The first time the Chiefs played the Green Bay Packers, Hall of Famer Bobby Bell gazed into the 94,000-seat stands at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
The NFL linebacker told teammate Buck Buchanan, “Who in the heck is going to pay $12 a ticket, or $7.50 for a cheap ticket to go to, you know, a football game?”
Despite a local TV blackout, some 33,000 seats went unsold for that Jan. 15, 1967, contest billed as the AFL-NFL World Championship Game.
The meeting seemed of such meager consequence that the handful of reporters who covered the buildup that week were able to just show up, plop down and huddle around players poolside for interviews. And both networks that simulcast it, CBS and NBC, promptly recorded over tape of their broadcasts (despite 51 million people watching nationally).
Those productions may or may not have featured the quirky mish-mash of halftime entertainment organized in six weeks that included trumpeter Al Hirt, marching bands from two schools, 300 pigeons, 10,000 balloons and, oh, rocketeers propelled by hydrogen-peroxide propellant.
But it was from these humble origins at what is now known as the first Super Bowl that everything has mushroomed since for the NFL.
Even at a time marked by alarming discoveries about the dangers of brain injuries in the NFL, the whopping television ratings for any game, exorbitant ticket prices the Super Bowl commands and other metrics tell us the NFL dominates the American sporting interest to the point of eclipsing all other competition.
So with the 50th Super Bowl looming in February, no wonder they commemorated the first one in a pregame ceremony as the Chiefs visited Lambeau Field on Monday night.
And the pause to appreciate was appropriate.
Not just because of sentimentality, even as we lose players and coaches from that era every year now.
But because with all that the NFL has become, it’s easy to forget the pivotal significance of a moment in which the Chiefs — and their owner and AFL founder Lamar Hunt — were so essential.
“Can’t be but so many people to be first in something,” Bell said with pride over lunch last week. “Nobody knew it was going to be that big, but that’s the turning point for the NFL.”
The game was scheduled only months after the stodgy-but-established NFL had agreed to merge with the fledgling-and-vibrant AFL by the start of the 1970s amid the mayhem of bidding wars for players.
The move revitalized the game itself.
If the NFL was “three yards and a cloud of dust” back then, as Bell put it, the AFL was a flying circus of innovation on both sides of the ball.
The change also accelerated integration in the NFL, which only slowly had been drafting and signing African-American players, as the AFL was far more apt to do and put in key positions (like Willie Lanier at middle linebacker for the Chiefs).
Still, this was a grudging détente, with many in the NFL still believing in the superiority of its original product over the AFL.
“ ‘The Mickey Mouse League,’ ” Bell remembers hearing.
Considering so many players in each league had come from college backgrounds similar to his at the University of Minnesota, Bell thought, “What is the difference?”
There didn’t appear to be much in the first half, when the Chiefs outgained the Packers 181-164 and trailed just 14-10.
But it was 35-10 at game’s end, a lopsided final score that perhaps hinged on Willie Wood’s 50-yard interception return of a Len Dawson pass that allowed the Packers to start pulling away.
Believing they were the Packers equal even as Green Bay coach Vince Lombardi was saying after the game that several NFL teams were better than Kansas City, the Chiefs simmered and vowed redemption,
“There was some friction because Lombardi made it friction,” Bell said. “He lucked out. If we hadn’t turned that ball over (several times) … it would have been an awakening.”
Instead, the Chiefs had to wait three years to make that statement, clobbering Minnesota in Super Bowl IV 23-7 for the AFL’s second Super Bowl win a year after the New York Jets had beaten Baltimore.
With the formal merger coming the next season, Bell said, “We put the icing on the cake that ‘these guys aren’t going away.’ ”
Nearly 50 years after serving the first notice they’d be here to stay, alas, more and more of these guys are going away.
By Bell’s count, at least 13 Chiefs’ administrators, coaches and players from that team have died — including Hunt, who was inspired to start the AFL only after the NFL snubbed his attempts to buy into that league.
Meanwhile, all these years later, the Chiefs and Packers still are tethered together from that day.
They played Monday in one of the showcases enabled by the reinvigorated league, the Monday Night Football phenomenon that started in 1970, and they played before a crowd of about 80,000 — some 20,000 more than attended their first meeting.
Bell didn’t attend the game, but if he had he would have found himself in the company of Packers counterparts he has come to know well over the years.
“As the years went by,” he said, “we all became close friends.”
Among those Bell developed a particular affection for was Packers linebacker Ray Nitschke, with whom he recalled serving as the entertainment on a few Super Bowl cruises.
“I love the game,” he said, “but nobody loved the game as much as Ray.”
It’s with Nitschke and that passion in mind that Bell expresses the same sentiments ever year at the NFL Hall of Fame luncheon named in honor of Nitschke, who died in 1998.
“ ‘Guys, look around this room,’ ” he’ll tell the established and new members of the club. “ ‘This is our team: We can’t be cut. We can’t be traded. This is IT.’
“ ‘But look around you, man, and tell the guy next to you love him, because the fact is, somebody’s not going to be here next year.’ ”
All part of a club, and a legacy, that the Chiefs were instrumental in forging to this point in so many ways.