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Winning the Big I


The Packers claimed Super Bowl I with a 35-10 victory over the Chiefs.

They can play a hundred of them, and probably will, and no Super Bowl ever will equal the emotion and nervousness of the first one.

The notice was short, the staging uncertain, and nobody knew quite what to expect. Oh, the predictions that Green Bay would demolish the Kansas City Chiefs were universal, but there was absolutely no realistic way to compare the teams.

Subsequent games would be played for the best of reasons: to settle the pro football championship of the galaxy. But the first one was as close as the series would ever get to a holy war.

There were so many vendettas working there barely was room for the teams. It was not only the National Football League against the American Football League, but all their children against each other: CBS versus NBC, Ford versus Chrysler. Even the writers who covered the respective leagues huddled in their own corners. This was no time to be neutral.

As a result, no coach ever again is likely to feel the weight Green Bay's Vince Lombardi carried on Jan. 15, 1967. You don't preach greatness, as Lombardi did, and lose to the champion of a league you have laughed at for seven years.

The two leagues had fought for players, fans, and television dollars, but had not yet met on the field; their champions had not even scouted each other. With final approval of the recently negotiated merger delayed by political and legal wrangles, arrangements for the game had to be completed in 26 days.

There was little of the media circus that would characterize the event a quarter of a century later. Ticket prices -- $6, $10, and $12 -- would be viewed as stiff, and of the 94,000 seats in the spacious Los Angeles Coliseum, a third would go unsold.

The betting line was no surprise: the Packers by 14 points. Each team would use its own league ball on offense, and the AFL's two-point conversion rule was scrapped.

There was no stampede for press credentials: 338 were issued to writers, slightly more to radio and television stations and photographers. The two TV networks shared the same pictures, with their own announcers.

Instead of hype, the game offered fear and loathing and a sweeping curiosity.

Instead of a catchy name with a Roman numeral, it was called the AFL-NFL World Championship Game.

A unity party during the week brought together the rival ownerships in an uneasy truce, a huge wedding cake symbolizing the fusion of the old and the new. The wife of one AFL owner startled the guests by grabbing the microphone to give a short but rousing speech for Kansas City. She concluded it with a stirring cheer: "Go, Chiefs, go!"

NFL owners exchanged significant glances, and they left the party with a nervous feeling. "My God," they wondered, "what if we lose?"

Kansas City revealed no sense of dread at facing the Packers, who had dominated the NFL in the 1960s. Especially vocal was Fred Williamson, a cornerback with acting ambitions who boasted a black belt in karate. He possessed a secret weapon he called "The Hammer," a hard forearm chop across the helmet. He claimed he would drop it on the Packers' receivers.

Green Bay's mood was even harder to gauge. Lombardi would not allow the Packers to be complacent. But age had crept up on some of them -- Jim Taylor was 31, Max McGee 34, and the Golden Boy, Paul Hornung, 31 -- and changes were coming.

On both sides, public words were not consistent with private thought or action. Lombardi kept dropping hints to the press his team had already proved whatever it needed to prove -- beating Dallas 34-27 in an exciting NFL Championship Game.

Yet years later, Fuzzy Thurston says, "He called us together before we left for Los Angeles and told us this was going to be the most important game we had ever played. He told us we were representing the whole league. He read a few telegrams. I remember one was form George Halas [Chicago Bears owner], another from Wellington Mara [New York Giants owner]. They all said pretty much the same thing: 'Go out there and show those clowns who's boss.' "

On the field before the kickoff, Frank Gifford, then an announcer with CBS, imposed on an old friendship and got Lombardi to agree to an interview. When Lombardi was the Giants' offensive coach in the 1950s, Gifford helped make his run-to-daylight offense click. "During the five minutes or so we talked," Gifford says, "he held onto my arm and he was shaking like a leaf. It was incredible."

Lombardi was not alone. For all their bravado, Chiefs linebacker E.J. Holub confides, the Chiefs were scared to death. "Guys in the tunnel were throwing up and wetting their pants," he said.

It was not just another game. Whether it would be a contest or an execution remained to be seen.

A thin layer of California's finest smog drifted high above the Coliseum for this first meeting of the teams from opposing planets. The game began on a wary note, particularly on the part of Green Bay, which eyed the Chiefs with the uneasiness of a dog pawing at the first porcupine it ever had seen.

For 30 minutes the Chiefs played on nearly even terms against the Packers, who were representing a league that had a 40-year head start when the AFL began in 1960.

At halftime, Green Bay led by a fragile 14-10.

The fateful play on the first half was the third one, when Boyd Dowler, leading an end sweep by Taylor, separated his shoulder trying to block Johnny Robinson, the Chiefs' free safety. Dowler, Green Bay's best receiver, was finished for the day. Max McGee, who had said he would retire after the game, replaced him.

McGee, an 11-year veteran, had not expected to see action. He was so certain he would be resting that he defied the team curfew the night before the game. He didn't get caught that time but he had a losing history of cat-and-mouse combat with the coach.

McGee was notorious among the Packers for sneaking out after curfew, in search of bright lights and pretty companions.

One time, Lombardi caught and fined McGee twice within a few days. Then came a third infraction. "MAX!" Lombardi roared at a team meeting, "that will cost you five hundred dollars." That was real money in a time when $25,000 a year would make an All-Pro tackle very happy.

Lombardi was shaking with anger. He seemed to be fighting a losing battle, and he didn't like to lose at anything. "Max, if I catch you again" -- the coach had turned from red to purple -- "the fine will be ONE THOUSAND DOLLARS." The room grew silent and Lombardi stopped shaking. "Max," he said, softly. "If you find anything worth a thousand for sneaking out, call me and I'll go with you."

For the first championship game, Lombardi had raised the ante to $5,000, an indication of how seriously he took the game. McGee's room was checked at 11 o'clock Saturday night, but moments later he was out of there. He returned, by his own admission late, at 7:30 the morning of the game, an indication how seriously he took his prospects of playing.

During the entire 1966 season, he had caught only four passes for 91 yards. "I knew I wouldn't play unless Dowler got hurt," he says.

Which is exactly what happened. Disbelieving, his head aching, McGee entered the game.

Bart Starr never missed a beat. The Green Bay quarterback finished off a six-play, 80-yard drive by connecting with McGee for the last 37. The pass was behind him, but McGee caught it one-handed, reeled it in, and then outran Williamson to the end zone. The Packers led 7-0.

Kansas City, unveiling its "moving pocket" to skeptical NFL fans, surged 66 yards in six plays and tied the score in the second quarter. With his blockers in motion, Chiefs quarterback Len Dawson could throw on the run, creating problems for the defense. He completed three successive passes on the drive, including one of 31 yards to Otis Taylor. The next was a 7-yard pass to fullback Curtis McClinton for the touchdown.

Starr, who was to lead the Packers to five NFL titles and two Super Bowl victories in the 1960s, was playing at his peak, however. On the third play of the next series, he fired a 64-yard touchdown pass to Carroll Dale. It was wiped out by an illegal procedure call, but Starr shrugged off the misfortune and got another touchdown anyway, driving the Packers 73 yards for a 14-7 lead.

It was third-and-7 on the Chiefs' 24 when the quarterback threw 10 yards to running back Elijah Pitts for a first down. Starr then sent Taylor around left end for 14 yards and the score.

Starr kept his drives going with third-down hook passes over the middle. The hook pass is one of the oldest pass patterns in football. What it requires of a receiver is courage and sure hands.

To win, Stram believed the Chiefs had to stop the Packers' running game, and he stacked his linebackers, usually with two of them in the middle and frequently blitzing. This strategy took the linebackers out of the passing lanes, and Starr capitalized on it on third down.

But Green Bay scored no more points in the quarter, and just before halftime, Mike Mercer kicked a 31-yard field goal. The Chiefs went to their locker room trailing by just four points, 14-10. "What I remember best," says Jim Kensil, Commissioner Pete Rozelle's No. 1 aide, "is how surprised some of the writers were at the half. And how tense they were."

Buddy Young, an NFL man and a one-time breakaway runner who was working for the league, said flatly: "Old age and heat will get the Packers in the second half."

The Chiefs were exuberant. Stram says, "I honestly thought we would come back and win it. We felt we were doing the things we had to do, and doing them well. We were only four points behind at halftime. We were confident that we could get that back and more."

In the Green Bay locker room, Lombardi was all business. "All right, defense," he said, with a loud clap of his hands, "we've looked at them for a half. We know what they're trying to do. Let's take control of the game, defense. Let's get more pressure on Dawson and create some opportunities for the offense."

"The coach was concerned," is the way Packers defensive end Willie Davis puts it. "But we also knew we couldn't stand Lombardi if we didn't win. That was always a motivation for us."

In the second half, Lombardi reluctantly ordered the blitz -- a tactic the Green Bay coach always had scorned as "the weapon of the weaklings." The Packers referred to it as the red dog.

The Chiefs' failure to react immediately to the tactical change and pick up the blitz was what doomed them. On the fourth play of the third quarter, the Packers brought two linebackers, Lee Roy Caffey and Dave Robinson, and rushed Dawson into a turning-point mistake.

The Chiefs were facing third-and-5. The chart Kansas City had prepared on the Packers' tendencies said Lombardi authorized a blitz on third-and-5 "about three times in two years."

Taken by surprise, Dawson was hit as he released the ball and he threw a desperation flutterball in the general direction of tight end Fred Arbanas. But free safety Willie Wood got there first, made the interception, and picked his way 50 yards to the Kansas City 5, where Chiefs running back Mike Garrett, like Wood a former USC star, caught him from behind.

On first down, Pitts sliced through the flustered Chiefs and into the end zone. The Packers had stretched their lead to 21-10.

"You don't like to think that one play can make that much of a difference," Hank Stram says, "but in this case, it did. The interception changed the personality of our attack. Play-action and rolls were the things we did best. But when we got behind we had to deviate from our game plan and we got into trouble."

The Kansas City offense totaled 12 yards in the third quarter, while the Packers scored twice and put the game away. On a 56-yard advance, Starr hit McGee three times -- for 11, 16, and 13 yards. McGee juggled the last one before hauling it in one-handed in the end zone.

For the day, McGee, the man who wasn't supposed to play, caught seven passes for 138 yards and two touchdowns.

In the fourth quarter, with Green Bay's reserves on the field, Williamson came up to meet a running play. Guard Gale Gillingham, leading the sweep for rookie Donny Anderson, missed Williamson, but Anderson ran right over him, his knee catching Williamson's helmet. Anderson tumbled over him. Williamson was knocked unconscious on the play, and then suffered a broken arm when teammate Sherrill Headrick fell on him.

Just before he was carried off the field, Fuzzy Thurston stood over Williamson's motionless form, not saying a word, but humming softly the tune If I Had a Hammer....

When reporters asked Lombardi later why it took the Packers so long to unload on Williamson, he quipped, "That was the first time he got close to a play."

There was a touch of whimsy to the Packers' final points, which came in the fourth quarter following an 80-yard drive. In one of the week's nicer moments, Jerry Mays, the Kansas City defensive end, had told the press how much he admired Green Bay tackle Forrest Gregg. Mays had followed him at Southern Methodist.

With the Packers at the 1-yard line, Starr called a play for Pitts. As both lines settled into their stances, Jerry Kramer turned to Gregg and said, "I'll get No. 58 [defensive end Andy Rice] and you take care of the guy whose hero you are." They did.

Pitts tumbled in from the 1, and Don Chandler kicked his fifth extra point. And so the first World Championship Game was over: Green Bay 35, Kansas City 10.

One of the enduring impressions of the game was the Packers had exploited Kansas City's weakness on the corners for easy yardage. Years later, Stram continues to defend Williamson and Willie Mitchell. Game films showed they were in nearly hopeless circumstances, going one-on-one against receivers cutting to the middle, making difficult catches on many balls.

"It took exceptional timing between Starr and his receivers," Stram says. "It also took great pass blocking and they got it. We had a variety of coverages, but they were able to isolate our corner men one-on-one."

Dawson blames himself for Wood's interception, and, by extension, the loss itself. "I gave them seven points," he says, "and then we had to play catch-up. I should have thrown it away. We sent five receivers downfield and they blitzed. The pressure bothered me. I didn't have any zing on the pass."

There are ways to neutralize a blitzing linebacker. The Chiefs had done it all year by using a quick pass over the middle to a running back. But in the confusion created by Green Bay, the Chiefs called it only once in the second half, and then Curtis McClinton stumbled.

Starr completed 16 of 23 passes for 250 yards, and wore down the Chiefs with one well-chosen play after another. In the second half, he completed 8 of 10 pass attempts for 122 yards.

For his heady performance, Starr was voted the game's most valuable player.

In the dressing room, Commissioner Rozelle presented Lombardi with a trophy designed by Tiffany, a silver football on a pyramid-shaped pedestal that four years later would be named after the Green Bay coach. The trophy sat on a bench alongside him as Lombardi stroked a leather football, like a man petting a puppy.

"The game ball," he said, proudly. "The players gave it to me. It's the NFL ball. It catches better and kicks a little better than the AFL ball."

This was, of course, a sly gibe at the constant questions about how the two leagues differed. Then Lombardi put it more bluntly: "Dallas is a better team. Kansas City is a good team, but they don't even rate with the top teams in our division. There. That's what you wanted me to say, isn't it?"

The next morning, Lombardi walked into a meeting of National Football League owners and general managers, and they rose as a group to give him a standing ovation.

The ovation offered a small insight into the relief the NFL powers were feeling after the first confrontation.

There was a melancholy footnote to the Packers' victory: Paul Hornung was the only player not to take part in it. Hornung had pinched a nerve in his neck at midseason and hadn't played in six weeks. Still, Lombardi was criticized for failing to call on him. Lombardi said he felt a token appearance would have been degrading to the running back he once described as "one of the greatest I have ever seen inside the 20-yard line."

Hornung remembers it differently today. "Actually," he says, "Vince left it up to me. Before the game, he asked me to stay at his side, in case he needed me early. But Pitts did a fine job, and late in the game when he asked me if I wanted to go in, I said no. I didn't see any point in it. Knowing what I learned later, what one lick to my neck could have done, I'm glad I didn't."

The aftermath of the game was bittersweet. Outside of the Packers, it wasn't generally known that Jim Taylor, the great fullback, had played out his option in 1966, and that Lombardi had gone most of the season without talking to him.

Lombardi left Hornung unprotected in the expansion draft that winter, and New Orleans claimed him. But Taylor had elected on his own to return to Louisiana, where he played his college football and still made his home.

When Green Bay held a testimonial dinner for the former touchdown twins, Lombardi was unable to attend. He sent a telegram praising Hornung, but referred to Taylor only indirectly with a quote from Cicero on loyalty.

Meanwhile, Max McGee decided not to retire after all. He announced he would be back for the 1967 season.

Reprinted from The Super Bowl: Celebrating a Quarter-Century of America's Greatest Game. Published in 1990 by the NFL and Simon & Schuster.

Mickey Herskowitz is a columnist for the Houston Chronicle. He is the author of numerous books, including The Golden Age of Pro Football and Duty, Honor, Country: The Life and Legacy of Prescott Bush (2003).

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