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Jerry Izenberg shares 53 years of Super Bowl memories

Jerry Izenberg has been telling Super Bowl stories for LIV years.

For the first LIII, he told them from the press box. He was one of only two reporters who could make that claim until last year, when he said the legs were starting to go. At the time, he and Jerry Green of the Detroit News were the last men standing, albeit gingerly.

Izenberg, a Hall of Fame sports writer and author who is 90, makes his home in Henderson these days and still writes about the Super Bowl, boxing, baseball, horse racing and all things Rutgers as columnist emeritus for the Star-Ledger in his beloved Newark, New Jersey.

Get him on the telephone for an hour or two … or three of four … and he’ll spin Super Bowl yarns into a sideline parka that will keep you warm long after Lambeau Field freezes over.

As Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes prepare to make more Super Bowl memories on Sunday in Tampa, here’s a sampling of Izenberg’s firsthand recollections.

Take it to the Max

You’ve heard the expression “Irresistible Force vs. Immovable Object?” There’s no telling how many times sports media people have dusted off that cliche to describe the Super Bowl.

But of the 54 big games played thus far, Izenberg said its use still is accepted in regard to the very first one. Only not in relation to the game itself.

The Green Bay Packers of Vince Lombardi might have been an irresistible force, but the Kansas City Chiefs of Hank Stram and the upstart American Football League were hardly an immovable object. That wouldn’t happen until Super Bowl IV. The Packers won Super Bowl I 35-10 before acres of empty seats in Los Angeles, and it went as easily as expected.

The night before the game was another matter.

Lombardi had warned his team there would be no after-hours escapades. He had an eye on running back Paul Hornung when he said this, but pointed a finger with good reason at backup wide receiver Max McGee, the Golden Boy’s roommate.

Lombardi said there would be a $5,000 fine — one third of the winner’s share — for breaking curfew, Izenberg said in retelling the story.

It was Lombardi’s will vs. McGee’s bacchanal instinct.

Irresistible Force vs. Immovable Object.

The next day, McGee was dozing on the bench during the Super Bowl when Boyd Dowler, Green Bay’s star receiver, suffered a shoulder separation.

A couple of plays later, McGee caught a 37-yard pass from Bart Starr and scored the first touchdown in Super Bowl history despite a massive hangover.

Score on for the immovable object.

Parcells’ fighting words

Of all the coaches Izenberg covered at the Super Bowl, he knew Bill Parcells best. Parcells was born in Englewood, exit 18 off the New Jersey Turnpike; Izenberg in Neptune, exit 11.

Izenberg’s favorite Parcells story stems from the run-up to Super Bowl XXV. Giants 20, Bills 19.

During the practice week, Izenberg said Parcells thought the Giants’ offensive line looked lethargic. And that a lethargic O-line would not match up well against Bruce Smith and the energized Buffalo defensive front.

Parcells quietly called over Lawrence Taylor and told the Giants’ all-world linebacker to start a fight.

“On the next sequence,” Izenberg recalled, “Lawrence Taylor came at the offensive line with a violence that belied the very nature of the minimal contact drill” and took a swing at the first offensive lineman he encountered. It happened to be John Stuart “Jumbo” Elliott, who stood 6-foot-7 and weighed 305 pounds. Hence the nickname.

The fight was on.

Parcells turned his back and smiled, Izenberg said.

“Bill, Bill, shouldn’t we break this up?” an animated Giants assistant coach ran over to ask.

Parcells told Bill Belichick, yes, that Bill Belichick, that maybe they should.

On Sunday, an awakened Giants’ offensive line helped New York control the ball for a record 40 minutes, 33 seconds.

Man of few(er) words

“I’m just here so I won’t get fined.”

Before there was Marshawn Lynch, a man of few words for the Seattle Seahawks at Super Bowl XLIX, there was Duane Thomas, a man of even fewer words, for the Dallas Cowboys at Super Bowls V and VI.

Izenberg said the recalcitrant running back was responsible for one of the great quotes in Super Bowl history when, before the fifth installment, he was asked if the Super Bowl was “the ultimate game.”

“If it’s the ultimate game,” Thomas said, “then why are we playing it again next year?”

After that, Thomas, who rushed for 95 yards and a touchdown in the Cowboys’ 24-3 victory over Miami in Super Bowl VI, ceased talking. To the press and to everybody else. Including venerable Dallas coach Tom Landry and the Cowboys’ medical staff.

Izenberg shared the story about Thomas being injured in a regular-season game, and the team doctor jogging off the field almost as quickly as he ran onto it.

“How bad is it?” Landry asked.

“How the hell should I know?” the doctor replied. “The SOB won’t even talk to me.”

For Pete’s sake

With all respect due the Bud Bowl, those will never be the two most noteworthy words in Super Bowl history. Same for Wardrobe Malfunction.

According to Izenberg, Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson would have never been able to run a (near) naked bootleg at halftime were it not for the proper nouns Pete and Rozelle.

“There would have been no Super Bowl, no merger between leagues — here, I (also) give some credit to Al Davis — no television bonanza, no Monday Night Football — maybe no pro football without Pete Rozelle,” Izenberg said.

Izenberg told a story about a phone call between the commissioner and the reporters who had witnessed all 30 Super Bowls to that point. Rozelle had planned to be in Phoenix to toast the wordsmiths in person when the audible was called.

His doctors advised against him making the trip because Rozelle was dying.

“He spoke to each of us individually, calling us by name and reminding each in his turn of some shared moment,” Izenberg recalled.

There were 15 or so shared moments, and then the commissioner told the football wordsmiths goodbye.

“Somebody raised a glass and, as each of the rest followed, we knew that most of us would probably never hear his voice again,” Izenberg said.

Villapiano rings true

If most people recall Phil Villipiano in a Super Bowl context, it probably is for the hit he put on Minnesota’s Brent McClanahan in Super Bowl XI, forcing a fumble that prevented the Vikings’ from scoring a touchdown and led to the Raiders marching down the field for one of their own, turning the tide in Oakland’s 32-14 victory.

Villapiano earned a Super Bowl ring for that hit, but Izenberg remembers the hard-nosed linebacker from Long Branch, N.J., (exit 11 off the turnpike) for what he did with that ring years later.

It was after the Raiders had rallied to beat San Diego, and a group of old Raiders and friends partied long after the game until being told it was time to leave. Villapiano encountered a group of fans with painted faces in the Oakland Coliseum parking lot and asked one for a beer.

One of the guys with the face painters was in a wheelchair accompanied by his two young daughters. This man’s name was Mitch Oellrich; he had been injured in an accident. Villapiano told the man that the wife of Conrad Dobler, the former All-Pro offensive lineman and hell-raiser, also was told she would never walk again, and she did.

As Izenberg tells the story, Villapiano said perhaps the man needed inspiration. So he gave him his Super Bowl ring. “Give this back to me when you are walking.”

Even if the story ended there it would be heartwarming.

But Villapiano and the injured man stayed in touch. In 2002, the man called Villapiano and said he wanted to give him the ring back. Villapiano suggested they could meet at a Super Bowl party that Glenn Carano, the former UNLV and Dallas Cowboys quarterback, was hosting at a Reno casino.

Mitch Oellrich brought most of the face painters from the parking lot with him, Izenberg said.

They lifted him onto the showroom stage so he could return the Super Bowl ring to its rightful owner.

They were chanting “Mitch, Mitch, Mitch” when Oellrich rose from his wheelchair, took a tiny half step forward and fell into Villapiano’s arms.

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.

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