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Sacco Sez: The Super Bowl at the beginning


It is Super Bowl week, the one event in team sports that grips Americans like no other. Everywhere one turns, there is something to read, watch or listen to about the Super Bowl.

But before Super Bowl LVI, there was the first one, which was not called "Super Bowl" at all.

Some of you have read some of this before, some of you have never read parts of it, but this is how the beginnings compare to now.

The National Football League has been around for more than 100 years, but from 1960-69, the American Football League also existed, and the two competing leagues had quite a bidding war, which was bad business for all concerned. When the two leagues merged, it was agreed that they would combine and all play as part of the NFL in 1970. But meanwhile, part of the agreement was that the two leagues would meet in a championship game.

The first one was played in Los Angeles on Jan. 15, 1967, but even that has a behind-the-scenes story.

NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle was a Southern California guy, and he knew from the beginning that there was only one city that would provide the kind of glitz that the World Championship Game (that was the name) would merit: Los Angeles, the City of Angels.

But the head coach of the best team in football was Vince Lombardi of the Green Bay Packers, and literally no one was more stubborn and more concerned about distractions. At first, Lombardi flatly refused to play in LA, but when it was obvious he was losing that battle he agreed, but said he would not take his team to Los Angeles to practice that week.

Lombardi wanted to stay and practice in Palo Alto, a full 400 miles from LA. After much conversation, begging and pleading by Rozelle, Lombardi agree that the Packers would come closer — but not that close. He put his team in Santa Barbara for the week, with a hotel right on the ocean. But Lombardi absolutely insisted that no Packer player go in the ocean, or even the hotel swimming pool.

Vince Lombardi was the master of Old School.

Years later, when the Denver Broncos faced the New York Giants in the Rose Bowl in Super Bowl XXI, the great Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray told me, on a spectacularly sunny California day, "Jim, today another thousand families in Iowa put the mattresses on top of the station wagons and head west to California."

But the first one was in the Coliseum.

Another problem Rozelle faced was that he absolutely hated the term "Super Bowl" — at least initially. Pete felt that the word "super" was just slang and the game needed way more dignity that that, so the World Championship Game was used for the first two games.

It is true that Kansas City Chiefs owner and AFL founder Lamar Hunt had a daughter who used to play with a very bouncy rubber ball, called a "Super Ball," and that was the genesis of the term.

Like many things too big to be denied, by Year 3 the game was the Super Bowl, and things never looked back. Pete adjusted quickly.

That first year the NFL staff was very small, but every key figure was in LA for the game.

Of course, that included Thelma Elkjer, officially "just" Pete's secretary but in fact the most important woman in the first 50-plus years of the NFL. Thelma is worthy of an entire book, which this is not, but she was the best "gatekeeper" in sports history and had the key role in determining the actual divisions of the expanded NFL.

Things were not as big in that first year or two.

Believe it or not, the only Xerox machine used for the game was in the hotel room of NFL PR director Don Weiss, "just in case we needed to copy anything."

More recently, dozens of the highest speed copiers have been made available, by trade or rentals, and of course now the copious quotes and constant barrage of press releases are also (and primarily) sent to the sportswriters by email.

A lot of the press interviews were conducted informally at poolside, literally. In fact, that is where Joe Namath before Super Bowl III confirmed to writers that he had indeed guaranteed a victory at a civic luncheon.

Party tickets were a lot easier to come by, as the total number of press and dignitaries in attendance are dwarfed by today's numbers. That first game was not sold out, as attendance was clocked at about 62,000 of the Coliseum's 94,000-seat capacity.

Also, not one but two networks televised the game. Both CBS and NFC had contracts that had to be honored, so the first game remains the only one ever televised by two networks. In fact, a little known piece of trivia is that one of the networks did not get back to the game in time for the second-half kickoff, so yes, the kick was done a second time, for television!

After the game was over and the NFL executives flew back to New York, Rozelle told Weiss said to fellow exec Jim Kensil, "Never again is there going to be a championship game that isn't a sellout."

And they never have.

A lot of water has gone over and under a lot of bridges since that first Super Bowl in Los Angeles 56 years ago. New history will certainly be made this week, but it was all set up by Pete Rozelle and many others, remembered and forgotten, in the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1967.

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