Here it comes again, for the 50th time. If the NFL already owns one day of the week, as actor Albert Brooks says in the movie Concussion, then it totally, overwhelmingly, exhaustively, dominates one day of the year in particular, Super Bowl Sunday, a day so great it defies the notion of American decline. Or maybe, on second thought, it proves it. All depends on your perspective.
Last year's extravaganza broke records, of course. It happens almost every year, this bigger and greater thing. Super Bowl XLIX was the most watched television event in U.S. history. Expect a new high this time, somewhere over the 114 million mark. Same with the cost of Super Bowl commercials. The commercials can be captivating or awful but are so much a part of the day's package they long since have become cliched — rated and dissected with the same gravitas Mel Kiper Jr. would bring to draft choices.
At least one pretension is gone this time. No Roman numerals affixed to it this year, back to the old Hindu-Arabic numeral system for Super Bowl 50. A clean and simple 50, accessible for average fans. But even that change is misleading. It's a one-time-only reversion, and was done because otherwise it would be called Super Bowl L, and L stands for Loss, and who wants to look like a loser in this season of grandiose superlatives? Certainly not the NFL. The colossus of pro sports will not to be outdone by any politician when it comes to rhetorical inflation.
When all this started in January 1967 the super was lower case, nothing official. It was a nickname coined by Lamar Hunt, owner of the Kansas City Chiefs, inspired by the bouncy Super Ball his kids got for Christmas. The tickets called it the World Championship Game AFL vs. NFL.
Just football back then, Lombardi's Green Bay Packers against the upstart Chiefs. The national anthem was played by a marching band. The Los Angeles Coliseum was not even full. Before the game, league officials had handed off a clutch of complimentary tickets to Ed Sabol, of NFL Films, who lateraled them to a cameraman to distribute outside the stadium, but the demand was so weak that five could not even be given away. Those same tickets today would go for about $3,500 apiece on the open market.
The paradox of the Super Bowl is that it means more and yet less than almost any other game aside from the rip-off exhibition contests and the sunny Pro Bowl. Only fans of two of the 32 NFL teams have an emotional attachment. For the vast multitudes, the stake is not bragging rights to the Lombardi Trophy but either money down on the largest gambling enterprise of the year or beer and cholesterol consumption at some mandatory gathering. There is no need to calculate how the outcome might affect your favorite team later in the season. Once it's over, everything is over, and there is no deader feeling than the day after, especially in the dreary February of the North. That sense of postgame emptiness for the pro football fan has been there for a half-century, even as so much else has changed.
The first three Super Bowls were league vs. league as much as team vs. team. There were marked differences in history, attitude and style of play between the Packers of the established NFL and the Chiefs of the recently formed AFL, a demarcation that would change when the leagues merged after Joe Namath, cocky and Broadway cool, led the New York Jets to an upset over the Baltimore Colts in the third Super Bowl. Before that, for the first game, Vince Lombardi felt more pressure to win than at any other time of his career.
Losing to the Chiefs would have diminished everything the Packers had done already in the 1960s, including winning three NFL championships. Lombardi's office in Green Bay was swamped with telegrams from the league's owners and coaches all with the same message: You better win this for all of us. He did, that year and the next. Now the game matches conferences, not leagues, all part of the same monolith, and any team can play any other during the regular season, and there are no noticeable distinctions.
When Lombardi took his Packers out to California a week before the inaugural game, there were remarkably few distractions compared with the media circus of modern Super Bowls. He kept his team up the road in Santa Barbara, in part because he was superstitious and thought it was good luck to be in cities named for saints. His wife, Marie, took off for Las Vegas for a few days, and Lombardi was so focused he hardly noticed. "You flew over the mountains?" he asked upon her return. "No," she said sarcastically, "I flew under them."
There are those who long for the old days, thinking the past was somehow more innocent, but the players who participated in those early Super Bowls were not so different from those of today. The temptations are greater, the money vastly more, but human nature stays the same. Max McGee, a wide receiver on the Packers, dined out for decades on stories of how he never went back to the team hotel the night before the Chiefs game, avoiding curfew and staying out all night in the company of a stewardess. The story was softened by the fact that McGee, near the end of his career and not expecting to play, was suddenly called into service when a teammate got hurt — and went on to catch two touchdown passes, the first one wearing the helmet of a defensive tackle that he had grabbed in desperation when Lombardi unexpectedly bellowed his name. Remember, rapscallion behavior all goes back to Max the Taxi.
Super Bowl 50 arrives at a moment when the NFL is more popular than ever, but also facing more scrutiny than ever. Many of the questions involve abuse of one sort or another, either raging players abusing wives and girlfriends or the violence of the game itself abusing the players' brains. It seems that month by month over the past few years, culminating with Will Smith's Concussion, the discussion has intensified over the long-term effect football collisions on players. The afterglow of a Super Bowl win takes on a different meaning in the movie, in which a story line involves the decline and fall of Hall of Fame center Mike Webster, who banged his head thousands of times as he helped lead the Pittsburgh Steelers to four Super Bowl rings. If the awareness is greater now, and the science clearer, the reality of concussions threads back before Webster to the first Super Bowl.
The Chiefs had a cornerback named Fred Williamson. His nickname was "The Hammer" because of the viciousness of his strong-arm tackling. Lombardi thought he was a dirty player. Late in the game, Williamson tried to tackle Donny Anderson, a halfback who ran with a peculiar knees-up gait. One of Anderson's knees collided with Williamson's chin, knocking him unconscious. "The Hammer! They just nailed the Hammer!" Packer safety Willie Wood yelped as his teammates enjoyed the scene. It is hard to imagine that reaction today, at least in public.
With Peyton Manning leading the Broncos into Levi's Stadium, one can expect to see the crafty old quarterback and comic commercial pitchman for pizza and insurance on the screen even when CBS cuts away from the field — maybe even Panthers superman Cam Newton hawking some yogurt. The NFL is all about blurring the lines between athletics and entertainment, and the Super Bowl is the material-world culmination of that monetizing effort. Even the coaches are part of it these days, wearing official merchandise on the sidelines. At the first Super Bowl, Lombardi sported a coat and tie. Nervous about having to beat the Chiefs, he cinched his Windsor knot so tight he could barely unbutton his top button during the postgame ceremony and eventually needed scissors to unravel the tie after he received the Tiffany & Co. championship trophy, a shining silver prize that three years later would be named in his honor.
David Maraniss is the author of When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi.