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'Old-School Bowl'

Posted Feb 4, 2011

NFL's Pioneers Would Love It


Editor’s note: Today’s guest column is by veteran NFL writer Vic Ketchman. Vic will be joining the Packers.com staff later this month as a writer-columnist. He has covered the NFL since 1972, including the Pittsburgh Steelers’ first four Super Bowls, and will bring a great perspective to Packers.com readers.

The world might not be ready for this: a Super Bowl without cheerleaders.

Even the Ice Bowl had cheerleaders. It’s just that it was cold and the girls were bundled in heavy sweaters, so, we don’t remember it.

World, are you ready for a game between the Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers? Are you ready for some real football? Are you ready for the “Old School Bowl?”

First, allow me to introduce myself. I’m from Pittsburgh, where I spent a lot of years covering the Steelers. Soon, I’ll be moving to Green Bay, where I’ve been granted the distinct privilege of covering your team. At the moment, I’m finishing up a few rounds of golf in Jacksonville. No, I don’t ice-fish.

Given the zigzag nature of my professional travels, my years covering the NFL and my obsession for all things Vince Lombardi, someone at Packers.com thought it natural that I pen a piece on the big game. It was suggested that an old team/new team theme would be appropriate. I agreed.

This Sunday, Feb. 6, two of the most treasured franchises in professional sports, the Packers and the Steelers, will square off at Cowboys Stadium in Super Bowl XLV. Let’s begin with these two ironies: 1.) Cowboys Stadium, which features a sports bar through which both teams will pass as they come onto the field, is the least likely of venues for a game between these two pioneers of the gridiron. 2.) A game that is commanding jaw-dropping ticket prices will be played by two teams that spent periods of their histories in financial crisis.

Packers fans know all about their team’s stock drives. The ones in 1923, ’35 and ’50 literally saved the franchise.

Steelers owner Art Rooney bankrolled his franchise a more sporting way. He did it at the horse track, most notably on an opening day at Saratoga in the mid-1930’s.

“Three years after buying the Steelers,” according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “Rooney made what might be the biggest killing in racing history. He never revealed the amount, but various reports place it anywhere between $200,000 and $358,000 Depression-era dollars. He hired a Brinks truck to bring his winnings home from New York, and when he got back, he emptied his pockets and told his wife, ‘We never have to worry about money again.’”

“These two types of teams to be in the Super Bowl is just phenomenal,” said Art Rooney Jr., one of the Steelers patriarch’s five sons. “It’s a tribute to the NFL and what’s possible; the poorest teams can compete and end up in the Super Bowl playing each other.”

The Packers and Steelers, of course, long ago stopped being two of the league’s poorest teams. The Packers will be trying to win their 13th NFL title; the Steelers are going for Super Bowl title number seven and their third in five years. Super Bowl XLV represents the most league titles possible, 18, in a Super Bowl matchup.

Oh, by the way, the two teams’ combined worth is about $2 billion, according to Forbes.com. Poor, the Packers and Steelers are not, anymore.

“It was a tougher time in Packer history back then,” prominent Green Bay realtor Mark Olejniczak said of the franchise’s early-years financial struggles. “It wasn’t that much fun in Packerland back then.”

Olejniczak’s father, Dominic Olejniczak, was the mayor of Green Bay from 1945-55 and the Packers’ president from 1958-82. Back then, the team presidency was a volunteer position.

“Ole,” as they called the elder Olejniczak, is famous for having brought two valuable commodities to Green Bay: drinking water from Lake Michigan and Vince Lombardi from the New York Giants. Both were home runs and their importance and value to Green Bay continue to grow.

“Lake Michigan water might be a bigger deal but Vince Lombardi coming was much more publicized,” the younger Olejniczak said.

As a boy, Mark Olejniczak watched as the biggest names in professional football made their way to and from the door of the Olejniczak home. He remembers Art Rooney flying from Pittsburgh to attend an honorarium for his father at a local Elks Club.

“Dad always said that if we’re not cheering for the Packers, then we’ve got to cheer for the Bears, the Giants or the Steelers. It was because of the ownerships there and the friendships,” Olejniczak said.

“I remember his white hair, being a very cordial man and his cigar. He always seemed like a very honest, decent man,” Olejniczak said of Rooney, who passed away in August of 1988. Olejniczak’s father died eight months later.

“They talked all the time at the meetings,” Art Rooney Jr. said. “I have nothing but great memories of his dad.”

Rooney’s father and Lombardi enjoyed a close relationship. They were both devout Catholics who began every day with mass.

“Coach Lombardi really liked my father. I think it was kind of a religious thing. I was on the phone when dad called Lombardi and asked who would be a good coach and Lombardi said Bill Austin,” Art Jr. said.

Austin was Lombardi’s offensive line coach in Green Bay and Austin became the Steelers’ head coach in 1966. He immediately installed a Lombardi-like regimen, from grass drills to the Packer sweep. Obviously, Austin was not as successful in Pittsburgh with that regimen as Lombardi was with it in Green Bay.

“We didn’t have the players. Buddy Parker traded all the picks away,” Rooney said. Four of those draft picks were traded to the Packers.

Links between the two heritage franchises and their cities are many, including play-by-play broadcaster Ray Scott, forever the voice of the Ice Bowl, who came to the Packers after having been the voice of Pitt football during the Mike Ditka years.

“The old-timers would be thrilled,” Rooney said of the Packers and Steelers meeting in a championship game for the first time in the teams’ histories. Imagine that; all those years and it’s happening for the first time now.

“We told you it would work,” Rooney said of what Bert Bell and the old-timers would say today, as they smile with delight at the thought of two teams that struggled through their early years to stay alive, preparing to face each other on the world stage that is the Super Bowl.

Who needs cheerleaders?

 
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