NEW FEATURE!

First “Super Bowl” was big in GB, NFL

gb-superbowlNo, our Packers weren’t in the “Big Dance” this year. Still, there’s a hint of green and gold to every Super Bowl; “the Pack” won the first two — setting the stage for the rest.

That may not do much to salve this year’s disappointment, but it’s a big part of this team’s storied legacy — something fans of most other teams can’t cling to as we ex-off the days until the NFL draft and next season.

“World Championship”

Of course, the Super Bowl wouldn’t technically be the “Super Bowl” until its third installment in 1969: In those first two years, it was the “AFL-NFL World Championship Game” — a big deal, but still lacking today’s doodads, spangles and brouhaha.

And, once and for all, let’s bury that silliness that the game’s name came from that 1960s wonder toy, the Super Ball. Fact is, this first World Championship was being hailed as a “Super Bowl” even in its planning stages. It was a “bowl” game — just like season’s-end college contests — and its interleague-tension made it “super.” In GB, the Press-Gazette used the tag “Super Bowl” often in referencing the first World Championship.

The NFL organized as the American Professional Football Association in 1920. Only the Bears and Cardinals remain from that inaugural season; the Packers were still an independent town team that year. For its first decade, the APFA was a ragtag proposition — sans the precision scheduling we know today. Teams inked their own contests — often against crack semipro teams that weren’t even in the APFA.

Championships were determined by winning percentage — not a championship game. As the APFA (“NFL” in 1922) got more organized, that changed. The league held its first championship contest in 1932 when the Bears and the Portsmouth Spartans ended the season tied — Bears winning. After that, each season featured a preset title tilt between the top teams of the newly-formed Eastern and Western Conferences.

The APFA/NFL was hardly the first football league ever. Many independent teams saw an immediate advantage in coalescing into a league where resources were pooled and uniformity ironed out disparities. Yes, it came with a cost: With no overarching league charting heaven’s firmament, town teams like GB’s 1897 crew could call themselves “World Champions” and who could argue?

Numerous attempts were made at melding quality independent teams into “leagues” or “associations.” The “Western Pennsylvania Professional Football Circuit” formed in 1892-1901. Another “National Football League” organized amongst three Pennsylvania elevens in 1902. The Northern States League materialized from a covey of town teams in Northeastern Wisconsin in 1904. The Ohio League battled after 1910.

But this new APFA/NFL seemed to have set its sights on establishing a truly national network — even though its initial members emerged from the traditional Midwest-Northeast football hotbed.

Over its first decade, more than four dozen teams joined the APFA/NFL and folded. Four survived. Besides the struggle to keep its own teams afloat, the league faced at least four challenges from other leagues — each grabbing the “American” moniker to counter the NFL’s “National” claim — the first already in 1926.

The initial troika of “American Football Leagues” disintegrated. But the last AFL — founded in 1960 — seemed to have the stuff to make it go. So much so, that a merger tickled the NFL mucky mucks more than head-to-head competition that threatened to drain both leagues dry.

Green Bay? No Way!

And so it was that a game was proposed — even before the merger was finalized — between the rival leagues. It would be for all the marbles. And, all the bragging rights. The contest was set for Sunday, January 15, 1967. The stage was bigger… brighter… and hotter… than any championship game before.

If you’d zipped back a single decade and looked into a crystal ball, you would have chortled at the idea that the Packers would represent the NFL in a world championship match. Huh! By the 1950s, big time football had outgrown Green Bay. A new stadium on the city’s far west side was a step in the right direction, but crappy football wasn’t going to hold the interest of the locals let alone the rest of the nation.

That was a few tons of the burden an unknown Vince Lombardi shouldered as he took charge of the Packers in 1959. There was also the ancient mantel of the team’s half-dozen championships under Curly Lambeau who’d pressed for the job Lombardi stepped into.

Lombardi had begun his coaching career at St. Cecilia High School in 1939, joining the staff of the New York Giants in 1954. His arrival in GB just five years later was greeted with a “we’ll see” mentality.

“I want it understood,” Lombardi said at a welcome luncheon. “I’m in complete command here. I’ve never been associated with a loser and I don’t expect to be now.”

Lombardi had more than his own will and a new stadium going for him, however. He also had a roster — assembled by scout Jack Vainisi — with a Hall of Fame’s worth of promise. Vainisi had already drafted Bart Starr, Max Magee, Bob Skoronski, Paul Hornung and Forrest Gregg. But his 1958 effort — nabbing Dan Currie, Jim Taylor, Ray Nitschke and Jerry Kramer — is listed with the greatest drafts ever.

These guys — plus key free agents Fuzzy Thurston from the Colts and Henry Jordan, Willie Davis and Bill Quinlan from the Browns — helped Lombardi turn GB’s football fortunes around. Two seasons in, they’d already made it to the NFL Championship Game — a narrow loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. By 1967, they’d garnered five NFL titles including the league’s second three-peat — the first owned by Lambeau and his minions.

The championship game to decide who would represent the NFL against the upstart AFL, pitted the Packers against a relatively new NFL team — the Dallas Cowboys. The Packers jumped out to an early lead and looked like they would crush the Cowpokes. Dallas, however, managed to tie the game in the second quarter before the veteran Green Bay team edged away. The final score was 34-27.

Going into the World Championship Game, the Packers could be confident: Their offense was an elite unit and their field general, Bart Starr, was the NFL’s MVP. Their defense was just as good — coming off the Cowboy game in which they’d stymied Dallas on four straight plays to clinch the victory.
Pre-Game Points

While representing the NFL in the very first World Championship was a tremendous honor for the Packers, it was also one heckuva burden. After all, any NFL team in their position was also hoisting the cross for a league that had, itself, staved off the wolves — sometimes barely — for nearly fifty years.

The fact that his team had gone from laughingstock to legend made Lombardi’s task more daunting; it was much to gain, nearly everything to lose.

There was also outright hate between the two leagues over bidding wars for college players and subterfuge on free agent signings. At first, there had been a tacit agreement that the leagues wouldn’t pilfer each other’s active rosters, but that went out the window when the NY Giants approached kicker Pete Gogolak of the Buffalo Bills. That move prompted the AFL to purloin several contracted NFL players — including eight quality quarterbacks.

That explained much of the angst going into the World Championship. The NFL resented the AFL’s brashness; the AFL despised the NFL’s stuffy attitude. Both sides wondered if they really needed each other. Most sportswriters and impartial fans gave the edge to any theoretical NFL team over any generic AFL team.

The Kansas City Chiefs — representing the AFL — weren’t slouches, certainly not in the AFL context. They’d ended their season 11-2-1 and whipped the Bills in the league championship match, 31-7. Six of the team’s players on offense and five on defense were named to the All-AFL squad. Chiefs quarterback Len Dawson was especially anxious to show his stuff as he’d labored as an NFL backup before starring in KC.

Hard to believe — until this year when the actual day for this “outdoor” Super Bowl was up in the air pending the weather (talk about “flex scheduling”) — details for the first World Championship weren’t finalized until early-December.

Eventually, LA was named the game site and the date was nailed down. Even the dates for the league championship games had been jostled about until they were both scheduled for an unprecedented doubleheader on January 1 — the AFL contest telecast from Buffalo at 1 p.m. and the NFL matchup from Dallas at 4 p.m.

Fine points for the World Championship included that the teams on offense would use their respective balls — the Chiefs employing the AFL ball by Spalding, the Packers the NFL ball by Wilson. The game would be simulcast on CBS, which broadcast NFL contests, and NBC, which held the rights to AFL games. In turn, each network had its own broadcast crew. The familiar voice for Packers fans of Ray Scott called the first half for CBS. 30-second TV commercials cost about $40,000 — about a hundredth of an ad today.

The officiating crew, wearing neutral uniforms, was also a hybrid — the referee, head linesman and field judge coming from the NFL and the umpire, line judge and back judge coming from the AFL.

Despite the friction between the two leagues, the game was not a sellout — the only Super Bowl ever to suffer such ignominy. About 33,000 of the LA Coliseum’s 94,000 seats sat idle. The game was blacked out in the Los Angeles area — local papers railing against that as well as the NFL “overcharging” for its $12 tickets. The press even instructed readers on how to pirate TV signals.

With the wrinkles ironed out, it was time to play the game. Given their prowess in their respective leagues, the Chiefs and Packers seemed like the perfect matchup for this first World Championship contest. By all appearances, they represented the class of their respective leagues.

About the only pre-game bluster came from Chiefs cornerback, Fred “The Hammer” Williamson who promised to take out the Packers leading wide receivers with his patented forearms blows to the cranium. “Two ‘hammers’ to (Boyd) Dowler, one to (Carroll) Dale should be enough,” Williamson avowed.
The Game Itself

While exteriors were mostly cool, the intensity had some affect on both teams as the kickoff inched closer. The Packers’ spirits were bolstered by 2,500 “Super Fans” who’d flown from GB to LA for the matchup.

Lombardi had such a case of the jitters on game day, said sportscaster Frank Gifford, that “he held onto my arm and he was shaking like a leaf. It was incredible.” Assigned with proving an AFL team could “represent” against an NFL team, the Chiefs also grew edgy. Just before the game, linebacker E.J. Holub recalled his teammates were “scared to death. Guys in the tunnel were throwing up.”

The first half was a matter of a couple of class heavyweights sizing each other up. Both teams opened with punts on their first possessions before the Packers took an early 7-0 lead, driving 80 yards in six plays and scoring on a pass from Starr to an unlikely Max Magee. The Chiefs answered with a drive of their own, but missed on a field goal.

In the second quarter, Kansas City marched 66 yards in six plays and tied the game on pass from Dawson to Curtis McClinton. The Packers answered on their next series, scoring on fullback Jim Taylor’s run on a classic power sweep — Green Bay’s patented play. Dawson was sacked on the Chief’s next play, but completed four consecutive completions after that to put KC in field goal range. It was 14-10 — Packers.

At halftime, the Chiefs appeared to have more than a puncher’s chance. NFL fans fretted and AFL fans raised their heads. The Chiefs had outgained the Packers in total years, 181-164, and were down by just four points. They led in passing yards, 142-113, and were just 12 yards back in rushing. Dawson was 11 of 15 with no interceptions and the Chiefs defense had held its own against an elite NFL offense.

Halftime entertainment featured trumpeter Al Hirt and marching bands from the University of Arizona and Grambling State University.

Many were stunned at how close the contest was and how well Kansas City was holding up. Chiefs Coach Hank Stram fully expected his team to “come back and win it.”

The Packers, meanwhile, were disappointed in themselves. Defensive end Willie Davis sensed that Lombardi was “concerned.” Lombardi told his players that their game plan was sound, but they had to tweak some things. Ever one to preach the basics, he told them that a win would come down to execution.

The Packers defense got the message. On their first drive of the second half, the Chiefs made it to midfield. On a third-down play, however, a Packers blitz forced Dawson into rushing his toss. The pass was snagged by Packers Willie Wood and returned to KC’s five-yard line. It was, reflected Starr, “the biggest play of the game.”

On the next play, Elijah Pitts ran the ball in to give Packers a 21–10 lead. The Packer offense would rattle off another 14 points and the defense would hold the Chiefs to a measly 12 yards in the third frame.

For the remainder of the contest, the Packers outclassed the Chiefs, winning 35-10. Adding injury to insult, Williamson himself got “hammered” when he was knocked out in a collision and sustained a broken arm when a fellow Chief landed on him.

McGee!

The most interesting sidelight of the game by far will always be the unlikely role of Packers receiver Max McGee. The story is essential Packers lore.

McGee — who was retiring — slipped out after curfew and spent the entire night before the game partying with a blonde. After all, he had a lot to celebrate: his NFL career … the Packers’ success … his copious escapades with Hornung (who’d turned down McGee’s invitation to join him this particular outing) … his Texas upbringing … LA nightlife and female companionship … and whatever else a guy could think of to celebrate.

McGee rolled in for the team breakfast at 7:30 that morning — feeling exactly the way a guy does after carousing all night. Some accounts have him crossing paths with Starr who was headed to Sunday mass. McGee ate breakfast and caught a quick hour of shallow sleep. His performance a few hours later would earn him a spot in every list of outstanding Super Bowl performances.

McGee was a movie character coasting through the last scenes. He’d caught just four passes that entire season. That warm California sun would feel good as he sat on the bench, watching his career set over the Pacific Ocean.

With a twinkle of his rheumed eye, he even cautioned Dowler not to get hurt, because, said Max, “I’m not in very good shape.” He told Hornung — seated next to him on the bench — that he couldn’t play. “No way,” McGee said. “There’s no way I could make it.”

Fate would play a funny trick on McGee that day. A few plays later, Dowler went down. “McGee! Get your ass in there!” Lombardi yelled.

McGee would go on to catch the first touchdown pass in Super Bowl history — a one-handed circus grab behind him between defenders — as well as another six passes — including another TD — for a total of 138 yards.

A sober guy might not have made that first improbable catch. Of course, McGee had lots of experience playing and practicing on the fumes of lots of alcohol and little sleep. At one point, he broke curfew 11 nights in a row. “I wasn’t proud of it,” he said, “but I sure was used to it.”

At game’s end, the Packers were handed the World Championship trophy and Starr was named the game’s MVP. The Packers were each paid $15,000 while the Chiefs each received $7,500.

While the win was appreciated in most NFL cities, in Green Bay its full import was understood as intertwined with the city’s own well-being. Prior to the contest, the Press-Gazette had opined “Success on the football field can continue to generate greater effort on the part of citizens to measure the city’s problems and to generate the action and effort needed to eliminate them and to support and push program for civic betterment.”

In that spirit, about 200 automobiles made their way to Austin Straubel Airport the evening after the win to welcome home the Packers. Greeting championship teams had been a Titletown tradition since the night 20,000 screaming fans turned out to embrace the 1929 champs.

While fog delayed the Packers flight out of LA and the team never did show, porch lights burned across the city. Fans who jammed the airport that Monday night were disappointed — “Probably more than anybody,” reported the Press-Gazette, “a small boy who carried a pencil and autograph book.”
Most school kids in town were disheartened when a rumor that school had been canceled on Monday turned out to be false. The paper noted that “Premontre High School was closed.” That probably prompted some of the young men there to wonder if their Norbertine faculty hadn’t prayed a bit too hard for the Packers the day before.

Finally

Hard as it might be to believe, all known recordings of the entire World Championship broadcast were taped over by both CBS and NBC — underscoring how little relative esteem the game was held in. For a long time, two small samples were the only pieces of the telecast known to exist — showing the early TDs by McGee and Taylor.

In 2011, a recording of the CBS telecast was discovered in a Pennsylvania attic — missing the halftime show and most of the third quarter. NFL films, however, holds substantial footage in its archives. Some of this has been released for home video and cable shows, including “The NFL’s Greatest Games: The Spectacle of Sport” about the first World Championship.

The merger — consummated in 1970 — would change the NFL landscape forever, turning it into the cause célèbre it is today.

Here in Titletown we will have to wait for our next appearance in the Super Bowl. Thanks to our part in the first (and second) versions — and just three opportunities since — we appreciate the choreography of that big dance more than most.

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