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TGS SUPER BOWL PREVIEW...PLUS PATS-FALCS MEMORIES

                                    by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


As we prepare for Sunday’s Super Bowl LI in Houston between the Patriots and Falcons, we can’t help but reminisce.  After all, as a reminder of just how long we have been producing THE GOLD SHEET, we were already into our tenth season of publishing when the first Super Bowl was played between the AFL champion Chiefs and NFL champion Packers on January 15, 1967.  And despite all of the Super Bowls since, there can never be another first one, which we at TGS still hold as one of our most special memories as we conclude our 60th football season.

    Having the benefit of retrospect, we believe pro football in the ‘60s was the most exciting gridiron era in our publishing history, mostly because of the presence of the fledgling AFL and its challenge to the pro football aristocracy represented by the older and established NFL.  Indeed, the dynamics were so highly-charged when the rival leagues finally got together for that first Super Bowl we can hardly begin to relate the sort of dimensions that surrounded that Chiefs-Packers game to those who weren’t around, or can’t remember, what was going on in pro sports, football in particular, a half-century ago.

    Chiefs-Packers was somewhat hastily arranged, as the specifics of that first Super Bowl took a while to materialize after the previous summer’s merger announcement between the AFL and NFL.  Pro football fans of the day (especially those of the AFL), had been waiting for the chance to see the two leagues compete head to head for a good while.  Although it took until the 1966 season for the champs of the rival leagues to get together, the topic had been a hot one for the few preceding years.   Sports Illustrated, in those days the validator of sports storylines, as ESPN would become a couple of decades later, devoted significant space late in the 1963 season wondering if the AFL powerhouse San Diego Chargers could compete against the NFL’s best, and what might happen in a “World Series” pro football game between champs of the rival leagues.  The merger topic was a main storyline through the next few years until the July 1966 merger announcement.

    We have also long maintained that the first Super Bowl has been somewhat shortchanged by pro football historians, especially those who were not around to experience it.  Which would include those who like to remind everyone that Chiefs-Packers was actually dubbed the “AFL-NFL World Championship Game,” and not the “Super Bowl.” Technically, that’s true, but Chiefs-Packers was in fact referred to as the Super Bowl by almost every media concern, as well as at the game itself, with pre-game floats adorned with “Super Bowl” on the side.  The fact is that nobody called it the “AFL-NFL World Championship Game,” even though that’s what the game tickets and game programs said.  Although it took a couple of years for Commissioner Pete Rozelle to officially affix that “Super Bowl” label, and the attached roman numerals, to the championship game.

    We have also noted how some modern journalists wondered why, if the first AFL-NFL game was such a big deal, would a less-than-capacity crowd of “only” 61,946 show up at the cavernous L.A. Coliseum? While some have speculated that relatively high ticket costs ($12!) for the era might have had something to do with the somewhat-suppressed crowd count, keep in mind a few other dynamics, including the fact the site and date for the game were not set until less than two months before, well into November, more than halfway into the 1966 season.  Moreover, local fans in the Los Angeles area were able to informally organize a one-time protest of the NFL’s TV blackout rules of the day, which kept the live telecast of the game off local Los Angeles outlets for both CBS and NBC, which would each telecast the game nationally.  The “blackout backlash” indeed became a lightning-rod topic in the L.A. media.  Rather than shell out the cost of tickets, parking, and food at the L.A. Coliseum, many locals who wanted to see the game instead devised contraptions (mostly with the aid of clothes hangers) for their TV antennas so they could “pirate” the telecast and get grainy reception from the nearest cities to broadcast the game, Santa Barbara and San Diego.  We knew of other enterprising fans who also decided to simply drive to Santa Barbara or San Diego to watch the games with friends or relatives in those areas, or to stay in hotel or motel rooms in those locales to watch the game on TV.

    We, however, were among those 61,946 at the Coliseum that day, memories of which are forever etched into our minds.  I remember seeing Rams and future Lions QB Bill Munson on the way into the Coliseum.   Bob Hope was seated not far from us.  Former QB great and then-Vikings HC (for a few more weeks) Norm Van Brocklin was also sitting a few rows behind me; at my age I was not privy to The Dutchman’s notorious temper, nor would I have any idea of it, so gracious was he in gladly signing his picture on the Vikings page of my game program (still in my possession!).  That game program, by the way, still rates as one of the best-ever in my collection!

    The game itself was also a lot more compelling than many modern-day gridiron historians (some of whom weren’t around in January of 1967) would lead you to believe.  The established narrative has long been the dominance of Vince Lombardi’s Packers, who won by a 35-10 count.  But there was no hint of NFL primacy in an entertaining first half in which Kansas City would outgain Green Bay 181-164 and head into the break trailing by a mere 14-10 count.  The teams in fact appeared very evenly matched.  Until, that is, early in the third quarter, when the Chiefs committed a grievous error near midfield when QB Lenny Dawson’s short pass was picked off by DB Willie Wood, who returned the ball to the KC 5-yard line.  Packer RB Elijah Pitts scored on the next play to stretch the lead to 21-10, and momentum had shifted.  The Chiefs never threatened the rest of the afternoon, as Dawson would be under constant siege thereafter from the Green Bay pass rush.

    The highlights from the remainder of the game involved a couple of plays that had nothing to do with the eventual outcome.  Late in the third quarter, Packer RB Jim Taylor, a rough customer who did not take kindly to harsh treatment from defenders, threw a customary fit after one particular play.  Unfortunately, he picked on the wrong Chief, big DT Buck Buchanan, who summarily grabbed Taylor and flung him to the ground like a rag doll.  As tough as Taylor was, he was not about to intimidate Buchanan.  Then, in the fourth quarter, controversial Chiefs DB Fred “The Hammer” Williamson (the future actor also seen in recent years doing an honorable deed as a spokesman on TV commercials for the Wounded Warrior project) was temporarily KO’d by Packer rookie bonus baby RB Donny Anderson, whose knee connected with Williamson’s head as the Chief DB was trying to submarine tackle the Texas Tech rookie on a sweep.  Which caused no shortage of glee among the Packers and their fans who had come to view the controversial Williamson as K.C.’s foremost villain.  A few Packers even took delight in Anderson, of all people, dealing the KO blow.  “Maybe Donny hit him with his purse,” said one Packer, referring to the hundreds of thousands of dollars in bonus money that Anderson (and fellow rookie RB Jim Grabowski) had received in one of the final acts of the out-of-control spending war between the leagues that had preceded the July ‘66 merger announcement.  Williamson, however, was not seriously hurt, and perfecting his future craft, made sure to enhance the drama when insisting on being carried off the field before jumping to his feet on the sidelines.

    As for the TV coverage in L.A. of Super Bowl I, those who didn’t climb on their roofs to adjust their TV antennas, or drive to Santa Barbara or San Diego to watch the game, could wait and watch the CBS replay (featuring Ray Scott and Jack Whitaker sharing play-by-play duties, and Frank Gifford providing color) on local L.A. outlet Channel 2 KNXT at 11:30 PM on the night of the game, or catch the NBC version of the replay the following Monday afternoon at 3 PM on local outlet Channel 4 KNBC, with Curt Gowdy and incomparable analyst Paul Christman providing the commentary.  As for me, I ended up missing school that Monday (not due to my disappointment in the performance of my preferred Chiefs, but rather a quick-developing head cold) and grimly relived the previous day’s action that I had witnessed in person on the NBC replay Monday afternoon.

    As was the case with most sports events into the early 1970s, TV networks did not keep copies of most of their original telecasts, which were subject to “wiping” from the expensive videotapes of the time, and the first Super Bowl was no exception.  Only a couple of brief clips from the original telecast remained until recent years, when the Paley Center for Broadcasting/Radio-TV Museum in New York City received an unexpected “gift”...a copy of the original CBS telecast that was unearthed by a fellow who had found the video tape that his dad had recorded for posterity from WDAU in Scranton-Wilkes-Barre, PA! Although not the complete telecast (halftime and much of the 3rd Q is missing), 94 minutes of the original and priceless CBS video of Super Bowl I was restored by the Paley Center, although it has yet to be released for public viewing while the NFL and the owner of the video continue a squabble that has lasted almost five years.  Hopefully the issue will soon be resolved and much of the remains of the CBS version of Super Bowl I will be able to viewed by all in the near future (at the moment a handful of those plays from that CBS telecast can be accessed online from a Wall Street Journal TV segment).  

                                         PATRIOTS-FALCONS MEMORIES

    As for the Patriots and Falcons, they don’t have much history against one another, although their long-distance and infrequent rivalry actually dates to the pre-merger days.  More specifically, to the summer of 1969 in a preseason game on August 17 at Boston College’s Alumni Stadium, which would be the then-called Boston Patriots’ home field for that season after the team left the awkward confines of Fenway Park, their home from 1963-68.  It was all Atlanta that Sunday afternoon, however, as the Falcons, led by QB Randy Johnson for most of the game, scored their first laugher in franchise history (which dated to 1966), 34-16.  (right: that's Atlanta RB Harmon Wages running thru the Patriots in '69.) The following Monday, the Patriots would play a preseason game against the NFL Detroit Lions at Montreal’s Jarry Park, home of the MLB Expos in what was their expansion season.  The Lions won, 22-9, in front of a sparse gathering of 8212 fans.  (Jarry Park would actually host a pair of exhibition games that summer, including the Steelers vs.  the Giants on September 11).  

    The Pats and Falcons first did battle in a regular-season game on September 24, 1972 (the second week of that campaign), at old Schaefer Stadium in Foxborough.  The aforementioned Norm Van Brocklin, who took over as Atlanta HC midway in the ’68 season, had a burgeoning contender, and the Falcons were in control for much of the game, smartly moving to a 20-7 lead entering the 4th Q behind QB Bob Berry and RBs Dave Hampton and Art Malone.  The Patriots finally awakened in the 4th Q behind 2nd-year QB Jim Plunkett, who led a pair of TD drives, the first culminating with a 37-yard TD pass to his former Stanford teammate Randy “Rabbit” Vataha, then handing off to RB Carl Garrett for a 12-yard score to put New England ahead, 21-20.  Still, Atlanta appeared destined for victory when Berry led a late drive deep into Patriot territory.  In the final seconds, Falcon PK Bill Bell had a chip-shot 10-yard FG try (remember, in those days the goal posts were at the goal line), replicating the PAT tries of the day, that would give Atlanta the win.  Lined up dead-center, Bell would  amazingly duck-hook the 10-yard attempt!  The remarkable miss made the Falcons 21-20 losers, with Van Brocklin’s tortured expression and angry face as red as the Atlanta helmets a lasting memory of that afternoon.  

    The win was a high-water mark that season for the Pats, who would disappoint at 3-11, prompting the dismissal of HC John Mazur in November, with former Packer HC Phil Bengston taking Mazur’s place for the final five games of the season before Chuck Fairbanks arrived from Oklahoma in '73.  The loss would haunt the Falcons, who could have used that extra win, as they made their first legitimate run at a playoff berth in ‘72, leading the NFC West into the final two weeks of the season before being overtaken by John Brodie and the 49ers.  Meanwhile, Kansas grad Bell would amazingly last the remainder of the ‘72 season, converting only 16 of 30 FG tries, before his release and ironically spending a few games with the Patriots as their PK in 1973!

    The teams have met 12 times since (most-recent meeting in 2013, when New England won 30-23 at the Georgia Dome), with the Patriots holding a narrow 7-6 all-time advantage.  Still, to this point, by us, at least, the memorable moments from this series came in the first two meetings a long, long time ago!

                          THE REAL BOILING POINT OF THE AFL-NFL RIVALRY

    Mention of the Patriots and Falcons doing battle in the preseason of 1969 reminds us of what were the real boiling points of the old AFL-NFL rivalry, a feud which didn’t only occur in the first four Super Bowl games.  In fact, it was, believe it or not, during the preseasons of 1967-69 that the rivalry raged at its most intense during a series of highly-charged exhibition games which bore no resemblance to the often-staid preseason affairs we have been used to watching in August for the past several decades.

    During the preseasons of 1967, 1968, and 1969, there were 72 total games between entries from the upstart AFL and miserly NFL.  The importance of those ‘67 preseason affairs was reflected in a piece by the Buffalo News’ legendary Larry Felser, which appeared in a summer edition of The Sporting News as well.  “Exhibition is hardly the word,” said Felser.  “From the talk around both leagues, at least some of those games, if not all of them, will take on the characteristics of a vendetta.”  Meanwhile, Cleveland Browns star lineman Dick Schafrath echoed the sentiments of most in the established NFL.  “Our pride is at stake,” said Schafrath before the preseason games of summer ‘67.  “No NFL team wants to be the first to lose to the AFL.”

    Detroit’s All-Pro DT, the late Alex Karras, went one step further.  Before the Lions’ preseason opener on August 5 at Denver, which was to be the first interleague exhibition game of the 1967 summer, Karras announced that he would “walk back to Detroit” if his Lions were to lose to the lowly Broncos.  Staying in character, Karras refused to shake hands with Denver team captains during the traditional coin-toss ceremony before the kickoff of that game, which was played not at the Broncos’ Bears (later Mile High) Stadium home, but rather Denver University’s home field.  Sure enough, the Lions lost 13-7, and Karras became the target of good-natured ribbing from the Denver media in the week following the game, as local media outlets would jokingly report on Karras’ “progress” back to the Motor City (“Today, Alex Karras reached Omaha,” or “Alex Karras is scheduled to arrive in Des Moines later tonight!”).

    The most memorable encounter in that ‘67 exhibition slate came in Kansas City, where the Chiefs, still seething from their Super Bowl loss to the Packers, decided to take out their frustrations on one of the older league’s flagship entries, George Halas’ Chicago Bears.  “Remember, this is not just another exhibition,” said K.C. coach Hank Stram to Sports Illustrated before the game.  “They (his Chiefs) know it’s the Bears they’re playing.”    

    Although Chicago moved easily downfield in its first drive behind QB Rudy Bukich, resulting in a 35-yard FG by rookie PK Bruce Alford (who, also ironically, would end up employed in the AFL), and the Chiefs were temporarily stalled by Dick Butkus & Co., Stram’s bunch quickly made adjustments.  By snapping on quicker counts, QB Dawson was able to constantly catch the Chicago “D” in the middle of its shifts, and soon the night became child’s play for Kansas City.

    “I figured,” said Dawson, “that once we got them playing our type of game, we could do anything we wanted.  They were covering Otis (Taylor) too close.  I don’t think they knew our personnel, because otherwise they would have known that you can’t cover Otis too close or he’ll be gone all of the time.”    

    Sure enough, Taylor burned the Bears.  Badly.  In the first quarter, operating out of the variation of the I formation that Stram called the “Cock-I” featuring Taylor in motion, Dawson hit Taylor along the sidelines, and the WR soon broke clear from the fast-approaching Bennie McRae and high-stepped his way for a 70-yard TD that began the onslaught (a play that would resemble Taylor’s 46-yard TD catch a few years later in Super Bowl IV vs.  the Vikings).  Kansas City then scored TDs on its next four possessions, including another Dawson-to-Taylor 29-yard TD pass, and by halftime the score had ballooned to 39-10, with Chicago’s only TD courtesy of a 103-yard kick return by WR/KR Dick Gordon.  As the score mounted, veteran Bears DB Richie Petitbon asked Kansas City WR Chris Burford if the Chiefs planned to ease up.  “Not tonight, Richie,” said Burford, as the carnage continued, with the final score mushrooming to 66-24, Chief backup QB Pete Beathard (to be traded to the Oilers not long thereafter) bootlegging into the end zone on the final play of the game.

    Two wins by Denver (which also beat the Vikings, 14-9) and the one by Kansas City were the only victories by AFL sides in the sixteen cross-league exhibitions that summer of ‘67, though many of the games were highly-competitive affairs.  Meanwhile, the Chiefs, just a week after their massacre of the Bears, played George Allen’s emerging Rams in what was dubbed the “Summer Bowl” at the L.A. Coliseum.  In front of 73,990 fans, Kansas City jumped to a 24-13 halftime lead, before the Rams, playing their first-stringers almost the entire way, scored four second-half TDs on a pair of Roman Gabriel-to-Jack Snow bombs, a Les Josephson short TD plunge, and a late interception return by starting CB Clancy Williams to eventually prevail, 44-24.  Although Allen was notorious for going all-out to win exhibitions, in those days of interleague battles, almost all of the teams took the same approach.

    All, that is, except Lombardi’s Packers, who arrogantly refused to schedule AFL teams in the exhibition slate, even after Lombardi left following the 1968 season.  Another old-line NFL fixture, the Giants, also mostly resisted, although pressure to meet the crosstown Jets was eventually too much to avoid, especially after Joe Namath & Co.  had upset the Colts in Super Bowl III.  The Giants-Jets matchup finally took place on August 17, 1969, and wasn’t even played in New York, instead 74 miles north at New Haven, CT, whose exact distance from the Big Apple was significant because Pete Rozelle’s aforementioned TV blackout rule of the day (which stated no game could be televised within 75 miles of its origin) guaranteed a sellout at the Yale Bowl.

    After that Chiefs win over the Bears in ‘67, there might have been no more delicious preseason triumph for the AFL over the NFL than the Jets’ 37-14 bombardment of the establishment Giants that August 1969 afternoon at Yale.  To say the win was satisfying for the Jets would be an understatement.  It sure meant something to many Jets, like star RB Matt Snell.  “Did we prove anything?,” said Snell afterward.  “I mean to the fans, the old NFL fans, they will cop out; they’ll find a way to rationalize not how we won, but how the Giants lost.  But to me, it was a good victory.  I remember how the Giants never called us by name.  They used to refer to us as “What’s Your Name” and ‘Whatchamacall Its.’

    “They know our names now.”

    Indeed the Giants did, after being shredded by Joe Namath, who completed 14 of 16 passes and was still in the game in the 4th quarter when he threw his third TD pass of the contest to TE Pete Lammons.  As for Namath, he was as brash as ever, especially after being asked when he thought the Jets assumed command of the game.  “The first time we had the ball,” said Broadway Joe.  It was also the Giants’ only game vs. an AFL entry in those three preseasons in the late ‘60s.

    Throughout the summers of 1967, ‘68, and ‘69, the interleague battles raged.  After dropping 13 of 16 in the ‘67 preseason, the AFL took the upper hand in 1968, winning the exhibition battle by a 13-10 count that summer.  The interleague preseason games were so popular that by 1969, an additional ten AFL-NFL games were added to the exhibition slate, bringing the total to a whopping 33.  And the teams continued to contest the games in a win-or-else fashion.  In a particularly pulsating encounter that '69 preseason, the Oilers and Colts waged in a back-and-forth donnybrook at the Astrodome, and when Houston rookie PK Roy Gerela’s 23-yard field goal put the Oilers up 29-27 with 37 seconds left, the home crowd almost blew the top off the dome.  But Baltimore was not finished; the previous season’s NFL MVP, QB Earl Morrall, was in the game at the end, and on the final play heaved a 58-yard TD bomb to first-string WR Willie Richardson for an unbelievable 33-29 Colts win.  No PAT was even attempted after that final tally.

    When the dust finally cleared after all of the pre-merger preseason action of those three summers, the tally stood at 42 wins for the NFL, 29 for the AFL, and one tie.  (The Patriots didn’t help the AFL cause, losing all six of their exhibitions vs. NFL teams from 1967-69).  And countless memories.

    Preseason football has never quite been the same thereafter, as the merger between the AFL and NFL took effect in 1970, and the battle lines between the warring leagues began to become increasingly blurred.  But as long as Super Bowls are played and watched by those who were around in those early years, that link to the AFL-NFL rivalry days, those first Super Bowls, and unforgettable preseason games of the late ‘60s, will remain intact.  The parts of us at TGS that still remember the late ‘60s fondly are glad two franchises that were not only around in the late ‘60s, but also played each other in the memorable preseason games from the pre-merger era, are doing battle again in Super Bowl LI. 


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