Pride and Prejudice

Times Staff Writer

It sounds like pro football history in reverse. Last week, with the contestants for the 40th Super Bowl finally set, the biggest game-related controversy revolved around the Pittsburgh Steelers' decision to wear white shirts during the game, instead of black.

How quaint.

How charming.

How very different it was 39 years ago, when the first matchup between the champions of the established National Football League and the upstart American Football League seemed less like an outrageously overcooked sporting spectacle and more like life during wartime.

The writers covering the first Super Bowl treated their press credentials like dog tags, assembling in trenches according to their league allegiances -- NFL writers over here, AFL scribes to the back of the room.

Two television networks -- the NFL on CBS, the AFL brought to you by NBC -- televised the game to their respective partisan audiences, with pregame tensions between the technical crews reaching such a fever pitch that a 10-foot chain-link fence was erected to separate the feuding camps.

In the winners' locker room, reporters from both networks -- Pat Summerall for CBS/the NFL and George Ratterman for NBC/the AFL -- had to wrestle over the single microphone they were given to conduct on-air interviews.

This was serious business, this game pitting the NFL's Green Bay Packers against the AFL's Kansas City Chiefs. So serious that when Kansas City owner Lamar Hunt -- notably an AFL guy, from the gadget-play league where teams sometimes passed the ball more than 30 times a game! -- suggested the name "Super Bowl," it was deemed too frivolous for a confrontation of such grave importance.

Instead, the official title of the first two championship games between the rival leagues was "the NFL-AFL World Championship Game." (That did not last long, much to the initial chagrin of NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle. It was hard fitting "NFL-AFL World Championship Game" into newspaper headlines, so harried editors across the land helped spur the movement to the much snappier "Super Bowl.") There was so much more than the front of a Wheaties box and a trip to Disneyland at stake when the Packers played the Chiefs at the Los Angeles Coliseum on Jan. 15, 1967.

For the Packers, nothing less than the NFL's sacred and much-guarded reputation was on the line. Before the AFL began loading slingshots in 1960, the NFL ruled supreme as the ultimate football league. To take on the AFL in a championship game was more than a no-win proposition for the NFL -- it was better-not-lose, under any circumstances.

Packer Coach Vince Lombardi fielded phone calls from Chicago Bear owner George Halas and New York Giant owner Wellington Mara demanding nothing less than a rout of the Chiefs.

In turn, Lombardi passed the paranoia down to his team, telling his players the night before the game that anyone breaking curfew would "never play another down in the National Football League."

(Packer receiver Max McGee paid Lombardi no mind, sneaking out after curfew, assuming that, at 34 -- and having caught only four passes all season -- he would not be playing. But Boyd Dowler suffered a shoulder separation early in the game and a hung-over McGee was called upon -- and soon afterward reached backward to catch a touchdown pass from quarterback Bart Starr, thus becoming the first player ever to score in the Super Bowl. McGee caught another scoring pass in the fourth quarter and wound up with seven receptions for 138 yards.)

The Chiefs were assigned the even more daunting task of legitimizing the AFL's claim to equal footing by a controversial merger forged between the leagues only seven months before the first Super Bowl.

According to the agreement, all AFL teams would join the NFL in 1970, but before that, the Chiefs had to prove the AFL was worthy, meaning they had better not embarrass their 7-year-old league.

The pregame tension was felt all the way down to the press corps, with NFL writers predicting a Packer victory by such outrageous scores as 58-6 and 73-0, and AFL writers digging in to defend the Chiefs' credibility.

Describing himself as "an AFL apologist," Jerry Magee of the San Diego Union Tribune covered Super Bowl I -- this year's will be his 38th -- and said, "Really, the only one I can remember with a whole lot of clarity is that first one. Because to me, that was the true war of the worlds, matching the AFL and the NFL.

"One thing I remember, Tex Maule [of Sports Illustrated] predicted the Green Bay Packers would win, 58-6. So I picked the Chiefs, 58-6, or something like that, a big score.

"At halftime the game was close [the Packers led, 14-10] and I looked around and Tex didn't look too good. He was concerned."

The Packers went on to win, 35-10, a score that pleased most NFL ownership and supported the prevailing view of the NFL media.

"I don't think the [NFL] writers were NFL fans, but they were NFL-oriented," said Jerry Green, who covered the game for the Detroit News. "From the NFL side, it gave us a superiority complex, until [Joe] Namath came along [in Super Bowl III]....

"I felt basically that we protected our turf. I would say the NFL guys, in Detroit, in Chicago, were pro-NFL. And Larry Felser from Buffalo and Dick Connor from Denver, they were pro-AFL. I can remember Rozelle had a party at the Hilton in downtown Los Angeles, and we sort of stood at opposite sides of the room."

Bob Oates, longtime pro football writer for the Los Angeles Times, covered Super Bowl I for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. He described the rivalry between NFL and AFL writers as "one-sided."

"The AFL guys felt inferior," he recalled. "They thought that we thought their league was inferior. And I think that was true to some extent.

"I'm on the Hall of Fame committee all these years and that sentiment still resonated until two or three years ago.... Anybody that [covered] the old AFL, they all ganged together. And I can understand that. And I can also understand that the northern [NFL] writers didn't really understand what was going on [with the AFL]."

Magee, also a member of the Hall of Fame selection committee, says the rivalry among the writers is alive.

"It still exists," he said. "If you ever sat in on a meeting of the Hall of Fame, that to me is the last bastion where the AFL-NFL rivalry still exists."

In 1967, the rivalry was so real that it affected everything from the footballs used in the first Super Bowl to the officiating crew to the television coverage.

So as not to give either league a perceived advantage, an arrangement was made to use two different footballs -- the Chiefs would use the official AFL ball on their possessions, the Packers would line up over the NFL's "Duke" when they were on offense.

There was a turning point early in the second half, when Green Bay's Willie Wood intercepted a pass and returned it to the Kansas City five-yard line, setting up a game-breaking touchdown by Elijah Pitts.

Green said he thought "it took the Packers a little longer to start dominating" than he had expected. "Into the second half. I remember Willie Wood intercepted that pass."

Green paused, then mused, "He caught an AFL ball."

After the game, a self-satisfied Lombardi talked with reporters while casually flipping a football in the air.

"I asked him if it was an NFL ball," Green recalled. "And he didn't answer. I asked him again and he said, 'Yeah, it's an NFL ball. And it throws better, runs better and kicks better.' "

The officiating crew was also split along league lines -- half from the NFL, half from the AFL.

After Green Bay was flagged for a penalty, Starr asked referee Norm Schacter which official had made the call. When Schacter pointed to the man who'd dropped the yellow flag, Starr asked, "Norm, isn't he one of ours?"

For the only time in the history of the game, the Super Bowl was televised live by two networks. After the first game, CBS and NBC alternated, until ABC and Fox entered the picture years later.

Two networks televising the game -- but none in the Los Angeles area. The game was blacked out locally, prompting some area newspapers to print instructions on how to poach reception by rigging a makeshift antenna with a wire hanger.

The NFL won the game and the television battle. CBS' telecast received a 22.6 rating; NBC's was 18.5. The entire audience of 65 million was at the time the largest ever for a sports event.

Despite the blackout, attendance for Super Bowl I -- 61,946 -- was 30,000 less than capacity. There were so many empty seats that fans near the goal lines were asked to move closer to the center of the field, to create a better backdrop for television.

Popular belief holds that the game didn't sell out because ticket prices were too steep -- $12 for the most expensive seat. Oates disputes that notion.

"You know the reason it didn't sell out?" he said. "It didn't sell out because it was not perceived to be a big game in Los Angeles.

"The first two years of the Super Bowl, the big game was the NFL championship game. And it was played in those two years between Green Bay and Dallas. The second one was the Ice Bowl, which you've heard about. The first one, I did think for many years, was the best football game I ever saw....

"All the papers in Los Angeles, there were three or four then, were all writing about that game at length, both before and afterward, just as the Super Bowl is handled today. And so when the Super Bowl came, everybody in Los Angeles understood that. I think the people in Los Angeles felt that the first Super Bowl was an anticlimax."

Green disagrees.

"I thought the NFL championship game was very big because it sent the winner to the Super Bowl," he said. "I was looking at it from a baseball point of view in that it would evolve into a World Series type of thing. Which it has. It dwarfs the World Series now.

"I just thought it would be very interesting to see how this new league would play against the NFL. I expected the NFL to win. I thought it was a big game.

"I was ... so surprised it didn't sell out. From [at least] a curiosity standpoint."

Oates notes Los Angeles' track record for drawing crowds of 90,000 and 100,000 for NFL games "at a time when they couldn't sell out the Polo Grounds [in New York].... Los Angeles was really the first to understand about big-time football, and that's why this game didn't sell out. It wasn't perceived to be a big-time game."

The next year, the Super Bowl moved to Miami, where the game's 39-year sellout streak began.

"Miami did go for it," Oates said. "Rozelle was so thrilled he put the next one in Miami too.

"So that's the difference between Miami and L.A. That's the difference between L.A. and anyplace."

Do memories run long in the NFL?

Forty years after 61,000 fans rattled around the Coliseum for Super Bowl I, Los Angeles begins its 12th year without an NFL team.



Super Bowl I


at L.A. Memorial Coliseum

January 15, 1967

Attendance: 61,946

MVP: Bart Starr, QB, Green Bay

*--* 1st 2nd 3rd 4th F Kansas City 0 10 0 0 10 Green Bay 7 7 14 7 35


* GB--McGee 37 pass from Starr (Chandler kick), 8:56 1st

* KC--McClinton 7 pass from Dawson (Mercer kick), 4:20 2nd

* GB--Taylor 14 run (Chandler kick), 10:23 2nd

* KC--FG Mercer 31, 14:06 2nd

* GB--Pitts 5 run (Chandler kick), 2:27 3rd

* GB--McGee 13 pass from Starr (Chandler kick), 14:09 3rd

* GB--Pitts 1 run (Chandler kick), 8:25 4th

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