The big game is here

The pop culture changes and the men who play the game are bigger and faster and paid beyond the dreams of 50 years ago.

But, the Super Bowl endures from its humble beginnings in January 1967 as a game between rival football leagues to the mid-winter American party it has become.

A month ago, the NFL Network aired a technologically restored broadcast of Super Bowl I, technically called the AFL-NFL World Championship game then. It took place in a nearly empty Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum between the Green Bay Packers of the established NFL and the Kansas City Chiefs of the upstart AFL. The leagues would head to eventual consolidation for the 1970 season as divisions of the NFL.

The empty stadium was jarring. The fact that the game was carried on two networks was a little startling. But the football on the field was competitive, filled with graceful, leaping catches, big hits and tough guys. It looked largely like the game of today without the complicated formations and setups and audibles. Fans in the stands wore suits and ties and dresses, not team jerseys and team-color face makeup. It was coached by the legendary Vince Lombardi, whose Packers came out atop Hall of Fame coach Hank Stram’s Chiefs, but the trophy at the end wasn’t a matter of Lombardi getting a silver football on a pylon named after himself. That came later, in 1971, after the great philosophical coach’s untimely demise to cancer.

There weren’t ultra-snappy commercials made especially for the championship telecasts. No one could have forseen the days of talking lizards or a puppybabymonkey (watch today’s game and you’ll get that). The Apollo program hadn’t launched yet, while today’s 50th Super Bowl will feature an Audi commercial with a senior retired astronaut looking back at life. Nor could one predict a 30-second commercial being worth more than $5 million. (A 30-second spot for the first Super Bowl was $37,500, sources note.)

Along the way there have been moments, (The Catch by the 49ers; the work of Swan, Stallworth, Bradshaw, Franco and the Steel Curtain becoming the Super Steelers), great struggles to the end (The Cardinals and Titans in Super Bowl XXXIV that ended in The Tackle that preserved the Cardinals win), humbling tales (the pathos of the Buffalo Bills losing four straight in the early 1990s), and the blowouts (Chicago over New England in Super Bowl XX with the best memory arguably when lineman William “The Refrigerator” Perry scored as a running back).

Halftime started with marching bands and shifted to a variety of mash-up performances in the 1970s and to the expected big-star rock shows that take longer than a quarter to set up and play and tear down today.

There has been an explosion of snacking, from simple popcorn and chips of the 1960s to things that would have been exotic in 1966 such as the widespread use of guacamole or the Buffalo chicken wing (not whipped up until years later). In 1967, we’d venture to say the words “sports bar” weren’t in the American lexicon.

The game shifted from early afternoon to the point where it’s a prime-time wrapping, weekend-ending party.

Did we note there’s still some football thrown in there somewhere?

We’ll watch crazy ads, eat too much, share the evening with friends and family and take part in the freedom of being an American, in the ability to enjoy a big party that exists for no reason other than to watch what was a half century ago a championship football game with no real name, played in an empty stadium to low ratings on two television networks.

Here’s to the big game. May the product on the field be worthy of $5 million commercials, millions of chicken wings, rock stars, a thousand sports pundits and 50 years worth of legends of the National Football League.