Next Sunday will mark the 50th Super Bowl in history. I have watched every single one of the first forty-nine. From my perspective that’s an incredible fact–both for the amount of time that has passed since I watched the first one, and the idea that I was able to see the beginning of what has become an American institution.
I think it’s fair to say that nobody had any idea at the time that the Super Bowl would become an event of such magnitude, an event that, to pilfer a quote from Walter Matthau, “exemplifies all the worst aspects of capitalism that have made our country so great.”
For me, the novelty and import of that first game, pitting the NFL’s and Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers against the AFL’s and Hank Stram’s Kansas City Chiefs, was surpassed in excitement only by Super Bowl III in which my New York Jets, led by Broadway Joe Namath, pulled off what still has to be considered the greatest and most tectonic plate-shifting upset in football history when they beat a mighty Baltimore Colts team that had been rated an 18-point favorite by Vegas. I was 13 years old when that happened, and the Jets have not been back to the Super Bowl since. That game ruined me forever for all intents and purposes, consigning me to lifelong Jet fandom and 47 years of subsequent suffering. But I am not here to talk about that. What I want to talk about is that first game, which was not by any stretch of the imagination a great game but was still, for my 11-year-old self, a near religious experience, a kind of early introduction into manhood and hanging out with the boys.
My dad and stepmom were living at the time on the top floor of a brownstone on West 22nd Street that Jerry Orbach and his then-wife Marta Curro owned. Jerry and my dad were good friends. On Super Sunday 1966, I was invited with my dad to watch the Super Bowl down at Jerry’s place. It was just the three of us and Ben Gazzara, and what I remember most vividly is that Jerry and Ben broke out cigars immediately (my dad stuck to his Gauloise), and the three of them drank bourbon and cracked wise in a haze of smoke as we watched the game on Jerry’s color RCA. I was in heaven to be included in this convocation of maleness even if I was bummed that the Chiefs, in their good guy white uniforms with red trim, wound up getting blown out. I did not drink that day. I did not smoke. But I felt a part of something big and manly, probably for the first time in my life. For this Jewish boy who never had a bar mitzvah, it was a day of initiation into the brotherhood of men. Fifty years later that is what stays with me.