Given the chance to see the debut of what would become the world's most ballyhooed annual sporting event for the charge of $12, would you do it? Hindsight is 20/20, but in 1967 disinterest in the first Super Bowl was such that some 33,000 seats in the Los Angeles Coliseum went empty, even while the game was blacked out in much of the city.
The further irony about the game is soon to conclude. Recordings of the groundbreaking contest were lost or taped over, leaving those who blithely ignored it with no opportunity to go back and watch it. But Friday at 8 p.m., the NFL Network will air a painstakingly sourced and pieced together version of the game—all 145 plays—that pitted the National Football League champion Green Bay Packers against the winner of the American Football League, the Kansas City Chiefs. On the 49th anniversary—to the day—of the original viewing, fans will be able to watch what had been the sports equivalent of the remains of Jimmy Hoffa: everyone suspected it was out there, but no one knew where.
Viewers will not see the spectacle that the Super Bowl has become in five decades, but a low-key affair, minus the highly anticipated and expensive advertising spots and international pop stars at halftime. They will also not be watching the original broadcast, but mainly footage from NFL Films, edited together with audio from the NBC Radio broadcast of the event. As well as being remastered and corrected for color, Friday night's showing will include hosts Chris Rose and Steve Mariucci and commentary from Packers' greats Willie Davis, Jerry Kramer, Dave Robinson and Antonio Freeman. The game film is supplemented with postgame interviews with then-Chiefs' coach Hank Stram, former NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle as well as wired sound from then-Packers' coach Vince Lombardi.
The January 1967 game was the first tangible upshot from a merger agreement reached the summer before. Nevertheless, the assumed superiority of the NFL was so great that many believed the real championship game had occurred two weeks before when Green Bay beat Dallas for its own league title. Adding to the feeling that the game had been thrown together was that the date and venue were only decided upon in December.
The team officials included referees from both leagues, but the AFL two-point conversion was not used. Each offense played with its respective official league ball. While it was aired on both CBS (official network of the NFL at the time) and NBC (the AFL network), both broadcasters failed to keep tapes of what was originally called the NFL-AFL Championship game. Apparently they thought there would be no interest in the contest in subsequent years, though the film would come to be thought of as the "holy grail" of sports.
The history leading up to the event was that the upstart AFL, begun in 1960, had failed to slink away as the long-established NFL had hoped. Both teams competed ravenously for players fresh from college (resulting in Joe Namath's record contract of $427,000 for three years starting in 1965). Despite an unwritten agreement not to poach signed players from other leagues, the New York Giants (NFL) signed Buffalo Bills (AFL) kicker Pete Gogolak before the 1966 season and the situation exploded. The NFL waved an olive branch in the form of a merger agreement. The terms were to begin with a championship game but no regular-season interleague games for a few years, followed by a transfer of three NFL teams to the AFL, and finally a complete merger with two conferences playing amongst each other.
In this, the first meeting, the press afforded little hope to the AFL and much of the print was devoted to the rivalry between CBS and NBC. Still, the players felt they had a lot at stake—the Chiefs because they needed to show they could play in the big leagues, and the Packers because a defeat would mean a loss of face for football's establishment. Many of the Chiefs were slighted NFL rejects and craved a victory as a measure of revenge. Kansas City defensive end Fred Williamson (later a screen actor) bragged that he would use his patented "hammer" blow, a forearm smash, to take out Packer receivers Carroll Dale and Boyd Dowler.
Spoiler alert: Prognosticators were correct, and the game was a blowout, with Green Bay winning, 35-10. But Kansas City managed to keep it a contest through the first half, which ended with a score of 14-10. Williamson did take out Dowler, but would leave the field on a stretcher himself. Veteran Packer Max McGee was an unlikely hero with two touchdown receptions.
The ticket cost (now easily 100 times the face price of the original game) is not the only disparity that has come with time. The original game was shot with five or six cameras (now up to 35). The winners' bonus was $15,000 a player (Patriots players received $97,000 last year). College bands from Grambling State and University of Arizona performed at halftime, along with a team of high school flag girls. Graphics and other aspects of production were nowhere near modern standards either. A replay of the kickoff starting the second half was forced when NBC failed to cut back from a commercial in time for the kickoff.
"We never dreamed it would turn into what it has today, which is a big social event," Jack Whitaker, who called the second half for CBS, would later say. "[Now it's] two exhausted teams playing second fiddle to the halftime show and the TV commercials."
One thing that hasn't changed is celebrity turnout. Super Bowl I was attended by the likes of Kirk Douglas, Henry Fonda and Chuck Connors.
Friday's show will apparently satisfy long anticipation that a record of the game would pop up. Hope that the game would be available for viewing was raised in 2005 when recorded tapes of much of it surfaced in Pennsylvania. An unnamed source had discovered two reels of two-inch Quadruplex tape (the standard medium at a time when home video recorders did not exist). Apparently, the source's father had made the recordings on equipment belonging to his business. It lacked the halftime show, however, and much of the third quarter. The source and NFL, which owns the rights to broadcast, never came to an agreement on price (their difference of opinion amounted to almost a million dollars) Those tapes are now in the hands of the Paley Center for Media in New York City.