Like many American teenagers, I had the reasonable expectation my parents would meet my basic needs while I lived under their roof. That meant not only assuring adequate food, shelter, clothing and medical care – including home visits by a pediatrician to chase a younger me from room to room with a needle and syringe – but supplying the appliances customary to modern life.
Yet as the time approached to watch the inaugural, much-anticipated AFL-NFL World Championship Game on Jan. 15, 1967, a meeting retroactively given the grandiose title of “Super Bowl,” I was asked to help pay for a new television so we could watch the monumental clash in living color.
No one asked me to underwrite the family’s refrigerator or stove. Nor did I pay a cent toward the freezer or washer and dryer in the basement where my parents stocked a makeshift bomb shelter during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, as if we might survive a nuclear holocaust beneath our suburban ranch house. But when it came to making the cutting-edge home communications conversion of the decade, to ride the crest of what promised to be the wave of the future, my parents were unconvinced an upgrade was necessary.
Television long offered a monochromatic pallet: shows in black and white and just three broadcast networks – ABC, CBS and NBC. There was no public television. No cable. No satellite. No internet. No VCR, DVR or HD. No glut of programming. Wherever you lived, TV stations went off the air sometime around midnight, accompanied by the playing of the Star Spangled Banner and followed by a testing pattern and dead air.
Not until the fall of 1965 were the majority of all TV shows broadcast in lifelike color. The first to go all color was NBC, owned by RCA, the leading American manufacturer of televisions. The next year, when the networks broadcast everything in color, and shows like “My Favorite Martian” had to retouch the strings used in special effects to mesh with multihued backgrounds, fewer than 10 percent of the 54 million U.S. households with TVs owned color models. Two years later that proportion was 24.2 percent of American TV households, 13.7 million, and because of the Super Bowl ours was among them.
A 25-inch RCA Victor color console cost $300-400. To get the TV in time for the Super Bowl I contributed about a third of the purchase price. My modest savings had been accumulated in dribs and drabs by selling customized greeting cards and magazine subscriptions door to door in my neighborhood. I also mowed lawns, raked leaves, shoveled snow. Occasionally I traveled to nearby New York City to perform make-work assignments at my grandfather’s mattress factory.
I was willing to pay to see a color version of my new favorite show, “Star Trek,” which imagined an ongoing voyage to a “final frontier” in outer space before Americans had even landed on the moon. Most of all, though, I wanted the pleasure of watching the best team from the American Football League, whomever that was, prove its supremacy over any team from the National Football League on a neutral playing field.
Carolina Panthers fans will recognize this condescending attitude from the football media establishment, and the corollary urge to cram the skepticism down critics’ throats.
The well-chronicled upheavals of the sixties transformed sports. Teams became racially integrated. Brash young athletes like boxer Cassius Clay, who scandalized many by discarding what he called his “slave name” in favor of Muhammad Ali and changed his religion from Christian to Muslim, were not afraid to declaim their prowess or to defy authority. Also during that decade, new leagues with financial staying power sprang up to challenge the stodgy NBA and NFL, offering variety, initiating bidding wars for players and spawning increased viewing options.
The American Basketball Association was founded in 1967, and brought with it more offense and new wrinkles such as a multicolored ball and a 3-point field goal. The ABA surely took cues from the American Football League, which began in 1960 and announced its upcoming merger with the NFL in June 1966. The Super Bowl was a major preliminary step in that marriage.
Mickey Mouse League
The AFL, invariably labeled an “upstart,” featured wide-open offense and innovations such as player names on the backs of jerseys and the option of going for a two-point conversion after a touchdown. Perhaps because its games appeared regularly on NBC, which went to full color before anyone else, the AFL simply seemed more vivid. Certainly the names of its high-profile players reinforced that impression: Boston’s Babe Parilli, Buffalo’s Cookie Gilchrist, the N.Y. Jets’ Bake Turner and Wahoo McDaniel, and Lance Alworth, the elusive San Diego Chargers wideout whose name well-suited his game.
NFL purists dismissed the AFL as the “Mickey Mouse League,” according to the book, “Total Football.” The lead pro football writer for Sports Illustrated, then a king of national coverage, regarded the new league with disdain. If you appreciated AFL ball, or rooted for an AFL team, the derision felt personal.
Carolina Panthers fans will recognize this condescending attitude from the football media establishment, and the corollary urge to cram the skepticism down critics’ throats. Seeing the Legion of Experts knock the present-day Panthers, predicting their downfall each week, only to find new reasons to pick against them when they keep winning, is to share kinship with AFL fans of a half-century ago.
The first showdown
Eight AFL franchises began playing in 1960 in Boston, Buffalo, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, New York and Oakland. The new local team, the N.Y. Titans, immediately joined our family rooting portfolio. It was a rough go. Playing at the gloomy Polo Grounds – abandoned by baseball’s N.Y. Giants when they moved to San Francisco for the 1958 season – the Titans went bankrupt in 1963. A new owner renamed them the Jets. The following year the AFL club moved to a joint-use facility, Shea Stadium, shared with baseball’s expansion New York Mets. We went to watch the Jets in person once or twice annually. They sometimes won.
Then in 1965 the Jets used their first draft choice to land a star, Alabama quarterback Joe Namath. Brash and openly rakish off the field, aggressive and skilled on it, Broadway Joe was another young athlete who spurned convention and came through under pressure as the Jets prospered.
But the honor of playing in the first showdown with the NFL went to the explosive Kansas City Chiefs, formerly the Dallas Texans. They faced coach Vince Lombardi, unflappable quarterback Bart Starr, another Alabama alum, and the NFL’s most dominant team, champs for the fourth time in six years, the Green Bay Packers.
I don’t ever recall being so nervous before watching a game as I was for that 1967 Super Bowl. I couldn’t sit still. The Packers led 14-10 at halftime, but disappointingly blew the game open in the second half of a 35-10 victory. Pressed by the media to state an opinion after the game, Lombardi said, “I don’t think Kansas City compares to the best teams in the NFL.” The coach added, “There. That’s what you wanted me to say, isn’t it?”
Any gloating was short-lived. Two years later the Jets, 18-point underdogs, fulfilled a Namath guarantee and pulled one of the great upsets in U.S. sports history as they beat the NFL’s Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. By then I was living in North Carolina, and didn’t get to watch the sublime moment on the family’s color TV.