound on one of the bulky, gray Remington typewriters we had in The News sports department.
The two pro football leagues had been at war for seven years.
The proud, haughty NFL had fended off at least four attacks by other startup pro football leagues. It had absorbed the Cleveland Browns, San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Colts and smashed other clubs in the All-America Conference out of business after World War II.
But the AFL battled with more dollars than the others. It had Texas oilmen Lamar Hunt and Bud Adams along with Wilson, who had yearned for NFL franchises and had been rejected. It had revenue from a television contract.
They formed “The Foolish Club,” created their own league in 1959 and went to war with the NFL in 1960.
In seven years, battling each other for draft choices and prominence, the AFL and NFL went at it. The AFL rocked the NFL when the New York Jets snatched away college star Joe Namath from the St. Louis Cardinals for $425,000. It was the AFL’s major victory in the pro football war.
We in the press relished it.
I wrote four articles that night about the merger.
Newspapers were the press power back then, in 1966. We called ourselves the press then, mostly newspapers with that juvenile delinquent television included as an afterthought. The News was one of the largest papers in the United States. We covered just about every important sporting event in the land — plus a few special events overseas.
And I never had any idea that the events of that night before the summer of 1966 would take control of my career, my life.
The timing was perfect.
I went off to the AFL-NFL World Championship in January 1967 later than journalists from other towns. There was unfinished business in Detroit.
The Lions were in the process of naming Joe Schmidt the new head coach.
Then midweek I flew to Los Angeles, a rookie pro football journalist, packed with ambitions and ideas, 38 years old.
Nobody had any doubt which league champion would win: the NFL champion Green Bay Packers or the AFL Kansas City Chiefs. We debated whether the match would even be competitive.
“A colossus or a resounding dud?” I led off my article for The News with those words. It turned into a dud, Green Bay 35-10 conquerors. And many of the early Super Bowls and a few in recent years turned into duds.
'You carry on'
Through the years my journeys would be similar — off to New Orleans or Los Angeles or Houston or Minneapolis and once, even to Detroit for Super Bowl XL from my retirement home in southern California.
Pete Rozelle, the NFL commissioner who had been referring to the AFL as “the Other League,” had tossed a press party that first year on the eve of the championship game.
I have a vivid memory picture. Writers from our NFL cities sitting clustered on one side of the LA Statler Hilton ballroom and writers from the AFL towns clustered on the other side. We glowered at each other across the dance floor.
Once hostile, we the fortunate sports journalists covering the Super Bowl, soon became friends. Super Bowl regulars. And we saw so many friends leave year after year — guys from Boston, Denver, Baltimore, Buffalo, Chicago, Miami. Some dropped out voluntarily. A bunch perished.
Rozelle gathered us together again at Super Bowl X here in Miami. There were perhaps 30 guys in our group photo. There were fewer in our party at Super Bowl XXV in Tampa. And even fewer at Super Bowl XL home in Detroit in 2006.
Our group dwindled painfully.
The league feted us before Super Bowl 50 in San Francisco, a half-century after the peace treaty. It collected all those attending their 50th, mingling fans with photographers, an internet blogger and two surviving, ancient newspaper writers.
For many Super Bowls, Jerry Izenberg, sports columnist emeritus of the Newark Star Ledger, and Jerry Green, retired sports columnist/writer of The Detroit News, were the only daily newspaper journalists left.
Neither of us considered this a rivalry.
We had dinner together, laughed together, reminisced together. On the morning of recent Super Bowls in Minneapolis and Atlanta we rode out to the stadium together in media buses.
We rode up to the press boxes together — in wheelchairs.
A few weeks ago, Izenberg telephoned me from his retirement home in Nevada — just as I’d been telephoned 54 years earlier — with a stunning call.
“Jerry,” said the other Jerry, “I can’t go. You carry on.”
I called him back twice, imploring Izenberg to change his mind. But he must be as stubborn as I am. He remained steadfast.
So, by default, I became the last man standing. Still streaking, and doddering, age 91.
What in the world did we just watch? The New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons played an absolute classic in Houston. We share our thoughts.
I feel no elation, no jubilation. Just a lingering sadness. With a magnificent tangle of memories and a mess of ornery, old-fashioned opinions.
I’ll share some.
Best interview: Poolside with Joe Namath in small group at the Galt Ocean Mile Hotel in Fort Lauderdale. Namath had refused Rozelle’s edict to attend the mandatory press conferences. Instead he went to the pool in bathing trunks, ogled by the civilians. “Namath’s agreed to talk to a few of us out there,” Sy Burick, from Dayton, said to me at the press conference inside. “You want to go?” "Are you (bleeping) me?” I responded. Walter Iooss, who has snapped them all, took a famous photograph for Sports Illustrated, me the crewcut guy in the second row. Namath charmed us for a half hour. But his famous “I guarantee you,” his assurance of an AFL and Jets victory, was spoken at a gridiron dinner two days later.
► Best game: The Patriots’ victory over the Falcons in Super Bowl LI in Houston three years ago. Down 28-3 in the third quarter, Tom Brady rallied the Patriots. They tied the score late in the fourth quarter with Brady’s field-length drive. And the Patriots won it, 34-28, in overtime with another drive.
► Best player through the 54 years: Joe Montana, a four-time winner with the 49ers, over Brady, a six-time winner.
► Best coach: Green Bay’s Vince Lombardi, winner of the first two Super Bowls, barely, over Bill Belichick, six-time winner with the Patriots. Lombardi was a five-time NFL champion with the Packers.
► Biggest upset: No doubt. Namath delivering on his guarantee, the Jets, 18-point underdogs, over the NFL’s haughty Colts, 16-7 in Super Bowl III. It changed Rozelle’s planned road map for professional football.
It has been a joyous, grueling ride to Super Bowl LIV, still a streak without a scheduled end. But an end for sure.
I guarantee you!
Super Bowl LIV
San Francisco vs. Kansas City
Kickoff: 6:30 Sunday, Hard Rock Stadium, Miami
Line: Kansas City by 1 1/2