The L and the I in this year’s Super Bowl logo are numerals, not letters. They’re Roman, having nothing to do with Roslyn or Ronkonkoma. But anyone who has ever spent time living between Albertson and Amagansett and has seen that design undoubtedly has done a double-take.
Super Bowl LI, the fifty-first installment of America’s greatest annual sports spectacle, practically screams Long Island even though the game will be played in Houston, between teams from New England and Georgia, with nary a Long Island participant in sight.
Yet perhaps there is some significance to the LI. Officially it stands for 51, but Long Island certainly has had a major impact on the history of the game, on the growth of it from little more than a sideshow exhibition between two disparate leagues to a pigskin holiday.
Super Bowl LI? Sure, why not?
Long Island never has hosted a Super Bowl. Never had a Super Bowl-winning team. Never had a Super Bowl-winning quarterback. Only 15 men who played high school football on Long Island have made it to a Super Bowl field. So what have we had to celebrate? Plenty, it turns out.
When the Jets won Super Bowl III — the only New York City-based team ever to win the title, playing out of Shea Stadium in Queens at the time — they didn’t get a tickertape parade in the Canyon of Heroes. Legend has it that Giants owner Wellington Mara threatened Mayor John Lindsay that he would move his team to New Jersey if the city showered its affections on the upstarts. The Jets had a ceremony at City Hall instead.
But Long Island held a parade for one of its own.
“They closed the schools and they had John Schmitt Super Bowl Champion Day,” said Schmitt, 74, the starting center for those Jets. “I had my own parade.”
After growing up in Central Islip and playing at Hofstra, he settled in Freeport. That’s where he worked — his other job, that is, as a vice president at Al Vollmer Insurance Agency — and that’s where the town held a parade in his honor.
“My wife and I sat on the back of a white Cadillac convertible and we paraded through town with the band and the school and all the cheerleaders, and the whole town turned out,” Schmitt recalled. “It was phenomenal. I was the only guy on the Super Bowl team that never made it to the ceremony in New York City, but I had my own parade.”
When the Ravens trounced the Giants in Super Bowl XXXV in 2001, there weren’t a lot of happy fans on Long Island. But in Selden, they were ecstatic. That’s where starting defensive tackle Rob Burnett grew up and played at Newfield High School, where his parents still lived. A few days after the Ravens won, Burnett was presented a key to the Town of Brookhaven by supervisor John Jay LaValle — a former baseball teammate of Burnett’s — in that Selden living room.
“They gave me some love,” said Burnett, 49. “I appreciated it.”
And when the most recent Long Islander to play in the big game came off the field with a championship — tight end Andrew Quarless of Uniondale, who played for the Packers and won Super Bowl XLV — he raised his arms in victory. Tattooed on his left arm was the familiar map of LI with the words “Strong Island” written under it, and a star right where Uniondale sits.
Those are just some of the players who have celebrated and been celebrated. The real impact of Long Island on the Super Bowl is far less known, far less appreciated. Perhaps much more important. The first game was played in Los Angeles, but the framework of it has its roots in . . . Massapequa.
7:47 FROM MASSAPEQUA
Pete Rozelle is considered the visionary behind the Super Bowl. He was the commissioner of the NFL who set up the game that initially was called “The AFL-NFL World Championship Game” in 1967 and eventually led to the 1970 merger between the NFL and American Football League.
Lamar Hunt, owner of the Kansas City Chiefs, is the one who came up with the name “Super Bowl” after seeing his kids playing with a high-bouncing Super Ball. It was meant to be a placeholder, but the moniker stuck and in 1969 it became official.
Both of those men are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame for their well-known contributions.
But three league officers who did much of the planning and organizational work on those earliest, formative games — Jim Kensil, Don Weiss and Mark Duncan — all worked in the NFL’s Manhattan offices. They all commuted there together from their homes in Massapequa via the good ol’ LIRR.
“Anyone in those days who rode the 7:47 a.m. and 7:03 p.m. trains from Massapequa to Penn Station and back learned a great deal about Super Bowl planning,” said Joe Browne, a former NFL senior executive who will be attending his 50th straight Super Bowl in Houston. “Those were the trains our guys rode together when they were in town.”
It’s where they would sit together and discuss their progress, their pitfalls and their ideas. The folks sitting around them likely had no idea that what they were overhearing essentially was the birth plan for what would become the biggest pageant in American sports.
Each brought something different to the Super Bowl.
Kensil, who went on to become president of the Jets, was, Browne said, “the de facto deputy commissioner” at the time. Rozelle went further, often referring to Kensil as “my offensive and defensive coordinator.” His job for the first game included the sale and distribution of game tickets, which was a lot different from what it is today. The first Super Bowl also was the first time a pro championship was played at a neutral site. Before that, all NFL championships, World Series and other sports’ final-round games were played at the home of one of the two teams.
“There are a number of reasons why the first Super Bowl in Los Angeles did not sell out, but lack of effort was not one of them,” said Browne, a Queens native who settled in Sands Point in the 1970s. “Remember, we were doing something that never had been tried before in sports.”
Kensil died in 1997 and Weiss in 2003.
Weiss was in charge of media coverage for the earliest Super Bowls, and that included another innovation: Having the teams travel to the city of the game at least a week ahead of time to help promote the championship.
“This was very much a media event,” Browne said. “Rozelle, who had been a public relations team executive before becoming commissioner, wanted things done in a first- class, professional manner.”
Then there was Duncan, who died in 1993. He selected the practice sites for the two teams during that first Super Bowl week and was responsible for the officials who worked the game. Remember, this was the first time champions from two different pro football leagues were playing each other.
“I remember that he brought in game officials from both the AFL and NFL and then tried to work out the differences in the ways the two leagues officiated the games,” Browne said. “After one long, stormy meeting in the week leading to the first Super Bowl, Duncan threw up his hands and said: ‘We are officiating this first game using NFL — not AFL — procedures.’”
The first Super Bowl had six officials: Three from the NFL and three from the AFL, all working under NFL rules and regulations, just as Duncan decreed.
That was that. Everything that made the Super Bowl different from anything else in the sports landscape, all hammered out by a few guys from Massapequa.
All that had to happen next was for the game to catch on. It almost didn’t. Coincidentally or not, it wasn’t until Long Islanders first appeared in the game that it truly became Super.
IN THE BEGINNING. . .
The Packers easily won the first two games (against the Chiefs and Raiders), and the future of the Super Bowl and the merger itself seemed flimsy. Then came Super Bowl III, the most Long Island of all the games. Four players from here — Schmitt, Matt Snell (Carle Place) and Paul Rochester (Sewanhaka) for the Jets, John Mackey (Hempstead) for the Colts — participated in that game. Snell scored what might be the most important touchdown in Super Bowl history, the only one scored by the Jets that day, leading them to their unimaginable 16-7 win.
“After killing the AFL teams in the first two Super Bowls, I don’t know what would have happened if we didn’t win that Super Bowl,” Schmitt said. “We may have gone out of business as a league because we wouldn’t have had any credibility. Once we won that Super Bowl . . . that really put the AFL on the map.”
It also paved the way for future Long Islanders to participate in the games, and remember their roots while they did it. John Niland, a ferocious pulling guard for the Cowboys and product of Amityville, played in Super Bowls V and VII. He said two men were responsible for his achievements.
“I credit Lou Howard with the success I had going into college,” Niland, 72, said of the long-time Amityville coach, “and from there I credit Coach [Tom] Landry with the success I had in the pros . . . Lou Howard was very instrumental in getting players to really work the game and work hard.”
Had Niland’s Cowboys won the Ice Bowl against the Packers, there is a good chance they would have won Super Bowl I and he would have been the first Long Island Super Bowl player.
SUPER GUY FROM SYOSSET
Syosset’s Ed Newman, a guard for the Dolphins, played in Super Bowls VIII and XIX (and was injured but part of the team for Super Bowl XVII). He saw first-hand the growth the game made through its teenage years.
“In ’73, there was no danger of losing sight of why I was there,” said Newman, 65. “In ’82 and ’84, the amount of media was circus-like. It was a distraction. You had to steel yourself not to lose focus with the floodlights in your eyes. Coach Shula warned us often: We had to be careful not to let the hoopla overshadow the game.”
It was exhilarating all the same.
“The experience is way larger than anything you can imagine,” Newman said. “It’s like a 4-year-old going to the circus for the first time . . . All the colors are brighter, all the sounds are sharper and crisper. There’s much more of a connection to life.”
In 1982, Newman’s Dolphins added defensive back Paul Lankford of Farmingdale, giving them two Long Islanders. They remain close friends, but back then it was more about bragging rights back home.
“That was one of the biggest rivalries back then, Farmingdale and Syosset,” said Lankford, 58. “So yeah, Eddie Newman from Syosset. I knew of him. I didn’t know him in high school, he was a few years ahead of me. But he knew when I got there, hey, there’s a Farmingdale guy here. And I said: There’s a Syosset guy here. We definitely hooked up and we had to talk some stuff.”
“When we get together at an alumni event,” Newman said, “we always talk about Long Island.”
Burnett, the Ravens’ defensive tackle, bridged the gap from Super Bowl III to the 21st century. He grew up as a Jets fan and recalled watching them at training camp at Hofstra as well as seeing Joe Namath play for them at Shea. He’s also the only Long Islander ever to beat a local team in the Super Bowl, and he did it in ferocious style.
“They had no idea what was about to drop on their head from the first play of the game,” Burnett said of the Giants, who lost to his Ravens, 34-7. “That was a mauling. If that guy [Ron Dixon] didn’t return that kickoff, it would have been the first and only Super Bowl shutout.”
Of the 15 Long Islanders who have ever played in a Super Bowl, all but three won at least once. The only ones who never did are Boomer Esiason of East Islip, whose Bengals lost in Super Bowl XXIII; punter Todd Sauerbrun of Ward Melville, who kicked for the Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII, and Lankford, who has the ignominy of being Long Island’s only two-time Super Bowl loser (XVII, XIX).
“You put so much into it and it takes a while to get over that,” Lankford said. “All of the effort and then you get there, and boom, to have lost not only once but twice, it was such a letdown. But it’s an amazing feeling to get to that level.”
It’s a feeling not everyone gets to experience. That’s why those who have collect their memories and safeguard them. Schmitt still has his size 12 cleats from Super Bowl III, which were bronzed for him and put on a plaque.
“I have the biggest pair of baby bronzed shoes you ever saw,” Schmitt said.
Probably the dirtiest, too. Grass and mud from the Orange Bowl field that stuck to the shoes and were not wiped away before they were dipped remain there for posterity.
Most have more traditional keepsakes. Newman wears his Super Bowl VIII ring each day. It is simple and gold, and the orange and aqua enamel in the Dolphins’ colors have worn off some.
“The ring is not pristine,” he said. “I’ve been wearing it for 40 years. But I’m glad I have it. I’m glad to say I was there and I did it.”
It reminds him of the accomplishment, but also of his roots.
“I don’t think there’s a better place to grow up in the world,” Newman said of Long Island. “I love that place.”
LI’s SUPER BOWL REGISTER
Player / High School / Position / Team (SB)
John Schmitt / *Seton Hall Prep / C / Jets (III)
Matt Snell / Carle Place / RB / Jets (III)
Paul Rochester / Sewanhaka / DT / Jets (III)
John Mackey / Hempstead / TE / Colts (III, IV)
John Niland / Amityville / G / Cowboys (V, VI)
Ed Newman / Syosset / G / Dolphins (VIII, XIX)
Lyle Alzado / Lawrence / DE / Broncos (XII), Raiders (XVIII)
Paul Lankford / Farmingdale / CB / Dolphins (XVII, XIX)
Craig McEwen / Northport / TE / Redskins (XXII)
Boomer Esiason / East Islip / QB / Bengals (XXIII)
Jumbo Elliott / Sachem / T / Giants (XXV)
Marco Rivera / Elmont / G / Packers XXXI
Rob Burnett / Newfield / DT / Ravens (XXXV)
Todd Sauerbrun / Ward Melville / P / Panthers (XXXVIII)
Andrew Quarless / Uniondale / TE / Packers (XLV)
*Seton Hall Prep in Patchogue closed in 1974
*Seton Hall Prep in Patchogue closed in 1974