To fans born in the modern era of $500 tickets and mega-star halftime shows, it seems unfathomable. If you wanted to attend the first Super Bowl, all you had to do was walk up to the ticket window on game day. The Los Angeles Coliseum wasn’t even close to sold out. But then, the game was still a couple of years from being commonly called the Super Bowl.
“When we came out, the AFL was the stupid stepchild of professional football and the NFL at that time was bad mouthing it, saying how it was bad for football,” Dawson said during an appearance in Evansville, IN Thursday night. “It took a couple of years to say to ourselves ‘why is it bad? More jobs for players? More jobs for coaches and other people who make up a football team’?”
The growth of pro football’s title game in the 40 years since amazes the man who played in what was then called “The NFL-AFL World Championship game”. Dawson never had an inkling it would be anything more than a curiosity. “No way. Never imagined it. It’s such an event, an extravaganza now. I had no idea. It was great just for us to finally get recognized.”
Dawson and Starr share two notable accomplishments. One is their membership in the Hall of Fame, highlighted by Super Bowl victories. The other is their unique place in history as the first quarterbacks to play in a Super Bowl. “That’s a nice bond,” Starr said. “One thing I was disappointed about was that the Chiefs were never given their due credit in that first Super Bowl. We recognized when we were preparing for the game, just how good they were. Players and coaches knew and just a few short years later, they had their moment in the sun when they beat Minnesota in Super Bowl IV.”
Packers’ coach Vince Lombardi knew his league’s four-decade reputation was on the line. “He wasn’t really nervous,” Starr said. “He was just trying to let us know we were representing the prestige of the NFL. There was great pride. He didn’t want us to take that for granted. We were the league’s first representative in that game.”
The two Hall of Famers are still active as they move into the role of NFL senior citizens. The 72 year-old Starr keeps busy with business interests, autograph signings, speeches and keeping up with his old team.
Dawson is 71 and still a sportscaster for a Kansas City television station, a job he took while still playing just to make a better living. “I’d get done with practice around 5:30, then hustle over to the TV station to do the 6 o’clock sports,” he laughed. “Back then we were shooting film. They processed everything all three stations had at one place in town and if it didn’t leave the station by 4:30, you had to wait until the 10 o’clock newscast because it couldn’t be developed in time.”
Thursday night’s appearance was entitled “Tackling Prostate Cancer”, an awareness program held by the Evansville Cancer Center. $100 tickets entitled donors to one autograph from each quarterback as well as food, drinks and a special program. The annual event brings sports stars to the city to help focus attention on the need for preventative screenings. The cause is important to Dawson. At age 55, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer.
“It’s a silent killer,” Dawson told Sports Collectors Daily. “I was 55 years old when I found out I had prostate cancer and I was thinking ‘you’ve got to be kidding me!’. I went thru 19 years of pro football. I felt great. I’d had a physical probably ten months prior to finding out I had cancer and it was a complete shock. But just becuase you feel good doesn’t mean you don’t have it. I’ve been all over the country talking to people and telling them early detection is the key and I’m a walking example of that.”
Dawson played in a small market, but his success on the field and national broadcasting career with NBC and HBO actually increased his recognition among fans and collectors. “I never have understood it,” Dawson said of his fame. “I was just a player who tried to do the best I could. There’s so much media covering sports now..more than when I was playing. There were no live remotes. When money gets involved, it has a way of changing things.”
Starr’s star rose with the arrival of Lombardi in 1959. “When coach Lombardi came to Green Bay, he got us all together for his first meeting and he said ‘gentlemen, we are going to relentlessly chase perfection, knowing full well we are never going to attain it. However, if we chase perfection, along the way we will catch excellence. I am not remotely interested in just being good.” The Packers responded and won five NFL titles before their coach left town.
Starr ended his career in 1971, then turned to coaching himself, first as an assistant to Dan Devine, then as head coach in 1974. His tenure in the 1980s wasoften tenuous and sometimes stormy. He couldn’t get the Packers into the playoffs and never coached again upon his release in the late 1970s. Packer fans, however, still carry a torch for the man who led Lombardi’s teams to such legendary heights in the 1960s. He continues to follow the game from his home in Birmingham, AL, with a special fondness for current Packers’ quarterback, Brett Favre.
“I hope Brett is given ten more good guys around him this year. I’m hoping they’ve given him a better offensive group and that the defense it improved. One guy can not do it. When you give him a team, look out because he is still something else.”
Starr, too, couldn’t have imagined the lofty heights the league would later attain with fans and the billions of dollars associated with today’s game. “I’m blown away with the things that have happened over the years. I enjoy watching it. I’m proud to be identified with it and be one of the NFL alumni.”
Starr was a guest at this year’s National Sports Collectors Convention and wherever he signs, he often insists on personalizing the signature to avoid those who would re-sell for a profit. He is still stopped in public by fans seeking his autograph or just a handshake. “It’s an honor for me. Some youngster walks up, you know he’s there for his Dad or Mom but it’s a pleasure to be recognized when you’re a dinosaur.”
Both clearly enjoy the other’s company and their place in history. “Bart is a great guy,” the former Purdue All-American stated. “I always enjoy being with him because he’s such a great gentleman. He’s concerned with the welfare of people and how to improve their quality of life.” Starr echoed those thoughts. “Len is one of the finest men I’ve ever known. I always enjoy being around him.”