It was, as the Kansas City Chiefs' fullback Curtis McClinton
recalls today, "A game played on a stage."
The game was Super Bowl I, on Jan. 15, 1967, at the Los Angeles
Memorial Coliseum. It was the Chiefs against the Green Bay
Packers, and, says Willie Davis, who lined up at defensive end
for Green Bay that day, "It was not a game we were playing for
the Packers, but for the NFL itself, for a way of life; a game
of survival, a test of manhood."
They had warred for six years, the AFL and NFL, and then,
finally, they had achieved peace. They had negotiated parity in
the draft room and in the boardroom--but what would happen on the
field would be up to the coaches and the players.
In the week before the game, recalls Bob Skoronski, the Packers'
left tackle and offensive captain, coach Vince Lombardi's
practices were "grueling, intense. We were all wondering, what
the hell is Vince doing? It was one of the few times in my
career I was afraid that we might leave the game on the practice
field. But there was the fear of the unknown; things could
happen--a couple of fumbles, a couple of misplays. Everything the
Packers stood for, all that we'd accomplished that season, all
the championships of past years, none of it would count if we
lost the game."
October 5, 1995
The Kansas City roster was loaded with high NFL draft picks who
had signed instead with a Chief team fortified by owner Lamar
Hunt's oil money. No AFL club had fared better in the talent
wars. Southern Cal halfback Mike Garrett, the 1965 Heisman
Trophy winner, had been a second-round choice of his hometown
Los Angeles Rams. The Chiefs dropped his name at the AFL draft
as an afterthought, in the 20th round, and--surprise--he signed
with them. Free safety Johnny Robinson had been the Detroit
Lions' No. 1 pick in '60, the third player selected in the
Linebacker Bobby Bell, guard Ed Budde and 6'7", 287-pound
defensive tackle Buck Buchanan had been members of the 1963
College All-Star team that beat the Packers 20-17. "Greatest
collection of talent ever assembled on a football field," a
stunned Lombardi told friends after that All-Star Game.
"Oh, we knew the Chiefs had talent, a lot of it that the NFL
wanted," Skoronski says. "We just didn't know how good because
the films didn't tell you the caliber of the opposition."
Champions of the Mickey Mouse League was the sneering verdict
pronounced on the Chiefs by those who didn't have to play them.
"Someone went to Disneyland and got those Mickey Mouse ears and
gave them out to everyone before the game as a kind of
motivator," says Chief right guard Curt Merz. "I've got a
picture of it, getting my hands taped wearing those ears."
"I came in with the start of the AFL," split end Chris Burford
says, "and I'd just gotten so tired of all the verbal abuse over
the years. Now all of a sudden you were inferior to kids you'd
played with all your life because they went with the NFL."
The Chiefs outweighed the Packers by 15 pounds per man on both
sides of the ball. And they had youth. Only two members of the
40-man Kansas City squad, quarterback Len Dawson and kicker Mike
Mercer, had reached their 30th birthdays. The Pack had 15, 11 of
whom were key contributors. On a hot day, if a young team could
keep it close at the half--well, you justnever knew.
"Great talent, bad habits," Packer linebacker Dave Robinson says
of those Chiefs. "But they were so much better than the rest of
the AFL that they could get away with it."
Then there was the awe factor for the Chiefs to contend with.
There were nine future Hall of Famers on that Green Bay roster,
a nucleus of talent that had led the Pack to four NFL titles.
"Lombardi, the mystique, even the idea that maybe this was the
greatest team of all time--sure, all that was on our mind,"
Johnny Robinson says. "Were we in awe? I think apprehension
would be a better word."
Into this clash of legends and upstarts, tradition and
innovation, was added some comic relief, in the person of Fred
Williamson, the Chiefs' 209-pound left cornerback. He was
"Freddy the Hammer," whose sweeping roundhouse swipe with an
extended right arm had left a trail of unconscious
receivers--according to Freddy. In the week before the game he
belittled the entire Packer organization, in print. His
intention, he would say later, was to deflect much of the
pressure onto himself, in hopes of rescuing what he described as
a terrified, quaking bunch of teammates.
His daily comments to the press infuriated a few Chiefs
("pitiful," recalls tight end Fred Arbanas), amused a few and
merely annoyed the rest. The Packers shrugged and smiled. "I've
played against guys in our league, like Night Train Lane, who
know how to lay a lick on you too," said 34-year-old split end
Max McGee. Sure enough, in the fourth quarter Williamson took a
hit that put him out for the rest of the game.
The Packers were a 13 1/2-point favorite on game day. The
temperature was in the mid 70's. Tickets were priced at $12,
$10 and $6, and more than 31,000 of them were left unsold. Hunt
was sitting in the midst of the Kansas City contingent in the
stands on the sun side of the Coliseum ("the NFL got the shady
side," he says). He remembers being told about those unsold
seats. "Imagine if someone gave you 31,000 tickets for the next
Super Bowl," he says. "You could retire for life."
Frank Gifford, the color man for the CBS telecast of the
game--which was also aired by NBC, the AFL's network--had
corralled Lombardi, his old offensive coach with the New York
Giants, for a rare on-field pregame interview. "He told me,
'Every owner in the [NFL] is calling me,'" Gifford says.
"'They're telling me you've got to not only win, but win big.
You know this is a really good football team. This isn't just a
bunch of humpty-dumpties.' I've got my arm around him and
underneath I can feel him shaking like a leaf."
On the Packers' second play--Elijah Pitts carrying on a
sweep--split end Boyd Dowler reinjured a shoulder and was out for
the rest of the day. "McGee!" Lombardi yelled, his voice cutting
through the fog of the veteran receiver's severe hangover.
"Max didn't even have his helmet," says halfback Paul Hornung,
who had been sitting next to him on the bench. "Hawg Hanner, our
defensive line coach, had to throw him one."
The saga of Max McGee is the enduring story of Super Bowl I. He
had caught four passes all season, then he hauled in seven in
this game, including a one-handed catch in the first quarter for
the first Super Bowl touchdown, another scoring catch in the
third quarter that gave Green Bay a 28-10 lead and a 38-yard
reception that set up the Pack's final touchdown. And he did it
on, well, as much sleep as you can get when you've ducked out on
curfew and come in the next morning.
"I got back to the room between 7:30 and 8:00," McGee says, "to
get Hornung up for breakfast. That was one of my jobs; that's
why Lombardi kept me around an extra two years: to make sure
Hornung made breakfast. All week we'd been practicing in this
nice little town, Santa Barbara, before we moved to the Sheraton
in L.A. We used to go down to the wharf and watch the old people
dive into the water or watch the seagulls for a while. Nice
place but very dull. I was well rested. I could have stayed out
two nights and still played."
McGee's three big catches were all on the same pattern, a quick
slant from the left side. Willie Mitchell, the Chiefs' right
cornerback, got the blame, but he had no help. Mitchell's
troubles had actually begun in late November when defensive
right end Chuck Hurston came down with a virus and lost 40
pounds. By game day he was 209. "[Coach] Hank Stram made me wear
two sweatshirts in practice, in that California sun," Hurston
says. "He didn't want people to see how skinny my arms were."
The Chiefs didn't relish the prospect of a Hurston-Skoronski
matchup, so they blitzed the linebacker on that side, E.J.
Holub, to help out. It was a fatal mistake. "Three big plays by
McGee, all on weakside blitzes," Johnny Robinson says. "There's
nobody to jam McGee, so he comes into the middle clean. They
flared the halfback each time, which is the free safety's
responsibility, so now I'm gone too, and there's nobody to help
out in the middle. Yeah, they caught us on it--three times on the
same setup. I could show it to you on film right now. It's as
plain as day."
The first half of Super Bowl I was almost dead even, and at
intermission the Packers led 14-10. The Chiefs were hurting
Green Bay with play-action passes and five-receiver patterns.
Garrett was juking and faking and freelancing--an early Barry
Sanders. Wide receiver Otis Taylor had beaten the Pack secondary
on a 31-yard square-in early in the second quarter, and on the
next play McClinton, running a circle route off play-action,
scored easily on a seven-yard toss from Dawson.
"At halftime I felt pretty darn good," Hunt recalls. "We had
more yards and more first downs than the Packers, and we were
moving the ball on them."
In the Packers' locker room during intermission, Lombardi told
the players they were too tight. "He told us to relax," middle
linebacker Ray Nitschke says. "Well, he was the guy who'd gotten
us so nervous in the first place, who'd made us so uptight."
Skoronski told quarterback Bart Starr to keep pounding away at
the left side, because Hurston, Skoronski's man, was wearing
down. In the second half Pitts scored twice on off-tackle plays
to the left.
And heeding Lombardi's counsel, the defense loosened up and went
to a full-blitz package, a rarity for Green Bay. "It was a way
to take them out of those five-man patterns and out of their
play-action, the two things that bothered us," Dave Robinson says.
On the fourth play of the second half, Nitschke and right
linebacker Lee Roy Caffey poured in on Dawson, accompanied by
Davis and tackle Henry Jordan. Dawson threw the ball in the
direction of Arbanas, who was running a crossing route.
"He should have taken the sack," Garrett says. "I was yelling,
'Don't do it! Don't do it!'" Free safety Willie Wood picked off
the forced throw and ran it back 50 yards to the Kansas City
five. A quick touchdown--the first of those two off-tackle
slashes by Pitts--made the score 21-10, Green Bay, and the rout
was on. The final score was 35-10.
It had taken the Packers a half to figure out the Chiefs. Then
they took apart the team from the new league. In the second
half, in the face of the Packer blitzes, Dawson never had time
to find Taylor downfield again. Potential receivers had to stay
in and block. Play-action was now useless. The Chiefs never got
closer to the end zone than the Green Bay 44.
"Yeah, we shoved them around for a while," says Holub, "but we
were just so young. They cashed in on every mistake we made."
The game would turn out to be something of a curse for the
Chicago Bears, who faced the Chiefs the following year in an
exhibition game. Kansas City rolled to a 66-24 win. "It was
Super Bowl II for the Chiefs," Bear cornerback Rosey Taylor
recalls telling Dave Robinson after the rout.
"It was a great job of recovering from our loss," Stram says.
The Chiefs would go on to rebuild their defense, and three years
later, with seven new starters on that side of the ball, they
beat the favored Minnesota Vikings 23-7 in Super Bowl IV. Green
Bay, a year older and even more experienced, beat the Oakland
Raiders 33-14 in Super Bowl II, then Lombardi quit as coach, and
all of a sudden the Packers were an old team. The next four
years would bring them three third-place finishes in their
division, and a fourth.
The winning share in that first Super Bowl was $15,000 a man;
the losers each got $7,500. "Add $6,000 for the playoff win,"
Chief linebacker Walt Corey says, "and you've got $13,500, which
was only $500 less than my salary."
"I was back in Kansas City recently for an alumni affair," Merz
says, "and a bunch of us were riding up in the elevator with
Jack Steadman, who was the general manager in those days.
'Jack,' I said, 'Doesn't your heart go pitty-pat, seeing all
these $12,000 a year players?'"