Just How Did the Super Bowl Get So....Super?
The first Super Bowl in 1967 was played in Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and featured nearly 30,000 empty seats.
After the game, then-Commissioner Pete Rozelle reportedly told his staff that "never again is there going to be a championship game that isn't a sellout."
The game's growth started at that moment, each year building momentum and capturing more of the country's attention, which makes for a nice story.
But then the 1985 Chicago Bears came along, and the biggest event in American sports was never the same.
"With all the publicity we got leading into that game, it was just electric," said Shaun Gayle, a defensive back who spent 11 years in Chicago. "The coverage we got bordered on insanity. When I think back to that year, I don't think it's something we'll ever see again."
In six days, the New England Patriots will try to make history by completing a perfect, 19-0 undefeated season against the NFL's surprise entry, the New York Giants, at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale.
They will do so amid a backdrop partially created 22 years ago by a cocky quarterback, a defensive tackle nicknamed after a kitchen appliance and a coach that spurred one of the more humorous Saturday Night Live skits in recent memory.
Chicago's charisma
"Da Bears" rolled through the 1985 season with force and bravado seldom seen, even for a league known for such things. Then-coach Mike Ditka has said the team had "characters with character." That might be selling them short. After all, it was quarterback Jim McMahon who mooned a media helicopter as it flew over the practice field.
"I would challenge anyone to come up with a more charismatic team, a team that did a better job of crossing over into American culture than the '85 Bears," said Roy Taylor, a Bears historian and author of bearshistory.com.
Everyone wanted a part of them. Everyone wanted a piece of the story. Star tailback Walter Payton appeared on the cover of Time magazine with rookie William "Refrigerator" Perry. McMahon graced the cover of Rolling Stone. At the time, Super Bowl coverage was still growing.
In the beginning, today's Media Day experience didn't exist. Sports writers covering the first Super Bowl rode a bus to Santa Barbara, where coach Vince Lombardi and his Packers prepared for the Kansas City Chiefs.
"Lombardi said the players would be available in their hotel rooms, and he was right," NFL Films President Steve Sabol said. "Most of them looked like little schoolboys sitting of the edge of their beds, waiting for the media. Some were watching soap operas."
Two years later, reporters interviewed Joe Namath as the Jets quarterback lounged poolside at Fort Lauderdale's Galt Ocean Mile hotel five days before Super Bowl III. Namath wore Bermuda shorts and sipped a drink. The next night he delivered his victory guarantee, and his performance against the Baltimore Colts became a part of Super Bowl lore.
The Bears took such cockiness to another level. On Dec. 3, not 24 hours after suffering their first loss, they arrived at Park West, a venue in Lincoln Park, and recorded The Super Bowl Shuffle, a rap song detailing their greatness. At the time of its recording, three games remained in the regular season.
"It started off as something we were doing for charity," Gayle said, but it turned into something else. "People loved the idea of seeing this 300-pounder (Perry) do things on the field they haven't seen before. They loved seeing someone as talented as Walter Payton.
"Then you throw in someone like McMahon; he was like the anti-hero. You look at today's quarterbacks, they're all kind of like golden boys. And I don't mean that to be a knock on them. McMahon just wasn't that way."
Marching in
In New Orleans, the Bears met the AFC champion New England Patriots, themselves experiencing a revival of sorts. For so long, the Patriots had struggled to find relevancy in an exploding sports market. Just four seasons earlier, New England had finished 2-14.
"You had the Celtics when Larry Bird and Magic were going at it," said Vince Doria, then an assistant managing editor with the Boston Globe and today senior vice president and director of news for ESPN. "The Red Sox went to the World Series in '86. Doug Flutie was resurrecting Boston College. The Patriots had always been about fifth in line behind everybody else. That was the first time the franchise had gotten to the Super Bowl, and the city was crazy about it."
The Globe sent two dozen reporters and photographers - more than any publication had in previous years - to Super Bowl XX. For many of the paper's readers, it wasn't an inspired story. After New England took a 3-0 lead, the Bears scored 44 points to take control. After the game, many labeled the Bears as the best team in NFL history - and the Super Bowl was never the same.
It became a must-attend event for celebrities. The media provided blanket coverage. Reporters from MTV, Nickelodeon and Comedy Central attended Media Day, turning the annual question-and-answer session into a circus filled with strange and bizarre moments.
At Super Bowl XXXIV, a reporter asked Joe Salave'a of the Tennessee Titans about his relationship with the football. "I'd say it's strictly platonic," Salave'a said.
At the same game, a reporter asked then-Rams quarterback Kurt Warner if he believed in voodoo and if Warner would give him a lock of hair.
Warner's answer: "No."
Last year's Media Day in Miami featured American Idol rejects, a television reporter who asked questions through a hand puppet and Colts tight end Dallas Clark singing the University of Iowa fight song.
Those who couldn't attend watched from home. Last year's game in Miami drew 93.1 million viewers. By contrast, the Friends series finale in 2004 drew 52.5 million.
"(The Super Bowl) is the single, biggest shared common experience in American society," said Mark Dyreson, an associate professor of kinesiology and history at Penn State. "For better or worse, you can't get much bigger than that. The Super Bowl does better than Christmas, the Fourth of July, any singular event."
Are the 1985 Bears responsible? Not totally. But it's hard not to say they won't have a place among this week's craziness, even 22 years later. Their presence in the game's history is that strong.
"We really seemed to appeal across the board to everyone," Gayle said. "There are other teams out there that have won more Super Bowls, but if you were to ask other football fans outside Chicago if they could name players on the '85 Bears, I think they probably could."

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