For many sports fans the Super Bowl ranks right up there with many other important days of the year. In fact some people think that Super Bowl Sunday should be a national holiday.
Football fans often think of that Sunday in mid-winter as the day when the sporting world all comes together. Even for non-football fans the day is often special. Parties and family gatherings are common. In some ways, for many, it's like the holiday season all over again.
For many who are interested in this Sunday's game between the New England Patriots and the St. Louis Rams in the New Orleans Superdome, their background on the Super Bowl only has a recent perspective. Many weren't even born when the first Super Bowl took place in Los Angeles on Jan. 15, 1967. Others are too young to remember.
Before the Super Bowl there were two competing leagues, the American Football League and the National Football League. They were always at each others throats, signing players away from each other, trying to encroach on each others markets, making baseballs problems seem minor.
After the signing wars that almost drove both leagues into bankruptcy it was decided that the two leagues would become one, the National Football league, with two conferences; the American, consisting of teams from the startup league brought about the signing war, and the National Conference containing all the hard line old teams.
While professional football has been around in one form or another for 100 years, until 1960 the NFL as it existed then really never had a competitor to it. It was in that year that the AFL was formed and even though that league only existed less than a decade it's impact on professional American football will always be felt.
But it was an event two years before that formation that really started the major interest in professional footballs premier game, that would later become the Super Bowl. It was the 1958 NFL championship game between the Baltimore Colts (now in Indianapolis) and the New York Giants (who now play in New Jersey even though they have kept the big apple moniker).
Some consider this game to be the best game ever played in the NFL, although more modern fans may disagree. But it was a turning point in professional football because first it was telecast nationally, and although not the first NFL championship broadcast this way, it was the first that was extremely exciting and had players with names everyone recognized at the time, including non-football fans.
What made the game really great was the finish. The Colts, after tying the game on a field goal with seven seconds to play, won the game on their very first possession in overtime. Johnny Unitas, the legendary quarterback for the Colts, and a household name in a day when household names were usually reserved for politicians, movie stars and professional baseball players, handed the ball off to fullback Alan Ameche who then drove the ball in on a third down play and Baltimore won the game 23-17. It was the first time the leagues championship had ever been decided in sudden death play and it was on national television. That began the modern era of professional football with big player contracts, large player endorsements and a country where many began to see football as as much a national pastime as baseball had been for 100 years.
But what really changed things was that "Mickey Mouse league" as tabbed by owners of entrenched NFL teams that started in 1960. If not for the AFL, the NFL would be so different it is doubtful if it would have surpassed baseball as the team sport the most people watch.
First of all there never would have been a Super Bowl. There still would have been a championship, but it would not be the same for a number of reasons.
First the game would have never been played at a neutral site. The NFL championship games were always played at the home field of the team that had the best record. Some still think this is the way it should be, but with the popularity of the Super Bowl, fewer people would be able to see it at some of the smaller stadiums that were in place at the time.
Next is the fact that some teams that exist today, storied teams, would have never existed in the places they are without the AFL's creation. Teams like the Oakland Raiders and New York Jets would never have been started in markets where the entrenched San Francisco 49ers and New York Giants existed. While a freeway or subway Super Bowl has never happened in the same sense as a freeway and subway World Series have, the exciting possibility will always exist, even if the possibility of the game actually ever being played on one of the teams home fields is remote.
It's hard to compare football before the AFL with today's NFL. In 1959, the year before the new league came into existence there were only 12 teams in the entire league, and the way expansion moved in those days with owners protecting their territories hundreds of miles away from where the teams played their home games, it is doubtful there would be many more today. Only two of those teams were west of St. Louis; the Los Angeles Rams and the San Francisco 49ers. There was no Dallas, Oakland, Seattle, Denver or San Diego amongst others. Expansion was an ugly word.
In fact the Colts team that won that championship in 1958 under Unitas guidance was a remnant of the last expansion try the NFL had made six years before in Dallas, where it failed miserably and actually played their last "home" game in Hershey, Pa. before moving to Maryland.
In 1959, two Texas oil millionaires (Lamar Hunt in Dallas and Bud Adams in Houston) decided if the NFL would not give Texas viable franchise, they would start their own league and give the Lone Star state two; Dallas and Houston. They also set up teams in New York, Denver, Los Angeles and Minneapolis. The Minnesota team however never came to be because that very same year the potential owner of the team was offered an NFL franchise which became the Vikings. The league also wanted to put a team in Miami (the NFL also did not have a team south of Washington D.C. either) but decided on Buffalo for political reasons.
The NFL owners publicly made fun of the AFL, but they were really frightened by it. It had major money behind it, unlike the old All-American Conference that existed in the late 1940's which had been weak competition for the NFL. The NFL owners tried to talk Hunt and Adams out of the idea by offering them franchises in their respective cities, but neither would budge, because they could see the fear on the old leagues collective face. They were smart too. For the $125,000 investment they made in their teams and the league that first year they now own teams that are worth half a billion dollars (Hunt owns Kansas City Chiefs and Adams the Tennessee Titans).
The original teams when the 1960 season opened were the New York Titans, the Buffalo Bills, the Boston Patriots, the Los Angeles Chargers, the Dallas Texans, the Oakland Raiders and the Denver Broncos.
The NFL decided that they needed to take action and along with the franchise in Minnesota, started to expand. One of those expansion teams was the Dallas Cowboys whose competition eventually forced Hunt to move his team to Kansas City.
As with all new leagues, money or not, teams folded and moved, as well as changing ownership. The New York Titans were eventually sold and the new owner named the team the "Jets" and then signed Joe Namath to a contract; the first half million dollar deal in the history of pro football. That move brought on the signing wars and also moved the AFL into the public eye as an actual major league sports organization.
The first commissioner of the new league was Joe Foss, a former governor of South Dakota. He opened the league office in Dallas. One of his first actions was to sue the NFL for putting a team in Dallas after the AFL announced they would have a team there. The suit also described the senior leagues attempt to interfere with television contracts so that the new league would not get any national exposure.
The money sounds small now, but the first contract the AFL had with the American Broadcasting Company was for a little over $2 million for the entire season for the whole league.
The whole lawsuit thing wasn't settled until 1962, when a federal judge ruled that the AFL didn't have a case, but by that time the new league had established itself in most of it's markets and was moving forward to really compete with the NFL in the near future.
As with all new leagues strange things took place. Franchises that seemingly were healthy one day, suddenly were broke the next. Most Utahn's know about this feeling; remember how suddenly the powerful Utah Star's franchise of the American Basketball Association folded into oblivion in the mid-1970's sending most of their star players, including legend Moses Malone to the St. Louis Spirits, which itself dissolved within a few months.
Nonetheless the AFL got better and in 1964 signed a television contract with the National Broadcasting System for $36 million for the 1965 broadcast rights. That broadcast year was also when Namath came into the league, bringing with it badly needed notoriety.
The new league was also a new start for many players who couldn't make the NFL. So few professional football teams existed in 1959 that there was a wealth of talent, many of who just needed a chance to play to prove themselves. Like the proverbial third round draft pick that makes good in sports today, the athletes came out of the woodwork. Players who had failed to make the NFL, but became big stars in the AFL included such people as George Blanda of the Raiders and Len Dawson of the Chiefs.
In 1966 Al Davis became the commissioner of the AFL and that is when the pressure on the old league really began. Rather than just sign good players to high salaries out of college, Davis began the tactic of going after established NFL stars some of whom jumped leagues to make more money. But the bidding war came close to destroying pro football as we know it so Hunt began talking with the old leagues leaders and eventually it led to an agreement of a common draft between the two leagues, a championship game called the Super Bowl and eventually four years later a compete merger of the two organizations into one league with two conferences: the NFC and the AFC.
The only aberration in the whole thing is that to balance the sizes of the two conferences the NFC lost three teams to the AFC; Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Cleveland.
It's been a long road to Super Bowl XXXVI that will be held in New Orleans this weekend. In fact, the only way the merger was achieved without congress rejecting it as a monopoly was that the NFL had to promise to place a team in Louisiana to get the support of Russell Long, a powerful U.S. Senator at the time.
Without those events and the Saints team being put there, there probably would never have been a Super Dome in which to hold the game this year.