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Football journalists must continue traditions of their predecessors

Posted Aug 29, 2016

There was a time when a writer could plan to cover most, if not all, press conferences during a Super Bowl week, if he were so inclined.

Those were the days when there might barely be a handful on any one day. Today there can be just as many take place ever hour through each day leading up to Super Sunday.

From the commissioner's state of the league address to the coin toss ceremony; from local community projects to the security services; it seems as if any excuse to have reporters and photographers gather round a podium or a stage is not easily turned away.

As well as those featuring players in Sunday's game, I like to get to a certain handful - the international press conference (for obvious reasons); the NFL Players Association conference because it always gives a great insight to the mood of the players on their place of work; the meeting of the Pro Football Writers of America because again it offers good detail on the relationship between teams and the media.

Seven months ago in San Francisco however, there was one on the itinerary that I put a big circle round and vowed not to miss.

I attended my first Super Bowl almost 32 years ago and I have been obsessed with the event ever since so the chance to be in a room with and listen to the stories of The Sweet Sixteen - the elite club of 16 people who have been at all 50 Super Bowls - was just too good to miss.

And so I hurriedly made my way to the Media Center to be a part of such a distinguished gathering, some of whom represented the group on stage while the rest sat in the front row. The most notable thing about them at first sight was that only one of them wore a skirt and perhaps it would surprise many people to think that even one woman would be on the list.

This however, was no ordinary woman. Norma Hunt is the widow of Lamar Hunt, the owner of the Kansas City Chiefs, who died in 2006 after 42 years of marriage to Norma.

Part of the joy of listening to people who are older than you or have more experience of something than you is that they can provide detail that you will never read in a history book and paint lifelike colours on a previously static black and white canvas.

In the course of this discussion of memories of half a century of Super Bowls, Mrs Hunt retold the tale of how most people believe the name Super Bowl came about.

I had heard many times the story of her husband watching one of his sons playing with a super ball - those thick rubber balls that can soar when bounced off the ground - and how Hunt had conjured up the name Super Bowl from that. It was a name he didn't think was quite right and that would soon be replaced but here we are today with the name firmly entrenched.

What I learned that day however was that this was the woman who purchased the super ball. In fact she bought one for each of three sons. Had she not handed over a dollar or two for those three balls, who knows what the NFL championship game might be called. Perhaps it would be the NFL Championship Game, which is what its title had been for decades prior to the AFL-NFL merger.

It may well have been the NFL Bowl or, worse still, the league could have sold its soul to the highest commercial bidder who wanted to put a company name on it, changing every few years as the Football League Cup has done in England.

It was a tiny piece of information from Mrs Hunt but it helped to complete the story of how we got the name Super Bowl and as the hour or so wore on, many of the rest of the Sweet Sixteen ventured a tale or two.

The three writers - Jerry Izenberg, Jerry Green and Dave Klein - told tales of Vince Lombardi and Pete Rozelle.

The three photographers - John Biever, Walter Iooss Jr and Mickey Palmer - recalled the iconic Super Bowl images, including Joe Namath on his sun lounger at Super Bowl III, perhaps the most famous picture of the lot.

George Toma, a groundskeeper, and Mrs Hunt completed one half of this dream team while eight fans are the other half.

Donald Crisman, Thomas Henschel, Larry Jacobson, Larry McDonald, Lew Rapoport, Alvin Schragis, Harvey Rothenberg and Sylvan Schefler recounted tales of how close they had come over half a century to breaking their streak and falling out of the club. Various work commitments, family weddings, and travel mishaps had threatened their dedication to the cause only to be beaten back.

One of the group of 16 will one day be able to say "I'm the only person who has been to every Super Bowl". I suspect we are looking at that being at least 20 years from now, judging by the rude health many of them appeared to be in. But once the last one goes, nobody will ever make that claim again.

The only sadness for me was that the club no longer contains Edwin Pope. The brilliant Miami Herald columnist broke his streak three years ago, having been at the first 47.

I have been fortunate enough to have been at 23 Super Bowls since I first sat 20 rows back from the sideline and saw Joe Montana and Roger Craig dismantle the Miami Dolphins in January 1985.

But of all the things I have seen and done at those games, perhaps the most treasured was bumping into Pope in a bar 15 years ago in New Orleans. He was about to leave when I introduced myself and he stopped to chat for the next two hours.

In that time he told me stories of the Galloping Ghost, Harold 'Red' Grange (a former neighbour of Pope's); of the coaching legends Paul Brown and Bear Bryant; and of Vince Lombardi and Hank Stram, the confrontational coaches who sparred at the first Super Bowl.

As I listened to story after story, like some awe-struck youngster, I knew at the time that this was not the sort of thing that happened often. The stories and details that are never written down in history books but are casually passed along by witnesses to that history.

I felt the same in February this year in the presence of that group and I came to realise something else - these people, just as much as the players who have fleetingly graced the greatest stage over half a century, are my football heroes.

Norma Hunt and her cohorts are firmly in that camp and despite having broken his streak and no longer being in the club, Edwin Pope always will be for me.

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