“An Event That’s XL in More Ways Than One”
It has been more than 120 years since the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche coined his famous phrase, “out of chaos, comes order.” Clearly, Nietzsche must’ve been talking about the National Football League and a particular Sunday that happens only once a year. And, as surely anyone can tell you now, this one particular Sunday has become an international event that is beyond "super" in more ways than one.
It wasn’t always this way though, and in fact its origin is somewhat accidental, if not unintentional.
The first ever AFL-NFL Championship game was played on Sunday, January 15, 1967, and the biggest concern then was about how badly Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers would whip the upstart Kansas City Chiefs. Lombardi had called the AFL a ‘Mickey Mouse League’ and fittingly, the inaugural game was played just down the road from Disneyland at the LA Memorial Coliseum on South Figueroa Street.
Tickets were $12 a piece back then, and they ended up giving away hordes of them just to beef up attendance. Even with the free tickets given away, however, there were still over 30,000 empty seats.
The game wasn’t yet called "The Super Bowl" back in 1967 either, and in fact it, wouldn’t even be known as such until Super Bowl IV, when they actually printed the words ‘Super Bowl’ on the game tickets.
But take a seat and travel back with me a few years before we get too far ahead of ourselves here. The year was 1966, and a war was raging between the AFL and NFL. The newer, sleeker AFL was bucking the long established stodgy NFL, and in the AFL's quest for respect, they engaged in a bidding war for talent.
This bidding war for talent had already been intense for the better part of six years, sure, but it became even more extreme when the AFL scored a major victory, when a court ruled in favor of the AFL's Houston Oilers over the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams. The case required a legally binding final decision after both football clubs had signed the highly-touted Billy Cannon, former Heisman Trophy winner from LSU.
The stakes then elevated for college talent, and sky-high bonuses became reality when the AFL’s New York Jets signed Alabama quarterback Joe Namath to a $400,000 contract in 1965. Not to be outdone, however, the Atlanta Falcons then doled out $600,000 to Texas linebacker Tommy Nobis, and the Green Bay Packers followed suit by ponying up $711,000 to Texas Tech running back Donny Anderson.
But the straw that officially broke the camel’s back happened when Buffalo placekicker Pete Gogolak signed with the New York Giants after playing out his option with the Buffalo Bills in 1965. The “no-tampering” code had officially been violated, and the ongoing AFL-NFL clash had finally reached a pinnacle.
On April 7, 1966, AFL Commissioner Joe Foss, who had done his best to play peacemaker, resigned. Enter the ultimate maverick and GM of the Oakland Raiders, Al Davis. Davis assumed reigns as commissioner of the AFL, and his hawkish presence, coupled with a clever game plan, would ultimately create history.
Davis proceeded to organize a war chest, urging fellow owners to start collaborating with the stated intent of "raiding" NFL stars. The NFL had always bragged of its superiority, largely due to the number of star quarterbacks the league boasted, and Davis wanted to mount a full-scale effort to sign them to the AFL.
True to form, Davis' Raiders pilfered quarterback Roman Gabriel from the Los Angeles Rams, and the Houston Oilers managed to get San Francisco 49er QB John Brodie to agree to a five-year deal. Within mere days, eight NFL quarterbacks in total began dickering with the AFL to see what they could get.
By early June, 1966, the NFL relented. Less than two months after he had become the new AFL commissioner, Davis got what he really wanted - a merger deal between the AFL and the NFL.
Although the actual AFL-NFL merger wouldn’t consummate until 1971, there were many implementations that took place right away. A common draft was established in 1967, inter-league season play began that same fall, and three years later, regular season contests combining the leagues would also commence.
Most importantly, the immediate establishment of a championship game between the AFL and NFL was formed. It would be called the AFL-NFL Championship game. The AFL-NFL Championship had a drab ring to it, however, and there is much conjecture as to how the actual name ‘Super Bowl’ was born.
One popular story has to do with a high-level executive scratching his head at home one weekend trying to come up with a catchy title, when he noticed his son bouncing a ‘Super Ball,’ a famous toy from the 60’s. Others dismiss this story as apocryphal. Common belief is that an unnamed sportswriter coined the moniker one day out of nowhere, and it stuck. Truly, this is one story that has a happy ending - Gabriel never went to the Raiders, And Brodie never left the 49ers (although he managed to procure a one-million dollar settlement). Meanwhile, Davis resigned as commissioner of the AFL 30 days after the merger.
For the rest of us, the Super Bowl is now a happy event in every way as well - the parties, the stories, the office pools, the sports wagering, and of course, the game itself. Therefore, Nietzsche was right.
For one Sunday every year, "The Super Bowl" has become the order of the day, spun out of chaos itself.
And you can thank Mr. Al Davis.