Every Super Bowl Has Been Covered by Jerry
Jerry Green’s cell phone is beeping at him as he gives a phone interview, and as he investigates why, he’s compelled to reminisce about Super Bowl I and draw the inevitable contrast: “You know, I lugged a heavy typewriter to Los Angeles.”
The history of the Super Bowl predates not only laptops, not only every player on the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons, but even Falcons head coach Dan Quinn (age 46). Meanwhile, Green and Jerry Izenberg have made this history part of their careers—they’re the only two mean to cover each of the first 50 Super Bowls for newspapers. And they plan to keep their streaks going for Super Bowl LI at NRG Stadium in Houston.
Green aspired to be a baseball writer first and foremost when he joined the Detroit News in 1963, but spent more time covering boxing and University of Michigan football before taking on the Lions beat. He was even present in College Park to cover Texas Western’s all-black starting lineup and its historic upset of Kentucky in the 1966 NCAA Basketball title game.
Izenberg spent most of his career at the Newark Star-Ledger, rising from copy boy to reporter and later returning from the New York Herald-Tribune to be a columnist. His 13th book, Once There Were Giants: The Golden Age of Heavyweight Boxing, comes out the day after Super Bowl LI.
Despite the men’s breadth of sports knowledge, their Super Bowl streak will always link them to the National Football League.
“Both Jerrys, they’re both so highly thought of by longtime public relations people, either at the club level or in the league offices,” said Joe Browne, a recently retired league executive who has served as senior adviser to commissioner Roger Goodell and executive vice president of communication and government affairs. (Incidentally, Browne has a streak of his own; he attended Super Bowls II-L in official capacities and will go to Houston this year to watch as a fan.)
Browne said the two writers have divergent personalities. Izenberg is more outgoing, Green more subdued. But they share more than just a first name, thanks to their presence at Super Bowl I and the week leading up to it.
The first “AFL-NFL World Championship Game” did not sell out, and 1960s sports fans could not have imagined football one day surpassing the behemoths of baseball and boxing.
“I did not figure [football] would become the giant colossus that it has become. Nobody could figure that out,” Green said.
The failure to sell out also meant a local TV blackout according to Commissioner Pete Rozelle’s rules, and Rozelle was busy that week in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles defending the league against a lawsuit to prevent the blackout. This had Izenberg and other reporters looking for access to Rozelle from his public relations director, Jim Kensil.
“I said to Kensil, ‘Hey, where’s your boy? There’s a lot of things I want to ask him,’” Izenberg said. “And he said, ‘Well you’re the third person to say that to me. You know what we’ll do? I’ll get the guys together in Pete’s suite, we’ll have some coffee and whatever and you can ask him any question you want.’”
The result was both the precursor to the commissioner’s annual “State of the League” address and the most informative press conference Izenberg can remember. When Rozelle became commissioner in 1960, Izenberg said, everyone he hired had some form of public relations experience, “and that’s become a way of life in the league.”
In the way that both writers deeply respect Rozelle (Izenberg spent 32 years completing his biography), they also revere Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi. Izenberg recognized Lombardi’s greatness when Green Bay offensive lineman Fuzzy Thurston told Izenberg he knew his Packers would win Super Bowl I. Being unfamiliar with the AFL’s Kansas City Chiefs didn’t matter, because as Izenberg tells it, Thurston declared: “We got the best coach in the world, so we’re gonna win.”
The first year Green started getting asked about the inaugural game was at Super Bowl XVI, held at the Pontiac Silverdome in a suburb of Detroit. In covering the two Super Bowls in the Motor City—that one and Super Bowl XL—Green felt pressure rather than a home-field advantage.
“Every writer at the Super Bowl is reading what you wrote, what the Detroit News had, and [it made it] much more difficult because you were really trying to be on your game,” he said.
Green says he doesn’t remember every game with equal clarity, simply because not every game was equally interesting, but he and Izenberg tell their fair shares of anecdotes when people ask. Green remembers that the league fined Joe Namath for skipping press availability prior to Super Bowl III, long before Marshawn Lynch became famous for doing so in the past few years.
After one press conference that Broadway Joe ignored, a sports editor named Si Burick told Green that Namath had agreed to speak to a few reporters by the hotel pool and asked if Green wanted to go.
“I said, ‘Are you s—-ing me? Of course I want to go,” Green said, and he was present for the now-famous Walter Iooss Jr. photo of the scene.
The week of Super Bowl VIII, Houston police raided the visiting writers’ traditional poker night. Izenberg recalls Chicago Tribune writer Rick Talley’s insistence that “Nobody moves till we finish this hand!” with fondness for a time of more industry camaraderie.
“Everybody really knew each other. It’s not like today,” said Izenberg. “And we’d socialize with each other. We all went to dinner together, we drank together.”
Such companionship is harder to realize in the size and variety of the media throng at the modern Media Day. Izenberg has been a longtime critic of Tuesday’s antics, having seen MTV VJs, kid-reporters and other “totally irrelevant” media enter the fray and distract traditional reporters from their jobs.
“Everyone wants to cover the Super Bowl. It’s like everyone wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die,” said Izenberg. “There’s no newspaper in these people.”
Green feels the same way, noting he’s been hit by cameras and had to throw an elbow or two at people holding boom microphones. In his eyes, it’s an example of the NFL deeming television a more important medium than newspapers.
“[Newspapers] were venerable institutions,” Green pointed out. “Now newspapers are not venerable institutions, but Jerry Green and Jerry Izenberg are [considered] venerable.”
However, while Green advises younger generations to “be prepared for the demise of newspapers,” Izenberg has another perspective, saying some papers lack “intellectual investment” as they adapt to the internet age has chased people away.
“I still believe in newspapers. And I believe if they die… if you could take the body to a medical examiner, the verdict would be death by suicide,” Izenberg said. “Because they’re running too hard to the internet, trying to make money off the internet, trying to get their dot-coms together.”
Izenberg’s former Star-Ledger colleague Dave Klein entered the dot-com business and now writes for teamgiants.com, so his own 50-Super Bowl streak is technically going. Whether you count two or three writers on the list, the feat is still admirable. But Izenberg and Green are humble about their careers, to the point of not assuming anything.
To Green, continuing to cover every Super Bowl “would be the ideal plan.”
“I’m realistic about it. For me it’s one at a time. If everything works, I’ll be able to go to Super Bowl LI.”
If he goes, he’ll type his column on a laptop, as he’s done for a while now.
So, does Green miss that typewriter?
“Not really, no.”
Adam Zielonka is a Master’s Student at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism.