And so, we again come to that most unofficial of national holidays: the Super Bowl. If I read my Roman numerals correctly, this one is number forty-eight. That’s depressing for several reasons, not least of which is that I remember the first.
The game was just beginning to catch on with the masses back then (January 15, 1967, to be exact). Professional football had been a sport to cover the dreary months that followed the end of the baseball season until a magical game in late December of 1958 changed everything. That game, the NFL championship game between the Eastern Conference champion New York Giants and the Western Conference champion Baltimore Colts (why, one, Baltimore was in the Western Conference, and two, it wasn’t in Indianapolis, are stories to tell another day) was the first to be decided in overtime. And it happened so dramatically, with the Colts tying the score on a field goal as time in regulation expired, that by the time the Colts drove for the winning touchdown just about every sports fan in the country was watching the game on TV.
The sport had always been a college game until then. The pro game had little appeal outside of the cities where teams (there were only twelve) played. Most fans of the sport followed the college games of their choice on Saturday afternoons and then spent Sunday afternoons at family gatherings after church services. (Yes, times were most definitely different.)
But there was something about that Colts-Giants game that resonated with sports fans. Primarily it was the way the Colts’ quarterback, Johnny Unitas, had taken charge of the game with seemingly no way he could get the team in field goal range when New York punted with less than two minutes left. But he did, with precision passes to receivers who quickly scampered out of bounds to stop the clock.
That kind of offense was, in a word, exciting. It suggested that the clock could be beat, and that teams that had the right kind of quarterback (one who could pass the ball fearlessly and precisely) could dominate the sport.
Within years, the league had expanded to fourteen teams and then to sixteen. At the same time, an upstart league, the American Football League, was formed with eight teams of its own. The two leagues vied for attention until 1967 when the NFL owners agreed to absorb the AFL teams into a new league that would have 26 teams (13 in each conference), with the two conference winners facing in a championship game that soon became known as the Super Bowl.
The breakthrough game (the one that made the Super Bowl an event instead of just another championship game) was the third in the series. In it, Joe Namath, a brash young sex symbol who also threw a mean forward pass, led the AFC champion New York Jets to an upset win over the heavily favored Colts after brazenly predicting in the days leading up to the game that he would do just that.
That game established the day of the Super Bowl as a day to plan get-togethers to watch the game, and by the time Super Bowl XVI was played (the first of Joe Montana’s triumphs as quarterback of the 49ers), Super Bowl parties were a part of America’s culture. In the decades since, Super Bowl Sunday has become an unofficial holiday, with an entire week devoted to festivities celebrating the game. This week has already seen a gala entertainment extravaganza featuring the likes of Daughtry, the Fray and Goo Goo Dolls, and the weekend will be loaded with special coverage of the pre-game chatter on just about every network that has anything to do with sports.
The game itself pits the old (a rejuvenated Peyton Manning leading the AFC champion Denver Broncos) against the new (Seattle Seahawks’ QB Russell Wilson and cornerback Richard Sherman) in a game that should be close. (The Vegas line has Denver favored by two and a half points, although most observers think Seattle has the better overall talent.)
And so, we’ll all be huddled together in someone’s home or in a tavern or sports bar as the festivities unfold on Sunday. It might be a good game or it might not, but does it really matter? The game itself has become secondary to the event, which is just an excuse to party.
And party we will. But it may be time to begin to wonder how long the party the NFL has been having will last. It has clearly been America’s first love in sports for at least a quarter of a century, if not longer. But warning signs are starting to appear, and they may signal a slow move away from the total hold the game has on our culture.
The first sign is the increased perception of the violence in the game. It’s a brutal sport, made all the more so by the amount of protective equipment the players now wear. Helmets, shin guards, and shoulder pads are now more capable of injuring an opposing player than they are of protecting the player wearing them. Likewise, the players themselves are true physical freaks who are so oversized that they are weapons in and of themselves. Look to the number of parents who are steering the young boys away from the game as evidence that the sport is losing its appeal.
We are a violent society, but we favor our entertainment vehicles to only show violence in comic book fashion. Our most popular action movies show killings without showing pain. The violence in ice hockey is fine, because they don’t really ever hurt themselves, at least not visibly. But in football, the players are often unable to walk after a particularly brutal play. That’s not the way the likes of Unitas and Namath and Montana played the game, and it might not be what the American sports fan of tomorrow wants to see.