The details fade, over time, the way an old picture does in a frame. Colors go flat, like soda in the sun. Lines blur.
“Too many years,” Fred Arbanas says, chuckling softly. “Too many things have come and gone.”
What was hi-def in your head softens, like a lot of other things, after five decades and Lord knows how many miles. Arbanas, the Michigan State alum and former Kansas City Chiefs tight end, can still make out snapshots, though, fun snapshots, from his first offensive series in the first Super Bowl ever played. The time he managed to get in a shot on Green Bay Packers defensive end Lionel Aldridge.
“I told him it was just the start of things to come,” Arbanas says now. “Boy, was I laughing.
“But by the end of the game, he was laughing at me.”
Packers 35, Chiefs 10.
The sting doesn’t.
“We all walk a little different,” laughs former Chiefs guard Ed Budde, another former Spartans standout. “And we don’t remember too much. We got hit in the head too many times.”
Different game. Different era. Super Bowl LI Sunday in Houston features 13 players from Big Ten programs, combined, on the rosters of the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons.
Super Bowl I featured 12 starters from current or future Big Ten schools.
“The Big Ten was pretty much your big conference back then,” says Arbanas, 78 years young. He averaged 18.6 yards per catch and caught five touchdown balls from 1958-60 at Michigan State, one of the standout receivers in a passing-unfriendly era.
“A lot of black guys couldn’t go to school down south, so they’d compete in the Big Ten.”
‘I’d heard John Wayne was going to be there’
When it comes to the Super Bowl, even the math is a little … well, fuzzy. The league celebrated 50 big games in the 2015-16 season, but America’s unofficial mid-winter holiday —Super Bowl Sunday — actually celebrated its golden anniversary roughly two weeks back, on January 15.
The first AFL-NFL World Championship game was played the Coliseum in Los Angeles on Jan. 15, 1967, in front of 61,946 — and more than 33,000 empty seats, to date the only Super Bowl not to sell out.
“Now I don’t know what the tickets are going for,” Budde says. “I think it was $25 for the first Super Bowl, but maybe I (inflated) that too much.”
Just a bit. The average price for Super Bowl I: $12, or $85.05 in today’s dollars. The average price for Super Bowl 50: $1,325.
The Packers each took home a winner’s share of $15,000 — or, factoring for inflation, roughly the equivalent of $110,000 in 2017.
“Forrest Gregg said, ‘You know, can you believe it? In this game, I’m going to be paid twice as much, if we win, as my first year’s salary,’ ” recalls former Illinois running back Jim Grabowski, another Big Ten cog in the Super Bowl I machine as a rookie on the 1966-67 Packers. “Fuzzy (Thurston) said, ‘I’ll have three times what my first-year salary was.’ And that really stuck out to me, when you think about it.”
The same bonus was paid out to Packers players for winning Super Bowl II. Grabowski pooled the kitty from both games toward a purchasing a home.
“We considered it ‘Our Super Bowl House,’ ” he says. “Oh, I had some fun money there, too.”
The money’s still fun, only there’s a hell of a lot more of it. Money and celebrities, A-listers and high B-listers, a VIP section that grows larger with each passing decade.
“My big thing, I’d heard John Wayne was going to be there and I was a real Duke fan at the time,” Grabowski says of Super Bowl numero uno. “We never did see him. Don’t know if he showed up. Kirk Douglas was there. There were several of them there, being in LA and it was (an event) of some note.”
Different game. Different era.
“We didn’t have the three hours of pregame television,” Grabowski says. “And I look at them now and say, ‘What the hell can you talk about three or four hours before a ballgame?’ And somehow they find a way to fill it in. I don’t watch all of it, that’s for sure.”
‘I still, once in a while, wake up in the middle of the night’
Other snapshots, Arbanas has tried like crazy to swipe from his noggin. The first big game was a contest of two halves, at a time when the NFL was the mountain of establishment, the Packers reigning at its summit. The American Football League was the rebel, the upstart, a league that had existed fewer than eight years, a Foolish Club of oil and real-estate barons trying to cash in on post-World War II America’s favorite new obsessions: television and pro football.
Trailing 14-10 at the break those upstart Chiefs, led by quarterback and Purdue alum Len Dawson, drove to midfield to start the third quarter, picking up where they’d left off late in the second period.
But on 3rd-and-5 from the Kansas City 49, a pressured Dawson let go of a wobbler in the direction of Arbanas, a rainbow that was dipping a few feet short. Packers safety Willie Wood, reading the wounded duck the whole way, stepped in front of Arbanas. The former Spartans receiver turned around to find, instead of the ball, the image of Wood zooming upfield the other way, returning the interception all the way to the Chiefs’ 5-yard line.
“I still, once in a while, wake up in the middle of the night thinking about Willie running the other way with the ball and never being able to do a thing about it,” Arbanas says.
One play later, Green Bay’s Elijah Pitts ran in for a score, and the establishment was on its way to a rout over the rebels.
“No doubt about it, it was a big turning point in the game,” Arbanas says. “It was a tight game until then. I would like to have played them again, and have that not happen, and (Max) McGee not make circus catches like he had never made before. It would’ve been a different game, but that’s the way it turned out.”
The upstarts were outscored 21-0 in the second half, and that was that.
“We felt it was a pretty big deal just because the AFL was the upstart at the time and we upheld the honor of the NFL,” Grabowski says. “That was a pretty big deal for all of us in the league and especially to (coach Vince) Lombardi. He would’ve been devastated if we would’ve lost to Kansas City, that’s for sure.”
Grabowski’s Packers would also smash the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl II, the final jewel in the crown of The Lombardi Dynasty and The Lombardi Decade. The rebels would rebound, with the AFL’s New York Jets scoring a stunning, historic Super Bowl III upset over the Colts. The Chiefs, fittingly, affirmed the parity between the rival leagues by stonewalling the Vikings in Super Bowl IV, the last championship played before the merger of 1970.
“I think all of us have some pride to say, ‘Yeah, we were in the first one,’ ” Grabowski says. “There’s some special pride to say, ‘Yeah, I was in the first.’ ”
‘It’s a wonder someone hasn’t shot me or run me over by now’
They’re grandparents now, those who remain, scattered by fate and the winds. Budde and Arbanas settled in Kansas City, where the latter went into more than four decades of public services and politics. Grabowski was a fixture on Illini football radio broadcasts for 28 years.
“It’s really fun to shake a hand, get a hug, give a hug (to those guys),” Grabowski says. “And that’s the best part of it. I can’t remember much talking about the game or plays anymore. It’s more like, ‘So how’s the family, how are the grandkids, what are the grandkids doing?’
“The other thing you hear a lot is, ‘How are you feeling?’ The most common phrase I always say on the golf course, among guys who played, the most common phrase is, ‘I used to. I used to be able to.’ ”
Of those 22 starters, 15 are no longer with us. The passing years have been less kind to Wood, who entered assisted living in 2007. In 1990, former Chiefs wideout Otis Taylor was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and dementia and filed a lawsuit against the NFL in December 2013.
“If someone would’ve told me, ‘In 50 years, how are you going to be feeling?’ I’d have said, ‘Hell, I won’t even be alive in 50 years,’ ” Arbanas cracks. “I’d have said ‘There’s no way I’m even going to be alive.’ It’s a wonder someone hasn’t shot me or run me over by now.
“I’m really proud of it. And I played in Super Bowl IV. I used to have a place in Mexico and used to go down there quite a bit in the winter time and usually would be down there in Super Bowl time. And, of course, it was a big conversation with the others that lived in condominiums.
“You’d go into different restaurants and bars and then all of a sudden someone would find out and say, ‘That guy played in the first Super Bowl.’ And it was a lot of fun to say, ‘Yeah, I played in the first one and the fourth one and damn proud of it.’ ”
The legend doesn’t.
“I might’ve gotten a free margarita or two,” Arbanas says, laughing again. “That was quite a few years ago.”