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First eBook Edition: December 2009
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The Pre-Super Bowl Century
According to sports lore, the Super Bowl — the most-watched football game in the world — got its name from a child's toy.
The first Super Bowl was called the AFL-NFL World Championship Game. The people in charge of the leagues agreed that that name wasn't terribly exciting.
"In our discussions, we kept referring to it as the 'final game' or the 'championship game' or whatever, but it was awkward," recalled Lamar Hunt, then owner of the Kansas City Chiefs and creator of the American Football League (AFL). Then Hunt saw his daughter playing with a small, high-bouncing rubber ball — a Super Ball.
"One day I happened to say, 'When we get to the super bowl . . . ,' and everyone knew what I was talking about," Hunt said.
The name stuck. Today, the Super Bowl is watched on television by millions of people worldwide. It wasn't always so popular, however. In fact, professional football in general had to earn its place in the sports world.
Sports historians mark November 6, 1869, as the first football game — despite the fact that the match was more a rough-and-tumble combination of soccer and rugby. Teams were made up of twenty-five players: two guarding the goal line, eleven lined up as defense, and the remaining twelve working the offense. Players were not permitted to run with or throw the round ball, only to kick or push it forward with their hands, feet, heads, and bodies. Bodies were also used to break up any plays the opposite team was forming — the precursors of today's tackles. One point was scored every time the ball went over the goal line.
This first football game was played at the college level between Rutgers University and Princeton University. At the end of the game, Rutgers had put the ball across six times, Princeton only four.
In the years that followed, other colleges became interested in the new game and formed teams. As the sport spread across the country, the rules of play began to evolve. By the late 1800s players were running with the ball, and tackling and blocking were a regular part of the game. A system of downs and yardage gains and losses was developed. The one-point goal was replaced with the four-point touchdown.
By this time, athletic clubs were offering non-college amateurs a chance to play. Before long, they began paying talented individuals to play for their squads, and then entire teams. Football was going professional.
By the turn of the century there were enough professional teams to form official football leagues. In 1920, the American Professional Football Association (APFA) was created in an effort to bring all the leagues together under one umbrella of rules and regulations. The Association officially changed its name to the National Football League in 1922.
Despite the increasing interest in the game, professional football struggled to gain a solid foothold in the world of sport. While attendance rose in some stadiums in the 1920s and 1930s, something needed to happen for football to capture the attention of sports fans nationwide.
That something happened at 2:30 p.m. on October 22, 1939. That day the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) televised an NFL game to approximately one thousand households. As television technology became more readily available around the country, more fans began watching games without leaving the comfort of their homes. By the late 1950s, hundreds of thousands of people were tuning in to see their favorite teams compete.
Spurred by this newfound and ever-increasing audience, a new football league, the American Football League (AFL), was formed in 1959. Created to rival the NFL, the AFL introduced a more open and exciting style of play. Attendance at and television ratings for AFL games skyrocketed as fans tuned in to see their favorite athletes play this thrilling kind of football.
Some NFL team owners wanted to stop the AFL, but others realized that it might be better to work with, rather than against, their competition. One such person was Pete Rozelle, commissioner of the NFL. In the spring of 1966, he approached the AFL with a proposal to merge the two leagues into one. The AFL agreed and on June 8, 1966, the merger was announced.
Twenty-four teams, all original members of either the NFL or the AFL, made up the merged league. For the next few years, the AFL teams would play a separate schedule from the NFL teams. However, in the spirit of friendly competition, the top AFL team and the top NFL team would play a championship game at the end of the season.
And so it was that on January 15, 1967, football fans watched the first-ever Super Bowl.
Vince Lombardi and the Green Bay Packers
In 1958, the Green Bay Packers were one of the worst teams in the NFL. That year, they ended the season having won only one game out of thirteen. The previous years hadn't been much better. Football fans considered the Packers a loser team, scarcely worth watching.
One year later, however, the Packers' 1959 record stood at seven wins, five losses, and those same fans were paying much more attention to the Wisconsin team. The journey up from the cellar was due to the team's new head coach, Vince Lombardi.
Today, Vince Lombardi is considered a football legend. But in 1959, no one, least of all the players, knew what he would be like as a coach.
They found out quickly enough.
"I demand a commitment to excellence and to victory," Lombardi let his players know. He expected them to give one hundred percent all the time, during games and practices. "Do it again until we get it right," he said when a play didn't go as planned.
Lombardi recognized that the Packers had plenty of talented players. He believed they just needed discipline and innovative plays to become a great team. So that's what he gave them.
Under Lombardi's direction, the Packers rose to become the top team in the NFL. From 1959 to 1966, they won the NFL championship title four times. And with a 1966 season record of 12 and 2, they earned the right to play in the first AFL-NFL World Championship Game.
The Packers' opponents were the Kansas City Chiefs. Owned by Lamar Hunt, the man who created the AFL in 1960, the team had a record of 11–2–1, more than good enough to seal their spot in the AFL-NFL match.
The first Super Bowl game was held on January 15, 1967, in Los Angeles's Memorial Coliseum. Tickets to the event cost ten dollars. Unlike today's Super Bowls, the game was not a sellout; still, close to 62,000 fans sat in the stands and an estimated 60 million viewers tuned in at home to see the much-hyped match.
One person who was looking forward to watching the event was Max McGee. McGee had once been a favorite receiver of Green Bay quarterback Bart Starr. But that year he'd had a less-than-stellar season, catching only three passes. His chances of seeing any action that day seemed slim.
"I had no earthly idea I'd play in that game," McGee later wrote.
But early in the first quarter, Packer wide receiver Boyd Dowler injured his shoulder. "McGee," Lombardi shouted to his second-stringer, "get in the game!"
Once McGee was in position, play resumed. The Packers moved the ball down the field to the Kansas City 37-yard line. It was third and three. Quarterback Bart Starr took the snap and faded back. McGee, meanwhile, hustled down the field, crossing the 30-yard line, then the 20. Starr spotted him in the clear near the 19-yard line and spiraled a pass.
The ball came in a little behind McGee. But with a twist of his body, he got his right hand on it and gathered it in. "When the ball stuck I almost fainted," he later recalled.
Instead, he barreled toward the end zone for the first six points of the game. One kick later, the Packers were ahead, 7–0.
But the Chiefs weren't about to roll over just yet. Early in the second quarter, quarterback Len Dawson threw a seven-yard pass over the goal line into the waiting hands of running back Curtis McClinton. The extra point was good, and the game was tied.
But not for long. Starr powered the Packers down the field until they were in scoring position. Then he handed off to Jim Taylor. Taylor put his shoulder down, charged headlong into and through the Chiefs' defense, and crossed the line for six more points. Again, the extra-point kick soared through the uprights and the Packers were up by seven.
Still, the Chiefs were not ready to give up. Just before halftime, kicker Mike Mercer booted the ball 31 yards for a three-point field goal. Suddenly the score was a lot closer.
After the half, Coach Lombardi told his team that unless they took the wind out of Kansas City's sails, they would be beaten. Green Bay was the better team, he reminded them. Defeat would be shameful.
- On Sale
- Dec 19, 2009
- Page Count
- 128 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers