The talk before and after Sunday's Super Bowl game was about rings, not greenbacks.
Not that Green Bay's $48,000-per-player payoff for winning wasn't alluring. It's just that pro football players fixate on championship jewelry in a big way.
A sample from New Orleans: "To come this far and not get a ring would be ridiculous."
Thus spoke Green Bay defensive end Sean Jones in the days leading up the Packers' victory over New England.
While championship rings are common in professional sports, their exalted status in the National Football League probably stems from two factors. One is that a Super Bowl ring offers each player on a large roster a piece of glory. It also helps that teams have traditionally used the ring to make a statement. The first Super Bowl ring, won by the Packers in 1967, is inscribed with "Harmony, Courage and Valor." San Francisco opted for "Team of the '80s" after capping the 1989 season with its fourth Super Bowl victory. For their resounding defeat of New England in 1986, the Chicago Bears celebrated with rings studded with 40 diamonds.
William "the Refrigerator" Perry, a beefy defensive lineman, received one fitted to his enormous size-23 digit, big enough to fit a 50-cent piece through.
"The players want big rings that show the importance of their achievement," says Barry Shields, a spokesman for the Massachusetts-based Balfour Co., which has made Super Bowl rings. "Besides, you can't put a small signet ring on their fingers."
In the immediate aftermath of victory, the most visible reward is the Vince Lombardi Trophy presented to the winning team. The rings come much later. Whichever jeweler gets the contract must first produce sample designs for a team's consideration. The owner, with input from players and staff, usually makes the final decision.
The NFL, which originally allotted $1,000 per ring, established an adjustable $4,000 spending ceiling in 1980. Owners, however, sometimes dip into their own pockets to pay for something extra special.
Most players would never dream of parting with these prized possessions, yet for various reasons a number of them have become available.
Rocky Bleier, a 1970s star of the Pittsburgh Steelers, recently sold his four Super Bowl rings to a friend for $40,000 in order to pay overdue income taxes. A pawnshop owner in Kansas City, Kan., claims to have acquired hundreds of Super Bowl rings over the years.
Championship teams receive 90 rings for distribution to the franchise's football family. Beyond that, teams often order other jewelry, including pendants, for staffers and corporate sponsors. Even regular fans can mark the occasion of their team's triumph by purchasing lesser quality commemorative rings. Balfour sells such rings for $250, but Shields is quick to emphasize that they "do not replicate in any manner" the actual championship rings.