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Super Bowl 50 marks landmark occasion for NFL's biggest stage

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Ben Liebenberg/NFL
Super Bowl 50 will be played at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California -- the first ticketless venue in the league.

It is always best when pondering the arc of Super Bowl history to refer to that iconic photo of Joe Namath, poolside in his beige plaid shorts, holding an impromptu press conference for a handful of writers at his Fort Lauderdale hotel.

That was Super Bowl III, not the first, but perhaps the most significant and still among the most memorable. For Namath's victory guarantee. For the staggering upset he delivered for the upstart AFL and the New York Jets over the establishment's NFL and the Baltimore Colts. And for the fact that, thanks in large part to Namath's heroics and outsize personality, the Super Bowl would never be that small and intimate again. When Namath ran off the field of the Orange Bowl, with his index finger wagging in the air, he was racing toward an NFL future that even a man who wore fur coats could never have fantasized would grow as rich and compelling as it has.

The NFL is taking a one-year break from using Roman numerals in the logo for Super Bowl 50.
The NFL is taking a one-year break from using Roman numerals in the logo for Super Bowl 50. (NFL.com)

When Super Bowl 50 -- the Roman numerals have officially been abandoned just this once -- alights on San Francisco next year, it will mark a landmark occasion for the NFL. A half-century of Super Bowls -- they were named that retroactively after I and II had already been played, when Commissioner Pete Rozelle finally embraced Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt's whimsical suggestion -- trace and reflect the explosive growth of the game from a time when Rozelle refused to use the media-created moniker: the World Series of Football.

"We are looking at plans to make it spectacular," Commissioner Roger Goodell told reporters before the site for Super Bowl 50 was even selected.

That the NFL would have so much to celebrate was not assured when its championship game was first played. Rozelle did not want his creation -- the championship match between the AFL and NFL -- to be linked to baseball in any way, and so that first game was somewhat verbosely called "The AFL-NFL World Championship Game."

Vince Lombardi's Packers beat Hank Stram's Chiefs 35-10 on Jan. 15, 1967, in front of fewer than 62,000 people at the 100,000-seat Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. That, of course, was not even close to a sellout. Just 338 media members received credentials to cover the game. Players on the Packers received a $15,000 bonus for winning; the Chiefs received $7,500.

Lombardi was unhappy that his team was staying in bucolic Santa Barbara. But the atmosphere around that first game was so relaxed compared with the tightly controlled preparations of today that one star of the game -- Packers backup wide receiver Max McGee, who caught two Bart Starr touchdown passes -- later admitted he had been out on the town the night before, had gotten in at 7:30 a.m. and was in no condition to be playing on game day.

But the idea of celebrating that first game by returning to the roots it had planted was so strong that for several years before the 50th installment was awarded to the Bay Area, league officials and owners grappled with how to stage the game in Los Angeles, despite the lack of an NFL team or suitable stadium there. Seven Super Bowls have been played in the area, between the Coliseum and Pasadena's Rose Bowl, but after it was clear a stadium could not be ready in time -- and Miami, which has hosted 10 Super Bowls, needed stadium renovations, too -- owners voted to give the golden anniversary game to a part of the country that stands for forward thinking and innovation. The game will be played in the league's most technologically advanced stadium.

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There, the NFL may crown a new dynasty to take the place of the continuum started by the Packers, who won the first two Super Bowls to cap a period of dominance that included three of the final five NFL championships before the Super Bowl was first played.

Gil Brandt, the longtime Dallas Cowboys personnel executive who is now an NFL Media analyst, was at that first Super Bowl, where the tickets sold for $6, $10 and $12 -- and still, the attendance didn't exceed that of a USC game held earlier that season.

The Commissioner's Party is now an opulent bash attended by the game's heaviest hitters and their most influential and high-profile sponsors. But in that first year, the idea for a party first came to Rozelle on the Wednesday before the game. He sent an aide, Jim Kensil, to a local copy shop to print up some flyers -- the 8x11 sheets of paper served as invitations. And when guests arrived, the people from the AFL stood on one side of the room and the people from the NFL on the other, wary adversaries who hadn't yet been merged.

Brandt has been to 47 Super Bowls, and so he has seen plenty. Like when Media Day at an early Super Bowl in Miami involved reporters going to the hotel where the Dallas Cowboys were staying, asking for a particular player and then being directed to go interview that person in his room. Or when the caravan of team busses that was supposed to take the 1978 Cowboys to the Orange Bowl for Super Bowl XIII went the wrong way -- despite the protests of a player who was from South Florida -- and ended up stranded in a dead end, necessitating the painstaking U-turns of 10 huge busses. The team arrived at the stadium more than a half-hour past schedule, a now inconceivable miscue on what's become a carefully managed game day.

Joe Browne, who is now the senior advisor to the commissioner, is the longest-serving employee ever at NFL headquarters. He started as a college intern in 1965 and has attended all but the first Super Bowl (for that one, he proofread the press releases and took them to the post office in New York to mail to Los Angeles).

His early role on Super Bowl Sunday was to "clean" the sidelines -- meaning to get the non-workers out of the way so the photographers and cameramen could work. Security was rather lax back then, Browne said. In Super Bowl V at Miami's Orange Bowl, two well-dressed men were on the sidelines. When Browne approached, he realized they didn't have credentials -- they had attached Eastern Airlines baggage claim checks to their belts.

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"I had security escort them out, but kept the baggage tags 'til Eastern went out of business," Browne said.

At Super Bowl IX in the old Tulane Stadium in New Orleans, a stripper wearing a white fake fur coat -- and little more -- was on the sideline until Browne intervened. And then there was Super Bowl VIII in Houston in early 1974, which marked, Browne said, the only time the venue for the commissioner's Friday night party -- the Astrodome -- was nicer than where the game was played (the old Rice University stadium).

"I am not one to yearn for those good old early days," Browne said. "It has been an incredible and entertaining ride to see the game grow in popularity and to have even casual fans plan their winter schedule around not only the Super Bowl, but other playoff games, as well."

The game has grown so much that Brandt recently advised a Seattle player to turn over ticket requests to his mother, lest he be inundated by calls and texts from people the player hadn't seen since fifth grade. About 5,500 media members were credentialed to cover the 49th game and related events in Arizona. According to Consumer Electronic Association surveys, per CNBC, nearly 25 percent of television buyers purchase a new unit specifically for the big game.

For the 50th rendition, dubbed the Golden Super Bowl, those viewers likely will see an extravaganza for a new age -- Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California, is the league's first ticketless and cashless stadium -- that Rozelle and Hunt and Lombardi, all part of that unsteady first game, could never have imagined.

"In a million years, I never thought you'd see what it is now," Brandt said, as he prepared to head to Arizona ahead of the clash between the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks. "The difference is like a one-story motel in some small town in Montana, and it's now the Sears Tower and still growing. I'm just amazed at everything that takes place."

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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