by Frank Cooney

Sweet XVI is the biggest

January 24, 1982
Featured image for “Sweet XVI is the biggest”

Originally published by the San Francisco Examiner on January 24, 1982 • Cover photo © Manny Rubio-USA TODAY Sports

By Frank Cooney

Examiner staff writer

January 24, 1982

PONTIAC, Mich.––Today’s the day we’ve waited for. Because you’re not a baby anymore. You’ve turned into the gaudiest show we’ve ever seen.

Happy Birthday. Sweet XVI.

All due respects to Neil Sedaka. but the Super Bowl does indeed reach the bittersweet age of XVI today.

Neil Sedaka performs “Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen” on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand.

Appropriately, two teams which have never kissed such success squarely on the lips will try to show they are not incidental to all the hype and hoopla when the San Francisco 49ers and Cincinnati Bengals joust under the Silverdome for the National Football League championship.

It is a game that has been unfairly criticized for the same reason many XVl-year olds are criticized — a lack of patience and understanding.

Some belittle the competition because the so-called superpowers are not here. Others complain they had to spend a lot of money to attend and don’t like the game being held in deep freeze climate.

Ironically, those are occurrences the NFL should be proud of. This Cinderella Bowl between teams picked to finish third in their divisions is a sign that parity has arrived in the NFL, much to the dismay of the so-called superpowers and their fans. 

San Francisco 49er QB Joe Montana in Super Bowl XVI
San Francisco 49er QB Joe Montana in Super Bowl XVI
© Manny Rubio-USA TODAY Sports

And, although it may be only a momentary concession to guilt land a lot of call-ins on political IOU’s from Detroit, it is about time the NFL showed proper appreciation for its roots by holding its ultimate game in this neighborhood of the country.

After all, it was just down the block, so to speak, that George Halas sat on the running board of a car in 1920 and formed the NFL. It included teams from Canton, Chicago. Buffalo, Akron, Green Bay, Dayton, Cleveland, Rochester, Columbus. Cincinnati and Detroit.

Underpaid players and faithful fans fought frostbite to watch these teams play during the league’s formative years. But by the time the NFL made it really big, the Super Bowls were held in towns like Miami, Pasadena and New Orleans.

After attending Super Bowl week festivities there and here, it is easy to differentiate between where the NFL was born and where it was merely adopted. This last week here, they once again fought miserable weather as best they could to help their grown-up sportchild. All things considered, they did a marvelous job.

Alas, the weather has been so bad and the pampered modern day fans, and especially media, have been so intolerant that this may be the last Super Bowl to visit the NFL’s home land for a long time.

Original Article in SF Examiner • January 24, 1982

But the blue collar workers here, descendants of that hardy breed which first followed the sport, are excited despite their 25 percent unemployment and the freezing weather. While the outsiders gather in ritzy hotel bars and gripe about the weather, the fans from Michigan and nearby Ohio huddle in little taverns, drinking beer and talking, of all things, football.

Ah yes, football. The teams went through their last paces yesterday on the ersatz surface under the Silver-dome. Each club had a light workout for about a half hour in the morning, although both would have rather practiced in the afternoon. But other groups the halftime entertainment, the television networks were scheduled for the afternoon.

Unlike the fans and media, the players have not lost sight of what is alleged to be the main event. And don’t be misled by the fact that the 49ers practiced to the sound of blaring disco music. That is the modern day football team’s way of preparing for the elements.

In this case, freezing weather has been replaced by bad acoustics. When the 49ers opened the regular season here they noted that quarterback Joe Montana could hardly be heard above the roar of the enclosed crowd. 

To approximate such noise during practice, 49ers coach Bill Walsh had disco music played on the Silverdome’s speaker system, very loud.

Meanwhile, backup quarterback Guy Benjamin had to learn a whole new set of hand signals to use in relaying the plays from Walsh to Montana. The 49ers suspect the Bengals stole a few signals during their game at Cincinnati this season. 

Both teams seem to be healthy for the game. San Francisco wide receiver Freddie Solomon, who strained his knee in practice Wednesday, is at “about 80- 90 percent” efficiency and is expected to start. Cincinnati’s rookie reserve wide receiver, David Verser, has had a good week of practice despite a broken thumb.

The teams had interesting differences in approach to workouts. The 49ers, who arrived here last Sunday in attempt to overcome jet lag early in the week, have not worked out in full gear since Wednesday. The Bengals, who arrived last Monday, had contact work through Friday. 

Off the field, the players made only light-hearted jokes about having to play a Super Bowl in blizzard country. But, thanks to input by players such as San Francisco’s eighth-year tackle Keith Fahnhorst, most players realize how fortunate they are to just be in a Super Bowl. There is a chance that the suddenness of their success may spoil the 34 first and second year players in this game. But all they had to do is look around the lobby to have it all put back into perspective.

At the 49ers’ Sheraton Hotel in Southfield, long-time superstar 0. J. Simpson mingled with his former teammates as they prepared for the Super Bowl game he was never able to play in despite his greatness. And there was his replacement, Paul Hofer, whose attempt at a comeback this year was cut short when he re-injured his knee only weeks before what would have been his first Super Bowl.

Such is the fickle way of football. Not even George Halas himself has managed to be a part of an almighty Super Bowl. But at least the game returned to its old neighborhood for this one big party.

Happy Birthday. Sweet XVI.

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