This game's no passing fancy

Posted: February 07, 2010

Bill Lyon

is a retired Inquirer columnist

Welcome to Bacchanal Day, devoted to all things football and satisfier of America's two favorite appetites, violence and gluttony:

Breathless TV type to Dallas running back Duane Thomas: "So how does it feel to win The Ultimate Game?"

Thomas, bemused smile: "Aren't they going to play it again next year?"

TV type, stammering: "Uh, well, yes."

Thomas, triumphantly: "Then this isn't the ultimate game, is it?"

It began innocently enough, in mid-January of 1967, under a soothing Southern California sun, and in front of acres of empty seats. The old established franchise, the Green Bay Packers, and the chesty young upstart Kansas City Chiefs engaged in a professional football game that was pretty much ignored by most of America.

Few had even an inkling of the monster it would evolve into: The Super Bowl is our Circus Maximus, complete with Roman numerals in a transparent effort to anoint it with self-importance. (Hence, this is Game No. XLIV, rather than plain 'ol unpretentious 44.)

Our monument to wretched excess.

The busiest, and richest, day of the year for the bookies.

More food is eaten than on any other day of the year, save Thanksgiving.

It began as just another game, then swelled into a day, then bloated into a week.

It began as a game with virtually no audience and now draws just more than 100 million viewers worldwide.

It began as a game that had to beg for TV time and now asks, and gets, $3 million for a 30-second commercial. This is debut day for advertising agencies, who load up with their best creative stuff, knowing the really clever ones will be talked about almost as much as the game itself.

Among those not paying much attention to the inaugural game, won by the Packers, 35-10, were Green Bay's Paul Hornung (sidelined with a neck injury) and substitute wide receiver Max McGee (who, having successfully eluded the curfew enforcers the night before, had come tiptoeing in with the dawn patrol). They were sitting comfortably on the bench, legs crossed, discussing Hornung's forthcoming pre-wedding stag party when Vince Lombardi, in his best bullwhip voice, thundered: "McGee, get in there!"

An injury had sidelined the starter, Boyd Dowler, on the game's third play. McGee scrambled, without success, to find his helmet. In desperation he snatched the handiest one, jammed it over his head and, still trying to shake away the previous night's cobwebs, wobbled into the huddle. Moments later he became the stuff of legend and trivia - he made a one-handed reach-around grab of a pass thrown behind him and with it scored the first touchdown in Super Bowl history.

It has been rerun, oh give or take, roughly a billion times. In the third quarter, he scored another TD - in all, 7 catches, 138 yards, two scores.

Years later, when we were both at Penn State for a football game, I asked McGee if it was all true.

"Too good not to be," he replied, smiling. "Isn't it?"

Absolutely.

In the couple of dozen Super Bowls I covered, it was always instructive to peruse the classified advertising sections of the host city's newspapers. Without fail, each year there were pleas from those seeking tickets and tugging at the heartstrings, claiming to have assorted ailments, most of them irreversibly fatal, that could be made so much easier if only the sufferer were able to attend the game.

"Six months to live" was a popular appeal. Careful checking usually turned up a fraud.

"I figured it couldn't hurt to try," a man in San Diego confessed to me. His pitch: "You can make a dying man's last days on Earth memorable." He rationalized: "Hey, you never know. We're all just a day away, aren't we?" His logic somehow seemed oddly unassailable.

It doesn't always work out this way - which is, after all, the gut appeal of sports - but this Super Bowl has the two best teams.

It shapes up as a shootout - the Saints average 31.9 points a game, the Colts 26. Both are pass happy, which brings us to the hoary old axiom that, especially in the playoffs, you must run and stop the run. And yet neither one of these teams had a 1,000-yard rusher. Somewhere, Andy Reid is snickering.

(It says here, 34-26, Colts.)

The Denver Broncos lost Super Bowl XXI by 39-20. They lost No. XXII by 42-10. And No. XXIV by 55-10. That's three Super Bowls in four years, three defeats, each one by an increasing margin. A Denver paper carried an account of how some Broncos fans could take it no longer. Better to never get there at all, they lamented, than to have to endure loss after loss after loss.

The thought occurred then, and occurs again now: Which would Eagles loyalists choose? Hint: It is not for nothing that we are known for our ability to take a punch.

Postscript: Eight suffering years later, the Broncos won one. And then repeated.

On the agony meter, Denver is still a distant second to the Buffalo Bills, who got to the Super Bowl four years in a row - and lost each one, thus earning the tag of greatest losers in sports.

But I covered all four and never considered them losers. Quite the contrary. For starters, it is incredibly difficult just to get to even one Super Bowl. (Ask the Iggles.) And then when you have gotten to within one last step from the summit only to fall, what grim resolve and fierce purpose must be required to will yourself to come back and try again . . .

And again . . .

And again . . .

And again . . .

At what point do you surrender? Their answer was: You don't.


E-mail Bill Lyon at lyon1964@comcast.net.

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