Friday, July 31, 2009

The Baltimore Colt & Mr. Broadway-Part II

The famous, and often irritating, sports announcer and commentator, Howard Cosell cautioned us not to take our sports too seriously, “because lets face it, sports is the toy department of life.” I agree completely. But there are times when many of us, the highly rational included, find ourselves living in a recurring dream where no matter how hard we try to find our way out of the department store, we end up back in that damn toy department.

It’s not rational to mourn the loss of a game, as you would the loss of a person, or even a beloved pet. We know that. We know that moping around the day after our team goes down in defeat, instead of moping around about war, starvation, and melting glaciers is juvenile at best. When our team walks away losers, we of course remind ourselves that it is, after all, only a game, though it may take a lot of those reminders to ease our suffering.

I don’t know the psychology behind fan-dementia. I’ve heard the sports-as-emotional-safety valve theory. Maybe that explains it. You scream at players and referees instead of killing your spouse or children.

Then again, maybe it’s some kind of evolutionary hard wiring. Two cavemen would start pounding each other with clubs to determine who would have first crack at the dinosaur meat. A crowd would gather. Some would root for the tall, handsome caveman and others for the pudgy, endearing caveman. This may have given birth to caveman clubbing championships. Some, like me, would root for his favorite. Others, like my father, would place a bet.

January 15, 1967.

Contrary to what you may think, the game was not called Super Bowl I, nor was it called The Super Bowl. And that was just fine, because there was nothing super about it. The first ever AFL–NFL Championship Game, which pitted the champions of the upstart American Football League against the iron of the National Football League did not have to live up to the hype, because there wasn’t any, at least not by today’s standards.

This landmark game, which, years later, would retroactively be named Super Bowl I, took place at the Los Angeles Coliseum.. The merger between the leagues that formed today’s National Football League, was newly in the works, and I suppose the brass believed that the heated rivalry (more like mutual hatred) would make the game a really big deal. It did not.

Hardcore NFLers believed that the season was over with the Packers winning the NFL Championship. This was after all a great Packers team, coached by none other than the great Vince Lombardi. To hardcore and even softcore NFLers, the AFL Champion Kansas City Chiefs were little more than a glorified college team, composed of NFL rejects and wannabes. To them, this game was just a business scheme. To them, the game was a joke.

And because The Game That Was Not Called Super Bowl I was considered a a laughable contest, it did not have what we’ve now come to expect as givens in our over-the-top-hyped-to-the-max unofficial national holiday known as Super Bowl Sunday. It did not have a sell-out crowd. With an attendance of 60,000, the Coliseum was about one-third empty.

It did not have ticket prices, unaffordable to most of us. The average ticket price was $12.00, and you could have gotten a seat for 6 bucks. A 30-second television commercial did not go for $3 million. It went for $80,000.

There was however a segment of the population for whom the game did mean something – the diehard fans of the American Football League. To most of us, this game was the most important professional football game of our lives.

The Chiefs had a great season. There was no doubt in our minds that they belonged in the championship game. They didn’t get there by some fluke. They were the best in the AFL, and now they were our team.

According to Ange Coniglio who runs the site: Remember the AFL, the number of fans who attended AFL football games from 1960 to 1970 totaled 17 million. It’s impossible to know how many others watched the games on television, but I think we can safely say that there were about 20 million of us out there, emotionally involved with the Patriots, Bills, Jets, Chargers, Raiders, Oilers, Dolphins, Broncos, and Chiefs.

And at the end of the 1966 season, all of us became Kansas City Chiefs. Nick Buoniconti, the great linebacker for the Dolphins, who started his career with the Patriots (and would likely have remained a Patriot, had the team not needed to free itself of his exorbitant $38,000 salary), said that he had never rooted so hard for a team in his life.

At stake, was nothing less than vindication –-for the fans and players of the AFL.

I was away at college. There was one television set in the entire dorm, and it was located in a big room off the lobby – open to everyone who showed up.

So fifteen AFLers watched the game with fifty NFLers. It may have been my own paranoia, but within those groups there were no shades of gray. There were the arrogant Packers-This-Game-Is-A-Joke group and the confident Chiefs-Will-Surprise-The-World group. There was also a small group of those who really didn’t give a shit. Most them were girls who thought we were all morons.

The first half was a good football game. The Chiefs played the Packers to a near tie. The half ended with the Packers on top, 14-10. If not for a missed field goal, it would have been 14-13. So far, the game was anything but a joke. It was good, competitive football. The Packers players were surprised. NFL fans were pleasantly quiet. AFL fans were ready to celebrate.

You see the Chiefs really didn’t need to actually beat the Packers; they just needed to be contenders. They could be Rocky Balboa losing to Apollo Creed.

Apollo was the official winner; he won the match. Rocky was the real winner; he won the fans.

Hell, in the regular season, the Packers had beaten the San Francisco 49ers 20-7; the Detroit Lions 31-7; the Chicago Bears 17-0, and they had destroyed the Atlanta Falcons 56-3.

Losing by a touchdown or even by a touchdown and a field goal, and suddenly, we’re more than just officially in the same league – we are really in the same league.

Tragically, we would be denied both the official win and the real win. Lombardi and his Packers went into the locker room at half-time and made the necessary adjustments. The second half was the game we were dreading. The Packers won decisively. Final score: 35-10. They carried Lombardi off the field on their shoulders. His grin said it all. He had defended Rome from the barbarians.

Those of us, lingering by the television set, took the verbal blows.

We would be the junior league for another year. In fact, for another two years. The second AFL-NFL Championship Game, which was not called Super Bowl II, was nearly a carbon copy. We had great hopes for that one too. It was an upset in the making. Again it was the Green Bay Packers, but a weaker edition than the 1967 champs, against the Oakland Raiders, our toughest team. Final score: Packers win, 33-14. Oh the Agony!

And with that defeat, I started to lose hope. “Every dog has his day,” my father always said, but I really had to wonder how many long years of snickering we would have to endure before we would have ours. It’s just a game. It’s just a game. It’s just…

Twenty-six years later, I was in Miami on a business trip. I would be meeting a new business associate from Chicago for lunch, and then the two of us would spend an afternoon making sales calls together. Driving to the restaurant, I realized that I had allowed way too much time for lunch. Our first appointment was only ten minutes away. What on earth would we talk about for an hour and a half?

I asked him if he was originally from Chicago. No, he said, he was from San Diego. “Oh,” I said. “So those ’64 -’65 Chargers, do you think they could have beaten the best of the NFL, had there been a championship game?” His eyes lit up. We ordered drinks. We went over the roster, player by player. Damn, we were running out of time. We ordered another round.

I don’t remember which of us brought up The Game That Was Not Called Super Bowl I. But we felt the same way about it. He had rooted for the Chiefs harder than he had ever rooted for his own Chargers, and he took the loss as hard as I did. This was first-degree commiserating.

And then I said something.

I don’t know where it came from. Truthfully, I don’t. I said. “Look, deep down, whether we were aware of it or not, we were all afraid that the Chiefs were going to go out onto that field and be humiliated…that the game would be 60-minutes of our guys fumbling, dropping passes, getting flattened on the line, and generally, curling up in the fetal position.”

That didn’t happen.

No, we were beaten by a better team, but we were not humiliated.

But, you were afraid we would be, weren’t you?

I guess we all were. Whether we admitted it or not, we had to be.

Actually, we came out of it pretty well. We lost, but we did not look like the amateurs they took us for.

We left the restaurant feeling pretty good. We kept talking football – AFL football. We missed the exit for our first appointment, and arrived ten minutes late. No matter, the person we were meeting was twenty minutes late. We sat in the lobby, relishing the old, forgotten victory that we had just dug out of the dirt.

Call it rationalizing, and maybe it was, but I decided to hold on to it anyway. I had walked away from the television set, twenty-six years earlier, with a sense of relief, and that was a kind of victory, one that had been lost in the immediate swirl of loud, gloating voices.

And I came to discover that lots of us, deep down, felt that same sense of victory that we failed to recognize when it would have provided some welcome consolation. Thoughts and emotions can get awfully tangled up, even in the toy department.

Of course the consolation prize that I discovered in that Miami restaurant couldn’t undo the feeling of gloom I felt way back then, following that championship game. No, it would take almost a miracle to do that.

And, there was another game on the horizon –

The Game That Was
Called Super Bowl III.


Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Baltimore Colt & Mr. Broadway - Part I

When you’re a kid, things get poured into your brain that never leave. That’s how most of us become sports fans. We get infected before we’re able to build our natural defenses.

What I remember most about 1959 was watching professional football, on Sunday afternoons, in my living room, with my father. Being an especially astute 10-year old, I noticed a big difference in the way Dad watched baseball and the way he watched football.

When we watched Red Sox games, he would glance at the newspaper, leave the room or talk on the phone, then returning his attention to the game, he would ask: “What did I miss? But when he watched football, he watched every play. If the phone rang, he would hold it to his ear and talk, but his eyes would be focused on the screen. He had an on-off switch in his head, so that if I spoke during a play, he heard my voice, with all of the words filtered out. It converted my chatter into white noise.

In Boston, in the 1950’s, we did not have a professional football team of our own. We watched the New York Giants. We rooted for the Giants, but we knew that they were not really ours. It was like we were borrowing them.

I’m going to have to correct a previous statement. I rooted for the Giants. Dad rooted for a different team every week. When I asked him why, he explained that when he bet on a game, it only made sense to root for the team that his money was riding on. He added, instructively, that I should never, ever make a sentimental bet.

Some fathers preach safe sex, mine preached safe gambling. I suppose all vices can get you into trouble, so you need to watch the ones that you think are most likely to entrap your kid.

One Sunday afternoon, the Giants were about to play the Baltimore Colts. When quarterback, Johnny Unitas took the field, my father said, without taking his eyes off the set, “He’s the best there ever was.” Dad was not one for superlatives. With all the games, in all the sports that we watched before and after this one, he only said that about one other player, running back, Jim Brown.

For me, this was one outstanding piece of information. I knew that I would walk into school the next day and let my friends know how smart I was. The method chosen for this sort of announcement would be critical. If I stood up and blurted it out, it would be obvious that I was simply passing on information that I just received from someone else. So I knew that I would have do it with a kind of casual thinking-out-loud delivery:

Hey, did you guys watch the Colts game yesterday? Man, Unitas has to be the best there ever was.

It has been said about Unitas, that for most of any game, he was great, but there were other quarterbacks who were his equal, that is, until the final two minutes. Back in those days, quarterbacks called their own plays. Unitas was completely in charge, and he was a master. For him, being down by a touchdown, with two minutes to play was like playing with the game tied.

Johnny U. (as he was called) completed a touchdown pass in 47 consecutive games. A feat, often compared to Joe DiMaggio’s 56 game hitting streak. The 1959 season ended with the Colts beating the Giants in the championship game, which is still often referred to as the greatest game ever played. For most fans, it solidified Unitas’ position as football’s number one QB.

Finally, in 1960, we got our own team, the Boston Patriots. They were the last franchise awarded in the upstart American Football League. Mainstream pundits everywhere said the league wouldn’t last. Earlier attempts to challenge the NFL had failed, and surely this one would be no different.

That old AFL were a fun gang to watch. With wide-open offenses, they scored a lot of points. The uniforms were colorful and so were the players – like Abner Haynes, Clem Daniels, Elbert “Golden Wheels” Dubenion, Cookie Gilchrist, Gino Cappelletti,Wahoo McDaniel, Big Daddy Lipscomb and Lance Alworth.

But it was not always easy being a fan. For one thing, the Patriots had no home of their own. They borrowed playing time at Harvard Stadium, Boston University Field, Boston College’s Alumni Field, and Fenway Park. Following the Patriots, literally meant following them around.

Worse than that –much worse than that– was the putdown factor.

NFL fans, players, and most sportswriters looked down upon the AFL as a junior league. I heard this a lot: Any AFL team could be beaten by a good college team. AFL teams can’t play defense. Their biggest stars wouldn’t even be starters in the NFL. No matter how much success the league began to enjoy, the insults never let up.

You’d be sitting at a bar, watching the Chargers and the Chiefs, or the Pats and the Raiders, and someone would yell to the bartender to switch channels to the real game, meaning the NFL game, regardless of how dull it might be. You might protest, but you would usually be shouted down.

The AFL wasn’t going to go away. AFL teams were attracting more talented players, which included opening the doors to more and more black players, never an NFL priority. We AFLers were extremely loyal fans. Our days of borrowing an NFL team were over for good. We were not going to let this league die.

Seeing the writing on the wall, the NFL made a big strategic move. They would merge with the AFL. Well, imagine that!

The merger would not be fully completed until 1970, but in 1967 they would begin their new relationship with a slate of inter-league exhibition games. On August 13, the NFL Baltimore Colts played the AFL Boston Patriots at Harvard Stadium.

That morning, my father put down the newspaper, and said, “We should go to the game.” I probably told him I was busy. After all, I was now a semi-rebellious 18-year old, living THE Sixties.

He probably told me to stop thinking I was so cool. We drove to the stadium, bought tickets and ended up in about the fifth or sixth row. The announcer began calling the names of the Colt’s starting offense. With their helmets tucked under their arms, Each player trotted onto the field, right up to the section of stands where we were seated.

We all gave each Colt a warm welcoming applause. And, then, the announcer’s voice said, “at quarterback, Johnny Unitas.”

And, instantly, I was 10 years old.

He trotted toward us and stopped, as had each of his teammates. But this time, the crowd rose to its feet, clapped – louder than any clapping I had ever heard – and cheered, and didn’t stop. The slender man wearing the white uniform, the crew cut, and the boyish smile seemed genuinely touched. He nodded a thank you. Near me a man with a small boy had tears in his eyes. And so did another. And another.

Mind you, this was years before men got together for the specific purpose of group crying. Public tears, in the men’s department of life, were not yet fashionable.

My father looked at me with a grin. The grin said, well you hot shot, smart-ass, think you know everything little punk, you will never forget this moment as long as you live.

And he was right about that. Actually, he was right about all of it, but that’s another story.

The Colts beat the Pats 33 to 3. I didn’t remember the score; I had to look it up. The score really didn’t matter. It was just a meaningless exhibition game. But for the fans of the Boston Patriots, of the American Football League, who happened to be in the stands that afternoon, this was Validation Day.

If you happen to be an old AFL fan, I do not need to explain what we felt on that August afternoon, watching our guys, the new guys, the cast-offs, the disrespected, playing on the same field with the Baltimore Colts.

Or, how it felt having The Greatest There Ever Was as a guest in our home.

My father has been gone for nearly two decades. Often, when I think of him, I think of that day.

But there is more to this story.

In fact, this is really just background information, intended to put the real story more squarely in perspective.