Basic Biittner: Super Sunday

Friday, February 6, 2009

Sunday Feb. 1 is the big day. Super Sunday. An American institution. Believe it or not, children, it hasn't always been this way.

Though the National Football League was founded in the 1920s, it really didn't become big until fifty seasons ago. Though I was just 8 years old at the time, I remember watching "The Greatest Game," as it's been tagged, on (Black and White) TV. The NFL Championship Game between the New York Giants and the (then) Baltimore Colts. Back in those days, the game was played in December, because: 1) they only played 12 regular season games, and 2) there weren't any playoff rounds, because there weren't that many teams.

Anyway, I remember watching the game at my Uncle John Christensen's house in Aurelia. We must have been having our extended family Christmas celebration there that day, I guess. That's the only reason I can figure out why I watching the game there. I also happened to be watching because there weren't a whole bunch of cousins my age, or I suppose we would have been off making mischief elsewhere.

The game, for those who don't know, turned out to be the first sudden-death playoff game ever, and it was won by the Colts when Alan (The Horse) Ameche, the Colts' bruising fullback from the University of Wisconsin, crossed the goal line on a short run into the line. The game accomplished at least two things: 1) It made a star out of an unheard-of quarterback from Louisville, Johnny Unitas; and 2) It led to an explosion of interest in professional football, which in turn led to the creation of the American Football League two years later.

This new league battled the NFL for 10 years, and the rich Texas oil-men who founded the AFL spent big to lure talent from both the college ranks and the NFL. As their product developed, the TV networks came running too, of course. One network televised the NFL (Chicago Bears games, with Red Grange doing the color, seemed to be on every week), while another network (there were only three then) had the upstart AFL, with great color commentary by Paul Christman.

As the decade wore on, and pro football's popularity grew, the two leagues decided they needed to merge into one huge business. This was accomplished by the 1970 season, when the teams which were formerly in the AFL became the AFC, the American Football Conference, while the "old" NFL became the NFC. To balance things out, three of the old NFL teams - the Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Colts and Cleveland Browns - were moved to the AFC.

Prior to the official merger, though, the two leagues decided to stage an annual AFl-NFL World Championship game, which was immediately dubbed - unofficially - The Super Bowl. Super Bowls I and II (yes, the Roman numerals started then, too) were easy wins for the dominant team of the era, Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers of the "old" NFL.

This immediately led NFL traditionalists to scoff at the notion that these upstart AFL'ers had any business being on the same field as the NFL.

Then came Super Bowl III, when Broadway Joe Namath and the New York Jets of the AFL upset the Colts, 16-7. To me, this is where the current-day NFL really got its biggest push. Ever since that day, the Super Bowl HAS been Super, and it got a big boost the following year, when the AFL's Kansas City Chiefs led the AFL to another SB win.

While I'd be the first to admit that many of the Super Bowl games have been less than "super," some have been, and, if nothing else, the AFC and NFC Championship games leading up to them have often been terrific contests (as they were again this year) . The actual AFC-NFC Championship game (still the official name of the game) is often irrelevant, it seems, as the entire festive atmosphere surrounding the event seems to have become an event in itself.

For what it's worth - though I was a huge fan of the 1970s Steelers of Bradshaw, Harris, and the Steel Curtain defense - my heart this year is with the Chicago/St, Louis/Arizona Cardinals.

How can you NOT root for a team which has finally made it into the big game after all these years? I mean, the last time the Cardinals played in the championship game, they were based in Chicago, and I wasn't even born yet!

When you add to that the still-miraculous story of (native Iowan) Quarterback Kurt Warner, as well as that of super receiver Larry Fitzgerald, whose father, Larry Fitzgerald Sr., a sports reporter for a Minneapolis newspaper, will become the first sports reporter to ever cover a Super Bowl in which his son is playing, how can you NOT?

Go Cardinals!