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Oral history of Super Bowl I an absorbing, fascinating read

As we enjoy the largesse that is Super Bowl Sunday, it’s hard to remember that it began as an experiment, almost an afterthought — just another game to some, and a chance to establish credibility to others.

The Green Bay Packers had just won their third straight NFL title and would face the Kansas City Chiefs, champions of the upstart AFL, at the Los Angeles Coliseum on January 15, 1967. The contest’s unwieldy name — the “World Championship Game: AFL vs. NFL” — lacked spark.

But the Super Bowl would grow into a huge event. For the record, the Packers won 35-10, but in the first half, Green Bay led by just four points and the game seemed very much in doubt.

Sports author and oral historian Harvey Frommer takes the reader back to that day in 1967, writing a concise narrative and letting the participants do much of the talking. The result is “When It Was Just A Game: Remembering Super Bowl I” (Taylor Trade; hardback; $29.95; 302 pages), a trip down memory lane with a detailed backstory to the first Super Bowl that gives readers a “you are there” feeling.

The book grew out of dissertation Frommer wrote for his Ph.D. at New York University, called “A Description of How Professional Football Employed the Medium of Television to Increase The Sport’s Economic Growth and Cultural Impact.” Thank goodness the title was shortened for this book.

There are 62 different people who are quoted in “When It Was Just A Game,” including Frank Gifford, who died a month before the book went to press. Gifford, a broadcaster who worked the first Super Bowl for CBS, wrote the foreword and is quoted prominently throughout the book.

Hank Stram, who died in 2005, also has a big say, thanks to an unpublished manuscript written by the Chiefs’ coach. Frommer obtained it from Stram’s son, Dale, and it is an incredibly detailed, valuable part of this book.

Frommer takes the reader through the history of both leagues, the factors that led to their merger, and twists and turns that finally led to an AFL-NFL championship game. He does it with his narrative, which bridges the thoughts of the people he interviewed. Like any good oral historian, Frommer knows when to step back and let the subjects do the talking. He fills in the gaps, but at no point does he take over the dialogue.

As to be expected, Packers coach Vince Lombardi casts a long shadow over the game, and it is fascinating to hear his players describe how he prepared his team. The same goes for the Chiefs’ recollections of Stram.

Frommer’s oral narrative includes coaches, players, family members reporters, broadcasters and even some fans. He shows how the rivalry was not only between the two football leagues, but also between reporters and broadcasters. I

f ever there was provincialism in covering a big event, the first Super Bowl fit the bill. Reporters covering NFL beats tended to look down upon their media counterparts who covered the AFL. Because Super Bowl I was a joint telecast effort with CBS and NBC, logistics caused some problems. Even the equipment was different, as the Packers used the official NFL ball on offense while the Chiefs snapped an AFL ball.

The narrative contrasts the styles of Lombardi and Stram. Green Bay’s Lombardi was an old-school coach who took charge and believed in conditioning, preparation and execution. Teams knew Green Bay’s power sweep was coming, but were unable to stop it. Stram was more colorful, a dapper dresser who practically strutted on the sidelines and oozed supreme confidence.

Through his interview, Frommer puts in the reader in the locker room, particularly at halftime. The talk Lombardi gave to his players might have been the spark that caused the Packers to take control of the second half. He quotes Green Bay’s Willie Davis: “Coach Lombardi said we played 30 minutes adjusting to the Chiefs, and we were not where we needed to be. ‘Now, I want you to go out there and play 30 minutes of tackle football and see if they can adjust to you.’ We all looked at each other, and it was like, ‘Wow!’”

Green Bay did just that, switching to a more blitzing defense to pressure Chiefs quarterback Len Dawson. Kansas City was not prepared for the blitz; after all, the Packers rarely did it. But their blitz in the third quarter caused the play that turned the game in Green Bay’s favor.

Dawson, under pressure, threw a pass that was intercepted by Willie Wood and returned to the Kansas City’s 5-yard line. Green Bay scored to make it 21-10, and the momentum shifted.

One might look at the 35-10 final score and believe it was a dominating performance, but the Packers did not take control until the second half.

Frommer, a professor in the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies Program at Dartmouth College, has cut through the myth and the haze of the first Super Bowl, presenting it in a more human light. “When It Was Just A Game” is an absorbing and fascinating read, chronicling a necessary history of the turbulent 1960s that helped create a game and define the sport of pro football.

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