This paragraph from a story in the game program for what we now know as the first Super Bowl — known officially then as the AFL-NFL World Championship Game — summarized the perception of the professional football universe on Jan. 15, 1967.
“It has been said for seven years in much of America that the very best AFL team could beat a representative NFL team, but nobody really knows. And it has been said every fall and every spring that any NFL team could beat any AFL team, but nobody really knows.”
The Kansas City Chiefs were that very best team from the American Football League, which was in its seventh year of operation. The Green Bay Packers were the league champions representing the 47-year-old National Football League.
Nearly five decades later the Chiefs and Packers meet again, on Monday night at Lambeau Field, brought together by the NFL scheduling matrix in what happens to be a milestone year.
February 2016 brings Super Bowl 50, and the teams that have appeared on the grandest stage are commemorating the occasions with a season-long celebration.
Last week, during halftime of the Chiefs’ home opener against Denver, they recognized their two Super Bowl teams. The Packers, during a recent game against Seattle, introduced players from the first Super Bowl team.
As the Super Bowl originals renew their acquaintance on Monday many things have changed since that sun-splashed afternoon at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, and some of the changes occurred quickly.
The game soon became known officially as the Super Bowl. The decade ended and so did the AFL, merged with the NFL.
And largely because of the Chiefs’ success that led to a Super Bowl I season, the wheels were in motion to construct a spacious new home for the team in Kansas City.
But as the years and decades passed one feeling didn’t change.
The Chiefs are still ticked off they lost Super Bowl I.
“We thought we could beat them,” said Fred Arbanas, a tight end who caught two passes for 30 yards in game.
Kansas City was stoked to participate in a game that only been announced seven months earlier as part of the NFL-AFL merger, shepherded on the AFL side by Chiefs founder Lamar Hunt.
The Chiefs improved their record in each of the four years in Kansas City, went 11-2-1 in 1966 and pounded the Bills 31-7 in Buffalo for the AFL championship.
In two weeks, Kansas City would play for the first major-league sports championship in its history, and few outside the Chiefs’ camp believed they had a chance against the more established league and a Packers team coached by Vince Lombardi that had just won its fifth NFL championship in seven years.
“We were a fairly young team,” said quarterback Len Dawson, a 10th-year pro that season. “I was one of the oldest guys on the team. For some of our young guys, their idols were on the other side.”
The storied Packers of Bart Starr, Ray Nitschke and Jim Taylor were a dynasty but nearing the end of its dominant run. They also represented the NFL in the second Super Bowl but would miss the playoffs in 13 of the next 14 years.
Still, Green Bay was the establishment. The Chiefs were the new kids on the block.
“When the teams got on the field to warm up, the Chiefs looked over and saw some of the Packers were bald-headed,” said Bill Richardson, who covered the game for The Star. “That’s how much older they were.”
Still, the team that carried a burden into the game wasn’t the youthful Chiefs.
“The Packers and Lombardi could ill afford to lose a game to the AFL,” Dawson said. “A lot was at stake for both teams, but especially for them.”
Lombardi wanted to bring his team to the site as late as possible, giving the game a business-trip sense. NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle nixed the idea and the Packers arrived a week before the game, four days after the Chiefs set up camp.
“Lombardi took them to the training site and locked the gates,” Dawson said. “The media kept coming to see us. They knocked on our doors, saw us in the coffee shop. We were the only ones talking.”
The public didn’t quite know what to make of football’s first created spectacle. The idea of traveling to a neutral site for a game was new to pro sports fans and only 61,946 clicked the turnstiles, about 33,000 below capacity.
But the viewing numbers told another story. Football knew it had a smash hit with a broadcast audience of 51.2 million that turned in to either CBS or NBC, and the game was blacked out in Los Angeles. Each network carried a league and both were allowed to broadcast the game.
They saw a competitive first half. The Packers led 14-10, but the Chiefs had more first downs, 11 to nine, and total yards, 181 to 164.
In the press box, stunned reporters who hadn’t seen the Chiefs surrounded Star sportswriters digging for more information.
“They were all over Joe McGuff and Dick Wade,” Richardson said of The Star’s reporting contingent. “They thought all along the Chiefs were going to win. But Green Bay had the experience. The Chiefs were an excellent team, but I thought the Packers would win.”
The game turned on the Chiefs’ first possession of the third quarter, on third and five.
“The Packers hadn’t blitzed the whole damn year,” Arbanas said. “But on that play …”
Arbanas was Dawson’s target on the play, but three Packers converged on the quarterback, whose pass was picked off by Willie Wood and returned 50 yards to the 5, setting up Green Bay’s third touchdown.
“I’d love to have that play back,” Dawson said. “We were fighting uphill and we had a shot at those guys. But you can’t throw the ball to Willie Wood.”
After the Packers’ 35-10 triumph, reporters seemed less interested in game details — Packers wide receiver Max McGee, who didn’t expect to play, caught two touchdowns while nursing a hangover — and pressed Lombardi about the quality of the opponent.
The answer caught the Chiefs off guard.
“I don’t think they are as good as the top teams in the NFL,” Lombardi said. “They’re a good team with fine speed but I’d have to say NFL football is tougher. Dallas is a better team and so are several others. That’s what you wanted me to say and now I’ve said it.”
Chiefs coach Hank Stram was taken aback. In the biography “Lamar Hunt, A Life in Sports” by Michael MacCambridge, Stram was told of Lombardi’s comments back at the team’s hotel.
“Did Vince really say we weren’t that good?” Stram said. “That we couldn’t play at that level? Vince is a friend. Did he really say that?”
Three more Super Bowls were contested under separate AFL and NFL flags. The next year the Packers handled the Oakland Raiders 33-14. In the third game, the first to be officially known as the Super Bowl, Joe Namath and the New York Jets shocked the Baltimore Colts.
Super Bowl IV matched the Chiefs and the Minnesota Vikings, and the perception of NFL superiority remained strong with the Jets’ victory viewed a fluke.
But three seasons after its first Super Bowl, the Chiefs had added firepower, especially on the defensive side. Joining Bobby Bell and Buck Buchanan in the lineup were Willie Lanier, Emmitt Thomas and Curley Culp, all future Hall of Famers.
The Chiefs shut down the Vikings and won convincingly 23-7.
“Minnesota came in the game with a great defense,” Dawson said. “We had a better defense.”
The Chiefs, crushed by their performance a few years earlier, proudly planted the AFL flag on the final day of the league’s existence.
The Chiefs didn’t get a victory in its first Super Bowl experience, but they got a stadium.
As the team improved throughout the 1960s, attendance at Municipal Stadium reached a franchise-best 37,000 average in 1966 and 45,000 the next season.
In Kansas City, the Chiefs were hot and baseball was not. Three weeks after the Kansas City Athletics played their final game of the 1967 season, owner Charlie Finley received permission by the American League to move the franchise to Oakland, Calif.
Kansas City wanted to remain a major-league baseball city, and a new home would be a strong selling point.
Charles Wheeler, Kansas City’s major from 1971-79, was a judge of the Western District of the Jackson County Court when he flew to Los Angeles and met with Charles Deaton, an architect who had an idea that ran counter to the popular multi-purpose circular stadiums popping up around the nation. Deaton suggested a twin-stadium complex.
“The Chiefs were extremely popular,” Wheeler said. “The team turned out in force to rally the troops.”
Jackson County put a $43 million bond for the sports complex to a vote on June 28, 1967. The results: 61,872 for, 27,878 against.
Five years after the vote, the Chiefs moved into Arrowhead Stadium. Many players from the Super Bowl rosters finished their careers at the new home.
Arbanas did not. He retired after the 1970 season, entered the Chiefs’ Hall of Fame in 1973 and became a longtime Jackson County legislator. But Arbanas has never spent much time watching Super Bowl I highlights.
“I take pride playing in that game, we played in it before it was even called the Super Bowl,” Arbanas said. “But I don’t watch highlights. Don’t need to.”