It wasn’t even called the Super Bowl when Jack Whitaker worked the first pro football championship game between the American Football League and National Football League. Still, he knew 50 years ago that the game he was announcing was something special.
Both CBS and NBC broadcast that showdown on Jan. 15, 1967. Whitaker, Ray Scott, Frank Gifford and Pat Summerall handled the telecast for CBS while Curt Gowdy, Paul Christman and Charlie Jones manned the booth and sidelines for NBC.
Whitaker is the last one living from the Hall of Fame-caliber group of sportscasters. Whitaker was inducted into the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame in 2012.
Whitaker and Scott shared the play-by-play duties for the CBS broadcast with Whitaker taking over in the second half.
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“I’m scared to death. You are on edge. And here comes the second-half kickoff, and all of a sudden everything stops. Whistles are blowing. Referees are running around. I looked down, and there was no flag,” Whitaker, 91, says. “I looked at Gifford. He gives me a ‘hmm,’ and all of a sudden, it came over the headset, ‘Relax, guys. NBC blew it. They were in commercial. They are going to kick it over again.’
“And I think that’s the first time and the last time that ever happened, that they would do a play over because somebody missed a commercial.”
The first year was the only time that two networks televised the game as it has moved from network to network landing at CBS this year.
There was such a rivalry between NBC and CBS that first year, Whitaker recalls looking down at the two broadcast trucks at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and seeing a chain-link fence between them.
Whitaker recalls the second-half kickoff being replayed because NBC hadn’t broken from commercial.
Whitaker’s long network career began with CBS in 1961 and included time as studio host for “The NFL Today,” the network’s pregame show. But that first championship game was the only time he was part of the main broadcast team for a Super Bowl. Now, he’s just an observer.
What Whitaker has seen is a game that doesn’t quite live up to the Super Bowl hype.
“You could make an argument that the biggest day on our sports calendar, the Super Bowl, is a game between two exhausted teams playing second fiddle to the halftime show and the TV commercials,” Whitaker says. “The football game is almost secondary.”
This isn’t something new. Whitaker says he noticed as early as Super Bowl X that there was more interest in the parties and other events than the game.
Something else that takes on a life of its own: Super Bowl ratings. The first showdown was the only one where two networks went head-to-head with their own telecast. Whitaker says there was a lot of unwarranted worrying: CBS was the network of the established NFL and NBC broadcast the upstart AFL.
“As it turned out, it was a lock. There were 15 teams in the NFL, nine teams in the AFL, so a difference of six cities right there. I think CBS had 215 stations, and NBC had 187. It was a done deal before we went in. So we won the ratings but not our particular production,” Whitaker says.
Since Whitaker’s first broadcast, the Super Bowl has continued to grow with more hours of pregame programming, ever-increasing technology, longer halftimes and so many commercials it is surprising there hasn’t been another delay as there was in 1967.
You could make an argument that the biggest day on our sports calendar, the Super Bowl, is a game between two exhausted teams playing second fiddle to the halftime show and the TV commercials.
The one thing that hasn’t changed for Whitaker is how the game is handled by the announcers. He’s convinced the only difference he would see if he went into the booth to call Super Bowl 50 would be an excessive use of instant replay.
Whitaker has never seen the telecast of the first game but has seen some clips including one where he compares the showdown between the AFL and NFL to the Civil War.
“There had been such a fight between the AFL and NFL for players. The salaries went up so much that they decided to merge. That was a real Civil War,” Whitaker says.
The first battle ended with Green Bay topping Kansas City 35-10.
Super Bowl 50
- 3:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 7, CBS (Channel 47)