Don't Fumble the Silver Football

Super Bowl trophy is valued by teams, fans - and even some museum directors

TO the victor goes the trophy - all 143 troy ounces of sterling silver.

Yes, the Super Bowl trophy. A silver football, laces facing the goal post, ready to be booted into play.

After the defense has sacked the quarterback, after the wide receivers have spiked the football, after the Fat Lady has sung this Super Bowl Sunday, millions of viewers worldwide will watch NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue hand over the seven-pound trophy to either the San Francisco 49ers or the San Diego Chargers.

It is the sort of trophy that the average fan can understand without needing John Madden to scribble Xs and Os: a football on top of a triangle. ``It is such a simple, clean design that it just stands out for its pure artistic value,'' says Joe Horrigan, curator of the Canton, Ohio, Football Hall of Fame, where a replica of the prize is one of the biggest attractions. From athletes to artisans

As an objet d'art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Houston Museum of Fine Arts have displayed the trophy as part of a traveling exhibition. In the spring of 1990, when eight of the trophies were at the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio, the lines would form in the morning to see the silver objects.

``It was enormously popular and brought people who normally do not visit an art museum,'' says Louis Zona, the director of the museum. ``Some of them are still coming back, which is good for us,'' he adds.

The trophy sometimes makes sophisticated men act like boys. Tiffany & Co. vice president Edward Wawrynek recalls using a Super Bowl trophy in a lecture on silversmithing. ``Doctors, lawyers, they were all drawn to the trophy and wanted their pictures taken with it,'' he recalls.

Legend has it that the Vince Lombardi Trophy was conceived about the same way a sandlot football team dreams up its plays: very informally. Twenty-nine seasons ago, Oscar Riedener, a former vice president of design for Tiffany, sketched the trophy on a napkin during a meeting with then-football-commissioner Pete Rozelle.

Although the trophy has remained the same since that first championship, the cost to the NFL changes, depending on the price of silver. Jim Steeg, director of special events at the NFL, says the game trophy generally costs about $20,000. With the price of silver currently low, he jokes, ``Maybe we should order in bulk.''

Perhaps, they should. At $20,000, the trophy ``is a reasonable price,'' says Scott Siegel, president of R.S. Owens & Co., a Chicago trophy producer that makes the Oscars, the Emmy Awards, and other trophies. His company, which competes with Tiffany, has produced scaled-down replicas of the Super Bowl trophy for team owners who want to reward their players with copies. Siegel says it took his company three years to develop the tooling for the replicas.

Siegel's company uses molds to cast the trophies in a soft metal, which is then plated with silver. At Tiffany, however, the process begins as two flat pieces of sterling silver, called ``blanks'' by the jewelry trade.

For 29 years, the trophy has been put together by many of the same Tiffany craftsmen who were there when the design went on the napkin. It takes more than 72 hours to produce.

Bill Testa begins the process on a lathe. As the lathe spins the blank, Testa muscles the silver into two halves of that familiar aerodynamic shape.

Once the two halves are soldered together, Ysela Caseres hand-chases the trophy with a sharp tool to replicate the long seams that give a football its distinctive shape.

The unfinished ball is then lateraled to Joe Laczko, who has worked on every trophy since Green Bay beat Kansas City 35-10 in 1967. Laczko, a long-suffering Jets fan, solders the laces into place and completes the triangular silver stand.

Once the trophy is complete, it is buffed with a combination of pumice and oil, and the Super Bowl logo is engraved on the stand. After Tagliabue, the NFL commissioner, hands over the gleaming trophy to the celebrating winners, it is returned to Tiffany, where the winning team and players get their names engraved for posterity. For lineups, not linemen

Tossing this football is not advisable. ``It hurts to catch it,'' reports Tom Tuosto, supervisor of production. Tuosto and several of the craftsmen tried throwing a spare silver football around. After a couple of tosses, they felt as if they had been hit in the chest with a medicine ball.

Most teams keep the trophy away from rampaging linemen. The San Francisco 49ers, for example, have their four trophies in the lobby of their Santa Clara, Calif., offices. A spokesman says groups occasionally wander in to admire them.

Dallas Cowboys fans are not so fortunate unless they are friends with owner Jerry Jones, who keeps the Cowboys' four trophies in his office on a table. ``It's kind of like a decoration,'' says Doug Hood, a spokesman for the Cowboys.

Some owners keep the trophy in their homes. When teams have changed hands, the trophies have been part of the negotiation. ``New owners have even wanted to buy new trophies,'' to replace those that stayed with teams' former owners, Steeg says.

The players and coaches aren't the only people who are in the hunt for the trophy. Tiffany says people call asking to buy a copy of it or the Super Bowl rings the company also makes.

Tiffany has resisted the impulse to sell the prizes, however.``It's something you have to earn,'' says Marissa Radovich of Tiffany. This Sunday the players will earn it.

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