Super Bowl I: A major breakthrough
Super Bowl I is famous mostly because it started the Super Bowl phenomenon, a tradition that has turned Super Bowl Sunday into a de facto national holiday.
It also featured the NFL’s most famous coach, Vince Lombardi, and his Green Bay Packers team that was nearing the end of a dynasty that featured five championships in seven seasons.
And there was Packers receiver Max McGee famously breaking curfew and staying out all night carousing in Southern California the night before the game because he didn’t expect to play. After Boyd Dowler’s shoulder injury, the hungover McGee caught two touchdown passes to help the Packers to a 35-10 win over the Kansas City Chiefs.
But also buried among the stories from that watershed game on Jan. 15, 1967 at the Los Angeles Coliseum was the huge sociological change the game signaled for the NFL. At a time when African-Americans made up a small percentage of NFL rosters, Lombardi’s Packers had eight African-American among their 22 starters, as did the Chiefs, who came from the more racially open-minded AFL.
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The message for anyone paying attention: If you wanted to be the best team in pro football, you could no longer have racial quotas, or pick and choose only the occasional star from the large pool of African-American talent.
When asked if he noticed that he was among an uncommonly high number of African-American starters that day, Dave Robinson, a Pro Football Hall of Fame linebacker for the Packers, said, “Of course.”
“It didn’t break down all at once, this African American infusion into the National Football League. Teams (changed) piece by piece, one position at a time, until it gets to where it is today. It was unheard of to have a black quarterback, and now I don’t even bother to count how many there are.”
The AFL likely had more to do with hastening full integration of professional football than anyone or anything else, and the Chiefs were at the forefront in that league. Lombardi was well ahead of the curve in the NFL as well.
According to the book “Outside the Lines: African Americans and the Integration of the National Football League,” by Charles K. Ross, the AFL averaged 17 percent more African-Americans per team than the NFL from 1960 through 1962.
The AFL also had the first African-Americans in pro football drafted No. 1 overall (the Chiefs' Buck Buchanan in 1963); to play middle linebacker (Willie Lanier in 1967, also with the Chiefs); and the first to be starting quarterbacks in the modern era (Marlin Briscoe of the Denver Broncos and James Harris of the Buffalo Bills).
Though an extensive online search failed to turn up any statistics of the racial makeup of the leagues in the mid-60s, the NFL clearly lagged. In the NFL's 1964 title game, Baltimore and Cleveland combined had only eight African-American starters. That same season, the AFC's title game between San Diego and Buffalo had 13.
And it’s not just that the AFL had more African-American players per capita. It also was where the league found them.
The Historically Black Colleges and Universities had been mostly ignored as a source of talent for the NFL, which reintegrated in 1946 after unofficially banning African-American players since 1934. The AFL, though, needed good players anywhere it could find them in its life-or-death battle with the NFL for talent, so it scouted the HBCU’s extensively.
Even a look at the Packers’ and Chiefs’ rosters from Super Bowl I shows the difference. The Packers had only two players from HBCUs, Willie Davis (Grambling) and Elijah Pitts (Philander Smith); the Chiefs had nine.
“The AFL recruited the players from the black schools that were great athletes but never really had an opportunity to get into professional football,” said Len Dawson, the Hall of Famer who was the Chiefs’ quarterback in Super Bowl I, last week. “I didn’t think about (the 16 African-Americans starting that day) at the time, I was more concerned about trying to call the right plays. But when you look at it today that’s completely turned around.”
Said Robinson: “The biggest boon for African-Americans in pro football, period, was the AFL.”
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Lombardi, however, also played a role in speeding integration in the NFL because of his racial tolerance at a time when that was far from the norm. Remember, the Washington franchise under racist owner George Preston Marshall hadn’t integrated until 1962, and did so only when pressured by the Kennedy administration as part of the deal to move to a new stadium on federally owned land.
When Lombardi took over the Packers in 1959 he inherited only one African-American, Nate Borden. By 1966 he had nine African-Americans playing in the NFL’s smallest city.
Among other things, Lombardi used first-round draft picks on African-Americans in 1961 (Herb Adderley) and ’63 (Robinson). Of the 26 other players drafted in those first rounds, only four were African-Americans.
By all accounts, Lombardi was sensitive to racial discrimination because of the prejudice he’d suffered as an Italian-American.
“(Lombardi) understood how unfounded it was and how it hurt people,” Robinson said. “We didn’t have any real problems. There were a couple (white players) that will remain nameless that didn’t agree with Vince’s philosophy with African-American ballplayers, and they simply disappeared. Cut, traded, whatever. He didn’t tolerate anything like that.”
Going into Super Bowl I, the Packers were 14-point favorites because of the perceived superiority of the NFL. After watching game film of the Chiefs, the Packers thought themselves the better team but were under no delusions that the Chiefs lacked talent.
In fact, the Chiefs had four future Hall of Famers on their roster, including three African-Americans: Buchanan, defensive end Bobby Bell and cornerback-return man Emmitt Thomas. Dawson was the fourth.
The Chiefs also had a recent Heisman Trophy winner, running back Mike Garrett, who was in his rookie season, and a talented second-year receiver in Otis Taylor, who averaged 22.4 yards per reception in 1966. Both were African-Americans.
“(The Chiefs) dominated (the AFL) so easily it was like a college team playing a high school team,” Robinson said. “They didn’t have to worry about techniques at all. Some of the techniques they used sometimes weren’t right, they weren’t perfect. I saw guys lead with the wrong foot, for instance, and still make a block. I saw guys diving at blocks instead of driving their feet through them. But the personnel was superior. The problem was if you gave them a little confidence, their superiority of talent would take over and they might give us a harder time than we thought.”
The Chiefs played the Packers close in Super Bowl I’s first half, which ended with the Packers leading 14-10. But then safety Willie Wood made the game-turning play early in the third quarter when he intercepted a Dawson pass and returned it 50 yards to the 5, which set up an easy score. The Packers dominated from there.
Regardless, the game showed that winning in the NFL meant giving more African-Americans the chance to play. By the time they beat the Minnesota Vikings three years later in Super Bowl IV, the Chiefs had 23 African-American players out of 51 in the team picture, according to Ross’ book “Outside the Lines.” The Vikings had 11 African-Americans among the 42 players in their team photo.
Robinson said he only learned later how important not only racial diversity but also harmony were to winning football games. With the Packers he took it for granted that the team was integrated in every sense of the word because of the tone Lombardi set.
For instance, players were issued lockers in order by their jersey numbers. And when the team was in training camp or on the road, players frequently played the card game Booray, with at least two or three African-Americans commonly among the six or seven players.
But Adderley later shared a story after he’d been traded to the Dallas Cowboys in 1970. Former Packers teammate Forrest Gregg already was with the Cowboys, and when Adderley walked into the locker room for the first time the two hugged. The Cowboys’ locker room was segregated, and players of both races were stunned.
One African-American on the Cowboys later told Robinson he realized at that moment that the Cowboys wouldn’t win a Super Bowl until their locker room had those kind of relationships.
“We were a homogenous team,” Robinson said of the Lombardi Packers, “and we played that way, as one.”
— email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.