A long, long time ago, I can still remember how that music used to make me smile ... and I knew if I had my chance, I could make those people dance, and maybe they'd be happy for awhile ... - Don McLean, American Pie
A long, long time ago, Lamar Hunt had an idea that would make millions of people smile ... for starters he was one of the founders of hte American Football League. A few years later, Hunt had the idea that the AFL was ready compete with the NFL, and so arose the idea for a Championship Game between the two leagues. That, of course, begged the question: What do you call a game between two competing leagues? The answer, as provided by Hunt himself, was an idea spawned by a child's toy ... to be precise, a hard rubber ball. The Superball, from Wham-O.
So come on kids, hop into the Wayback Machine with me, buckle your seat belts and hold on. Let's revisit some history. Some history with, as you'll see later, a bit of a twist. Shall we ...
An old story, a familiar story, and a true story. But the game's "super" title didn't kick in for a few years, although it was eventually made not only official, but retroactive, complete with Roman Numerals. In fact, it was originally billed as the World Championship Game, AFL vs NFL. The best from the both leagues.
Of course, not many gave the Chiefs much hope of winning that game. The NFL had been around for years, while the fledgeling AFL had been in existence only since 1960, a mere blink of an eye. Indeed, many skeptics of the AFL felt that not only could they not win, but that even the best AFL team was no match for for even an average NFL team.
Coming into this first game, there was considerable animosity between the two rival leagues, with both of them putting pressure on their respective champions to trounce the other and prove each league's dominance in professional football. Still, many sports writers and fans believed that the game was a mismatch, and that any team from the long-established NFL was far superior to the best team from the upstart AFL.
But the AFL wasn't about to be intimidated, and thus the game was on. January 15, 1967 at the old Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The AFL Champion Kansas City Chiefs vs The NFL Champion Green Bay Packers. Two legendary coaches in Hank Stram and Vince Lombardi. And at the Coliseum, a cavernous stadium with seating capacity for just over 100,000, it was sure to be the most fantastic spectacle ever created by man. A guaranteed instant winner and an obvious sellout. Right?
The two teams played with their respective footballs from each league. The Chiefs used the AFL ball by Spalding, the Packers played with the NFL ball by Wilson. The game was telecast by both CBS and NBC, which owned the rights to the NFL and AFL games respectively. Yet, only a few more than 60,000 fans showed up to watch the game in person, perhaps due to the high ticket price of $12. This despite blackout rules being enforced and the entire Los Angeles TV market being left unable to watch the game.
Coaches were nervous. Players were nervous. But the whistle blew and the opening kickoff ensued. The result was a first-half of superbly played football from both teams, and a halftime score of 14-10 with the Packers in the lead. What happened in the second half, of course, is history, as the Pack slowly pulled away from the Chiefs. The Packers held the Chiefs scoreless in the second half, and after a late-third-quarter TD pass to little-used Max McGee put the game pretty much out of reach, the Packers coasted in the fourth quarter and iced the game with and Elijah Pitts 1-yard TD run.
But that's not quite the whole story ... you see, while the Chiefs opening drive of the second half was indeed stopped by a Packers interception at midfield, that was only the OFFICIAL opening second-half kickoff. There was another, previous kickoff that the Chiefs returned to midfield to begin with, but it was wiped out because of a technical difficulty. Not a clock malfunction, not an offcial error. Television.
... at the start of the second half, the Chiefs received the opening kickoff and returned it for good field position, around midfield. However, NBC did not return in time from a halftime break for the start of the second half. Ironically, the AFL network missed the first kickoff and return, and the Chiefs were forced to receive another "official" kickoff, this one being stopped around the Chiefs' twenty. They then advanced the ball to their own 49-yard line, but were intercepted, a play that turned the game around. Professional Football pundits to this day wonder what the game's outcome would have been, had the first kickoff return not been expunged from history.
Would it have mattered? Would the Chiefs have scored on that opening drive? Might they actually have knocked off the perennial NFL poweerhouse Green Bay Packers? Perhaps, perhaps not ... like the questions about the Grassy Knoll, it's destined to remain one of life's unsolved mysteries. There's no question, though, that after the glitch, the Packers dominated the Chiefs, and did the same a year later in Super Bowl II against the Oakland Raiders. Oh, the AFL would have revenge, of course: the Jets in Super Bowl III and the Chiefs in Super Bowl IV, the final game before the two leagues offcially merged. And a nice, final touch to the story: for years the game was embedded only in the minds of those who attended the game. No footage of the game had even been found, aside from a few short sideline clips. No footage until recently, that is.
In a bizarre confluence of events, neither network preserved a tape. All that survived of this broadcast is sideline footage shot by NFL Films and roughly 30 seconds of footage CBS included in a pre-game show for Super Bowl XXV ... HBO executive Rick Bernstein, who produced a two-part history of sports television in 1991, is one of many who have searched for a tape. He says his team chased numerous leads, from a reported copy in Cuba to rumors that Hugh Hefner might have recorded the game on a videotape machine in the Playboy Mansion. Nothing turned up. "It's the holy grail," Mr. Bernstein says.
The long search may finally be over. The Paley Center for Media in New York, which had searched for the game footage for some time, has restored what it believes to be a genuine copy of the CBS broadcast. The 94-minute tape, which has never been shown to the public, was donated to the center by its owner in return for having it restored. It was originally recorded on bulky two-inch video and had been stored in an attic in Pennsylvania for nearly 38 years, the Paley Center says.
Ron Simon, a curator at the Paley Center, said the center's archivists had issued "most-wanted" lists in the past for lost tapes it coveted, and the Super Bowl I broadcast was always on them. Mr. Simon says the sequence of plays shown, the announcers and graphics that appear and the general look of the production leave no doubt that the tape is real. "I've seen faked games before, and this is not one," he says.
Mr. Simon likens the tape's emergence to the center's discovery of lost episodes of "The Honeymooners." "This is one of the great finds," he says.
A great find, indeed. The owner of the tape donated it to the Paley Center in exchange for their promise to have it restored, a promise that was kept to the extent possible. The game is now a long, lost treasure found at last. But for Chiefs fans, there will always remain the question of "The Lost Kickoff Return." As we head into the final preseason game against the Packers, Chiefs fans can look back, and even though we "officially" lost the game, we can always wonder ...
"What if ... ?"