“When It Was Just a Game: Remembering the First Super Bowl) by Harvey Frommer, Taylor Trade Publishing, 301 pages, $29.95
Next month will mark the 50th anniversary of our unofficial holiday celebrating binge snacking, overproduced halftime extravaganza and inflated television advertising. A secondary, but necessary, companion to this carnival of excess is a professional football game.
“When It Was Just a Game” commemorates the first Super Bowl: Kansas City Chiefs v. Green Bay Packers in 1967 before a nonsellout crowd in the Los Angeles Coliseum. Readers such as this reviewer who have witnessed all of these televised contests will remember the game, but only fans of the teams involved will recall the rather boring details.
I lived in Kansas City at that time and was a rabid follower of the AFL champions, so the book unlocked many long-repressed memories of the contest, which was handily won by the NFL champion Packers. Led by legendary Coach Vince Lombardi, the veteran team easily overcame the inexperienced team from the upstart league just as most media gurus had predicted.
Author Harvey Frommer is an established “oral sports historian,” and his prosaic literary style basically consists of a compilation of interviews with people who were at the game. Many of these people are no longer living, including Frank Gifford who was an announcer at the game and provided the book’s foreword.
Relatives of those who have died, fans who attended the game, and, of course, people who player in the game are quoted extensively. Although the game was simultaneously televised by rival networks NBC and CBS, neither considered it historic enough to preserve a tape for posterity. Therefore, Frommer’s account and photographs of the contest are of interest to any fan of professional football who wants insight into the modest origin of a modern television phenomenon.
Super Bowls now account for nine of the Top 10 most-watched broadcasts of all time.
Those accustomed to today’s monolithic and omnipotent NFL will be surprised by the animosity between team owners of the rival leagues, which extended to fans, journalists, networks and even competing advertisers. The bitter war between AFL and NFL accounted for most of the interest in the game, which was the brainchild of the new NFL commissioner, Pete Rozelle.
Despite the perceived imbalance between the teams portrayed by the media, the book documents the small difference between the talent on the field. The shared strength of the two teams when compared with the majority of their peers was each team’s early acceptance and use of talented black athletes.
This book will be of special significance to fans of the Chiefs and Packers.
Were the two league champions worthy of playing an ultimate game against one another or were media experts correct in predicting lopsided outcomes? History seems to confirm Rozelle’s prescient prediction of the event’s ultimate success. The Chiefs simmered over this loss during the winter and annihilated the Chicago Bears by scoring 66 points the next time they faced an NFL foe. After adding a few key replacements named Lanier, Culp, Marsalis and Lynch, the team won Super Bowl IV, evening the Super Bowl records between the AFL and NFL before league distinctions had been forgotten.
A single photo in the book seems to epitomize the remarkable changes in the national perception of the game over the past half-century. It shows a youthful Chiefs' quarterback, Len Dawson, relaxing in the locker room during halftime -- obviously savoring a long drag on his cigarette.