League rivalries, football's popularity on TV led to Super Bowl

The first Super Bowl was played on Jan. 15, 1967, with Green Bay's National Football League titleholders crushing the American Football League champion Kansas City Chiefs, 35-10. It was a big event even then, with a crowd of 61,946 in the Los Angeles Coliseum and a national television audience. But by now, of course, it has grown into a truly incredible spectacle - an enormous happening and commercial bonanza far exceeding anything its creators could ever possibly have dreamed of two decades ago. How did it all happen?

In a sense, the initial seeds were planted as long ago as the postwar 1940s, when the All-America Football Conference emerged as the first serious rival of the long-established NFL. The new league had some great players and at least one great team, the perennial champion Cleveland Browns. But how good were they, really? They dominated the other AAFC teams, to be sure, but would they have any chance against the champions of the real big league?

The AAFC, of course, would have given just about anything to settle that question on the field. But the NFL wanted no part of lending credibility to its upstart competitor in such an ``everything-to-lose, nothing-to-gain'' showcase. The strategy of the established league - as it always is in such cases - was to ignore the newcomer and hope it would go away. Each league held its own championship game, and that was that. But despite the absence of an ultimate playoff, hardly anyone questioned the assumption that the NFL champion was No. 1.

After coexisting for four years, the leagues merged, with the AAFC's Cleveland, San Francisco, and Baltimore teams joining the NFL, while players from other clubs were divided around. Again there was just one major pro football league.

Ironically, once the Browns got into the NFL they quickly showed that a 1940s ``Super Bowl'' wouldn't have been a mismatch after all - or at least not the one people expected! In their very first regular season game they overpowered the defending NFL champion Philadelphia Eagles, 35-10, then went on to establish themselves as one of the league's dominant teams over the next few seasons.

The NFL championship game continued to be the climax of the pro season throughout the 1950s and most of the '60s - and there were some good ones, too. One thinks of the Browns' 30-28 thriller over Los Angeles to cap that 1950 campaign, the Rams' 24-17 retaliation the following year, Philadelphia's startling 17-13 upset of the Green Bay Packers in 1960 - and most of all the famous 1958 contest in which John Unitas led Baltimore to a dramatic 23-17 victory over the New York Giants in the first playoff game to go into overtime.

Pro football's tremendous leap in popularity during this period - especially on TV - led to the formation of the American Football League in 1960. Once again, the NFL ignored its new rival as long it could. But the AFL began capturing so much attention - especially after the much-publicized arrival of Joe Namath - that this situation couldn't last indefinitely. Year after year it became increasingly apparent that the public wanted to see an ultimate test between the two champions.

The NFL saw the writing on the wall and eventually consented to a merger arrangement by which the two leagues would become one much larger entity - with three NFL teams joining the 10 AFL clubs to form the American Conference and the rest of the NFL teams making up the National Conference. Meanwhile, during the four years it took to put this operation into practice, the respective league titleholders would meet in a postseason contest.

The name for this clash of champions, which now seems so much a part of it all, came about more or less by chance. Lamar Hunt, one of the founders of the AFL, was trying to come up with something when he thought of a toy his children played with called Super Ball. From there it was just one short leap, and, voil`a!, the new game had its name.

There was also the question of a site. Mid-to-late January clearly seemed too wintry to play in one of the cities involved, so it was decided to use a neutral site - either in a warm-weather climate or a domed stadium. This year's contest will be the fourth in the Rose Bowl and sixth in the Los Angeles area (counting two in the L.A. Coliseum). There have also been six in New Orleans (three at Tulane and three in the Superdome), six in Florida (five in Miami's Orange Bowl and one in Tampa), and one each in Houston, Stanford, and the Silverdome in Pontiac, Mich.

The first two Super Bowls were not very competitive, with Green Bay following up its rout of Kansas City by similarly demolishing Oakland the next year. NFL supporters continued to look down at their rivals, and the superiority of the older league did seem pretty obvious.

But then as a climax to the 1968 season came what is still the most famous Super Bowl of all - when Namath ``guaranteed'' victory and followed it up by leading the New York Jets to a 16-7 upset over the Baltimore Colts. The next year produced another AFL triumph, Kansas City beating Minnesota handily. That made it 2-2, ending talk of NFL superiority. Then in 1970 the leagues officially became one, and the Super Bowl took on its present form as a final NFL championship game between the two conference winners.

Unfortunately, the game on the field has frequently failed to measure up to the hype leading up to it, and over the years the Super Bowl has seemed to have more than its share of duds. Scores like 24-7, 24-3, and 38-9 tell some of the story, and last year produced the most lopsided contest of all as the Chicago Bears trampled the New England Patriots, 46-10.

But there have been exciting games, too, such as two epic confrontations between Pittsburgh and Dallas in the 1970s, both won by the Steelers on fourth-quarter touchdown passes from Terry Bradshaw to Lynn Swann, and both going down to the wire as the Cowboys tried desperately to rally back behind the great Roger Staubach. There was the surprising 1980 struggle, when another heavily favored Pittsburgh team had to come from behind in the fourth quarter to turn back Los Angeles. And 1982 produced another thriller as San Francisco held off Cincinnati to prevail 26-21.

As for individual performances, who can forget Miami's Larry Csonka rampaging through Minnesota's famous ``Purple People Eaters'' in 1974, or the exploits of other great running backs like Franco Harris, John Riggins, and Marcus Allen? Still vivid, too, are pictures of the balletic Swann catching passes for 161 yards in 1976, and the incredible moves of Fred Biletnikoff as he eluded the defense time and again for key receptions in Oakland's 1977 triumph. There've been defensive standouts such as Mean Joe Greene, Chuck Howley, Nick Buoniconti, Jake Scott, Randy White, and Harvey Martin. And of course all those great quarterbacks - from Bart Starr through Len Dawson, Bradshaw, Staubach, Bob Griese, Jim Plunkett, and Joe Montana, to Jim McMahon just a year ago.

When all is said and done, though, it was Namath and the Jets who captured the imagination of the public on that January afternoon in 1969 in the game that instantly made this the biggest one-day sporting event in the country - and that even now continues to be the most talked-about Super Bowl of them all.

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