College football fans are no strangers to blowouts. Just look at the 2016 season: Missouri pummeled Delaware State, 79-0; Michigan smothered Rutgers, 78-0; Miami slugged Florida A&M, 70-3. But those games sound like gentle drubbings compared to the lopsided 1916 skirmish between Georgia Tech and Cumberland University, which ended 222-0.
If that score sounds spiteful, it was. Georgia Tech’s coach, John Heisman—for whom the coveted trophy is named—was reportedly bent on revenge. A year earlier, during the spring of 1915, Cumberland’s baseball club had recruited a handful of semi-professional ballplayers from Nashville and disguised them as college athletes. Boasting a lineup stacked with pros, the little Tennessee college creamed Georgia Tech’s ball club, 22-0.
The defeat garnered national attention, leaving Heisman, who coached both Georgia Tech’s baseball and football teams, humiliated. When he discovered that Cumberland had cheated, he vowed to get payback.
Oddly, Heisman nearly missed his chance. By 1916, Cumberland, a university out of Lebanon, Tennessee, a small town about 30 minutes outside of Nashville, was facing financial difficulties and as such canceled that year's season of football. The football squad’s student manager notified its opponents that, since it would not be fielding a team that season, Cumberland would have to cancel all scheduled games. But Cumberland made a careless mistake—they forgot to brief Georgia Tech. When Cumberland discovered the error, it was too late: They were contractually obligated to play, football team or no football team.
Tasting blood, Heisman wrote Cumberland’s football manager a pointed letter to ensure he wouldn’t flake: "I hearby offer you the sum of $500 and an all-expenses-paid trip to Atlanta for your football team on the condition that you honor your contract by participating in and completing the Cumberland-Georgia Tech football game." The offer was freighted with a legal threat: If Cumberland didn’t play, Georgia Tech would charge a $3000 forfeiture fee. The expense "would have been a severe blow to Cumberland," says Sam Hatcher, author of Heisman’s First Trophy, in an interview with The Tennessean, "and probably would have closed the school, if you want to know the truth."
Cumberland agreed to play. The old football manager assembled a team of at least 13 players (some sources say up to 19), consisting of fraternity brothers, law students, and boys from town. To avoid getting caught by university administrators—who were unaware of Heisman's ultimatum—the team covered up their practice sessions by calling them "men’s choir meetings."
Most of the volunteers had no knowledge of, or experience playing, football. "I played once in high school and once in prep school," Cumberland’s Gentry Dugat admitted to Sports Illustrated in 1961. He wasn’t that interested in playing football anyway. He had signed up because he’d never ridden a passenger train before; it was basically a free vacation.
As Cumberland practiced, no one bothered to cook up trick plays or study the Xs and Os of fundamental football. Instead, coaches assigned each player a code name that corresponded with a specific vegetable. When the offense took to the line of scrimmage, the quarterback called plays by hollering the names of different crudités. "Plays sounded like this: 'Turnip over lettuce. Hut one, hut two...'" reported Jay Searcy of the Chicago Tribune. "Cucumber to cauliflower. Hut one, hut two..."
The week before the big game, Cumberland’s rag-tag team tested their strategy in a meaningless exhibition game against Sewanee: The University of the South. They lost 107-0.
On October 7, 1916, more than 1000 fans passed through the turnstiles of Grant Field in Atlanta to watch the greatest slaughter in college football history. Cumberland was a wreck before the first whistle blew. Aside from their obvious shortfalls—a severe lack of strategy, knowledge, and, well, talent—Cumberland was already at a disadvantage because three of its players had gotten lost during a layover in Nashville and failed to chase down the connecting train to Georgia.
The game that ensued would turn out to be a mythical comedy of errors that is today riddled with fuzzy details. We know that Cumberland received the first kickoff, and, as the ball hurtled through the air, their quarterback attempted a block and was promptly coldcocked. Morris Gouger took the reins and gave Cumberland fans a ray of false hope when, on the team’s first drive, he rushed for three yards. (It would be one of Cumberland’s best plays all day.) Shortly after, Cumberland punted, Georgia Tech got the ball, and it scored on its first play.
When Cumberland got the pigskin back, it wasted no time and fumbled. Georgia scooped it and scrambled to the end zone. Touchdown. When Cumberland got the ball again, it fumbled a second time. Georgia picked it up and rushed to the goal line again. Touchdown. According to some accounts, Cumberland must have believed in the power of threes, because when the team received the ball again, they repeated the fumble-turnover-touchdown trifecta for a third time.
By halftime, the score was 126-0. Coach Heisman appeared underwhelmed during one pep talk. "You’re doing all right," he lectured his team. "We’re ahead. But you just can’t tell what those Cumberland players have up their sleeves. They may spring a surprise."
If Cumberland had tricks up their sleeves, they probably weren’t the tricks Heisman was expecting. At one point, a few frazzled Cumberland players marched over to Georgia Tech’s bench and plopped down; one grabbed a blanket and hid underneath it. Heisman accosted them and screamed, "You’re on the wrong side of the field!" But the boys shook their heads. "No, we’re not. We’ve been in there too many times, and we’ve had enough."
Later on, two Cumberland players would jump the stadium fence.
Georgia Tech found time to goof off, too. "At one point, I remember, our tackle, Bill Fincher, took out his glass eye and threw it in the water bucket," Tech’s George Griffin told The New York Times in 1986. "Some Cumberland boys came over and started to drink out of it, and they got a terrible fright."
But nothing was as terrifying as the action on the field. In one (likely apocryphal) story, a Cumberland player fumbled and watched the ball bounce toward a teammate’s feet. The fumbler pleaded for his teammate to pick it up, but he was having none of it: "Fall on it yourself," was the reported reply. "You dropped it."
According to Sporting News, Cumberland’s Charlie Warwick would later brag that, "We were sort of getting to 'em in that last quarter." Which, statistically, was kind of true. Georgia Tech scored 63 points in the first quarter but only managed 42 in the fourth quarter. But Warwick neglected to mention that Coach Heisman, in what can only be interpreted as a merciful bid for sainthood, had agreed to shorten the second half to 15 minutes.
The final score of 222-0 was so one-sided people must have expected the scoreboard to tip over. The statistics were obscene. Georgia Tech scored 32 touchdowns. One player, the All-American G.E. Strupper, scored eight times. He could have scored more, but at one point, Strupper ran through open field, stopped short of the goal line, gently placed the ball on the grass, and waited for a teammate to pick it up and walk into the end zone. Georgia Tech, which never threw a pass, finished with 501 rushing yards.
Cumberland, on the other hand, never earned a first down. It never crossed the 50-yard line. Five of their punts were returned for touchdowns. They lost at least nine fumbles. Their statistical superstar, Morris Gouger, finished the day with less than zero yards of offense. They threw 11 passes, and completed eight of them. (Technically, only two completions. Six of them were caught by the wrong team.)
To Cumberland’s credit, they weren’t the only big loser that season. Cockeyed mismatches were common during the sport’s nascent days: One week after Cumberland’s licking, Ohio State would rout Oberlin College, 128-0. And in Illinois, the Lane Technical School would give Cumberland’s dismal performance a run for its money in a blowout loss to St. Viator College.
January 22, 1989: The San Francisco 49ers edge out the Cincinnati Bengals 20-16 to become the National Football League champions at Super Bowl XXIII at Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami, Florida. It was a thrilling game, tied at the half—a Super Bowl first—and decided only in the closing moments with a successful pass from 49ers star quarterback Joe Montana. There was enough action to keep any football fan’s mind occupied for days.
But the next morning, all anyone wanted to talk about was Elvis Presto.
In one of the most unusual halftime presentations in the 50-year history of the event, the NFL commissioned a 1950s musical revue, led by a magician dressed as Elvis Presley who performed “the world’s largest card trick.” It was also, by the estimate of at least one soda company, the world’s largest eye exam: Coca-Cola and NBC presented the entire spectacle in 3-D, urging the show’s 54 million households to pick up a pair of disposable glasses at their local distributor. (They also cautioned that if the effect didn’t work, your lack of eye coordination meant you might need to see an optometrist.) The end result was a curious blend of retro-kitsch performance and a 1980s version of interactive television.
To understand how this uneven mix of magic, music, and carbonation came together, mental_floss spoke with several of the producers and creative partners behind “BeBop Bamboozled,” including the magician who created it, the man whose Elvis was heard but not seen, and the soda marketing genius who turned a 3-D glasses shortage into priceless publicity. As it turns out, Katy Perry's Left Shark has nothing on fire-eaters in poodle skirts.
I. OUT OF THIN AIR
The story of 1989’s Super Bowl begins in 1986, when the NFL started soliciting proposals from entertainment production companies to plan for halftime shows in the years ahead. In addition to fielding presentations from Disney, Paramount, and other massive entities, the league heard from a man in Minnesota named Dan Witkowski. A veteran stage illusionist, Witkowski owned MagicCom, a small business focused on increasing revenue for companies by being “disruptive" and encouraging them to think outside the box.
Dan Witkowski (Founder, MagicCom): I was looking to sell some network specials, but I would get laughed off. I thought, “Well, what’s bigger than a special? What has a built-in audience?” By going after something big, it would put us on the map. So I went after the Super Bowl.
Jim Steeg (Senior Vice President of Special Events, NFL, 1979 to 2005): Basically, we had the same people producing the halftime show over the years. By the time we did Up with People for a second time in 1986, we decided we wanted to bring in different producers with ideas for the halftime show.
Witkowski: I have something I call the Pretty Girl Theory: Everybody thinks somebody else is calling the pretty blonde to go out on a Saturday night, yet there she sits at home. People are just intimidated to make calls. I wasn’t.
Steeg: We were looking to book people for the 1988, 1989, and 1990 shows. We brought in probably six or seven different producers, and Dan was one of them. He called us.
Witkowski: Obviously, he got a lot of calls. But what I did was put the problem ahead of the pitch. And the problem I presented to the NFL was this: How do they take something big and make it even bigger by attracting more people? Historically, the halftime show meant it was time to get up and get a sandwich.
Steeg: I agreed to meet him in New York and hear him out.
Witkowski: I think he was intrigued about the magic idea. I didn’t give him an idea for a specific type of show, but I told him we’d welcome the opportunity to give an official presentation.
Steeg: [NFL Commissioner] Pete Rozelle only sat through a couple of them. He sat through Dan’s.
Witkowski: What the NFL did that tripped us up was when they requested a written outline sent in advance. It’s like trying to describe a cartoon. You can’t do it. You need visuals and sound. I had one of those projectors for a slide show. But it was in their rules, so I sent everyone there a leather-bound folder with a padlock on it. I had the key. They couldn’t open it until I arrived. I got calls from secretaries saying, “They’re going nuts. They’re trying to pick the locks.” It caused a big stir.
Steeg: Dan kind of wowed everybody at the meeting. He made a bowling ball appear out of a suitcase. It got things rolling.
Witkowski: He remembered that? The funny thing is, I had to do a performance in Nebraska that same night. I couldn’t get out of it, so I had to carry the bowling ball and the suitcase through Kennedy Airport. I got in line at security, put the ball on the conveyor belt, and was immediately surrounded by guards who wanted to know where it had come from.
Steeg: What we decided to do was have him co-produce the 1988 pre-game show so he could get some experience and learn the math. It was important for him to understand the logistics and the magnitude of the Super Bowl.
Witkowski: What I basically presented was the idea of hooking the audience through their involvement. At the time, we had developed a technique that would have allowed us to distribute millions of game cards through McDonald’s with a mechanism that could be triggered by holding them up to the TV screen at a certain point. It would reveal an image. I can’t go into details on how it works, but that was the essence of it.
John Gonzalez (Director, NBC): I recall going to the NFL offices in Manhattan for the first presentation about the magic show. I was excited about it, realizing it would be a challenge in the middle of a huge football production to shoot live magic and not give any of the tricks away. To figure out the correct angles, we were going to have to do it in a very controlled, very planned-out manner.
That planning would eventually grow complicated by another influence over the halftime proceedings. With Witkowski pitching Steeg and the NFL on a magic-themed, participatory show for the 1989 game, the league was also being courted by a more established partner: Coca-Cola, who would wind up becoming the Super Bowl’s first sole sponsor that same year. The company had been working on a promotion involving 3-D glasses with a twist: a California company, Nuoptix, had developed a process where an image would be clear (not distorted or blurry) to a viewer not wearing the cellophane lenses.
Michael Beindorff (Vice President of Marketing, Coca-Cola, 1978-1992): Steve Koonin, who runs the Atlanta Hawks now but worked for Coke back then, came to me with the idea for 3-D glasses. He brought the whole Moonlighting idea to me.
Steve Koonin (Vice President of Sports and Entertainment Marketing, Coca-Cola, 1986-2000): I met Terry Beard from Nuoptix on an airplane. He was a sound guy, a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and had invented what was called stereoscopic 3-D. He sent me a demo of it. Basically [by covering one eye with a dark lens, which you can do using sunglasses with the video below], it slows down one eye and tricks the brain. It’s the Pulfrich Effect. At the time, Moonlighting was the hottest show on TV, and I called the producer, Glenn Caron, and sold him on the idea of doing the season finale in 3-D. He loved it. We made 26 million pairs of glasses and wound up on the front page of over 200 newspapers.
Beindorff: They had actually written a script, but then the writer’s strike happened, and the whole deal fell apart.
Koonin: We’re sitting there paying rent on warehouses across the country full of glasses. We had taken over a Kleenex factory in Mexico to make them.
Beindorff: We were still excited by the idea of the 3-D. For its time, it was very well-done. We went to the NFL and NBC with the concept of doing the halftime show in 3-D.
Steeg: Coke was our partner at the time. We were always in constant communication.
Beindorff: Really, the whole strategy behind the Super Bowl partnership was to launch a campaign around the fact that people were switching from sugary drinks like Pepsi to Diet Coke. It was intended for Diet Coke to surpass Pepsi as the number two drink.
Gonzalez: I first heard it as a rumor: “We might do it in 3-D.” I was excited about the idea, but wondered, “How would we do that?”
II. ELVIS PRESTO
In the summer of 1988, Witkowski had no idea Coca-Cola would come in at virtually the last minute with their 3-D promotion. Instead, he and Steeg tried to hammer out what his stadium-sized magic show was going to look like.
Jack Barkla (Production Designer): I think Dan initially had the idea of a 1950s retro drive-in theater, with dancers carrying picnic baskets onto the field. They’d sit down and pull a ripcord in the basket that would turn them into inflatable cars.
Witkowski: We knew we were going to have a magic theme. Whether it was contemporary or Medieval was all flexible during the presentation. The whole 1950s thing was pretty big at the time. Baby Boomers were trying to relive their youth, so we hooked on that.
Steeg: These things evolve on a daily basis. Whatever we discussed at the pitch meeting wasn’t what wound up happening. There is no, “This is what it is.”
Barkla: There was also something to do with pizza, large colorful slices of pizza being moved around by various people.
Witkowski: There was another illusion where the concept was, as everyone came into the stadium, we were going to take a Polaroid picture that would be developed by the time they got to their seats. At random, one was going to be selected, brought down to the field, and asked to hold up their photo. Everyone else held up a card under their seat, and the whole audience would form a pictogram of the audience member selected. But we realized we didn’t have time to bring people down to the stadium floor for the pictures.
Steeg: Everything about it was big. I remember we had a press conference at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York to announce it, which was unusual. No one had ever announced a halftime show before.
Witkowski: For some reason, we had Oscar-Mayer around. They came forward and wanted to supply lunch for all of the dancers. As a kind of joke, I said, “Okay, but I want to ride shotgun in the Wienermobile.” Sure enough, it showed up.
Witkowski would eventually settle on a trick that involved the audience using an “Applause-o-Meter” to pick one of four giant cards in the stadium, with the selected card's edges made up of held-up seat cushions. What he needed now was a master of ceremonies—someone to guide the audience and lead the melody of classic pop songs.
Steeg: Elvis Presto, yes. We felt it was a novel thing that got a lot of play. Who is he? What is he?
Witkowski: It was divine inspiration. [Laughs] I think once we settled on the 1950s music, it was natural to make Elvis Presley the lead magician. It was a nice play on words. We also had the Magic Wandas, who were his back-up singers.
Barkla: I had nothing to do with that.
Witkowski: We cast a guy who had played Elvis on Broadway. He had a very good look and had the moves down. Alex Cole, who had been a back-up dancer on Solid Gold, was his choreographer. And he wouldn’t have to sing. That was all prerecorded in New York.
Jody LoMedico (Vocal Performer, “Elvis Presto”): I had been performing since the 1970s, singing and doing commercial jingles. Someone once told me I sounded like Elvis, and it devastated me. I was never an impersonator.
Witkowski: We went to the Elvis estate. I felt that rather than it be a surprise for them, they would want the courtesy and an opportunity to respond. They couldn’t have been nicer and did it for minimal consideration.
LoMedico: A vocal contractor I knew said she had heard I did a pretty good Elvis. I had been trying to destroy any kind of resemblance to him. You want to be your own person. But it was the Super Bowl, so I was all in. We went in there and sang and sang and sang this seven-minute piece. "Devil in a Blue Dress," "Rock This Town," Stray Cats stuff, everything. I was there probably seven hours. When we were done, I couldn’t talk.
Witkowski: We had Donald Pippin, a Broadway legend, doing all the music.
LoMedico: When they saw me sing, they liked me so much they asked if I wanted to come to Florida and lip-sync my own voice. But I couldn’t be out of town for three weeks for rehearsal and everything else for $1500. They said, “Most people do this for free.” Well, your dancers, these kids from universities, they live to be on television. Great for them. No disrespect. Not for me.
While Witkowski tried to assemble a complete Elvis, Barkla and choreographers were thinking of how best to stage a production on something as volatile as a football field. Only cars made of plywood would be allowed on the grass.
Barkla: The grass in Florida is very different from the grass in Minnesota. It’s like moss. It doesn’t take much to destroy the surface.
Steeg: It’s about protecting the field, and also about what you can move on 100 yards of grass.
Barkla: They’d bring truckloads of dirt and grass seed on the field and dump it. I remember asking one of the NFL guys, “Doesn’t that change the height of the goalposts?” Because you keep raising the ground. He looked at me like no one had ever considered the question before.
As the clock wound down to perfect an elaborate show full of visual effects, dancers, and a stadium-sized card trick, Witkowski was dealt two of the worst hands possible: His in-person Elvis was about to split, and Coca-Cola was about to introduce a new dimension in frustration.
Witkowski: The guy playing Elvis suddenly had an opportunity to go shoot a commercial in Japan that was going to be very lucrative. We made a mutual decision to recast. My first thought was Alex, since he was essentially the other Elvis’s choreographer and knew a lot of the moves.
LoMedico: The guy who did Elvis—whoever you are, I wasn’t a fan, man. Doing Elvis at that time with anything was just hokey. Maybe in Middle America, but the East and West Coasts were done. It was Elvis and The National Enquirer. It was corny.
Alex Cole had roughly 10 days to learn a complex routine involving dancers and illusions with a hollowed-out jukebox and an electric guitar that materialized out of thin air. At the same time, NBC and Witkowski were struggling to cope with the late addition of 3-D.
Gonzalez: We both understood the sudden importance of the 3-D overlay and all the money it represented. The NFL and the executives at NBC didn’t interfere, but they did say, “This represents a whole lot of valuable promotion, so we need to make it work.” In the final week, the focus largely went away from the magic and onto re-blocking for 3-D.
Witkowski: We recorded the audio track before the 3-D element came into play, so we decided that because of time, we would edit what we had and work with it from that standpoint. We knew the magic would suffer, knew the event would be a bit corny, but felt people would watch.
Barkla: The input we got was way late in the game. That was very frustrating. If it hadn’t been so late, things would’ve been better than they were. It’s typical corporate stuff. The people making decisions didn’t have a clue as to how the whole thing worked.
Gonzalez: The choreographers had been planning their part of the show for months. To tell them two weeks before, “Throw it out, make everything counterclockwise rotational,” was not what they wanted to hear.
Witkowski: We thought of some effects where girls would appear to float outside the image of your TV set and had some other levitating effects. But with the 3-D process, things had to be in constant motion left to right to separate the field of vision for the effect to work. In many ways, the 3-D fought with the way to present magic, which was to keep a continuous camera on something so you’re not cutting away.
Steeg: To do the 3-D, everything had to move left to right. It was basically a mind trick.
Gonzalez: Fearing that the 3-D on the field would be less than what was expected, I went to my bosses at NBC with a request to spend additional funds on some animations. There are three or four spots in the show where we independently developed some effective use of the 3-D apart from the action on the field.
Koonin: Kevin Costner came up to me at a [pre-game] party in Miami. He said, “Hey, I hear you’re the 3-D glasses guy. Want to comp me a pair?”
With a pre-taped introduction by a wry Bob Costas (“This is the single proudest moment of my life”) and a 3-D Diet Coke commercial, “BeBop Bamboozled” got underway. Elvis Presto appears to materialize out of a jukebox; dancers defy gravity by leaning against parking meters horizontally; 102 custom-made Harley-Davidson bikes engulfed the margins of the field.
Gonzalez: Bob Costas was hesitant about pre-recording the opening. “Trust me,” I told him. “I need to do this to guarantee some effective 3-D effects.” We watched it together in the controlled environment of the studio and it looked quite good.
Barkla: Of course, we didn’t wind up using the inflatable cars. Those might have cost $3000 to $4000 each.
Witkowski: I remember in the planning stage, we had some early computer effects that showed how 2000 people would be moving on the field. That was unheard of back then. You could have 200 people fall over and it wouldn’t even be noticed.
Barkla: The question was, how do you get things on and off the field? You have to be able to set it up and dismantle it very quickly.
Presto's inciting of the crowd to "pick a card, concentrate real hard" left most viewers befuddled: the Applause-o-Meter led to the King of Hearts, one of four giant cards on the field and a choice Presto predicted. Because of the camera movements, it was also one of the few illusions actually picked up by the broadcast.
Witkowski: I will say the card trick is not nearly as effective as what we had anticipated.
Steeg: I don’t think everyone got the card trick. You had to think about it.
Barkla: There was one master box for power, and it was at the 50-yard line. All the skyboxes would need wires running out of it. The place where we stored all the sets underneath wasn’t wired and it wasn’t lit at all. I found that really strange. We were running electric lines all over the place to get power.
Witkowski: We didn’t have theatrical lighting. In magic, you adjust it depending on how the performers are moving. Here, the lights were either on or off. We couldn’t rely on that. Everything was out in the open.
LoMedico: I think I made the right choice [not appearing on camera]. When I saw it, I thought, “Mmm. This isn’t working.”
Witkowski: I would say that Alex, as Elvis, didn’t have the right look. But he didn’t have the opportunity to practice, either. With magic and its complexities, it’s hard to just drop someone in.
LoMedico: The stuff sounded good in the studio. Everyone was really happy. But when it got on the air, whatever they did with the sound processing, somebody mixed that improperly.
Gonzalez: You get one rehearsal Friday night to try to put it all together, and the crew, the best in the business, was excited and cooperative. The next time the camera crew saw it was live at halftime.
With an estimated 120 million people tuning in, Super Bowl XXIII was a resounding success. Despite some complaints that the card trick made little sense, news media responded favorably to the 3-D effects. This was presuming the viewer had the glasses: Because Coke had only made 26 million pairs, many had to share or go without.
Koonin: There wasn’t time to make more. If it had cost the consumer money, yes, they probably would have been disappointed. But this was about getting past Pepsi. It was just a fun stunt.
Barkla: It was the beginning of a time when the shows got more inflated and slicker.
Witkowski: I remember being interviewed after. Apparently, I was dancing in the stands with the dancers.
Steeg: I think it was a good show. It was just so hyped. People were expecting this Pixar 3-D animation thing. It was just a halftime show.
Beindorff: We got a huge uptick in sales that month. And that went on for some period of time, though you can’t attribute it all to the Super Bowl. We also had George Michael.
Witkowski: Coke was kind enough to send us binders of all the press after the game. I think it was $60 million worth of promotion. It was confirmation that we were successful in creating something people were going to talk about.
Beindorff: I got a call a year or two ago that Diet Coke finally surpassed Pepsi as the number two drink. It took a while.
Steeg: The only one you’re concerned with is the Commissioner, and he [Rozelle] was happy.
Witkowski: Jim said to me, “You’ll reap the benefits of this for years.” And we have. MagicCom has been very successful. I appreciate that the NFL took a chance on the little guy.
Steeg: The next year was the 40th anniversary of Peanuts. They approached us and wanted to get involved, and we liked that.
Gonzalez: If you were to pick a halftime show that would be designed for the rotational 3-D effect, I don’t think it would be something that demands the precision and accuracy of a magic show.
Steeg: We experimented. We took chances. With the Super Bowl, it’s very easy to just say no. We rolled the dice.
LoMedico: At the time, I lived in the Poconos with no cable and had to watch it with rabbit ears. The whole thing was kind of a letdown.
In 1966, two football leagues were vying for gridiron dominance: the venerable NFL and the sport's newcomer, the AFL. OnJune 8, 1966, the two leagues announced their plans to merge, rather than compete over players and a split fan base. This meant a new championship game had to be conceived that would show which was the dominant league every year. Today we know it as the Super Bowl—one of the most polished, extravagant events of the entire year. But on January 15, 1967, when the first AFL-NFL World Championship Game took place, it was something bordering on a disaster, with television mishaps, a dispute over the name, and thousands of empty seats marring the very first Super Bowl Sunday. To see how the big game nearly fell apart, here are eight facts about the first Super Bowl.
1. IT WAS ONLY CASUALLY KNOWN AS THE SUPER BOWL AT FIRST.
In 1966, meetings were going on about the first-ever championship game between the NFL and the upstart AFL set to be played in January of that next year. In addition to talking about location and logistics, the big question on everyone’s mind was what to call it. Though Pete Rozelle, the NFL’s commissioner at the time, suggested names like The Big One and The Pro Bowl (which was the same name as the NFL’s own all-star game), it was eventually decided that the game would be called … the AFL-NFL World Championship Game.
A name like that just doesn’t createmuch buzz, though, and the newly merged league needed something punchier. Then Lamar Hunt, owner of the Kansas City Chiefs, recalled a toy his children played with, a Super Ball, which led to his idea: the Super Bowl.
The name picked up support from fans and the media, but Rozelle hated it, viewing the word “Super” as too informal. By the time the game began, the tickets read “AFL-NFL World Championship Game,” but people were still offhandedly referring to it as the Super Bowl. By the fourth year, the league caved and finally printed Super Bowl on the game's tickets. For Super Bowl V, the Roman numerals made their debut and stayed there every year except Super Bowl 50 in 2016. (The first three championship games have also been officially renamed Super Bowls retroactively.)
2. THE GAME WAS AIRED ON TWO DIFFERENT NETWORKS.
Since the first Super Bowl involved two completely different organizations, there was a bit ofan issue televising the game. NBC had the rights to air AFL games, while CBS was the longtime rights holder for the NFL product. Neither station was going to miss out on its respective league’s championship game, so the first Super Bowl was the only one to be simulcast on two different networks. Rival networks also meant rival announcing teams: CBS used their familiar roster of play-by-play man Ray Scott in the first half, Jack Whitaker in the second half, and Frank Gifford doing color commentary for the entire game. Curt Gowdy and Paul Christman led the voices for NBC.
It turns out the competition between the two networks for ratings superiority was just as intense as the helmet-rattling game played on the field. Tensions were so high leading up to game day that a fence had to be built in between the CBS and NBC production trucks to keep everyone separate. The more familiar NFL broadcast team over on CBS won the ratings war that day, beating NBC’s feed by just a bit over 2 million viewers.
3. THE GAME DIDN’T COME CLOSE TO A SELLOUT.
The cheapest price for a Super Bowl 52 ticket is currently hovering around $3000, but frankly, you could probably charge people double that and the game would be a guaranteed sellout. The first Super Bowl, however, didn’t quite have that same cachet behind it. With tickets averaging around $12, the AFL-NFL World Championship Game couldn’t manage tosell out the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in 1967. It’s still the only Super Bowl not to fill up its venue.
Despite blacking the game out on TV stations within 75 miles of the Coliseum to get fans to the stadium rather than watching at home, about a third of the stadium’s seats were empty. Some fans balked at the steep $12 ticket prices, while others were so incensed at the blackout that they stayed away out of protest. Whatever the reason, the sight of tens of thousands of empty seats for what was supposed to be the most important game in both leagues’ history was not what Rozelle had in mind when the Super Bowl was conceived.
4. DIFFERENT BALLS AND DIFFERENT RULES WERE USED FOR THE GAME.
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The overall product between the AFL and NFL weren’t that different, but there were a few hiccups when making the rules fair for both teams. The AFL’s two-point conversion rule, which it used for the entirety of its existence, was barred from the game, allowing only the traditional point-after field goal instead. When the AFL and NFL later merged, the two-point conversion was banished altogether until 1994, when it was reinstated league-wide.
The other big change for the game was the ball itself. The AFL used a ball made by Spalding, which was slightly longer, narrower, and had a tackier surface than the NFL’s ball, which was created by Wilson. To make each team feel at home, their own league’s ball would be used whenever they were on offense.
5. THE SECOND HALF KICKOFF HAD TO BE REDONE BECAUSE CAMERAS MISSED IT.
When the second half of Super Bowl I began, everyone was ready for the kickoff: players, refs, and the production crew. Well, one production crew was ready, anyway. It turns out NBC missed the opening kickoff of the second half because the network was too busy airing an interview with Bob Hope. The kickoff had to be redone for the sake of nearly half the TV audience; even worse, some poor soul probably had to break the news to Packers coach Vince Lombardi.
6. THE HALFTIME SHOW INCLUDED TWO DUDES IN JETPACKS.
Forget your Bruno Mars and Beyoncé performances; Super Bowl I’s halftime show was an affront to gravity itself as two men in what can only be described as jetpacks (though technically they were called “rocket belts”) flew around the field to give people a glimpse at what the future of slightly above-ground travel would look like. Very little video exists of the spectacle today, but this performance was later revisited at thehalftime show for Super Bowl XIX, when jetpacks made their long-awaited return to gridiron absurdity.
In addition to airborne theatrics, the inaugural show also included some marching bands and the release of hundreds of pigeons into the air—one of which dropped a present right on the typewriter of a young Brent Musburger.
7. THE ORIGINAL BROADCAST FOOTAGE IS CURRENTLY IN LEGAL LIMBO.
Unlike today, where games are DVR’ed, saved, edited into YouTube clips, and preserved for all eternity, there is no complete copy of the broadcast edition of Super Bowl I. In 2005, a man from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, found a copy of the CBS broadcast in his attic, which had been recorded by his father on two-inch quadruplex tapes. However, the halftime show and parts of the third quarter are missing. The footage has been digitally restored and is currently locked in a vault at The Paley Center for Media in Manhattan. To this day, it hasn’t been shown to the public as Troy Haupt, the tape’s owner, is in legal limbo with the NFL over the exact worth of the footage.
8. THE NFL TRIED—AND FAILED—TO SHOW THE GAME IN SOME FORM IN 2016.
Perhaps as a way to show Haupt that they didn’t need his tapes, the NFL Network released a version of the game cobbled together not from CBS or NBC footage, but from video edited together from its then-nascent NFL Films division. With the game’s radio call played over it, every play from the game was aired in 2016, albeit not how it was originally seen in 1967. Unfortunately, the game also featured some questionable running commentary from the NFL Network’s current analysts during the entire broadcast. The re-broadcast was such as disaster that the NFL Network had tore-re-broadcast it without the intrusive commentary from its own analysts.