Sunday, February 6, 2011

America's Team? Not the "Super" Hosts

Today, February 6, I would like to salute two genuine American heroes on their joint birthday.

One is a true American original, with a famous smile, with a sports background, loved by seemingly all, in spite of his excesses.

One is a different kind of true American original, who told it like it was, and I saw him on television just about every day in the 1980s, often from the White House.

I speak, of course, of George Herman Ruth Jr., born February 6, 1895 in Baltimore, Maryland -- and died August 16, 1948 in New York City -- and Thomas John Brokaw, born February 6, 1940 in Webster, South Dakota.

Of course, I was talking about Babe Ruth and Tom Brokaw. Who did you think I was referring to, a man born 100 years ago today, who started out poor, became quite old and sick, and spent much of his public life picking on the poor, the old and the sick, sent our nation's unemployment rate to 11 percent (still the highest it's been since 1940), destroyed our manufacturing base (more on that in a moment), and ultimately sold weapons to the Ayatollahs of Iran, Saddam Hussein of Iraq, and the "insurgents" who went on to become al-Qaeda and the Taliban?

On this, the 100th Anniversary of his birth, I have the perfect gift in mind for Ronald Reagan: A retroactive impeachment. He wasn't a great President, or even a good one. He just played one on TV.


But today is also Super Sunday, the day the Super Bowl is to be played. It will be played at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, a short walk from Rangers Ballpark and Six Flags over Texas, about halfway between Dallas and Forth Worth.

Dalas Cowboy fans, and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, were pretty sure that this was the season in which the Cowboys would become the first team ever to play in the Super Bowl in their own stadium.

It's never happened. On 2 occasions, a team has played in the Super Bowl in its own metropolitan area, but not its own stadium:

1980: The Los Angeles Rams played in Super Bowl XIV, not in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum -- or in Anaheim Stadium, to which they were about to move -- but at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. Despite being virtually a home team, they lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

1985: The San Francisco 49ers played in Super Bowl XIX, not in Candlestick Park, but in Stanford Stadium, down the Peninsula in Palo Alto. The virtual home-field advantage is not the reason they won, however: They won because Joe Montana showed Dan Marino the difference between a passer (Marino) and a quarterback (Montana). It also helped the 49ers that they were able to force Marino to spend pretty much the whole game with the 49ers' "Gold Rush" defense, especially the late Gary "Big Hands" Johnson, in his face. The 49ers easily beat the Miami Dolphins.

For a long time, nearly every Super Bowl was played in 1 of 3 metropolitan areas: Los Angeles, Miami and New Orleans. To this day, every one has been played either in a traditionally warm-weather city or under a dome, or both. That will remain true until Super Sunday 2014, when the game will be played at the new Meadowlands Stadium, right here in New Jersey.

Instead of thinking through the Roman numerals, I'm going to list the calendar years in which said Super Bowls were played.

Los Angeles: Hosted in 1967 and 1973 at the Coliseum, and in 1977, 1980, 1983, 1987 and 1993 at the Rose Bowl. The Rams got there in 1980, the Raiders in 1984 (during their Al Davis-imposed 13-year "exile" from Oakland). The very thing preventing the L.A. from getting a new NFL team, the lack of a modern stadium (the Rose Bowl hosted its 1st game in 1922, the Coliseum the next year, Anaheim is now baseball-only, and none of them has "sufficient luxury-box capacity") is also what prevents it from hosting another Super Bowl, even though it hosted 6 of the 1st 25.

Miami: Hosted in 1968, 1969, 1971, 1976 and 1979 at the Orange Bowl; and in 1989, 1995, 1999, 2007 and 2010 at the Dolphins' new stadium, currently named Sun Life Stadium. The Dolphins have played in the Super Bowl in 1972, 1973, 1974, 1983 and 1985. Wow, has it really been over a quarter of a century since the Dolphins made it? In fact, in 26 years they've been to a grand total of 1 AFC Championship Game, in 1993, and they lost to the Buffalo Bills despite being the home team.

New Orleans: Hosted in 1970 1972 and 1975 at Tulane Stadium (a.k.a. the Sugar Bowl); and in 1978, 1981, 1986, 1990, 1997, 2002 at the Louisiana Superdome. The Saints were one of the NFL's most woeful franchises, but finally made it in 2010 -- not at the Superdome. In spite of the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Superdome became a functioning sports facility again in time for the 2006 season, and will host the Super Bowl again in 2013.

Houston: Hosted in 1974 at Rice Stadium (it had 10,000 more seats than the Astrodome) and 2004 at Reliant Stadium (hello, Janet Jackson). Although the Oilers won the AFL Championship in 1960 and 1961, and got to the AFC Championship Game in 1978 and 1979 (running smack into the Steel Curtain at Three Rivers both times), they never reached a Super Bowl before moving to become the Tennessee Titans, and the Texans haven't even reached the Playoffs yet.

Detroit: Hosted in 1982 at the Silverdome in Pontiac, and in 2006 at Ford Field downtown. The Lions haven't been in an NFL Championship Game, under any name, since December 1957. Their only NFC Championship Game was in January 1992, when they got throttled by the Washington Redskins.

Tampa: Hosted in 1984 and 1991 at Tampa Stadium, and in 2001 and 2009 at Raymond James Stadium. The Buccaneers were long a joke franchise, but finally made and won a Super Bowl in 2003, although that wasn't in Tampa.

San Francisco: Hosted in 1985 at Stanford Stadium. The 49ers made it in 1982, 1985, 1989, 1990 and 1995. The Oakland version of the Raiders made it in 1968, 1977, 1981 and 2003. They won't host again until the 49ers build a new stadium, because Candlestick Park is a joke, and both Stanford Stadium and Memorial Stadium at the University of California in Berkeley, while among the best college football stadiums, are both old and don't have those precioussss luxury boxes.

San Diego: Hosted in 1988, 1998 and 2003 at Jack Murphy Stadium (a.k.a. Qualcomm Stadium). The Chargers have made it only once, in 1995 (although they did win the AFL Championship in 1963). In spite of the traditionally magnificent weather -- although on the day of Super Bowl XXII, it was actually warmer in one of the playing cities, Washington -- until the Chargers get a new stadium, San Diego is not hosting another Super Bowl.

Minneapolis: Hosted in 1992 at the Metrodome. The Vikings have made it in 1970, 1973, 1974 and 1977. Suffice it to say that, even if the Vikes do manage to get their act together and reach another Super Bowl (they're 0-4 in NFC Championship Games since Super Bowl XI, losing the last 2 in overtime), it will not be at the Metrodome.

Atlanta: Hosted in 1994, 2000 at the Georgia Dome. The Falcons have made it only once, in 1999.

Jacksonville: Hosted in 2005 at the Jaguars' stadium, currently named EverBank Field. The Jaguars have been to 2 AFC Championship Games, but never a Super Bowl.

Phoenix: Hosted in 1996 at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe (home of Arizona State University) and in 2008 at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale. The Cardinals, in any city, have only been to one Super Bowl, in 2006, although building that new stadium and energizing their fan base has revitalized a joke franchise. Nobody laughs at the Arizona Cardinals anymore, and it would be a surprise, but not a shock, to see them become the first team ever to play in a Super Bowl in their own stadium... although next season's will be at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, so the Colts might get there first.

Dallas: Hosting the Super Bowl today. The Cowboys have made it in 1971, 1972, 1976, 1978, 1979, 1993, 1994 and 1995 -- 8 times, a record until it is tied tonight by the Steelers. But they never hosted it at the Cotton Bowl on the East Side of Dallas or Texas Stadium in Irving. They had already moved into Texas Stadium by the time the first few were played, but because of the organization's plan for what are now known as personal seat licenses (PSL), necessary to build the Hole Bowl, meaning the holders of those seats would not give them up for any event in the stadium, under any circumstances, the NFL never gave a Super Bowl to Dallas until the Jerrydome was built. Teams have now realized that mistake: Any stadium built with PSLs, including the new Meadowlands Stadium, have a Super Bowl exception.


Yes, the Cowboys and their fans were sure this was the year -- season, whatever. But no, they had a disastrous start to the 2010 season, and changed coaches in midstream -- and got better. Just not enough to make the Playoffs.

Who is in Super Bowl XLV?

The Green Bay Packers. Not quite the oldest franchise in the NFL, although they are the one with the most NFL Championships. This is one of the things that pisses me off about Cowboy fans: They think that any titles won before it became "the Super Bowl" don't count. So they think the count is Steelers 6, Cowboys 5, 49ers 5... and, included among the remainders, Packers 3, the New York Giants 3, and the Washington Redskins (their arch-rivals) 2.

Wrong. The Redskins have won 5. The Giants have won 7. The Chicago Bears have won 9. And the Packers have won 12. They won in 1929, 1930, 1931, 1936, 1939 and 1944 under Earl "Curly" Lambeau. They won in 1961, 1962, 1965, 1966 and 1967 under Vince Lombardi. Lambeau and Lombardi each won one of the only two sets of 3 straight NFL Championships ever. Lombardi's 3, including the first 2 Super Bowls, are the only occasion on which a team has won 3 straight World Championship Games, under any name. (Unless you think the Buffalo Bills would have beaten the Packers for the 1965-66 title.) And Mike Holmgren led them to the 1996 NFL Championship, including Super Bowl XXXI in January 1997.

The Packers play in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Not Milwaukee, a city of about 600,000 and a metropolitan area of 2 million, but Green Bay, which has only about 100,000 people and a "metropolitan area" of about 300,000. By far, the smallest city in any of North America's 4 major league sports. And while the entire State of Wisconsin, including Milwaukee, claims the Packers as their team, they are a team that brings to mind images of small-town America, of community, of people coming together to support a civic institution that has done well by them.

Lambeau, at a time when the team was going bankrupt, found a way to keep the franchise going by making it the only publicly-held team in the NFL. No one person "owns the Green Bay Packers." About 2,000 people do, with a team president, general manager and head coach to run the franchise.

Lombardi, becoming the 1st iconic pro football coach of the television era, made the Packers a symbol of American competence and a symbol of American excellence. In other words, Vince Lombardi wanted to make his team one that was great because it was good, because it did things right.

If you had said to Lombardi, "Take care of the pennies, and the dollars will take care of themselves," he might have said something like, "That's right. If you get enough first downs, you'll score a touchdown just as much as if you threw a long pass to get it on one play, and you'll control the clock more, too." Lombardi was about doing things right. He was a believer that "practice makes perfect," and he wasn't a braggart: He'd tell you that the reason his team won was because they earned it, through hard work and character.

He is also credited with coining the phrase, "Winning isn't everything, but it's the only thing." In fact, that phrase goes back to 1950 and UCLA coach Red Sanders. Lombardi was also quoted as saying, "I wish I'd never said that. What I meant was, trying to win, giving your best, is the only thing."

Because of the Packers' success, Green Bay has been nicknamed Titletown. And when the Packers won Super Bowl XXXI, to win the Vince Lombardi Trophy, people around the Packers said the trophy was coming home. It was hard to argue that.

Unless you root for...

The Pittsburgh Steelers. From their founding in 1933 until 1971, the Steelers ranged from good but disappointing to absolutely pathetic. But in 1969, team founder and owner Art Rooney began to cede some control to his sons. Art Rooney was a good man who treated people decently, was devoted to his family, to his faith, to the city of Pittsburgh, and to the National Football League, in that order. He loved football. But he did not know how to build a winner. Dan Rooney and Art Rooney Jr. did.

Dan and Art Jr. hired Chuck Noll as their coach. Through the NFL Draft, and almost totally through the draft -- no free agency in those days, and hardly any trades, either -- they built a team that stands alongside Lombardi's edition of the Packers as one of the best in NFL history. Whereas Lombardi took a bunch of guys who had talent but no discipline and no direction, and molded them into winners, Noll took guys who had talent and only needed a chance, and, just as much as Lombardi did, convinced them that they could win, not just for themselves, but for a city that needed a winner.

For Pittsburgh, as people knew it, was dying. The steel and coal industries were shrinking. The 1970s were bad. The 1980s would be worse, partly due to the economic policies of Ronald Reagan, favoring big business and all but killing America's manufacturing base, and also all but killing America's labor unions, including the United Steel Workers of America and the United Mine Workers. No one yet knew that the 1990s would be good for Pittsburgh, as the city became a technology, healthcare and banking center, bringing jobs back, letting the sons and daughters of those men who lost their steel and coal industry jobs build their own lives. In the Seventies and Eighties, such an idea would have been considered a cruel fantasy.

Today, the city of Pittsburgh has just 300,000 people, aside from Green Bay the smallest in the NFL, and the smallest in Major League Baseball. The metro area, however, has a good-sized 2.4 million. Nevertheless, it remains a "small market." As a result, the baseball Pirates haven't won a World Series or even a Pennant since 1979, and haven't reached the Playoffs or even had a winning season since 1992. The hockey Penguins almost had to move twice, and were apparently inches away from moving to Kansas City in 2006. But former star Mario Lemieux, due to his contract the team's biggest creditor, was made the owner. Today, the Penguins have a new arena and recently won their 3rd Stanley Cup. (The Pirates have 5 World Series wins, but none since the Disco Period.)

But the Steelers! Either the Pirates or the Steelers were in the Playoffs of their sport in every year of the Seventies, and in 4 of those 10 years -- 1972, 1974, 1975 and 1979 -- both were. The Pirates were World Champions in 1971 and 1979. The Steelers finally reached the Playoffs in 1972, and the fans responded with a joy that suggested a great weight had been lifted off their weary, mill/mine/factory-bearing shoulders. The Steelers won championships in the seasons of 1974, 1975, 1978 and 1979, and the city loved them the way the Borough of Brooklyn used to love the Dodgers -- perhaps more than any other city has ever loved any other team.

Broadcaster Myron Cope created their symbol, a yellow dishrag with black lettering, the Terrible Towel. It's an amazing sight, those 60,000 yellow towels swirling around Three Rivers Stadium in those film clips, and around Heinz Field today.

The teams reflected the city. Hard work -- when you could get it. Sweat. Blood. Producing needed things like steel and coal... and things you didn't realize you needed until you got them, like sports victories. The Pirates, due to their heavy hitting, were first known as the Lumber Company; then, led by slugging 1st baseman and Captain Willie Stargell, a.k.a. "Pops," they were called "The Family," at a time when vocal group Sister Sledge came out with the disco smash "We Are Family." (Nobody seemed to care that the next line was, "I got all my sisters and me" -- not "my brothers.") The words "THE FAMILY," in the same font the Pirates used to letter their uniforms, were even printed on top of the home dugout at Three Rivers Stadium. Hard work and family: That was Western Pennsylvania, and that was the 1970s Pittsburgh Pirates.

The Steelers? Even more so. Instead of the Iron Curtain, they were the Steel Curtain. That defense... Mean Joe Greene. Jack Lambert, who was considered too small to be a pro linebacker, but turned out to be the best linebacker of the decade, and had an attitude Greene himself had to describe as follows: "He's so mean, he don't even like himself." Lambert's front-toothless scowl became as much a symbol of the Steelers as anything else. Dwight White, whose nickname was Mad Dog. L.C. Greenwood, he who was so tough, he didn't need a name, much less a nickname, just initials. Mel Blount, the cornerback with a lot of hair, all of it on his jaw, his head topped by a big black bald scalp, and one hell of a scowl in between. (Thankfully, except for Lambert, all of these men were nice guys off the field.)

And while the defense was ugly and mean but efficient, the offense was beautiful. Quarterback Terry Bradshaw, who so badly struggled with confidence issues early in his career, directed a spectacular attack that featured 2 Hall of Fame wide receivers, Lynn Swann and John Stallworth. The white hick from the Southern State of Louisiana had no trouble throwing the ball to these 2 black men. And then there was Franco Harris: Half-black, half-Italian, from Mount Holly, South Jersey, who would rush for over 12,000 yards and be the MVP of Super Bowl IX, the Steelers' 1st championship.

An Italian-American family that ran a Pittsburgh bakery, and their neighborhood friends, decided to honor Harris by wearing army helmets, bringing their baked goods, Italian specialties, and Italian wine into Three Rivers, and hanging a banner that identified them as "Franco's Italian Army."

In spite of this sickening reference to 1930s fascism (Francisco Franco was still alive and still dictator of Spain until 1975, after all), this caught on: Fans from Pittsburgh's large Polish community honored linebacker Jack Ham was the Dobre Shunka Fan Club -- "Dobre Shunka" being Polish for "Good Ham." The team's tight end had "Randy Grossman's Jewish Marines." Franco's Italian Army soon had Irish (with a banner calling him "Franc O'Harris") and black, therefore, "Ethiopian," brigades.

And since a lot of the Steelers' stars were black, they became a team that united all groups in the city. No matter what race, ethnicity, religion or economic group you belonged to, no matter what you were from Monday through Saturday, on Sunday (and sometimes on Monday night), you were accepted as a Steeler fan.

In October 1979, when the Pirates won the Series, and the Steelers were defending Super Bowl Champions, Pittsburgh began calling itself The City of Champions. Who could doubt it? That same month, the Penguins began a new season in which they abandoned their former colors of blue and gold and put on new uniforms of black and gold, the same colors as the Pirates and the Steelers. (It didn't work: They didn't win their first Cup until 1991.) In December 1979, Sports Illustrated named Stargell and Bradshaw its Sportsmen of the Year.


Both the Packers and the Steelers, in their own ways, have come to symbolize an America that often seems lost, but sometimes returns. Because the Packers were the great team of the Sixties, and the Steelers that of the Seventies, they became touchstones for the Baby Boomers. Like the Cowboys (and also the Raiders and the Dolphins), they had long stretches of winning that got them long stretches of TV exposure, which combined to give them a lot of fans all over the country, far from their home bases, and they retain these nationwide followings to this day.

And yet, for all the successes of each team, this is the 1st time the Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers have ever faced each other in an NFL Championship Game, let alone one under the Super Bowl name.

What if we could get Lombardi's Pack to play Noll's Steel Curtain? What a game that would be. Can Bart Starr, Jim Taylor and Paul Hornung survive an assault by Greene, Greenwood, Lambert and Ham? Can Bradshaw and Harris survive an assault by Willie Davis and Ray Nitschke? Can Max McGee and Boyd Dowler outrun Blount and Donnie Shell? Can Swann and Stallworth outrun Herb Adderley and Willie Wood?

The Packers. The Steelers. Each has a better claim to being "America's Team" than the Cowboys. And each gained its greatest fame by beating the Cowboys: The Packers in the 1966 NFL Championship Game at the Cotton Bowl, and then in the 1967 edition at Lambeau Field, the Ice Bowl; the Steelers by beating the Cowboys in Super Bowls X and XIII.

Seeing those 2 teams going at it inside their own stadium? What could gall the Cowboys and their fans more? Maybe the other Texas team, the Houston Texans, playing the Cowboys' rivals, the Washington Redskins.


So who am I rooting for? Neither. I like both the Packers and the Steelers. I don't really have a stake in who wins this one. It would be good if either won.

Who do I think will win? The Packers have a good team, but the Steelers have the edge in experience. Nearly everybody on this team was there when they won 2 years ago, and most were there when they won 5 years ago. The Steelers know how to win at this level; the Packers, as yet, do not. Steelers 24, Packers 14.

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