By: Joe Strupp
Over many decades of Super Bowls, the players, coaches, and even television networks have changed. But these four men remain a constant. They show up each year, do their jobs, and move on.
They’re not NFL referees, stadium groundskeepers, or even ticket scalpers. They’re sportswriters. But they have the unique distinction of being the only newspaper writers to have covered all 38 Super Bowls.
Jerry Izenberg of The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J., Edwin Pope of The Miami Herald, Jerry Green of The Detroit News, and Bob Oates of the Los Angeles Times have literally “seen it all.” (A fifth writer, Dave Klein, formerly of The Star-Ledger, has also attended every game. But he now works for a football newsletter.)
From the non-sold out Super Bowl I in Los Angeles to last year’s halftime “wardrobe malfunction” at Super Bowl XXXVIII in Houston, this foursome has become as linked to the game as the Vince Lombardi trophy itself.
“This is where the action is,” said Pope, 76, who has been at the Herald for 48 years and shown up for the big game routinely since the inaugural kickoff in 1967. “I would feel very odd not coming here. I think I would miss it.”
Since that first game between the Green Bay Packers and the Kansas City Chiefs, which was officially known as the AFL-NFL Championship, Pope and his three colleagues have been there throughout.
Probably the most memorable pre-game moment for these sportswriting veterans was Jim McMahon of the Chicago Bears mooning a helicopter television camera hovering over the practice field before Super Bowl XX in New Orleans. “It was one of the few times a player did anything newsworthy that week,” Pope said. “And McMahon was the biggest jerk of any Super Bowl, he really worked at it.”
The writers also agreed that one of the stupidest questions in 38 years was the sportswriter — unidentified — who asked Doug Williams of the Washington Redskins prior to Super Bowl XXII: “How long have you been a black quarterback?”
Super Bowl IV in New Orleans found Pope with a fractured arm following an alcohol-induced fall the night before, he says. Thanks to the late Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times, who carried Pope’s typewriter to the game for him, the columnist was able to attend and cover it. “He even offered to type my column for me,” Pope says of Murray. “I did it myself, but had to write it with my left hand, using one finger.”
The biggest change in 38 years? Each say it is the increased media presence and decreased access. “During the first six Super Bowls, I could interview players in their hotel rooms,” says Izenberg, 76, who has been at the Star-Ledger for 46 years. “Now you can’t get on their floors; they have them blocked off.”
Izenberg recalled having lunch with a Chiefs linebacker the day before the first Super Bowl. “He was excited that if he won, he’d make $15,000 as part of the winner’s share,” the columnist recmembers. “Now you don’t get near them at all, it’s like a Gestapo.”
Green noted that the number of media representatives has grown from about 300 at the first game to some 3,000 now. “It was better then as a sportswriter,” he says. “We had better access.” That access helped Green get his best interview over the years when he was one of about nine writers chosen for an exclusive poolside sitdown with Joe Namath of the New York Jets prior to Super Bowl III.
“It was a scoop for me because the Detroit Free Press didn’t get in,” Green recalled. “He really charmed us and made it a fun event.” Green also raised an eyebrow interviewing John Riggins of the Washington Redskins, who showed up in hunting fatigues in a hotel lounge the week before Super Bowl XVII. “That was entertaining,” he said.
Another choice among the writers for oddball stories was Bud Grant, coach of the Minnesota Vikings, complaining about birds flying in and out of the showers at the Viking practice facility in Houston during preparations for Super Bowl VIII.
Phil Simms of the New York Giants, the MVP of Super Bowl XXI, was among the best players to interview, Pope contends. “He was one of the few players who had a good time and had fun with the press,” he says. “The interviews have always been and still are horrible, a huge compendium of cliches.”
Pope also recalled the yearly betting pool on the final score among sportswriters in the press box, in which each would put in $1. He said the practice ended shortly after Paul Zimmerman of Sports Illustrated — who collected and distributed the money — had his pocket picked of several
hundred dollars one year.
For Izenberg, a difficult moment occurred the first year the sportswriters had to switch to computers in the early 1980’s. He recalls hauling a 36-pound contraption into the press box and being startled to realize it was sensitive to sound. “After the game at the Rose Bowl [in Pasadena, Calif.] the band decided to give a concert while we were all writing up our stories,” he told E&P. “Suddenly all the screens went blank and we had to use our jackets to cover them up to muffle the sound.”
Most agreed the worst experience was in Detroit for Super Bowl XVI at the Silverdome. Unplowed snow and a two-hour traffic jam — caused in part by then-vice president George H.W. Bush’s motorcade — made dozens of sportswriters late for kickoff. “That was the only time in my life I thought I was going to die,” Pope says. “Everyone was falling on the ice walking to the stadium and it was brutally cold.”
Recalls Izenberg: “A couple of guys got frostbite.”
Still, each of those who spoke with E&P said they will keep going as long as they can. “They ring the bell and we all go,” contends Izenberg. “To skip this and still consider yourself a qualified columnist is not doing your job.”
Green agrees. “I regard it as the way my career is defined,” he says. “It is like a baseball player with a consecutive game streak. I feel like Cal Ripken, I want to keep it going.”