Friday, January 28, 2011

A Rivalry Like No Other

This year's Super Bowl is a little more than a week away.

The Super Bowl has been played every year for nearly 50 years, usually in southerly, sun–splashed climes. It's been played often in California, New Orleans, Miami, and it is not a complete stranger to Texas. It was played in Houston twice.

This year, however, it will be played in Dallas — for the first time.

Lately, the folks in Irving and Dallas have been unrolling all their new facilities and vehicles and gadgets that are intended to accommodate the needs and desires of visitors in town for the big game — and earn local entrepreneurs a neat profit in the process.

Back in the summer and into the early fall, North Texans harbored hopes that the Dallas Cowboys might host their own Super Bowl, but those hopes were dashed rather rapidly.

I figure that, in the long run, that will be good news for local merchants, who are counting on the revenue from visitors from two cities. If the local team had made it to the Super Bowl, logic tells me that approximately half of the out–of–town visitors would have been eliminated.

So it's a good thing for all those folks who want to make money from this — especially the ones who run the hotels and the motels, who would have lost the income from all those out–of–towners who will need rooms for several days.

People are always going to have to eat, even if they're from a nearby community and only in town on the day of the game, so restaurateurs wouldn't have been affected quite as severely, but they, too, would have had to lower their expectations.

But the Cowboys went into a tailspin early. Between the Cowboys' and the Longhorns' declines, football dropped from sports fans' radars around here, and, remarkably, the sports talk in this area in October did not focus on football but on baseball, as the Rangers advanced to their first–ever World Series.

I grew up in Arkansas. I have lived in this area for most of the last 25 years. Until a few months ago, I never thought I would see a time during football season when baseball was the leading topic of conversation, but that is exactly what happened here.

It was gratifying for baseball fans, but it often felt, to me, as if the natural order of things had been disrupted.

There have been times when it's felt like one of those alternate reality episodes from the Twilight Zone. It was astonishing to witness the vacuum that was created when the Cowboys and the Longhorns crashed to earth. Talk about tumbling into a black hole.

Only recently, it seems, have people around here remembered that they were going to have a Super Bowl here in early February. It is almost as if the plan to host a Super Bowl locally depended upon whether the Cowboys would be in it — and, when it became clear that the Cowboys would not be in the playoffs, the right to host the Super Bowl defaulted to some other city.

It's probably going to be a good thing for the economy that Cowboys Stadium (known locally as Jerry World for Cowboys owner Jerry Jones) will host two cities, but I can't help thinking of what might have been.

Assuming that everything else would have been unchanged — if the Cowboys had been the NFC's representative in the Super Bowl, who would have been waiting for them from the AFC? None other than the Pittsburgh Steelers — and, if you've been following football as long as I have (or longer), you know what magic that matchup conjures up in one's mind.

There are all sorts of rivalries in football, but the Dallas–Pittsburgh rivalry in the Super Bowl is unique. I guess you could say it's been a rivalry of milestones.

It began 35 years ago, on Jan. 18, 1976, when the teams met in Super Bowl X. The Cowboys, as I mentioned earlier this week, became the first wild–card team to play in a Super Bowl on that day, but the Steelers won the game, 21–17.

Even if you aren't old enough to remember that day, if you've watched any Super Bowl highlights shows in the last 35 years, you're all but sure to have seen Lynn Swann's amazing acrobatic catch from that game.

Some folks will tell you it was the greatest catch ever made in pro football.

Then, three years later, on Jan. 21, 1979, the teams met in the first–ever Super Bowl rematch.

Superstitious people tend to be wary of the number 13, but Super Bowl XIII was far from unlucky for football fans. Not only was it the first rematch of a Super Bowl, but it would also mark the first time that a team won its third Super Bowl title, no matter who won the game.

Once again, the Steelers were victorious. The final score was 35–31, and, as one weekly newsmagazine declared in its headline on its game story, "This one really was Super."

Part of what made it super was a fantastic fourth–quarter comeback by Dallas that was brilliantly captured in NFL Films' wrapup, which can be seen above.

In hindsight, that game featured many of the greatest football players of my youth — Terry Bradshaw, Roger Staubach, Tony Dorsett, Franco Harris, etc., etc. But the play that will always stand out in my memory is of Jackie Smith, a tight end who played much of his career for woeful St. Louis Cardinals teams, dropping a pass in the end zone that could have altered the outcome.

I think everyone watching the game, whether they were pulling for the Steelers or the Cowboys, felt bad for Smith, writhing in agony in the Orange Bowl end zone after dropping that pass.

"Bless his heart," I remember an announcer saying, "he's got to be the sickest man in America."

It took nearly 20 years, but the Cowboys finally got their revenge in Super Bowl XXX, which was played 15 years ago today. It really wasn't a surprise. Dallas went into that game favored by nearly two touchdowns.

With that victory, the Cowboys pulled even with the San Francisco 49ers in total Super Bowl victories with five. At that time, the Steelers had won only the Super Bowls in which they played in the 1970s — their two wins over Dallas along with wins over Minnesota and Los Angeles. Pittsburgh has won two Super Bowls since that time and now leads all other teams in that category with six Super Bowl titles.

It was also the first time that a football team won its third Super Bowl in four years. That's an accomplishment that has been matched only by the New England Patriots.

Steeler fans probably don't like to think about that game too much. Pittsburgh has been to seven Super Bowls, more than any other team, and the one they played in 15 years ago today was their only loss — so far.

As a Packer fan, I hope that will not still be the case a week from Sunday.

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