Over the past 50 years the Super Bowl has evolved from glorified exhibition game to the biggest event in American sports—and eight fans have been there for every one. We kick off our cross-country tour of Football America on the coast of Maine, with one of those fortunate fans who’s headed to Santa Clara for the Big 5-0
KENNEBUNKPORT, Me. — The MMQB’s Super Bowl 50 Road Trip begins in a ghost town. January is the offseason in this quiet coastal village in southern Maine, most famous for hosting the Bush family each summer. The sign in front of Bennett’s Sandwich Shop on Sea Road reads, “Thanks for a great season”—and it’s not talking about the NFL. Proud Victorian houses perched along the shore sit empty, the wooden deck chairs and summer vacationers long gone from their wraparound porches.
Mine is the only car driving along the winding road. I make a left off of Sea Road and onto an equally deserted and snow-covered street. Here, in an unassuming olive-green house with white shutters, lives one of just eight fans who have attended all 49 Super Bowls. Who better to start the story of the NFL’s greatest game than a fan who has witnessed every moment in the Super Bowl’s five-decade history?
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When Don Crisman opens the door to his home, he’s exactly what you’d expect of a superfan of Super Bowls. His old-man glasses, shortly to be the hot eyewear in Williamsburg and West Hollywood, hang on a cord around his neck, and he’s dressed for the interview with a Patriots ball cap over his balding head and a black button-down shirt sporting a patch on the left side that reads “Never-Miss-A-Super-Bowl Club.” You might recognize Crisman from VISA’s “Go Fans” ad campaign in 2010, which featured him and his group of friends who’ve attended every installment of the big game.
Crisman, 79, leads the way down a half-flight of stairs to his basement living room and “office.” Every inch of the walls is covered with Super Bowl memorabilia—so much that it’s overwhelming to take in all at once. Don points out some of his favorites: a hat signed by Super Bowl XXX performer Diana Ross (his favorite halftime act); a photo at a bar with the actors from the 1993 Bud Light “Ladies Night!” commercials (“That was wild”); dozens of vintage pennants, seat covers, pins, ribbons, patches, and autographed footballs; the media guide from Super Bowl I (”You know it’s real because the date on it is wrong!”).
Don came away from that first Super Bowl thinking, “This could turn into the World Series of football.”
A retired telecommunications equipment salesman, Crisman has lived in his Kennebunkport home with his wife, Beverly, for 48 years, nearly as long as he’s been going to Super Bowls. His basement collection could be a complete History of the Super Bowl exhibit, and he gestures around the room explaining each item as a museum curator would. He picks up his ticket from Super Bowl I and begins telling the story of how he ended up at the L.A. Coliseum for the fledgling NFL vs. AFL World Championship game.
In 1967, Don was living in Denver and would often go to Air Force Academy football games with a group of friends. One of them, Stan Whitaker, got tickets to the Super Bowl from his company, which had a marketing affiliation with the Broncos. “Not a lot of people wanted tickets at that time,” Don says with a laugh. Although most football fans considered the Packers-Cowboys NFL title game two weeks earlier the real pro football championship, Don went to Los Angeles for Super Bowl I anyway. After the game he recalls thinking, “This could turn into the World Series of football.”
Don and Stan kept returning to the Super Bowl year after year, and sometime around Super Bowl X or XI they made an official pact to go to as many of the games as they could. But for Crisman, the streak nearly ended before it began. An ice storm delayed his travel from Maine to Miami for Super Bowl II, and he arrived just two hours before kickoff at the Orange Bowl. Another near-miss came in 1998. Crisman found himself without a ticket for Super Bowl XXXII in San Diego. Desperate, he wrote on a note card, Never missed a Super Bowl. Need one ticket. and pinned it to his shirt the day before the game. It worked.
Crisman’s Never-Miss-A-Super-Bowl Club has three members now. In addition to him, there’s Steelers fan Tom Henschel, whom Don met at Super Bowl XVII, and 49ers fan Larry Jacobson, whom the group met at Super Bowl XXXIV. At its peak there were five members—including Whitaker and Bob Cook of Wisconsin, who died in 2011. There are five other fans who have never missed a Super Bowl outside of Don’s group.
“I’d love to see a Browns-Lions Super Bowl,” Crisman says, vowing to keep going until that happens.
Crisman can still remember the teams, score and location of the first eight Super Bowls, rattling them off slowly and meticulously, like a chef listing ingredients for an old recipe. After Super Bowl VIII—“Dolphins beat the Vikings easily, 24 to 7, played in Houston”—the memories start to run together. “There was a time when I could name every team, the score, location and approximate attendance, but now I’m having brain failure,” Crisman says, chuckling, and his gray eyebrows wrinkle as he shakes his head.
He has said several times that Super Bowl 50 will be his last trip, but now that the game is almost here, and the finality of that resolution is setting in, he’s reconsidering. “I’m thinking of trying to negotiate an extension with my wife,” Crisman says. While he’s caught plenty of great moments, from Max McGee and Joe Namath to David Tyree and Malcolm Butler, there are still plenty on his bucket list. “I’d love to see a Browns versus Lions Super Bowl,” he says, joking that he plans to keep going until the year that happens. Realistically, he’ll continue to go as long as he and Beverly are healthy to travel to the game.
Throughout our interview, Beverly darts in and out of the basement, showing off Don’s Super Bowl letter jacket, adorned with patches from each of the 49 games. When she’s not in the room, she yells her own commentary down the stairs to add color—or correct—her husband’s stories. I ask Don if Beverly thinks he’s crazy to go to every game, and before he can answer, she shouts, “No, he’s worked hard and he’s earned it!”
The Super Bowl isn’t just Don’s thing. It’s a couples activity for the Crismans. Beverly doesn’t always buy a ticket to the game—she estimates she’s attended about two dozen—but she almost always travels with Don to the location. She launches into a story about attending a Christian worship event hosted by coaches Dan Reeves and Joe Gibbs at a Super Bowl, and the two lightheartedly squabble back and forth about which year that was. Unable to reach a definitive conclusion, Don is compelled to look it up, “Ahh, right, it was Super Bowl XXII,” he says with a nod. Denver-Washington.
Beverly is out of earshot when I ask Don if he’s ever tallied up how much money he’s spent attending all those Super Bowls. “I’ve never added it up,” he says. “I’d never want my wife to know.” Some years ago the NFL began setting aside tickets for Don and his partners in the Never-Miss-A-Super-Bowl Club, available at face value. This year, on the golden anniversary, the league is providing tickets on the 50-yard line, as well as hotel and airfare, as a gift to these most dedicated fans.
As a native New Englander, Don is a Patriots fan and an AFC supporter. He says his three favorite Super Bowls are Super III, the Jets win that put the AFL on the map and that Don ranks with the Miracle on Ice in American sports lore; Super Bowl XXXVI, the Pats’ first win, an upset over the Greatest Show on Turf Rams; and Super Bowl XLIX, last year’s stunning New England victory over Seattle. On his way home from Super Bowl III in Miami, he was on the same plane as several Patriots players who had gone to support their upstart league. The celebration on the plane was wild. “We ran out of alcohol!” he says. “I think that game affected people in the AFL cities. For the next month or two it affected how we went about our lives.”
When Don’s Patriots finally won that first Super Bowl in February 2002, the happiness stuck with him. “I don’t think I got over the feeling for a couple of months,” he says. And last year’s win was special because Don had put the game in the loss column for the Patriots until Butler’s interception saved it. “I was packing my bag and going to walk out with my tail between my legs,” he says. “And then it happened! I said to Larry [Jacobson], ‘I never want to leave this building.’”
Finally, I ask Don if he thinks we’re crazy to drive from here on the East Coast all the way to Santa Clara for Super Bowl 50. “Of course, not,” he says. “We drove out from here to Super Bowl XXXVII in San Diego.”
The last thing Don shows me is a FedEx envelope that just arrived in the mail. He opens it and carefully pulls out four shiny golden tickets. He grins, holding them up, and says: “It’s a great moment. I know I am going again.”