Sunday marks 50th anniversary of first Super Bowl

footballIt was televised by two networks and was nothing close to a sellout, despite tickets as low as $6. It was thrown together in twenty-six days. And it had an unwieldy name.

Sunday (January 15) is the 50th anniversary of the first Super Bowl, a matchup of the champions of the National Football League and upstart American Football League. Dubbed the AFL-NFL World Championship Game, the event was a tiny fraction of the behemoth it became.

“The NFL title game was what determined the NFL champion, and was treated accordingly by the media,” said Cliff Christl, the team historian of the Green Bay Packers. “The first two Super Bowls were almost treated like the old College All-Star Game. A big game, but more of an exhibition.”

The Packers, led by the legendary Vince Lombardi, defeated the Kansas City Chiefs 35-10 at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in a meeting later known as Super Bowl I.

After engaging in a spending war since the AFL’s inception in 1960, the leagues finally decided to merge in June 1966. The process was finally completed in 1970. Along the way, the rival circuits concocted a plan for their 1966 champions to meet in a world title game.

Oddly, the game was covered by two major networks – CBS, which carried NFL games, and NBC, with the AFL contract. The hype, though, did not carry over to game day. Though tickets were priced at $6, $10, and $12, only 61,946 were in attendance despite beautiful 72-degree weather. Featured in the halftime entertainment was trumpeter Al Hirt.

Green Bay was coming off its fourth NFL title in the last six years under Lombardi, though the coach had little time to relish the achievement. NFL owners, annoyed at the AFL for driving up player salaries for seven years, made it clear that a loss to the “Mickey Mouse League” would not sit well.

Christl concurs that Lombardi was feeling the pressure, though he notes that the intensity was likely greater the following season during Green Bay’s quest for a third straight world title.

“I’m sure Lombardi felt considerable pressure from the league owners, and, of course, there was the pressure he put on himself,” remarked Christl. “But I’m not so sure it wouldn’t have been greater, at least for him personally, the next year.
“Lombardi’s obsession throughout his years in Green Bay was winning three straight championships, which he did when the Packers won the Ice Bowl the next season,” continued Christl. “But losing Super Bowl II would have taken the shine off of it.”

The Packers, loaded with such stars as Bart Starr, Willie Wood, Ray Nitschke, and Willie Davis, held a slim 14-10 lead at the half. The Chiefs turned the ball over on the fourth play of the second half, which set up a Green Bay score for a 21-10 advantage. Later in the third, Packer receiver Max McGee’s second touchdown of the day extended the lead even further.

McGee finished the afternoon with 138 yards on seven receptions, though he is popularly believed to have been hung over from a wild night before. The seldom-used McGee, who caught only four passes in the regular season, allegedly did not expect to play in the game, so he slipped out after bed check at the team hotel to meet two young women for a night of partying.

The tale has become part of Super Bowl legend, though Packer insiders dispute the story. In a series of recent interviews with Christl, former Green Bay publicity director Chuck Lane called the story “unlikely” and that “Paul Hornung (and) McGee…were getting so much mileage out of it, why change now?”

Christl adds that longtime Packer assistant coach Dave Hanner, who was in charge of bed check that night, did not believe the story.

“I spoke with Hanner, and he said he not only conducted the bed check as scheduled, but came back later. And McGee was in the room both times,” said Christl. “Those who knew McGee said he did not drink that much, so that part of the story is surprising. But he was known to break curfew often to meet women, so that’s more plausible.”

Though the AFL is still considered an inferior league, Christl stresses that the Chiefs had plenty of talent. “Kansas City had plenty of talented young players, maybe even more than the Packers,” he commented. “People think the Chiefs didn’t have the talent, but that’s not true.

“They had players like Buck Buchanan, Otis Taylor, and Bobby Bell, plus a strong offensive line, a great quarterback in Len Dawson, and a pretty good running game,” continued Christl. “The Chiefs had some glaring weaknesses, but they weren’t that far behind in terms of ability.”

For their victory in the first Super Bowl, the Packers earned $15,000 each, compared to the loser’s share of $7,500 for the Chiefs.

Green Bay repeated as Super Bowl champions the next year with a 33-14 win over Oakland. Christl believes that the two Super Bowl wins overshadow the Packers’ NFL titles earlier in the decade, in 1961, 1962, and 1965.

“I think in some ways the Packers are slighted, because the Super Bowl is so big today, and their NFL titles in the early 1960s are sometimes overlooked,” Christl remarked. “I think some of the Green Bay players on all of those teams in the 1960s wish the Super Bowl had come along earlier, so they could have had the chance to win five of them.”

The name “Super Bowl” was bestowed before the third playing of the game in 1969. In 1971, the Super Bowl trophy was named in honor of Lombardi, who died the previous year.

Kansas City returned to the Super Bowl three years later, beating Minnesota to claim its only world championship. Green Bay added Super Bowl titles following the 1996 and 2010 seasons. With four, the Packers trail only Pittsburgh, with six, and Dallas and San Francisco with five each.

Tom Emery is a freelance writer and historical researcher from Carlinville, Ill. He may be reached at 217-710-8392 or ilcivilwar@yahoo.com.