Day of Reckoning

On January 15, 1967, the front page of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison bannered a headline about a state commission given the task of reorganizing the state government, and how it had decided not to include in its final report a controversial recommendation to merge the Department of Veterans Affairs with other health and welfare agencies. Elsewhere on the front page was a story about a University of Wisconsin student arrested in one of the state’s largest-ever marijuana busts.

What is not mentioned on the front page is conspicuous by its absence, at least to a reader looking today: there’s nary a word about the AFL-NFL World Championship Game, to be played in Los Angeles that afternoon between the Green Bay Packers and Kansas City Chiefs. The paper’s Sports Peach (printed in those days on peach-colored paper) had plenty to say about it, however, under the headline “Football’s day of reckoning here” and “Biggest game ever in Lombardi’s career.” The game kicked off at 3:00 that afternoon, and was broadcast on both NBC and CBS. It was also on two Madison radio stations, WKOW and WIBA. The Packers won that first Super Bowl game, of course, and the second one 364 days later. And after Vince Lombardi died in 1970, the Super Bowl trophy was named for him.

Twenty-nine years passed before the team qualified for another Super Bowl. On January 26, 1997, the game made the front page of the State Journal under the headline “Go for glory: For legions of Packers fans, the time has come.” Inside, an entire Packers section featured Brett Favre on the first page. Green Bay defeated the New England Patriots that day, and were back in the big game 364 days later. That time, however, they lost to the Denver Broncos. America rejoiced because Denver’s John Elway was finally a champion after years of disappointment, but there was no rejoicing up here.

To lose the Lombardi Trophy when the team was favored by two touchdowns went down hard, and the disappointment still lingers 13 years later. Holding the trophy in victory the year before, Coach Mike Holmgren had said, “As much as it means to other teams, it means more to us.” And after the Packers lost it in 1998, Packer fans everywhere knew that Holmgren had been right.

The Packer teams of the 1960s remain a living presence up here in Wisconsin. To watch or listen to highlights of those years is to remember when gods walked among us. We draw inspiration still from their workmanlike excellence—show up, shut up, get the job done, and don’t woof about it. Yet we know that there are no gods astride the earth today; there will never be another team with a mojo like the Lombardi Packers of the 1960s. And so, we are realistic. We dare not assume we’re going to get to the Super Bowl every year; we dare not consider championships our birthright, as they might in a place like New England, or even Pittsburgh, even though we have the right. We have watched this year’s improbable late-season run with breath held, only daring to exhale when we were sure the run would continue. Seasons like this one are rare. And as we watch the game today, Packer fans everywhere share this thought: As much as the Super Bowl means to other fans, it means more to us.

5 responses

  1. Before today ends, let’s hope the current group of Packers will feel the joy of holding that Lombardi trophy and give Green Bay its 13th World Championship including four Super Bowls. GO PACK GO!

  2. Many Super Bowls produce unlikely heroes; I’m rooting for ZOMBO to make two picks in shallow coverage.

    I watched that ’97 game in Boston, surrounded by Patriots fans, one of whom we found slugging straight from a bottle of rum in the waning seconds.

  3. I started paying attention to pro football in the late 1970s. Due to that exposure, I’m a lifelong fan of the team the Packers are facing today.

    That said, I’ve never been much for “trash talk” as much as I’ve been willing to let the team do its own talking on the field. Despite our allegiances, as a football fan all I can ask is that the game is competitive to the end and that the better team wins, without the aid of a blown call or a shanked kick at the end the game that will only lead to acrimony between the fans for years to come.

    What I see today are two storied franchises with long and storied histories taking the field. Both have a loyal, die-hard fan base steeled (no pun intended) by long periods of dominance. For many of the fans, the teams they see aren’t necessarily the current players but the ghosts of Lombardi and Starr and Hornung and Taylor and even Hutson, of Noll and Bradshaw and Greene and Harris and Lambert. Even guys like Johnny “Blood” McNally who played for both teams.

    1. And that’s why I don’t write checks with my mouth that need to be cashed by a group of men who don’t realize I even exist.

      After a little time contemplating my choice of team allegiance, I have come to the philosophical understanding that it’s never good to be on the losing side, but…the Packer faithful are great fans of football and its history. Bringing the Lombardi Trophy home to them is a great thing for football, and it’s hard to have any hard feelings from my own selfishness.

      Congrats to the fans of the Packers. Especially the ones who sat through some terrible seasons in the 1970s and 80s. In this Steelers fan’s eyes, the better team — the one that looked like they showed up with their game faces on — definitely won.

  4. I can’t complain, either. The better team won. And maybe some day Vikings fans will know how it feels. But I’m not gonna put any bets down on that.

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