The Lesson of the First Super Bowl

One of the great advantages of my advanced age is that what is memory to me is history to others. As Super Bowl XLIX looms before us, I remember Super Bowl I. Those of you good at math will instantly recognize that XLIX-I = XLVIII. And so it was forty-eight years ago that I, at the mere age of XV, sat and sweated before our black-and-white television and watched the AFL’s Kansas City Chiefs take on the NFL’s Green Bay Packers. For me, and for other AFL fans, it might not be the end of the universe if Green Bay won, but it would be the end of the moral universe. And when the unimaginable happened, and Green Bay walked off with a 35-10 victory, the age of justice came to an end, and I resigned myself to a life of unrelieved cynicism.

Max McGee gets behind Willie Mitchell for the First Super Bowl Touchdown
Max McGee gets behind Willie Mitchell for the First Super Bowl Touchdown

You must understand that the current lazy rivalry between conferences bears no resemblance to the fierce war between the AFL and the NFL in 1967. Why, the NFC Champion Seattle Seahawks, the defending champions, were once members of the AFC, and did not even exist when Super Bowl I rolled around. But in 1967 the Super Bowl was a war between entitlement and innovation, between received wisdom and passion, between monarchy and democracy. Oh – and entitlement, received wisdom, and monarchy won.

For many years the National Football League was a monopoly, and an ill-paying one at that. One prominent fullback quit in his prime to go to law school – an unheard-of move today. (It worked out pretty well for Byron “Whizzer” White, who eventually ended up on the Supreme Court). Moreover, professional football was a badly regarded profession, the poor relation of college football. But with the advent of television, things changed. People got excited about football, especially after the Baltimore Colts’ thrilling overtime victory over the New York Giants in the 1958 NFL championship game.

So now if you owned an NFL team, you were rich. And the rich owners were not inclined to spread the wealth to other owners, or other cities. Frustrated, Lamar Hunt got together with like-minded men (they were all men) and founded a new league. Hunt’s own team would be based in Dallas. Sneeringly, the NFL immediately put an expansion team in Dallas to compete with Hunt’s. Hunt moved his team to Kansas City.

There were also AFL teams in Oakland, Denver, San Diego (after being chased out of Los Angeles by the NFL), Boston, New York, Houston and my home town of Buffalo. Because the rules of the time indentured professional football players to the teams that drafted them, the AFL was principally populated by NFL rejects. Some of those rejects – Tobin Rote, Lance Alworth and Jack Kemp come to mind immediately – were pretty good, but that didn’t stop the sneers of NFL fans. College teams could beat us, they said.

Joe Foss
Joe Foss

The NFL was corporate. The AFL stood for the common man. The Commissioner of the AFL was Joe Foss, former Governor of South Dakota and a winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor. The Commissioner of the NFL was Pete Rozelle, whose background was in public relations. When President Kennedy lay in state after he was assassinated, the AFL suspended all of its games. The NFL played on.

So it was important that the AFL be as good as, or even better than, the NFL on the field. For American males of the time, and especially those of us from ages XI to XVIII, it was a moral imperative. The Buffalo Bills became two-time champions behind the right arm of Kemp – yeah, the guy who ran for vice-president with Dole – and a fearsome defense. After the Bills won their second title, a guy wrote in to the Buffalo News and claimed that the Baltimore Colts, 13-1 in the NFL at the time, would demolish the Bills. The Colts promptly lost the NFL Championship to the Cleveland Browns, 27-0.

Then something dramatic happened. The two leagues had competed for college graduates who were going pro – the New York Jets had given Alabama’s Joe Namath the unheard-of sum of $400,000 – but had never tried to poach each other’s players. After all, if a player could cancel his indenture by jumping from the AFL to the NFL, what was to prevent him from jumping from one NFL team to another? Chaos – expensive chaos – would reign.

But after the 1965 championship, the New York Giants signed Buffalo’s placekicker, Pete Gogolak. Gogolak was a revolutionary: he kicked the ball from the side, as a soccer player might. Gogolak was a soccer player; he had learned the game as a child in Hungary, and did not come across football until college. He was long and accurate. Within ten years, every kicker in the NFL except Oakland’s George Blanda approached the ball from the side, rather than straight ahead like in the old days.

When Gogolak jumped leagues, the AFL acted as if it had been collectively mugged. The gentlemanly Foss stepped down, and Oakland’s mad-genius owner, Al Davis, took over. Soon, the AFL had signed eight of the NFL’s starting quarterbacks, and the older league sued for peace.

The two leagues agreed to merge, but before merger would be complete, the champion of each league would meet in a competition to crown the king of all football. They didn’t know what to call the game. The official name was “The AFL-NFL World Championship Game”, which was not exactly a phrase that fell trippingly from the tongue. Some people called it “The Supergame”. “Super Bowl” didn’t come by until later.

There were still league championships. In Buffalo, the Kansas City Chiefs crushed the Bills, 31-7. The Packers edged the Dallas Cowboys, 34-27, at the Cotton Bowl. Seeing my home town team picked apart by Kansas City made their triumph over the NFL’s best even more essential to the moral order.

“Who do you think will win?” The Coach asked me. He was The Coach of pretty much everything, and I had achieved inspired heights of mediocrity in baseball and wrestling for him.

“Chiefs will kill them,” I assured him. It was the only time I had ever made him laugh.

Len Dawson
Len Dawson

But there was reason to believe. Len Dawson, a smooth operator who would eventually end up in the Hall of Fame, quarterbacked the Chiefs, and they had the fabulous running back Mike Garrett and Otis Taylor, a fast, powerful, sure-handed wide receiver. The monstrous Buck Buchannan anchored their line, and they had an excellent secondary.

And for a half, their chances seemed good. On its second possession, the Packers scored, but when Kansas City had the ball it moved downfield quickly. When the drive stalled, they set up a forty-yard field goal, but the kicker missed. Back in those days, the goalposts were on the goal line, not ten yards back as they are now. So this kicker missed the equivalent of a 30-yard field goal. Nowadays, a kicker who misses a 30-yard field goal in the first quarter is looking for work in the second, but back then the kick was considered a bit of a stretch.

But the Chiefs later scored; the Pack drove back and scored a touchdown of their own; and the Chiefs mounted another drive which resulted in a field goal. The score was only fourteen to ten at the half, and Kansas City had actually outgained Green Bay, 181 yards to 164.

You have to understand that although this contest had consumed pretty much all of my imagination and energy, for the rest of the country it was not the big whooping deal it is now. The game did not sell out the venue – it was the only Super Bowl not to be a sellout – and the halftime entertainment featured a high school marching band. But to me, and to others of my ilk, it was the final confrontation of good vs. evil.

Evil won in the second half. Dawson marched his team down the field but from his own 49 he threw an interception which Willie Wood returned to the five. Elijah Pitts scored shortly thereafter, and the game was essentially over. Afterward, Green Bay coach Vince Lombardi eschewed post-game civilities and said that Kansas City wasn’t good enough to play in the NFL.

Yeah, I know. It’s only a game. But sports has some advantages over everyday life: they’re dramatic; they’re played over a specific and limited length of time; and the results are certain. Even if they’re stupid.

And I realize that someone could just as easily construct a narrative where the NFL team was the wise elder who had endured years of penury to reach this pinnacle, while the AFL team was the bumptious upstart, in it only for the money. But that wasn’t my narrative.

So as you seethe about deflation-gate, or the real or imagined sins of Marshawn Lynch, remember that football does not reward good or punish evil. Football rewards the team with the most points.

And, by the way, the AFL won three of the remaining four Super Bowls before the merger, including Kansas City’s 23-7 triumph over Minnesota in Super Bowl IV.