The telephone on the kitchen wall snapped me from my reverie. I was planning a writing agenda for the Lions’ training camp at Cranbrook. I had earned a battlefield commission.
Henceforth, I would be the pro football writer for The Detroit News. I was on vacation, and in a few weeks, it would become a daily grind.
“You gotta come in,” said Ben Dunn, the voice from downtown in The News’ sports department.
“The leagues merged.”
It was nearing bedtime on June 6, 1966.
That was the start. A merger after the vicious six-year war between the established National Football League and the upstart American Football League. A merger and after my rookie season, a championship game between two bitterly fighting ownership factions.
And now the ending. The streak is going to end, 56 years later.
A final decision.
The streak is over! My 56-game streak of covering every Super Bowl that’s taken place is finished.
The first one held Jan. 15, 1967, was dubbed “The First Annual AFL-NFL World Championship Game.”
Soon, we the press renamed it The Super Bowl, more catchy, less space.
A year later, we were dolling up the Super Bowl with Roman numerals.
Now Super Bowl LVII is to be contested next month in Arizona.
Only one sportswriter has covered all previous 56. To me, a proud honorable streak. Hard work. A bit of notoriety, lots of deadlines — and dead ideas.
I’ve never seen a Super Bowl on television. Now, I plan to watch Super Bowl LVII on television in my apartment. I’ve never watched one of those heralded halftime shows. I might watch one.
I might even write a critique.
Sinatra’s going to be singing.
I plan to continue writing a bit during Super Bowl week from Michigan. Memories. Snapshot moments.
Too tough to stop the parade cold turkey.
The parade should be a feature show of sporting Americana. Joe Namath, Terry Bradshaw. Joe Montana. Roger Staubach. John Riggins. Tom Brady. Peyton Manning. Marcus Allen. Lynn Swann. Don Shula.
And the immortal Vince Lombardi.
Looking back, the date was Jan. 15, 1967 — pregame at the Memorial Coliseum.
Lombardi was jittery at the sideline near the Packers’ bench. He’d never been seen like this before.
“He felt he was carrying the entire NFL on his shoulders,” Jerry Izenberg, whose Super Bowl streak ended at 54, told me through the years.
“What if we lose?” Vince said.
The NFL was smug, it was haughty; truth is, it displayed traces of arrogance. It had been established nearly a half-century earlier, in 1920. It was thriving as a business, second in sports popularity to Major League Baseball.
And the AFL had been attacking the NFL for six years. It had zealous owners, wealthy, ambitious owners. Ralph Wilson Jr., a Grosse Pointer who had been prevented from buying an NFL franchise, founded the Buffalo Bills. Al Davis, a Brooklyn streetfighter and owner of the Oakland Raiders, lured away NFL quarterbacks.
The AFL challenged the NFL franchises with a separate draft, winning battles for college players. There were signings under goalposts at the end of bowl games, of the AFL spiriting athletes through motel windows.
The AFL, backed by television bucks, was winning the war.
The smug NFL capitulated. Surrendered!
Saturday night before Super Bowl I, Commissioner Pete Rozelle tossed a party for the participating media in the ballroom of the downtown Los Angeles Statler Hotel.
We — meaning guys from NFL towns such as Detroit and Green Bay and Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland etc. — strolled in cocky and assured. The guys from the papers in Buffalo, Miami, Boston, etc. strolled in and looked across the dancefloor at the preening guys from the NFL cities.
We just stared at each other. We, with the NFL credentials, merely glowered at them. There was no friendship. No meeting. No mingling. We looked at the AFL with disdain.
We thought that we were the victors. Superior. And perhaps we were.
But we would learn that the NFL had lost the war.
It would turn out that Tex Schramm of the expansion NFL Dallas Cowboys had contacted the ultra-wealthy Lamar Hunt, an AFL original, about a merger. Hunt had established a competing AFL club in Dallas, the Texans.
After several months of negotiations, the merger deal was signed in the parking lot at Love Field in Dallas.
The AFL got what it wanted. Acceptance. A common draft. Exhibition games vs. NFL teams that very season.
And the championship game in which each league would be presented by its own TV network — and in which each league would use its own special footballs.
Lombardi, at that first Super Bowl, would represent the entire NFL.
His Packers had won three successive NFL championships, after the 1965, 1966, 1967 seasons. They would be strong favorites over the AFL champion Kansas City Chiefs, the franchise that Lamar Hunt had moved from Dallas.
But Lombardi was a man impressed by facts, wary of betting lines.
And he knew the value of performances, and in the aftermath, would cut down on the boasting and swagger.
It started with Max McGee, reaching back for a pass by Bart Starr, catching the ball with one hand, and romping to the touchdown. Soon after halftime, the Packers’ dominance over the Chiefs had been proven.
I recall with joy the postgame outside the Green Bay locker room after the Packers had prevailed 35-10. Lombardi was standing there, flipping a football and catching it with sure hands.
Perhaps, it could be a prize of war — an AFL football captured on a Green Bay interception.
I joined a small group of fellow journalists.
“That an NFL ball?” I asked Lombardi, hoping for story purposes it was AFL.
Silence. The flipping. And the catching,
“That an NFL ball?” I asked a second time.
“That an NFL ball?” I asked again,
“It’s an NFL ball,” Lombardi growled through his gapped teeth, “And it runs better. It passes better. And it catches better.”
And then he continued without prompting.
“There are seven teams in the NFL that are better than Kansas City is.
“There, dammit, you made me say it.”
Fifty-six Super Bowls, time for me to say:
There, dammit, I said it!
Jerry Green is a retired Detroit News sports reporter.