As a Boy Scout in 1959, it cost me $1 to attend my first National Football League game. I saw the Green Bay Packers, a small-town team that had suddenly become formidable under rookie coach Vince Lombardi, defeat the glamorous but fading L.A. Rams 38-20 at the Coliseum.
It would have cost me $6 (or $12 for a premium seat) to attend Super Bowl I in January 1967, at the Coliseum. I was a UCSB student on a budget, and the price was too steep. Because the game between Green Bay and the Kansas City Chiefs was not sold out — more than 30,000 seats were empty — it was blacked out on televisions within a 75-mile radius. Santa Barbara hoteliers welcomed football fans who came here to watch the CBS telecast.
During the week before the big game — unlike this week when the Bay Area is swarming with media moguls, celebrities, and fans in anticipation of the 50th Super Bowl — the Packers spent a rather quiet six days practicing behind curtained fences at UCSB’s newly built Campus Stadium. A dozen or so reporters attended Lombardi’s daily press briefings at the Santa Barbara Inn. The players were hardly visible in public. Bart Starr and Carroll Dale made their only official appearance at a Christian Business Men’s breakfast meeting at the El Encanto Hotel.
Lombardi had brought the Packers here at the invitation of UCSB football coach “Cactus” Jack Curtice. The Gaucho athletic staff made them feel at home. Donn Bernstein, the jovial sports information director, was enlisted to chauffeur Lombardi and his wife, Marie, from the airport. “I was driving along with sweaty palms, and Lombardi wanted to know where he could take Marie to Mass in the morning,” Bernstein recalled. “I said, ‘You’re talking to the wrong guy, coach. I’m just a nice little Jewish boy from San Francisco. We’ll send out scouts to find a church for you.’”
The Packers decamped to Los Angeles on the eve of the game. Max McGee, an aging wide receiver who had caught only four passes all season, managed to escape the team hotel and spend a night on the town. Enjoying his seat on the bench in the first quarter, he was stunned to hear Lombardi shout, “McGee!” He thought the coach was ready to chew him out, but instead he heard: “Get in the game.” Boyd Dowler, the starter, had been injured. McGee went out and scored the first Super Bowl touchdown after a one-handed catch of a Starr pass. He caught six other passes, including a second TD, in Green Bay’s 35-10 victory.
The following season, I did go to L.A. to watch the Packers in the Coliseum — against the Rams, who had shed their losing ways and needed a victory to stay in contention for the play-offs. Their hopes were seemingly dashed when the Packers held a 24-20 lead and were about to punt the ball with 40 seconds remaining. But Tony Guillory, a toothless linebacker, blocked the kick! And Claude Crabb picked up the ball and carried it to the Green Bay five-yard line! And Roman Gabriel threw a TD pass to Bernie Casey! The Rams won 27-24!
Unfortunately, the play-off schedule sent the Rams to Green Bay two weeks later. The Packers won that one, 28-7, and following their Ice Bowl victory over Dallas, they ended the Lombardi era with a 33-14 smackdown of the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl II at Miami.
I continued to follow the Rams during the ’70s, when they often won division championships and suffered frustration in the play-offs. They finally reached Super Bowl XIV after the 1979 season, losing to the Pittsburgh Steelers, 31-19. The next season, the Rams moved to Anaheim, a bit of a separation. Then came a divorce in 1995, when they fled to St. Louis. It was with disgust that I saw owner Georgia Frontiere holding the Super Bowl trophy in 2000, though I was happy for their coach, Dick Vermeil, who put crying in football.
And now the Rams are coming back to L.A. and will play in the Coliseum until their ginormous stadium complex is built in Inglewood. I have to admit to a tingle of excitement. But it’s not the game I knew almost 60 years ago. It is more expensive, more concussive, and more extreme in every way.
It is also superlative in the persons of Super Bowl quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Cam Newton. As much as I’d like to see the old guy prevail, the irrepressible Newton has the confidence of Joe Namath and stronger knees. Maybe he’ll get reckless, which can lead to turnovers, but Carolina has been the team that feasts on takeaways. I see the Panthers beating the point-spread (six at midweek) against the Broncos.
By Paul Wellman