SPORT

Super Bowl I, An Oral History

Six players and two media members share their memories of the first Super Bowl ever played

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Feb 04, 2016 at 1:20 PM ET

Long before Cam Newton’s dabbing, David Tyree’s catch, Whitney Houston’s anthem, Joe Montana’s comeback, Katy Perry’s left shark, Santonio Holmes’ tiptoe catch, and Malcolm Butler’s interception all became a part of the public consciousness, the first game in the now 50-year institution of the Super Bowl wasn’t yet called that. The game wasn’t even sold out.

The senior National Football League had existed since 1920, but the upstart American Football League debuted in 1960, and became a rival competing for many of the same players. Teams from each league first played each other at the conclusion of the 1966 season when the NFL champion Green Bay Packers defeated the AFL champion Kansas City Chiefs, 35-10.

A half-century ago, the Super Bowl was born. Six former players and two media members now tell the story of that game in their own words.

Interviews have been condensed and sparingly edited for clarity.

Prelude

On June 9, 1966, the AFL and NFL agreed to merge, with each league’s champion playing each other at the end of that season. The first AFL-NFL World Championship Game would take place on January 15, 1967 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Both NBC (which had AFL TV rights) and CBS (which had the NFL rights) would broadcast the game. Each player on the winning team would receive a record $15,000 bonus; the losing team’s players would receive $7,500.

Boyd Dowler, 78 (Green Bay Packers receiver, 1959-1969; retired NFL assistant coach and scout): Our goal was to win the championship game, whatever that was. Of course it wasn’t named the Super Bowl at all—that was just a game between the champions of both leagues.

Dave Robinson, 74 (Green Bay Packers linebacker, 1963-1972; Hall of Fame inductee and retired Schlitz beer distributor): [Packers Hall of Fame coach Vince Lombardi] brought up the fact that, the most embarrassing moment of the NFL’s history was 1950. They disbanded the [All-America Football Conference] in ’49, and Cleveland won it. Cleveland was the champion of the AAFC and then came to the NFL.

The first game of the 1950 season was the [NFL] world champion Philadelphia Eagles versus the Cleveland Browns. It was the same type of situation [as the Super Bowl]. Cleveland beat the Eagles 35-10—same score, coincidentally. Vince said he would not be a part of another embarrassment to the National Football League. “We can’t make it close. We’ve got to win by three touchdowns.”

Vince was against running up the score on anybody. Now, all of a sudden, he tells us we’ve got to win by three touchdowns. What is this? He’s completely out of character. He was feeling so much pressure.

Mike Garrett, 71 (Kansas City Chiefs halfback, 1966-1970; former USC athletic director and now the executive director for athletics at Cal State-Los Angeles): From the players’ perspective, we were elated, to say the least. We were going to be playing the NFL when we hadn’t done that before and playing them for all the marbles, to determine who’d be the champion: our league or theirs.

Curtis McClinton, 76 (Kansas City Chiefs fullback, 1962-1969; retired economic development administrator for the Department of Commerce and owner of a construction company):  It was the pinnacle of achievement in regards to professional football—the opportunity for the little boy on the corner to have the opportunity to fight the giant on the big street in the tallest building in the world.

Robinson: I was making only $35,000 per year at the time they made the announcement. To make $15,000 to win the game was a big hunk of money. In ’65, we beat the Browns and the check was $5,800 so now $15,000—that’s all we talked about all year long.

John Biever, 64 (son of Green Bay Packers team photographer Vern Biever who shot Super Bowl I at age 15; now Sports Illustrated photographer and one of four men to shoot every Super Bowl): My father said, “Why don’t you come along and help me shoot the game?” So I did. I think it was my first time in California and just the weather—the palm trees and everything—just stuck.

Stan Leshner, 73 (Associate Producer and employee No. 9 at NFL Films; now an Account Executive at PMTV): Television in the ‘60s and ‘70s was antique compared to today. Early on, there was no satellite, and I used to stay up all night Sunday until all the films came in from around the country down to Washington. We used to develop them, edit them and then feed them out to New York over a landline. That was the Monday Night package with Howard Cosell.

Game Day

Only 61,946 fans attended the game played in a stadium that accommodated more than 100,000. Because it was not a sellout, the game was blacked out on TV in Los Angeles. Secondary market tickets were selling for as little as $2.

Bill Curry, 73 (Green Bay Packers center, 1965-66; 10-year NFL veteran and retired college football coach of Georgia Tech, Alabama, Kentucky and Georgia State): The atmosphere was surreal, as if it were not as a vital as some of the other games we had played, though in our hearts we knew it was. It didn’t feel electric the way a championship game normally felt.

Robinson: Before the game, they announced that everyone in the endzones move to the sideline so on TV it looked like there’s a full house. When they kicked field goals and shot down the field, you could see the end zone and there were empty seats. It was like something I had never experienced before.

Garrett: I think the press has played [the weak atmosphere] up because it kind of gives you some fiber in telling the story, but in reality, everybody was gung ho. The whole country was watching it, and it was about as exciting as now—but we didn’t have all the different outlets and cable [channels].

Biever: The pregame show had Grambling University’s band, and then they had these guys in jet packs out on the field. That was pretty amazing.

Robinson: I remember walking out onto the field with Vince Lombardi, and we saw the way the field was decorated with green, red, gold and all this stuff. He said, “My, my, my, look at that: Football’s come a long way since when I played in cow pastures.”

First Half

The Packers received the opening kickoff but lost Dowler to an injury on the game’s third play. In came veteran receiver Max McGee, who confided in Dowler that he didn’t expect to play and was severely hungover.

Dowler: I claim that I made one of the biggest plays of the year when I got hurt because it got Max into the game. [laughs]

I actually blocked, which some of my teammates said was a rarity. I actually got a block on [Chiefs safety] Johnny Robinson. It was third down, and we ran the ball to my side and I came in on the safety. I hit him a little. I had a pretty large calcium deposit and separated my shoulder.

On the Packers’ second drive, quarterback Bart Starr threw a third-down pass to McGee, who made a one-handed catch and ran in 37 yards for the game’s first touchdown.

Dowler: Max made plays. That was no different than usual, but he didn’t usually go out the night before.

Nobody could tell there was anything wrong with him, I know that. The Chiefs didn’t think anything was wrong with him. He ran by them.

We figured we could throw the ball on them anyway, whether it was Max or Carroll [Dale] or myself. We watched tape and thought that, the way they played coverages, the strength of their coverage was to the strong side. We figured the split end on the weak-side position for us should have a very productive day, and he did.

Early in the second quarter, the Chiefs tied the score when quarterback Len Dawson threw a seven-yard TD pass to McClinton.

McClinton: What I remember is the art and the skill of Len Dawson and our methodology of setting the play up that we wanted to score on. We set it up with the weakness that they had, which was running off-tackle and also having draws which simulated a pass but it was a run.

They kept bringing up the defensive secondary to close that gap between the tackle and the end. As they came up, he got them up so far to protect that running play, that the blocking back, I would go in and pretend that I was blocking, then just slide out to the outside of the field and make that safety have to come all the way up to the hole.

He had to make a decision: are you going to protect the pass or are you going to protect the run? It was a very good play for us.

Green Bay responded with a 13-play drive that concluded with Taylor running a sweep for a 14-yard TD.

Jim Taylor, 80 (Green Bay Packers fullback, 1958-1966; Hall of Fame inductee who later worked in the New Orleans Saints front office): We’d run it all year. The blocking was very, very good. We felt like we were very confident and capable of playing good football and not having any shock or anything out of the ordinary.

Robinson: We kept telling the coaches that they were running five-man patterns. The thing about a five-man pattern, everybody had to cover somebody. It took the linebackers out of [helping] the defensive secondary. The defensive coaches were a little nervous. They kept saying, “We’ll take care of it at halftime. We’ll take care of it at halftime.”

Second Half and Postgame

After the Chiefs added a late first-half field goal, the Packers entered halftime leading only 14-10.

Dowler: I know when we went in at halftime, we were shaking our heads a little bit saying that we needed to play better.

We could be pretty self-critical. We expected to play well, and most of the time we did. We knew when we weren’t. We made a few adjustments, but mostly the adjustments we made were on defense.

Robinson: At halftime, [the defensive coach] said, “Okay, that play they scored on: let’s diagram it.” So we said, “My guy went here” and “this guy went there” and so on. He said, “Well, that’s a five-man pattern.” I said, “Coach, that’s all they’ve been running.” Willie Wood said, “We were telling you the whole first half. You said wait ‘til halftime.” He said, “what are they doing when we blitz?” Wood was our defensive leader, really, and he said, “Coach, we didn’t blitz the whole first half.”

So [coach] said, “Well, we’ll stop that. Every passing situation in the second half, we’ll blitz.” That’s the extent of what we went over at halftime. No “look at this set” or “what’s going on here.” All we did was say, “Hell, if they’re going to run that pattern, we’ll blitz them.” That’s all we did, and the defensive meeting was over for halftime.

Biever: One of the two networks that was televising it didn’t get back from commercial in time, so they replayed the second half kickoff, which would never happen now.

Robinson: We stopped them the first couple of plays, and our third down he called a Blitz-3, which he never called, either. Blitz-3 means all three linebackers were coming. I was the last one. My job was to jam the tight end first, so he couldn’t get off free and they couldn’t just dump the ball to him.

When I came through, Lee Roy [Caffey]  and [Ray] Nitschke were already on their way unabated to the quarterback, and Len Dawson had eyes as big as saucers. We all got to him about the same time, and he threw the ball up and it turned out to be a wounded duck. Willie Wood picked it off and ran it down to the five-yard line. And it was all over.

Garrett: When you have a big game like that, sometimes you have one mistake, and it just breaks the back. When Len Dawson threw that interception, that broke our backs. We had to catch up, and they knew we couldn’t run.

Robinson: Later on, I met with Lenny one time, and he said they had analyzed our defense and realized we blitzed only an average of three times per game in the films they saw. They had decided then, that the three times we blitzed, they were either going to eat the ball or throw it away while keeping these five-man patterns to keep our linebackers out of the play.

The Packers scored 21 unanswered points in the second half on two TD runs by Elijah Pitts and another Starr-to-McGee TD pass, this one was 13 yards. McGee, who caught four passes all season, finished with seven receptions for 138 yards and two TDs.

Garrett: They were a great team. Defense wins championships, and they had the best defense in football at the time. Besides that, they could score. That’s why they were a dominant power for three-to-five years under Vince Lombardi.

They didn’t give you a lot of holes, and you had to work your way. Like any great team, they weren’t going to let you beat them with the run.

Biever: My most memorable picture ever was shot after that game. Vince Lombardi was walking off the field, and my father was in the background, just to the right of him, walking off with him. That was an important shot for me.

Then and Now

At the time the game was played, few suspected that this would evolve into the American cultural institution that the Super Bowl has become.

Leshner: The funny thing is, the NFL didn’t save any videotapes of that game. All they have is the film, which they put on [NFL Network] last week. The only thing that’s odd about the film is that you don’t have the huddles, you don’t have the things that happen in between the plays. The cameramen always start the cameras when they’re breaking the huddle.

Curry: I was an undersized center, the smallest lineman on every team I played on. I never played over 240, but the guys today are 340. And they are faster than we were and they are quicker than we were. And they’re better athletes, they’re better players than we were except for our great players. A lot of us that were undersized linemen would have had to gain 100 pounds or be a waterboy.

Robinson: Up until that time, our [championship] ring was always a half-carat diamond, so Vince says, “It’s the Super Bowl, we’re going to give you a super ring.” One fat diamond right in the middle.

[My ring is] in my pocket right now as we speak. I don’t wear it out too much because it draws a lot of attention. I took it off because I was in a public place.

Jerry Kramer has his ring on auction, and a buddy of mine just told me that it’s got 20 more days to go and it’s up to $65,000. If his goes to $100,000, I might consider taking mine out of my pocket. [laughs]

Curry: I’m a purist. It feels like a circus now. The contest between the commercials, the contest between the entertainers, the speculation about who’s going to be doing the entertaining and the halftime show seems like it gets more play than the game itself and the halftime is stretched out, what, 30 minutes now? The normal halftime in the NFL is 12 minutes.

Nothing about the game is like a normal football game except the actual rules and the play. I think, as tough as it was for us to concentrate and focus on the game, it’s more difficult for the guys today.

Garrett: It was just a great honor to play in the first one and to play against the Green Bay Packers and have the city of Kansas City go to the first Super Bowl game. It was a great deal for the city, and the city is still benefitting from that game, so it was a wonderful experience. Then, in Super Bowl IV, we won it. It was all tied in a five-year plan; we got to two of the five, and that’s pretty good.

Biever: My father knew [it’d be important]. He kept insisting that I keep going to the game over the years. A couple times I said, “Ah no, it’s going to rain, I don’t want to go.” He’d say, “You’ve got to go, this is important. You’ve got to keep the streak going.”

Robinson: Before the game, my wife wanted to come to California for the Super Bowl. I was trying to discourage her, but she said she wanted to go: “Some day, the Super Bowl will be bigger than the World Series.”

I said, “No way, nothing’s bigger than the World Series.”