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Before the Big Game was big

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'When It Was Just a Game: Remembering the First Super Bowl'

With the NFL season about to kick off, 32 football teams are dreaming of their chance to achieve the pinnacle of their sport. Over the next few months, these squads will battle it out for a chance to play in the biggest game of them all the Super Bowl.

However, while the Super Bowl is one of the most iconic and anticipated events not just in the sporting world, but in the culture in general, it hasn't always been that way.

Sports author and historian Harvey Frommer takes us back to a time before the NFL was king, to a time when two leagues came together for the first time under circumstances where success was far from guaranteed.

'When It Was Just a Game: Remembering the First Super Bowl' (Taylor Trade; $29.95) brings together research and interviews from across the decades, offering the insights of key players in the massive gamble that was the AFL-NFL World Championship Football Game.

Back in the 1960s, the NFL ruled the football roost. And the owners liked it that way. However, while the league had successfully fended off challengers in the past, a new upstart league was threatening to upend their traditional ways. The American Football League got its start in 1960, and for a while, it was an easy outfit for the NFL to dismiss. The older league scoffed at the high-flying, high-scoring dynamic of the AFL; most felt it was something less than 'real' football.

But in just a few short years, the AFL began hitting the NFL where it hurt, able to sign significant talent and land lucrative television contracts. It wasn't long before the writing on the wall was clear, and so NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle led efforts for the leagues to enact a merger. Said merger led to an agreement to consolidate under the NFL's umbrella.

But first, there was the little matter of the championship game between the legendary NFL stalwart Green Bay Packers and the high-octane AFL champion Kansas City Chiefs a game that the NFL was desperate to win, while the AFL had nothing to lose.

The final score was 35-10 in favor of Green Bay, but while some chose to see that as proof of NFL superiority, it wouldn't be long before the AFL would show that it deserved its place at the table.

Frommer has meticulously assembled the thoughts of dozens of people connected with that first championship game (it should be noted that while people were using the term 'Super Bowl' almost from the beginning, that term only became official with Super Bowl III). There's a lot from the two coaches football legends Vince Lombardi and Hank Stram as well as memories from their respective families. Numerous players are included, as are members of the media.

Frommer's forte is oral history and he has assembled a great one here, filled with smaller stories from behind the scenes to go along the big stories of the Big Game. It's an engaging time capsule, a portrait of another era in which, far from being the centerpiece of the sports calendar, what would become the Super Bowl was more or less just another football game. Hearing these stories from the men who were there in their own words will be a real treat for any fan of football and its long and storied history.

It's remarkable to think that an event watched by hundreds of millions of people annually couldn't even sell out that inaugural contest. Over the years, the game has changed and the league with it but 'When It Was Just a Game' offers a look back to a time before the sport was a billion-dollar business.

Back to a time when it was just a game.


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