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It has never been just a football game. From the very beginning, when someone invented its comic-strip name, the Super Bowl has been an extravaganza, good old American hoopla, nonsense, folderol, fantasy. Each year it becomes more expansive—and expensive—with everybody in the act, from forward-thinking churches to theaters for immature adults only. In Houston last January a helicopter hovered in Rice Stadium drying out the artificial turf, while elsewhere partying mobs were doing their best to make everything wet. Yet through it all glowed the central theme, the essence: football, the players, the teams, the game. And afterward that curious mixture of elation and letdown that follows a wild and satisfying party.

The big bash of Super Bowl Week is the party hosted by the NFL, which last January was a Western-style barbecue in the Astrodome for 2,800 media types, club officials, celebs and hangers-on, at which Charley Pride (left) did his thang. Doing theirs about town were the semiunofficial Viking mascot, a button vendor, a guy who'll never tap out and another no-pain fan.

Dolphin practices were closed to all but the knothole gang. The scribes got a closer look at the players, such as Quarterback Fran Tarkenton, at daily press briefings.

Autograph hounds cornered Miami Receiver Marlin Briscoe in his hotel parking lot, but Paul Warfield was able to slip away for a little taste where the lights were low.

Mercifully, the two-week buildup finally ends, with the lucky ticket-holders beaming and goofing, and the anxious players awaiting the introductions. At halftime more hoopla, featuring Miss Texas fiddling bluegrass on some ersatz green grass, backed by the University of Texas band.

The party's over. To the victor go the spoils. And to the cleanup crew goes the mess. For Coach Don Shula, who unceremoniously walks off with the Vince Lombardi Trophy awarded the Super Bowl champion, the guest began in the long days of July. Now in January's early twilight...We did it! We did it!