Monday, January 9, 2012

Seizing the Moment

The Rose Bowl in Pasadena has been the scene of many memorable college football games over the years, but no professional football games were played there until this date 35 years ago.

Only five professional football games have been played in the Rose Bowl — and all were Super Bowls. The NFL has a policy against holding a Super Bowl in a city that does not have an NFL franchise, but that does not mean Super Bowls can only be played in stadiums that are the full–time homes of active teams.

The Rams and, for a time, the Raiders played in other stadiums when they were based in Los Angeles, but, by the mid–1990s, the Raiders had returned to Oakland and the Rams had moved to St. Louis.

Thus, Los Angeles no longer has an NFL franchise — which is why no Super Bowls have been played there since 1993 — but it was the most popular Super Bowl destination for more than 15 years, starting with the game that was played on this day in 1977.

That was one of the things that made Super Bowl XI noteworthy before it was played — the fact that it was being played in the Rose Bowl where so many great college football games had been played in the past, but, up to that time, no professional games had been played there.

Another thing that made it noteworthy was the knowledge that championship futility was going to end for one of the two entrants. The Oakland Raiders and the Minnesota Vikings had both been to the Super Bowl before and come away empty handed. They had made the playoffs on other occasions as well and missed the Super Bowl entirely.

When I was a child, the Dallas Cowboys were known as the team that couldn't win the Big One. But the Cowboys shook that monkey from their backs, winning it all in January 1972 and returning as the Super Bowl's first wild–card entry a year before the Raiders and Vikings met on this day.

By the mid–1970s, a handful of NFL squads had emerged as the latest teams that couldn't win the Big One. The Raiders and Vikings were clearly in that group when the 1976 season began, and they surged to their division titles as if they were men on missions.

They both won rematches of early regular–season contests in their respective league championship games, advancing to meet in the Super Bowl in Pasadena, and each was impressive in its own way.

The Vikings overwhelmed the Rams, who fought to a 10–10 tie with Minnesota in the second week of the season, and the Raiders beat the two–time defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers, 35–20. The Raiders beat the Steelers by a field goal in the season opener.

The first quarter was a testament to the desire on both sides as neither team managed to score.

Defense played a prominent role in that game. I guess you wouldn't think that if all you knew about the game was the final score (Oakland 32, Minnesota 14), but it is really true.

Minnesota entered the game with the NFL's second–best defense even though many Viking starters were thought to be nearing the ends of their careers (as, in fact, many were), but if either defense was in the spotlight prior to the game, it was Oakland's. The Raiders were ranked 12th in defense, but they had often been criticized in the mid–1970s for being too aggressive.

Undoubtedly, the Raiders' defensive backs were a hard–hitting bunch, especially George Atkinson. After breaking Russ Francis' nose in the first round of the AFC playoffs and then giving Lynn Swann a concussion in the AFC championship game, Atkinson was truly the center of attention.

But it was teammate Jack Tatum — also known as "The Assassin" — who delivered what is rightly regarded as the hardest blow in Super Bowl XI, if not in the history of the Super Bowl.

Minnesota quarterback Fran Tarkenton found Offensive Player of the Year Sammy White on a crossing pattern. The pass didn't hit him in the numbers, but it required no special effort to catch, either, and White caught it in stride. Tatum seemed to come from nowhere and knocked off White's helmet with a teeth–rattling hit. Incredibly, White held on to the ball.

Such concentration should have been rewarded, but, of the Vikings' four (so far) Super Bowl losses, the margin in the game they lost 35 years ago today was the widest.

White's heroic effort was for naught, and none of his successors in purple have had the opportunity to make up for it.

In the 35 years since that day, the Raiders have been back to the Super Bowl on several occasions. The Vikings have never returned.

Sometimes I wonder if they ever will.

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