Seven moments that transformed the Super Bowl to exalted status
Feb. 7, 2010 at 4:01 p.m.
Updated Feb. 6, 2010 at 8:07 p.m.
By David J. Neal
MIAMI — No other sporting event in this nation qualifies as a national holiday. No other sparks watch parties or want-to-be-watched parties in so many cities completely unconnected to the event.
The following day might be American businesses' least productive, considering the time given over to discussing the game, the halftime show and the commercials, and not necessarily in that order.
But the Super Bowl wasn't always super-sized nor in existence. During the 1960s, as pro football surpassed baseball as America's favorite sport in the Harris polls, fans could follow the National Football League and/or the American Football League. The two leagues would parent the Super Bowl.
1. DETENTE IN DALLAS — APRIL 6, 1966
From business merger, a championship is born
Lamar Hunt owned the American Football League's Kansas City Chiefs, an AFL 1960 charter franchise that entered the league as the Dallas Texans. Tex Schramm was the general manager of the NFL franchise installed in Dallas to fight the AFL. The two Dallas-based men held the first of secret peace talks at Love Field on April 6, 1966. Each represented a faction in his league that wanted an end to the bidding war for players that bloodied bottom lines.
Each wielded great influence. Hunt founded the AFL, which would name hawkish Al Davis commissioner in two days. NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle worked under Schramm when the latter was the Los Angeles Rams general manager. Stories vary on whether this was why Rozelle chose Schramm to represent the NFL or if this was why a group of owners chose Schramm to negotiate behind Rozelle's back.
Two months later, on June 8, the leagues announced a coming merger with all teams under the NFL shield and Rozelle as commissioner. There would be a common draft, etc. And, at the end of each season, there would be a game matching the champions of each league.
2. SUPER BOWL III — JAN. 12, 1969, MIAMI'S ORANGE BOWL
Upset lifts game from the grips of irrelevance
Not only had the NFL's Green Bay Packers decisively won the first two AFL-NFL World Championship Games, now officially called The Super Bowl, but surely the Baltimore Colts, who had won 13 of 14 games, would make those contests seem like narrow escapes. The Colts' average margin of victory was 18.5 points.
The anticipation of league champions dueling had faded. The game didn't sell out until just before kickoff. From a Nielsen standpoint, it remains the lowest-rated Super Bowl ever.
A few days before the game, Jets quarterback Joe Namath, arguably the best passer and certainly the most famous capricious bachelor in either league, received an award from the Miami Touchdown Club as the outstanding player of 1968. In accepting the award, Namath thanked several people before saying the line: "And we're going to win Sunday — I guarantee it."
General Motors issued guarantees. Athletes, other than Muhammad Ali, certainly didn't.
That Sunday, the Jets made Namath a prophet with a 16-7 win. If the upset didn't prove equality between the leagues, it proved the Super Bowl's worthiness. Attention had to be paid.
3. SUPER BOWL IV — JAN. 11, 1970, NEW ORLEANS' TULANE STADIUM
A televised spectacle of bold new proportion
NFL Films President Steve Sabol, who has been to every Super Bowl and maybe seen more NFL game film than anyone, picks Super Bowl IV as "when the Super Bowl became the Super Bowl."
First, Sabol points to the result: Kansas City squashing 13-point favorite Minnesota, 23-7. The Chiefs dispelled notions of the AFL being a finesse league by knocking tough Vikings quarterback Joe Kapp out of the game.
"In the public's mind, (the Jets' victory in Super Bowl III) was a fluke," Sabol said. "In the public's mind, there still wasn't parity. This game was an a-whipping."
Also, NFL Films' half-hour game-highlight film featured a microphone on Chiefs Coach Hank Stram yapping it up. So iconic was Stram's commentary — "Just keep matriculating that ball down the field!"; "It's like stealing, we ought to do more of it!" — that NFL fans around the country would shout lines back at Stram in public for the next 30 years.
New Orleans trumpeter Al Hirt played the national anthem, and Carol Channing did the halftime show before a restaging of the Battle of New Orleans. The men playing the British soldiers seemed serious about wanting to change the result. Smoke from the musket fire lingered as the teams came out for the second half.
"There was so much more, event-wise," Sabol said. "It was the beginning of the excess we now associate with the Super Bowl."
4. SUPER BOWL X — JAN. 18, 1976, MIAMI'S ORANGE BOWL
Matchup for the ages secures the fan faithful
CBS expanded its pregame show to 90 minutes, an eternal pregame show for the time and a precursor of today's daylong marathons. Hollywood made an appearance as cameramen working for movie director John Frankenheimer (the original Manchurian Candidate, Grand Prix) captured scenes for the Super Bowl-set thriller Black Sunday. Blimps abounded.
But you can only sell the sizzle for so long. After nine Super Bowls, the steak stunk. Eight of them lacked drama. The only exception, Super Bowl V, featured enough bumbling turnovers to be nicknamed the Blunder Bowl.
Then came Pittsburgh and Dallas.
The NFL's two most popular teams by almost every tangible measure meshed as star-studded, perfectly matched rivals. Blue-collar Pittsburgh came in as the defending Super Bowl champion while corporate-suit Dallas, supposedly rebuilding after years as an established power, upset its way into the game.
A 48-yard opening kickoff return off a reverse to linebacker Thomas Henderson ignited a tight game filled with wow. Much of that wow came courtesy of Pittsburgh wide receiver Lynn Swann, Super Bowl X's MVP, who made three all-time highlight catches.
The game ended with Pittsburgh up 21-17 and Dallas quarterback Roger Staubach — Captain Comeback — throwing two Hail Marys into the end zone, the second of which was tipped into a Glen Edwards interception.
5. APPLE'S '1984' COMMERCIAL — JAN. 22, 1984
Apple inaugurates era of the TV ad sideshow
Before a blond-haired woman in a white runner's tank top and orange shorts, legs bulging with each powerful stride, raced out of bleakness to hurl a sledgehammer through Big Brother's face on a giant screen, Super Bowl commercials had just been expensive to air. In composition, they were identical to your average commercial during Barney Miller.
That changed while the Raiders finished putting a 38-9 whipping on Washington in the second half of Super Bowl XVIII. For the first time, a commercial sparked more postgame conversation than the game itself.
To introduce Apple's Macintosh and take a shot at personal-computer leader IBM, advertising agency Chiat/Day wanted to make a reference to George Orwell's 1984. The agency got Blade Runner director Ridley Scott to direct the $400,000 commercial. Apple higher-ups didn't like it initially — but they changed their tune when 72,000 Macs were bought in the first 100 days after the Jan. 24 release.
Perhaps the best summary comes from The 100 Best Commercials by former New York Magazine advertising columnist Bernice Kanner:
"It launched the genre of advertising as an event, transformed the Super Bowl forever from a football game to an ad spectacular."
6. PREGAME SUPER BOWL XXV — JAN. 27, 1991, TAMPA STADIUM
Formalities of the past gain a new distinction
Around Super Bowl-week functions, it's not a stretch to say that sometimes you better bring your credential to use the nearest restroom. Early this Super Bowl week, the NFL held a news conference to announce security measures for Super Bowl Sunday, publicizing what would and wouldn't be allowed, as well as advising early arrival. The trend started that way 19 years ago as the first Gulf War prompted a rise in both terrorism fears and patriotism.
For the first time, the extensive security at each Super Bowl was blatant. Anti-terrorism police patrolled the roof of Tampa Stadium. Each spectator's handbags were checked at multiple spots until the going got so slow that security personnel were told to be a little less thorough.
Great performers had sung the national anthem previously. But when Whitney Houston's stirring rendition swelled hearts around the nation, it made the anthem truly part of the event. Houston's version would be issued as a single and make the top 20 on Billboard's Hot 100.
Now, the announcement of the anthem singer, as well as that of America the Beautiful, is as awaited as the announcement of the halftime entertainment.
7. MICHAEL JACKSON, HALFTIME — JAN. 31, 1993, ROSE BOWL, PASADENA, CALIF.
Jackson's superpower takes show to new level
... Florida A&M's marching band, Grambling University's marching band, Up With People, Southern University's marching band, Up With People, the Los Angeles Super Drill Team, Chubby Checker, New Kids on the Block ...
Super Bowl halftime shows tended to lack true superstar power before Michael Jackson and his stage took over the field at Super Bowl XXVII. During those 11 minutes, Jackson performed Billie Jean and Heal the World incorporated 3,500 kids (pre-child molestation charges) and the entire Rose Bowl crowd into the show. NBC's ratings actually went up for halftime over the game, which Dallas was leading 28-10 over serial Super Bowl loser Buffalo.
Since then, the NFL's gone for big names. Janet Jackson's infamous "wardrobe malfunction" with Justin Timberlake 11 years later — did you see it live or on TiVo in slo-mo? — during an MTV-produced halftime turned the NFL gun-shy on popular acts. They still go for big names, they just play it a wee bit safer.
Of course, the thought that Prince, the Rolling Stones and this year's act, The Who, fall into the "safe" category makes some of us feel old enough to have been sitting in that Love Field parking lot back in 1966.
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