YOU COULD ARGUE that 1962 was the tail end of the prosperous, sports-mad '50s, the first decade with an overtime, when professional team sports reached the beauty parlor and the pulpit and took over that new thing, the TV room. It was a simpler time, with more focus on fewer things. In the NFL there were only 14 teams; the season began and ended in the same calendar year; and games took place during daylight hours and in the open air, no matter how cold any given Sunday might be. At the '62 championship, played on the windy afternoon of Dec. 30, players wrapped themselves in their capes, wore gloves and scratchy long johns, and huddled around fires burning in metal trash cans.
That iconic matchup—Packers versus Giants at Yankee Stadium!—marked the last time an NFL season concluded in New York City and one of the last times the title was decided outdoors in the depths of a northern winter. And now we prepare for that game's gaudy, excitable stepchild, the Super Bowl, played on the national holiday called Super Bowl Sunday. Curtain time is 6:25 p.m. on Feb. 2, Seahawks versus Broncos, at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., 10 miles from the George Washington Bridge. Because of the weather the '62 title game, one of the greatest of all time, was an on-the-ground slugfest, with steam pouring through face masks and players grunting so loudly that they could be heard by the fans. Winter nights are often still in the Northeast. No matter: The 2014 Super Bowl could be another New York rumble.
These days there are 12 teams in the playoffs alone. In '62 there was an Eastern Conference champion and a Western one, and they faced off in the name of glory and cash. (The conferences alternated hosting the game.) The winner's share was $6,000 per man. The game wasn't on TV in greater New York. It was blacked out. You couldn't read about it in the Daily News or Herald Tribune. The city papers were on strike.
Among the fabled names on the rosters: Roosevelt Brown, Willie Davis, Frank Gifford, Rosey Grier, Paul Hornung, Sam Huff, Max McGee, Dick Modzelewski, Andy Robustelli, Bart Starr. The Giants' quarterback was Y.A. Tittle. The Green Bay coach was Vince Lombardi. Pro football's Greatest Generation.
In the swirling winds and 13° chill of the tight fourth quarter, numb players stood on the sidelines, their capes fluttering like luffing sails. Only 23 points were scored that day, and when the game was over, one of those legends said, "I think we saw football as it should be played."
The Packers stayed in the Hotel Manhattan. It no longer exists. The Yankee Stadium where they played was razed five years ago. Reporters rode to the game on team buses. Afterward the players returned to their ordinary lives and off-season jobs. That world is gone. RIP.
Were those men giants? They would tell you no, and maybe that's why they have endured—in our collective memory, at Canton, and as a measuring stick for where the game is today.
Harry Mazadoorian, then in his third year of Yale Law School, was lucky. New Haven was covered by the TV blackout, an early NFL scheme designed to promote ticket sales, but Harry's parents, who had fled the genocide of Armenians in Turkey, lived in New Britain, Conn., near Hartford. They were beyond the blackout's 75-mile dark reach, and they had a working TV.
The elder Mazadoorians, and many of the Armenian émigrés who lived in their neighborhood, knew nothing about football. "For such a wealthy country," some accented person would invariably ask, "why must they fight so over one ball?" But for Harry, football was an open door to another America. He found a way to live in two worlds: the old one, rich with the aroma of grilled shish kebabs and spiced rice, and the one his classmates knew, where lunch was a frank and a beer. One of Harry's first sporting heroes was Benjamin Agajanian, the Armenian kicker, who lived in two worlds too.
Harry's big-boned law school roommate, briefly a college football player, drove from New Haven to watch on the second floor of the Mazadoorians' home on Clark Street. The roommate's father, who worked as an NFL and college football official, liked Harry. More than once he had asked Harry to work the chains for him at games, but Harry, worried that he might bungle the task, declined.
Harry could not, of course, know what was in store. He could not know that a close friend from Yale, Bart Giamatti, would become the seventh baseball commissioner and die six months into his term, or that the law school roomie, Fay Vincent, would become the eighth, and that Harry would sleep in Vincent's hotel suite in San Francisco after an earthquake postponed Game 3 of the '89 World Series. Life.
The TV was small and black-and-white, and the picture was grainy, but there it was, the game, Chris Schenkel and Ray Scott calling it on NBC. Harry and Fay settled in.
Gary Just was a sophomore at Essex Catholic High School in Newark on that final Sunday of 1962. His father, Mickey, drove a truck for Dugan's Bakery and, through a sportswriter friend, had become the proud owner of eight season tickets to the Giants, four of which he used regularly. That meant that Gary, 15, was going to the championship game with his father, mother and uncle.
That morning they went to the Latin Mass at Holy Cross in Harrison, N.J., drove over the bridge and into the South Bronx, parked on their usual block near the Jewish funeral home and walked the half mile to Yankee Stadium, the Giants' home field. Gary's father had placed a bet with his bookie. New York to win. You did not bet against the Giants, and you didn't boo them either. Those were cardinal rules.
Once in his seat—mezzanine level, 40-yard line—Gary put the Sunday paper between his sneakers and the frozen cement. He had never been so cold. Trying to keep him warm, his parents allowed him to drink wine from their flask. That was a first.
In gusts, the wind was close to 40 mph. It knocked the ball off its tee before the opening kickoff and would later lift sideline benches onto the field. Gary screamed and prayed for Tittle, but the 36-year-old quarterback could not work his magic in the wind. Meanwhile, Green Bay plodded along on the frozen outfield grass where Mickey Mantle had roamed just 10 weeks earlier in the World Series. Jim Taylor, the Packers' fullback, kept fighting for his yards, a couple here, a couple there, despite Gary's plaintive screams of Stop him!
For decades the Giants would remain an important bond between Gary and his father, and when the senior Just died in 1989, there was no question about what would happen to the eight season tickets. Gary's kid brother had, inexplicably, become a Cowboys fan. That disqualified him. The tickets would go to the firstborn son.
As the quarter came to an end with Green Bay ahead 3--0, on a 26-yard field goal by guard Jerry Kramer, Gary did not lose faith. Taylor was a threat, but the Giants' middle linebacker, Sam Huff, was brutalizing him. Gary knew Huff. Well, he had once gotten Huff's autograph. He was sure Huff would wear Taylor out.
Rosey Grier, the Giants' veteran right defensive tackle, had no worries about the score. Three points was nothing. What worried him were Taylor, the Packer Sweep, Lombardi's other offensive schemes.
"They got three guys on me!" Grier shouted to Huff. There had to be a mismatch for the Giants' defenders to exploit, but they couldn't find one.
Grier had known Lombardi before he went to Green Bay, when he was the offensive coordinator in New York. Grier regarded his own coach, Allie Sherman, as a smart engineer with unshakable faith in his systems: All Sherman had to do was drop the right personnel into the right slots. Lombardi, as Grier saw it, believed the same thing, except that he wanted to drop the right personality into the right slot.
Grier's own personality was a work in progress. In the 1960 election he had been set to vote for Richard Nixon but changed his mind after reading about a sympathetic phone call from John F. Kennedy to Coretta Scott King. On the day of the title game he had no idea he was playing as a Giant for the last time. Los Angeles and the Rams and the Fearsome Foursome, wrestling Sirhan Sirhan to the ground after he fatally shot Robert F. Kennedy, the movie roles and the albums, the macramé as a hobby and the ministry as a calling—no psychic would have had the audacity to predict all of that. Being traded by the Giants broke Grier's heart but helped him see what others had always told him: The game was a business.
Near the end of the first half Taylor faked outside, turned inside and ran seven yards into the end zone without being touched by Huff or Grier or anybody else. The halftime air was not, as Don McLean would sing nine years later, sweet perfume. It was swirling trash and a scoreboard that read PACKERS 10, GIANTS 0.
Intermission lasted 20 minutes. It featured the Cardinal Dougherty High band from the Olney section of Philadelphia. One hundred instrument-playing boys and 50 baton-twirling girls, one of whom was Jane Razler, a senior, looking sharp in a uniform that took its cues from various branches of the military: mid-calf cavalry boots, a knee-length WAF-style wool skirt, a long-sleeved jacket with gold naval buttons and a stiff hat with a GI chin strap.
Jane's boyfriend, a senior named Leon Edward Anderson, played the French horn and was the band captain. JFK was nearing the end of his second year as the first Catholic president. Union jobs were plentiful in and around Olney. Enrollment at Cardinal Dougherty was high—more than 900 students in the class of '63—and still rising. The band had watched the second quarter from a corner of the end zone, boys and girls separated, shuffling in place to stay warm. Ed was rooting for New York. His team, of course, was the Eagles. The Giants were their surrogates. They represented his East.
Monsignor James Mortimer, the band director, was a perfectionist. The afternoon was getting colder. Tongues could freeze on mouthpieces. Brittle fingers could drop batons. The stakes were high. Live TV! But he stuck to his regular homily: Go out there, and do what you know how to do. Deliver.
Before a dozen years were out, Ed would serve four years of active duty in the U.S. Navy, and the Vietnam War would claim the lives of at least three of his classmates. Jane would become a schoolteacher. They would marry after college, have their first child nine months later, mourn the closing of their school in 2010 and celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary last year.
On that freezing day in 1962, 150 uniformed teenagers from Philadelphia came off the Yankee Stadium field knowing they had put on a flawless performance, despite the conditions. They thawed out while listening to the third quarter in the warmth of their Greyhound buses.
Jerry Izenberg, then a 32-year-old columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger, figured he had the story to himself, with the New York papers on strike and local TV blacked out. His Hermes portable typewriter sat before him, untouched. His phone rang constantly. Every time the door to the press box opened, the cold wind came in like a spear and somebody yelled, "Shut the f------ door!" Izenberg had hours before his deadline. He started writing his column in his head. Lombardi, for sure. The weather, worse than it had been in '61 at Green Bay's New City Stadium—he'd write that, too. No matter which team won, he'd have a good story.
He would not god-up Lombardi or anybody else. He had done some of that when he was a kid reporter, but now he had been to Korea and back. He was married with a child at home and another on the way. He was an adult. Moments, he felt, could be heroic. Asking for the players to be heroes was asking too much.
The game unfolded below him. There was something savage about it. The Giants blocked a punt, recovered it and scored, and now they trailed 10--7. Lombardi's calling card was offense, but this was a defensive war. The field was frozen solid. It was a brick. Players were limping off it.
Izenberg was on a first-name basis with Lombardi, going back to the coach's New York days. They were friends, not socially but professionally. They ate a meal or two together. What that did was deepen Izenberg's understanding of the man. Izenberg thought of Lombardi as a great weekday coach but ordinary at best in the heat of a game, and dependent on his assistants.
The Packers came roaring back. Well, Kramer kicked his second field goal. The third quarter ended 13--7.
Herb Adderley was a starting cornerback and a kick returner for the Packers, the first black player ever drafted by the franchise. He was in only his second year in the league, but he knew a six-point lead in the fourth quarter was way too slim. He took his cues from the older black players with whom he lived or roomed, including safety Willie Wood and defensive end Willie Davis, and especially from Lombardi. He looked at his coach. Lombardi was an intense man, but he did not look worried. If anything, he looked relaxed.
All Lombardi wanted was for you to do a specific task—run a pattern, make a block, throw a screen pass—to the best of your ability. That's it. But as he constantly reminded you, you were playing for so much more: yourself and your family and your teammates, your hometown and adopted city. Your place in the world. When Lombardi learned that Adderley and other black Packers couldn't rent apartments in certain parts of Green Bay, he spoke to the landlords. Along with everything else, Adderley was playing for progress.
The Giants could barely move the ball against the cold wind and stout Packers defense, and when Kramer kicked his third field goal, a wind-aided hook from 30 yards with two minutes left, Adderley could finally envision the win. Two years in the league, two rings.
The jewelry would just keep coming for Adderley. Over a 12-year Hall of Fame career, he would collect a third NFL championship ring and two Super Bowl rings with Green Bay and one more with Dallas.
"Take a knee," Lombardi told his players in the dank locker room minutes after Green Bay's 16--7 win. They were repeat champions. There was no champagne, no music, no TV reporter asking about their travel plans. There was the Lord's Prayer.
Within weeks Adderley, who had grown up on food stamps in Philadelphia, would take part of his winner's share and made a big payment on a house for his mother and grandmother in the city's Mount Airy section. That winter he would work his off-season job again, selling Ballantine and Bud to tavern owners all over town, representing the king of beers with a championship ring on his finger. Oh, he was something, even if only now and again he'd be recognized when he walked down the street. He knew he was on top of the world. That was enough.
Ray Nitschke, the stout Green Bay linebacker, was named the game's MVP. That got him a Corvette. Kramer got the game ball. "At the time I would have rather had the Corvette," Kramer says all these years later, "but that car would be long gone now. I still have the ball."
He's delighted the title game is returning to New York. He'll be there for the festivities, though maybe not when the Lombardi Trophy is hoisted by the winners. He has his rooting interests, just as Ed Anderson did in 1962. Kramer played his whole career with one team.
Herb Adderley doesn't think Lombardi would like seeing his name on the trophy. Too much attention. Kramer feels differently. He thinks the coach would be honored and proud. "Lombardi had an ego," Kramer says. "He liked attention, but he was wary of attention." He understood its costs. His players did not become celebrities. Part of the reason was Green Bay. More of it was Lombardi himself.
When you hear Kramer, Adderley, Grier, Izenberg and others talk about Lombardi, you realize that the coach and Monsignor Mortimer were preaching the same message: Do what you've practiced. Deliver. These are not easy words to live by, but these were men who had no use for easy.
Kramer says the spectacle of the modern Super Bowl would stun Lombardi. The glitter, of course, would hold no allure for him. When the '62 game was over, Lombardi gave the newspapermen, Izenberg among them, a quote that has lasted. He said, "I think it was about as fine a football game as I have ever seen. I think we saw football as it should be played."
It's such a nuanced statement. It wouldn't sound nearly as powerful today—it's too understated for the modern sound bite. It's hard to imagine the winning coach at Super Bowl XLVIII using such measured language. Who does these days?
Grier has a new album called Let The Ol' Man Play. Izenberg still writes for the Star-Ledger, now from Henderson, Nev., as columnist emeritus—"Latin," he says, "for old fart." Adderley, who lives in South Jersey, watches his grandchildren play sports, and Jane and Ed Anderson do the same in Cincinnati. Gary Just doesn't miss a Giants home game, and Fay Vincent and Harry Mazadoorian regularly commiserate by phone about the state of their team.
Kramer thinks often about that '62 game, probably the highlight of his long athletic career. He thinks about the plane ride back to Green Bay, six or eight guys in the back of the bird playing cards, Taylor with a topcoat draped over his shoulders, his fingers shaking as he reached for a discard.
Photograph by NEIL LEIFER/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
BENCHWARMER While the Giants' defense labored, Tittle (14) used an old back-alley method of warding off the cold.
Photograph by NEIL LEIFER/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
SIX THE HARD WAY Taylor (31) bulled his way to short gains and finally scored the Packers' one TD late in the second quarter.
Photograph by NEIL LEIFER/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
NO TRESPASSING Nitschke (66) stopped the Giants' running attack all afternoon and was named the game's MVP.
Photograph by NEIL LEIFER/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
MINT CONDITIONS Despite the bitter cold and brick-hard field, Lombardi said, "I think we saw football as it should be played."