- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 4, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

In case you hadn’t noticed, Sunday’s championship between the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos will be the 50th time the game known as the Super Bowl has been played — although, when it was once referred to as the ultimate game, enigmatic Dallas Cowboys running back Duane Thomas asked before Super Bowl VI, “If it’s the ultimate game, how come they’re playing it again next year?”

This may be hard to believe, given the perception that the National Football League didn’t actually begin until that first Super Bowl between the Green Bay Packers and the Kansas City Chiefs was played in 1967, but they didn’t always play it. It wasn’t always the ultimate game.

In 1966, the ultimate game was the one that had been played for 33 years — one simply called the NFL championship game. The last one marked the final chapter for the NFL before it would merge with the rival American Football League and give birth to the Super Bowl.

The last one, though, also marked the end of another era — the last game that the great Jim Brown played.

“He was so tough to bring down,” said Tom Brown, the former Maryland football and baseball standout who had played baseball for the Washington Senators and then football as a safety with the Packers. “He used that off hand like a lethal weapon to fend tacklers off.”

But not this day. January 2, 1966 — Jim Brown’s last game — was not a glorious exit.

Green Bay would win, 23-12, the start of the Packers’ three-year championship run, with wins over the Chiefs and the Oakland Raiders to follow in the first two Super Bowls.

The Packers returned to the NFL championship game for the first time since Vince Lombardi led them to NFL titles in 1961 and 1962. They got there after a controversial playoff win because of a tie between the Packers and the Baltimore Colts in the Western Conference forced a divisional playoff game.

Green Bay won, 13-10, on a disputed field goal by Don Chandler — it was called good, although many observers argued it had not gone through the uprights — in a game in which both starting quarterbacks, Johnny Unitas and Bart Starr, were injured and the Colts used fullback Tom Matte at quarterback.

That set up the Packers’ showdown against the defending NFL champions, the Cleveland Browns. Yes, I know, those words are just as hard to type as they are to read, but in another time, another era — before the Super Bowl era — the Browns had won the NFL championship. As has been documented numerous times about Cleveland sports woes, the Browns’ 1964 championship was the last one for any major pro sports team in the city.

The game would be the only NFL championship game to ever be played at “Lambeau Field.” The title game between the Packers and New York Giants in 1961 title game was played in Green Bay, but the stadium, built four years earlier, was called New City Stadium then. It was renamed Lambeau Field in August 1965, two months after the legendary Packers founder and coach, Curly Lambeau, had passed away.

It was also the first NFL championship game to be televised in color. Viewers would see white snow on the field that turned to mud as the game went on.

It was Tom Brown’s first NFL championship game. He would go on to play for the Packers in the next two title games — the first two Super Bowls, and then follow Lombardi to play for the Washington Redskins in 1969 before a shoulder injury led to his retirement. He recalls that Lombardi made it clear to him that the Packers do not lose championship games.

“It was my first year, a great honor,” Tom Brown said. “Lombardi only lost one playoff game in his life. He told the guys, ‘That was on me, but we are never going to lose another championship game.’” Lombardi went 9-1 in playoff games, the only loss in the 1960 contest against the Philadelphia Eagles.

Before the championship game against the Browns, Lombardi posted a sign in the locker room that read, “Pursuit is the shortest course to the ball carrier and arriving there in bad humor.” If Green Bay was going to lose this game, it wouldn’t be because of Jim Brown.

Jim Brown could bust the game open at any time,” Tom Brown said. “We were concerned and respected him, but our strategy was to hold Brown down and let the other guys like quarterback Frank Ryan beat you.”

Ryan didn’t. He hit on one 17-yard touchdown pass to Gary Collins ­— the former Maryland wide receiver — in the first quarter, and Cleveland led, 9-7, going into the second quarter. Three Chandler field goals and a 13-yard touchdown run by Paul Hornung would give Green Bay the 23-12 victory.

The Packers held Jim Brown — the NFL’s all-time leading rusher — to just 50 yards on 12 carries, and they did it with legendary Hall of Fame middle linebacker Ray Nitschke shadowing Brown the whole game.

In an interview after he retired, Nitschke said he felt the pressure of the responsibility Lombardi had put on his massive shoulders. “I told myself, ‘Brown’s your responsibility. Here’s the challenge. Are you big enough to handle it? Are you big enough of a man to stop him? You’re big and strong enough, but can you do it?’”

He did, and one play in particular may have made the difference.

“[Cleveland] didn’t throw the ball as much to Brown as they should have,” Tom Brown said. “We talked about how they didn’t throw to him enough, to go out in the flat and catch the ball, since he was so good in the open field.”

When Ryan did go to Jim Brown in the end zone in the air, Nitschke broke up the play.

Years later, in an NFL Network interview, Jim Brown said he believed that play cost his team the championship — and he put the blame on himself.

“What I really remember about that game is that one play,” he said. “I was in the end zone. Our quarterback threw in my direction. It was somewhat underthrown but it was in my direction. I should have come back and out jumped [Nitschke]. I did not do it. It was a mistake. I felt if I had come back and jumped high enough and caught that ball we would have won the championship, so I put that on my shoulders.”

Jim Brown wouldn’t get another chance to rectify that mistake.

No one knew it at the time, but Brown would retire seven months later, at the age of 30 after nine NFL seasons, to pursue his acting career, leaving the game having carried the ball for 12,312 yards — a 5.2 yards-per-carry average — and 126 touchdowns and the legacy as the greatest to ever play the game.

Tom Brown said no one particularly recognized that this championship game would be the line of demarcation — pre- and post-Super Bowl. “There was some talk about playing the AFL, but not much,” he said.

It turned out to the answer to Duane Thomas‘ question — it was the “ultimate” game because the NFL would never be the same after that 1965 championship game.

⦁ Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 and espn980.com.

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