A Super pass, it wasn't -- behind the target and slightly under-thrown. Thirty years later, the receiver, Green Bay's Max McGee, can still hear the defender closing fast, sensing interception.
Break it up, McGee thought, reaching back to bat down the pass. The football stuck to his hand like Velcro. Stunned, McGee slammed it to his hip and raced for a touchdown, the first in Super Bowl history.
The catch sparked the Packers over the Kansas City Chiefs, 35-10, in the ballyhooed first meeting between the champions of the rival National and American football leagues on Jan. 15, 1967, at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
Next Sunday, Green Bay will play the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXI, the Packers' first title shot since McGee retired XXIX years ago. McGee, now a broadcaster for the team, will attend the game in New Orleans with warhorse teammates such as Fred "Fuzzy" Thurston, Paul Hornung, Ray Nitschke and Dave Robinson, a linebacker-turned-beer distributor who has a Packers pennant on his office wall in Akron, Ohio.
"I always said that when Green Bay goes back, I'll be there with the Pack," Robinson says.
Green Bay's success this season has pushed the old Pack to the front.
"I'm more popular than when I played," McGee says. "More people wanted to buy me a beer this week than after the first Super Bowl."
No one thought to save the ball after his historic first touchdown, least of all McGee. "I was too dumb to keep it," he says. "We kicked that ball into the stands on the extra point."
L Later, he tried to retrieve it, advertising a $1,000 reward.
"Thirty people called to say, 'I have it,' " says McGee. "I couldn't have verified it, anyway."
The Super Bowl was a ground-breaker -- the first collision of two leagues that, only months before, had agreed to peace. NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle had announced the merger, to occur over several seasons.
Since the AFL was formed in 1959, the leagues had competed fiercely off the field: The free-for-all bidding for players enriched the athletes but threatened the profitability of both the 7-year-old AFL and the NFL, then 47. It left bad feelings on both sides.
"The rivalry was intense, the hatred deep. It was like Michigan and Ohio State," says Ravens owner Art Modell, then NFL president.
The game would settle grudges, determine sovereignty.
Few gave the Chiefs a chance, despite their girth (Kansas City's line outweighed the Packers' by 15 pounds a man). The Chiefs were pro football's highest-scoring team; Green Bay, the stingiest. K.C. hadn't lost for two months; the Packers had won four NFL titles in six years. Green Bay's quarterback was Bart Starr, the league's Most Valuable Player; his counterpart, Len Dawson, was an NFL reject.
The AFL champs had a young, progressive coach named Hank Stram to match wits with the legendary Vince Lombardi.
"I have no idea what kind of a coach Stram is," Green Bay's Thurston told a Sun reporter. "But if he is better than Lombardi, he is God."
Even the Associated Press seemed to take sides, reporting that the Chiefs' defensive backs, and those of the rest of the AFL, "have been criticized only slightly less than President Johnson's Vietnam policy." Kansas City, it was said, played a Mickey Mouse schedule.
The Chiefs took umbrage, vowing to defend their league's honor. Fullback Curtis McClinton fell asleep at night studying the Packers' roster. Defensive tackle Buck Buchanan bought a copy of Lombardi's book, "Run To Daylight," and scrutinized the passages that mentioned Thurston, his rival.
Others took the criticism personally. The week before The Game, Chiefs defensive end Jerry Mays lost 15 pounds -- including his hair, which fell out in big tufts whenever he shed his helmet.
"I despised the NFL for putting us down," Mays said, years later. "It was a bitter hatred, a burning caldron. The NFL was my enemy."
Defensive back Fred "The Hammer" Williamson had a black belt in karate and promised to deck the Packers with his patented forearm chop. Even Stram got swept up in the frenzy. "We are playing this game for every player, coach and official in the AFL," he said.
The Packers felt enormous pressure to dominate the upstarts. NFL owners put the weight of the league on the shoulders of Lombardi, who shook uncontrollably before The Game.
"I agonized over what would happen if we didn't win big," Robinson recalls. "Vince would have killed us or, worse, worked us to death the next year."
Ahead of The Game
It was a warm, sunny Sunday as the teams rode to the Coliseum. Aboard the Packers' bus were a bleary-eyed McGee, who had spent all night partying with two American Airlines stewardesses, and Chuck Connors, star of TV's "The Rifleman," who had begged club officials to let him ride shotgun with his favorite team.
The Chiefs entered their dressing room to the strains of "The Mickey Mouse Club" theme song, to find Mouseketeer ears in every locker -- Stram's plan to break tension. It didn't work, said linebacker E. J. Holub: "Waiting in the tunnel to be introduced, guys were throwing up and wetting their pants."
The Game drew a crowd of 61,946, smallest for a Super Bowl. The Coliseum was one-third empty because a local TV blackout backfired. Fans in L.A., angry that the game wouldn't be seen there, chose instead to hit the road and watch it from suburbia.
One of the boycotters was Robinson's cousin. "I left two tickets ++ at the will-call window for him, and he never picked them up," Robinson says. "He was mad? Those tickets cost me $20."
Green Bay received the shady side of the field; Kansas City, grumbling, got the sun. In all else, the teams were even: six officials, three from each league their own footballs -- the NFL and AFL versions -- to use on offense. (The AFL ball was thinner, with more lacing.)
Even dignitaries were divvied up squarely. Of the 10 astronauts in attendance, five sat behind either bench.
Each team had its TV network. Both CBS, which broadcast NFL games, and NBC, the AFL outfit, carried the contest under an uneasy truce: Dueling technical crews had to be separated by a chain-link fence. Chiefs officials chose to share their game plan with NBC, and CBS talked Lombardi into doing a last-second interview as the teams ran onto the field. Except an NBC reporter got wind of it, barged in and shared the scoop.
Pack and forth
Green Bay won the toss and quickly lost a starter. Receiver Boyd Dowler got hurt on the game's third play. "McGee!" Lombardi shouted. Onto the field trotted McGee, 34, a balding benchwarmer who had caught only four passes all season. "I couldn't find my helmet, so I borrowed one from a lineman," he recalls.
Minutes later, he bent over backward to grab Starr's throw, a 37-yard touchdown. "It wasn't a good pass, let's face it," McGee says. "You'd think a $100,000 quarterback could throw a $30,000 receiver something he could catch."
Kansas City marched back to tie the game. Green Bay scored again on Jim Taylor's 14-yard run. The Chiefs countered with a field goal and trailed 14-10 at intermission.
Halftime featured trumpeter Al Hirt, who was big then, the Grambling College marching band and the release of 10,000 balloons and 4,000 pigeons (not at the same time). Two "rocket men," wearing James Bond jet packs and insignia of each league, flew around the Coliseum and landed at midfield in a gesture of peace.
Green Bay came back and struck fast. On Kansas City's next drive, the Packers rushed all their linebackers in a rare three-man blitz, forcing Dawson to hurry a pass. The Chiefs' halfback, Mike Garrett, sensing disaster, cried: "Don't do it! Don't do it!" Dawson threw the ball anyway, Green Bay's Willie Wood intercepted and returned it 50 yards.
The Packers scored on the next play, and Kansas City was finished. "You can't imagine how many times I wanted to have that pass back," Dawson said later.
Toward the end, Williamson, the Chiefs' brash defender, was knocked out while making a tackle and carried off the field.
Old faithful's new world
"Packers Conquer New World, 35-10," a Green Bay newspaper trumpeted. CBS won the ratings war by a narrower margin (four points). McGee (seven receptions, two touchdowns), made the cover of Sports Illustrated; Starr, who converted 10 of 13 third-down plays, won a '67 Corvette as the game's MVP.
Clutching the game ball -- the NFL version -- Lombardi loosened up in the locker room. Kansas City was "not as good as the top teams in our league," he told reporters. "That's what you want me to say, isn't it? I've said it."
The Chiefs weren't convinced. "It wasn't so much they were better than us," Dawson said. "They guessed right on a particular play."
Football fans knew the truth. Stram found his three young sons leaving the Packers' locker room, loaded with autographs.
Green Bay flew home to a brass-band reception. The Chiefs were met at their airport by signs that said, "No. 2 -- So What?"
"Sayonara," McGee told the press. "It's a great one to quit on, and I quit."
Lombardi persuaded him to come back in 1968. McGee caught a pass in Super Bowl II, a 33-14 win over Oakland, then turned out the lights.
So did the Packers, until now.
New England Patriots (13-5)
vs. Green Bay Packers (15-3)
Site: Superdome, New Orleans
Time: 6: 18 p.m.
TV: Chs. 45, 5
# Line: Packers by 14
A Super week
The Sun is sending a team of seven reporters to New Orleans to provide extensive coverage of Super Bowl XXXI between the New England Patriots and Green Bay Packers. Some of the features of the coming week:
Packers quarterback Brett Favre, the two-time NFL MVP.
Reggie White, the Packers' defensive and spiritual leader.
Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe, a Super Bowl starter at 24.
Bill Parcells, trying to become the first coach to win Super Bowls with two different teams.
The city of New Orleans: the perfect site for the excesses of the Super Bowl.
Game-day preview featuring analysis, scouting report, statistics and rosters.
In the paper of Monday, Jan. 27, expanded coverage will include post-game analysis, commentary by John Eisenberg and John Steadman, Milton Kent's column on TV coverage and sidebars from the Patriots' and Packers' locker rooms.
Pub Date: 1/19/97