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`Super' pressure can be stifling; how football's big game began

By Phil Elderkin / January 21, 1986



Late Sunday afternoon in New Orleans, when the partying is finally put on hold, the publicity hype turned off, and the last plastic quote committed to posterity, the National Football League will stage its championship game. Yes, it has a catchy nickname -- Super Bowl XX, and both participating organizations, the favored Chicago Bears and the New England Patriots, have never been there before. So there is no guarantee that they will know how to act, perhaps even mistaking the dinner fork for the salad fork.

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Over the years, most teams making their first appearance in the Super Bowl have been so overwhelmed by the enormity of the event that they've seldom lived up to their press clippings. The pressure seems to flatten them out, stifle their imagination, and prompt coaches to build their game plan around a fear of losing.

As the late Vince Lombardi was quoted years ago:

``It's really just another day's pay, nothing more. If you're a coach, you don't go in for gambling or surprises at Super Bowl time. You play it safe. That can be tough on the fans who are always looking for thrills, but maybe people wouldn't expect so much if they didn't build it up so big.''

Yet, despite more zircons than diamonds so far, the Super Bowl manages to maintain its reputation as the greatest one-day spectacle in sports.

Applications for media credentials number in the thousands; hotels boost their rates; cab drivers get rich overnight; ticket scalpers think it's Christmas all over again; and anything with a Super Bowl logo on it sells like stamps in a post office. Game's `Super' origin

Given time now to reflect on how the first Super Bowl burst onto the scene 20 years ago, one concludes that it came about primarily because the NFL held out so long in its attempt to break the rival American Football League.

Return with us now to the late 1950s, when the well-established NFL handled most expansion talk by ignoring it. Even some of the nation's richest men who wanted to buy into pro football couldn't generate the slightest interest among the NFL's power barons.

In a way, it was understandable. The people who controlled the NFL knew they had something good and weren't about to tinker with it.

When someone would ask the owners when they were going to expand the league, their answer was nearly always the same: ``Where are you going to get the players?'' they wanted to know.

Frustrated, these rich men (and a few more who weren't quite so rich) formed a second pro football structure -- the American Football League. Eventually the AFL grew strong enough and excited the public enough so that there was a natural demand for a title game between the new kid on the block and the old established NFL.

When it couldn't ignore the clamor any more, the NFL finally relented, began merger talks, and, for starters, agreed to an interleague championship game.

Looking for a warm-weather climate, officials of the two leagues scheduled the first such showdown in Los Angeles. The opponents were the Green Bay Packers and the Kansas City Chiefs, and while the game didn't exactly bomb (Green Bay won 31-10 after a close first half), 30,000 seats went unsold. Today a man could retire forever on the revenue that number of tickets would bring on the black market.

Within a couple of years, though, it was clear that the idea of this game had clicked with the public, so once the two leagues had been merged into one, it just evolved into the ultimate championship contest matching the winners of the two conference crowns.

The way the Super Bowl got its name also came about as the result of an unlikely incident involving Lamar Hunt, one of the founders of the AFL, and his children. Fascinated while watching his kids play with a new kind of rubber ball that took incredibly high bounces, Hunt questioned them about it.

When they replied that it was called ``Super Ball,'' Lamar kept the super and changed the ``Ball'' to ``Bowl,'' a slick identification of the AFL-NFL championship game that members of the media were only too happy to make part of the language.