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8 Facts About Super Bowl I

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Diamond Images/Getty

In 1966, two football leagues were vying for gridiron dominance: the venerable NFL and the sport's newcomer, the AFL. On June 8, 1966, the two leagues announced their plans to merge, rather than compete over players and a split fanbase. 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 create much 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 of an 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 51 ticket is currently hovering around $2000, 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 to sell 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.

Matt Sullivan/Getty Images

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 the halftime 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 to re-re-broadcast it without the intrusive commentary from its own analysts.

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Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
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Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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