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Pride and Prejudice

There was a lot on the line when the NFL's Packers faced the AFL's Chiefs in the first Super Bowl at the Coliseum

January 29, 2006|Mike Penner | Times Staff Writer

It sounds like pro football history in reverse. Last week, with the contestants for the 40th Super Bowl finally set, the biggest game-related controversy revolved around the Pittsburgh Steelers' decision to wear white shirts during the game, instead of black.

How quaint.

How charming.

How very different it was 39 years ago, when the first matchup between the champions of the established National Football League and the upstart American Football League seemed less like an outrageously overcooked sporting spectacle and more like life during wartime.

The writers covering the first Super Bowl treated their press credentials like dog tags, assembling in trenches according to their league allegiances -- NFL writers over here, AFL scribes to the back of the room.

Two television networks -- the NFL on CBS, the AFL brought to you by NBC -- televised the game to their respective partisan audiences, with pregame tensions between the technical crews reaching such a fever pitch that a 10-foot chain-link fence was erected to separate the feuding camps.

In the winners' locker room, reporters from both networks -- Pat Summerall for CBS/the NFL and George Ratterman for NBC/the AFL -- had to wrestle over the single microphone they were given to conduct on-air interviews.

This was serious business, this game pitting the NFL's Green Bay Packers against the AFL's Kansas City Chiefs. So serious that when Kansas City owner Lamar Hunt -- notably an AFL guy, from the gadget-play league where teams sometimes passed the ball more than 30 times a game! -- suggested the name "Super Bowl," it was deemed too frivolous for a confrontation of such grave importance.

Instead, the official title of the first two championship games between the rival leagues was "the NFL-AFL World Championship Game." (That did not last long, much to the initial chagrin of NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle. It was hard fitting "NFL-AFL World Championship Game" into newspaper headlines, so harried editors across the land helped spur the movement to the much snappier "Super Bowl.") There was so much more than the front of a Wheaties box and a trip to Disneyland at stake when the Packers played the Chiefs at the Los Angeles Coliseum on Jan. 15, 1967.

For the Packers, nothing less than the NFL's sacred and much-guarded reputation was on the line. Before the AFL began loading slingshots in 1960, the NFL ruled supreme as the ultimate football league. To take on the AFL in a championship game was more than a no-win proposition for the NFL -- it was better-not-lose, under any circumstances.

Packer Coach Vince Lombardi fielded phone calls from Chicago Bear owner George Halas and New York Giant owner Wellington Mara demanding nothing less than a rout of the Chiefs.

In turn, Lombardi passed the paranoia down to his team, telling his players the night before the game that anyone breaking curfew would "never play another down in the National Football League."

(Packer receiver Max McGee paid Lombardi no mind, sneaking out after curfew, assuming that, at 34 -- and having caught only four passes all season -- he would not be playing. But Boyd Dowler suffered a shoulder separation early in the game and a hung-over McGee was called upon -- and soon afterward reached backward to catch a touchdown pass from quarterback Bart Starr, thus becoming the first player ever to score in the Super Bowl. McGee caught another scoring pass in the fourth quarter and wound up with seven receptions for 138 yards.)

The Chiefs were assigned the even more daunting task of legitimizing the AFL's claim to equal footing by a controversial merger forged between the leagues only seven months before the first Super Bowl.

According to the agreement, all AFL teams would join the NFL in 1970, but before that, the Chiefs had to prove the AFL was worthy, meaning they had better not embarrass their 7-year-old league.

The pregame tension was felt all the way down to the press corps, with NFL writers predicting a Packer victory by such outrageous scores as 58-6 and 73-0, and AFL writers digging in to defend the Chiefs' credibility.

Describing himself as "an AFL apologist," Jerry Magee of the San Diego Union Tribune covered Super Bowl I -- this year's will be his 38th -- and said, "Really, the only one I can remember with a whole lot of clarity is that first one. Because to me, that was the true war of the worlds, matching the AFL and the NFL.

"One thing I remember, Tex Maule [of Sports Illustrated] predicted the Green Bay Packers would win, 58-6. So I picked the Chiefs, 58-6, or something like that, a big score.

"At halftime the game was close [the Packers led, 14-10] and I looked around and Tex didn't look too good. He was concerned."

The Packers went on to win, 35-10, a score that pleased most NFL ownership and supported the prevailing view of the NFL media.

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