LSU teammates had no idea what their inaugural title matchup would become
By MARTY MULÉ
Tiger Rag Featured Columnist
Over the course of 47 seasons it has become the high, holy days of American sports. Thousands of words . . . no, hundreds of thousands of words, have been used to describe this spectacle hypnotizing millions of Americans: the Super Bowl.
Jimmy Taylor says simply, “It was just another game on our schedule.”
Johnny Robinson says the words that comes to his mind are “humiliation” and “vindication.”
They were there, on the field, at the first one, before it was even called the “Super Bowl.”
In 1967, when Taylor and his Green Bay Packers teammates lined up against Robinson and his Kansas City Chiefs teammates, the game went by the ponderous title of the “AFL-NFL World Championship.” There were no Roman numerals; tickets, which now can cost thousands, were priced at $12, $8, and $6, and those were a hard sell. The game drew 61,946 in a stadium that held 97,500.
It was definitely a different time in the sports culture of America.
And here were these old LSU Tigers - each with superior athletic skills - who once played in the same college backfield for a .500 club - major headliners on their respective championship pro clubs. Taylor would become the first Packer of the Vince Lombardi era to be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Robinson was later recognized as pro football’s premier safety in the decade of the 1960s.
When they were playing in the same LSU backfield in the 1957 season, along with Billy Cannon, the Tigers went 5-5-0, though through no fault of Taylor, who made All-American. He led the nation in scoring with 86 points and the SEC in rushing with 762 yards. A year later Robinson and Cannon were parts of an national championship LSU team. By then Taylor was gone to the frozen tundra of Wisconsin.
Now, a decade later, these friends, though they didn’t know it at the time, were playing for bragging rights for the rest of pro football history.
“Really, of course we knew it had some importance,” Taylor said. “It was the first game between our league (the NFL) and the (relatively new) American Football League, and we wanted to win because of that. But in the end I think the players saw it simply as another football game we had to play - and win.”
It was a little more than that to the NFL and its owners, who wanted their representative to crush the opponent from the upstart seven-year-old AFL who dared challenge their football monopoly. There was pressure on the Packers, NFL champions four of the previous six seasons, and their coach, Vince Lombardi. Green Bay guard Fuzzy Thurston remembered decades later, “Vince told us we were representing the whole league, that we couldn’t let our peers down. He read us a few telegrams. I remember one from (Chicago Bears owner/coach) George Halas, another from (New York Giants owner) Wellington Mara. They all said pretty much the same thing: ‘Go out there and show those (AFL) clowns who’s boss.’”
Lombardi was feeling the pressure. Before the game, in the Coliseum tunnel before kickoff, broadcaster Frank Gifford recalled interviewing the coach. “During the five minutes or so we talked,” Gifford recalled later, “he held onto me and he was shaking like a leaf. It was incredible.”
In his zeal to stamp the NFL as the head-and-shoulder giant of pro football, he branded the AFL “a Mickey Mouse league,” a stinging insult that stayed with the Chiefs - and their AFL compatriots - long afterward.
“I know, and even understand, why he did it,” Robinson says, “but it hurt. We all, every player on both teams, came from the same talent pool, me and Jimmy from the same college backfield. Why would anyone think that once we all went to different pro teams that one group would suddenly be so much more talented than the ones who went elsewhere?”
Coached by the innovative and resourceful Hank Stram, the Chiefs, and, by extension, the AFL saw the Super Bowl as an opportunity to prove they belonged on the same field with the behemoths of the NFL.
* * *
The image of Jimmy Taylor playing football is one of a small bull churning his way up-field with would-be tacklers bouncing off his sturdy legs of steel - the result of a hard childhood and an unwavering work ethic. His tremendous leg muscles were developed with two paper routes - one in the morning and one in the afternoon - bicycling what he estimated to be “a million miles” for three dollars a week to help his widowed mother. Those legs, and awesome athletic talents, could have taken his to the top of many sports.
“Jim could have played anything and been good at it,” Bat Gourrier, once the track and field coach at Baton Rouge High reflected long after Taylor had gone on to his All-Pro career. “If you stick a tennis racquet in his hand, he would have been great. If someone bought him a set of (golf) clubs, he could outdo you in that, too. He was just a natural athlete.”
So much so, he became a hellacious backcourt player. “The first time I remember noticing Jimmy Taylor was when he played basketball,” said Ted Castillo, the former prep editor of The Baton Rouge Advocate. “He was an outstanding player and had a certain touch in his shooting.”
At 5-feet-11, 212 pounds, Taylor made state history when he became the first athlete to play in both the Louisiana All-Star football and basketball games.
Coming along a couple of years later, Robinson was an incredibly versatile athlete. At University High, he was a good football player, a tennis champion, a 30-points-per-game basketball guard, and a .500 hitter on his American Legion team.
At LSU, coached by his father, Dub Robinson, in the football off-season Johnny played tennis, winning an SEC singles title in the spring of ‘58, and teaming with his brother Tommy in winning the SEC doubles championship the next year.
In football, however, he was always the “other halfback,” overshadowed by the presence of Cannon, a two-time All-American and the 1959 Heisman Trophy recipient. It was a cliché around Louisiana whenever his name was mentioned to say that Robinson at any other school, would have been a runaway All-American.
His coach, Paul Dietzel, concurs to this day. “He really might have been a Heisman winner himself,” Dietzel says. “Very few athletes are as gifted Johnny Robinson was.”
As a pro, Robinson retired with 57 career interceptions, a total which still ranks in the top 12 of all-time. Hank Stram always strongly felt Robinson deserved to be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
* * *
It’s an unavoidable fact that Super Bowl lore tells the story that first touchdown was scored by Max McGee, an aging backup receiver from Tulane who didn’t expect to play that day had been out carousing all night through with a blonde.
But when starter Boyd Dowler left with a chronic back problem, the nearly comatose McGee was sent in.
At 34, McGee had played sparingly throughout the season, catching only four passes. “I didn’t have much left, but there was one play I could still run and that was the quick slant. Bart knew it, so he audibled to it once we got into Kansas City territory.”
With Green Bay at the KC 37, McGee worked past a cornerback, then caught Starr’s pass at the 23 and strolled the rest of the way to the end zone for the historic touchdown.
In 1985, when he was inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, McGee was asked if the blonde was worth the long sleep-deprived afternoon he endured. His answer was an emphatic: “You bet!”
The Chiefs answered with Curtis McClinton scoring a tying TD on a seven-yard pass from Lenny Dawson. Then, on the next series, Green Bay methodically drove 73 yards. Once the Packers got to the 14, Starr called for a power sweep, and guards Thurston and Kramer led Taylor into the end zone. Chandler’s kick made in 14-7, Green Bay.
No one knew it at the time, but school was out for the Chiefs.
“That touchdown did more than just put us ahead. It put us on the way to victory,” Phil Bengtson, the Packers defensive coach, said afterward.
It was the first rushing touchdown in Super Bowl history, but Taylor said he had no particular thoughts about that.
“They called a power play,” he said, “and I ran it.”
At that point the Chiefs were playing even with Green Bay, and they would kick a field goal to go into halftime trailing just 14-10, though Kansas City outgained the Packers 183-165.
All those good feelings would dissipate early in the second half when Willie Wood intercepted Dawson and returned the ball to the KC 5 where Green Bay scored to go ahead 21-10.
From there it was a matter of how much the Packer margin would be.
“When that happened,” Robinson said, “everything changed. Now our game plan was different, and they knew it. Green Bay knew we had to pass, they started blitzing more.”
The final was 35-10. The pressure was off the NFL. Lombardi’s Pack had delivered.
“It was mortifying,” Robinson said. “We were insulted by that ‘Mickey Mouse League’ stuff, and now we couldn’t even answer. We lost like most of the critics said we would. We could only pray we’d get another chance.”
* * *
Four years later, the Super Bowl cover of Sports Illustrated showed Robinson sitting on the damp Tulane Stadium turf with a finger pointed to the skies and clutching the ball, a fumble he had just recovered.
The Chiefs - and AFL - got their second crack at the NFL, and made the most of it.
In a game that was a turning point of modern pro football, the two-touchdown underdog Chiefs matriculated their way to a thorough 23-7 “upset” of the Minnesota Vikings. Coming as it did a year after the New York Jets’ stunning victory over the Baltimore Colts, this one more than put the old American Football League on an equal footing with the National Football League.
KC’s victory was a decisive haymaker, putting the two leagues at 2-2 in Super Bowls in the final game of the decade-long war between the pro leagues before their merger.
“The thing about it,” Stram said later, “was we didn’t have to go hat in hand, as second-class citizens, into the NFL. We went in as equals, and that was important.”
In plain words, despite the Jets’ upset the year before, the beat-down of the Vikings is what gave the AFL real credibility.
“While the New York Jets won Super Bowl III in part because Baltimore squandered so many scoring opportunities, the Chiefs in Super Bowl IV just flat out beat up the Vikings,” former NFL official Don Weiss wrote in his book, The Making of the Super Bowl.
Tex Maule of Sports Illustrated said he had trouble writing his story on the Jets’ shocker because he felt they were at least as lucky as they were good. He had no qualms giving full credit for the butt-kicking by the Chiefs, who held the Vikings to 67 yards rushing.
Ed Gruver of the Professional Football Researchers’ Association wrote: “To some, the Jets’ victory merely allowed the AFL to gain a foothold on the beachhead that was NFL supremacy. Many felt it wasn’t until the following year . . . that the AFL established equality with the NFL.”
Robinson, playing with three cracked ribs, had a hand in the dismembering of the feared “Purple People Eaters,” getting an interception and recovering the fumble in a game that never was really competitive.
“They were saying all the same things the NFL said before the first Super Bowl,” he recalled. “We didn’t belong on the field with the Vikings, that we played inferior football.
“I think we proved them wrong . . . to tell the truth, I felt vindicated.”
Marty Mule’ is a graduate of LSU Journalism and can be reached at MJM981two@charter.net.