I realized the chasm between us mere mortal Super Bowl fans and 94-year-old Jerry Green when, early in the second half, he found himself confounded by that Blue Moon beer ad spoofing a half-century of Miller Lite and Bud Light ads.
“I don’t get it,” he grumbled with a gravelly cadence and a shrug.
Green, you see, had never watched a Super Bowl on television. For the previous 56 incarnations, since the AFL and NFL merged to create the football championship that became our most sacred secular American holiday, he was in the press box for the Detroit News.
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Jerry Green’s Super Bowl history
Last year, I profiled him for Newsweek because he was the last of the 338 journalists who covered what later became known as Super Bowl 1 in 1967 who still had an unbroken attendance streak. I even played a small part in helping him get a few minutes by phone with Rams QB Matthew Stafford on the eve of the ex-Lion proving it wasn’t his fault he never took Detroit anywhere.
This year, though, time finally caught up with Jerry. His pulmonary fibrosis makes breathing challenging, various other maladies make walking, hearing, and seeing more difficult. His daughter moved Jerry into a splendorous, country club-like assisted living facility in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, where the staff “feed me too well” and check on him every two hours. His neighbor two doors down is 103 years old. #goals
Jerry called me in early January to announce he wouldn’t go to Arizona. “The streak ends at 56,” he said somberly. He was OK with this; that was the same number as his childhood hero Joe DiMaggio’s unbeatable hitting streak, he reminded me. His granddaughter still wanted to make it happen somehow, but he told the kid he’d only go if she could charter a private plane. As that wasn’t going to happen, I asked him if I could come watch Super Bowl 57 with him.
Super Bowl 57 at home, like most viewers
Thus, on Sunday night I took in the Kansas City-Philadelphia face-off with (probably) the only football fan in America who had never seen the Super Bowl on TV. Even after he retired from full-time duty at the News in 2004, they kept sending him.
Think about that. Jerry had never watched a single Super Bowl ad. He’d seen Montana and Namath and Bradshaw and Brady in person. Every snap, every classic moment, he was perched above watching and taking notes. He was always too busy writing and foraging for food during the Super Bowl Halftime Show to pay much mind; he didn’t know about the surprise appearance of Janet Jackson’s nipple until after the game that year, he says.
This time, instead of hunching over a laptop and squinting down at the field to watch the action, Jerry watched from a wood chair emblazoned with the seal of his alma mater, Brown, on a 40-inch flat screen with a nose cannula delivering him oxygen. He still wore his standard Super Bowl attire, a collared shirt under a sleeveless vest, minus a media credential hanging from a lanyard around his neck. We stood solemnly for the National Anthem, with Jerry holding his camo-colored Navy cap and saluting as a veteran does. After the cameras spotted Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni weeping during Chris Stapleton’s melancholic rendition, Jerry asked me:
“Can you imagine Vince Lombardi crying like that at Super Bowl 1?”
As Jerry’s normie sherpa, I felt a certain responsibility to show him what regular people do on this occasion. I brought pizza and Doritos; I offered beer, but he can’t drink anymore and I had to drive home. I told him about the various Super Bowl bets I had on the game and tried (unsuccessfully) to explain to him the Super Boxes thing my sister always snookers me into. As the first break came with the FanDuel ad, he muttered, “Pete Rozelle must be rolling in his grave.” I chose not to mention minutes later when I’d turned $3 into $26.50 with a prop bet that Eagles QB Jalen Hurts would score the first touchdown.
As the action began, Jerry pulled a pizza slice from the box to put on his knee, clicked on a yellow pen, and cradled his notebook on his lap. He was working; a Detroit News column would be forthcoming, and he needed an angle.
I had asked him several times who he thought would win; he said he didn’t make predictions. I asked who he wanted to win; he told me he never really allowed himself to pick a side.
“That’s the fan mentality,” he said. “I never believed in rooting for a team. I was there to cover the games.”
Part of that, I wondered, was that the home team he covered was the Detroit Lions, the saddest squad in Super Bowl-era football. The Lions are the only original team from the 1967 merger to have never played in the Big Game. (They won NFL championships he covered in the 1950s, though.) It’s been 22 years, in fact, since Detroit enjoyed its only playoff win of the Super Bowl era. It’s easier to be objective when your team never contends, no?
He pointed on a shelf to one of his books, “The Year of the Tiger,” his account of the Detroit baseball team’s 1968 World Series victory. “I would’ve had more professional opportunities from the Lions if they had done better because there would’ve been more to write about,” he says. “That’s why I might have wanted them to win more.” Not for civic pride, no. For the stories he could have told.
As Halftime approached and Rihanna prepared to prance indecipherably with a few hundred oompa-loompas, Jerry suggested he might go nap. Then, suddenly, his sharp wit returned. “Oh, it’s the Apple Music Halftime Show,” he snarked. “Well, that’s different. That changes everything. They give very good dividends.”
Green’s past Super Bowl highlights
He stuck it out and we revisited some old highlights, like the time he sat poolside with five other reporters for an iconic photo of a shirtless Joe Namath before Super Bowl 3 or when Peyton Manning almost crashed into him at Super Bowl 50 following a photo opp the NFL had arranged of Green and another original Super Bowl writer on the field before kickoff.
For all his pride in his Super Bowl streak, though, Green is not awash in memorabilia. His Namath photo and one with boxing legend Joe Louis, which I saw via FaceTime when I talked to him last year, had yet to be unpacked at his new pad.
“You know, this is the third trip I haven’t taken because of my health,” he said flatly. One was a family wedding. The other was a ceremony in Washington D.C. last October where the Society of Professional Journalists was inducting him into their Hall of Fame. “I would have liked to have been at that.”
The idea of a nap resurfaced again during the third quarter — he mentioned he was tired — and I wondered if he was trying to say I had overstayed my welcome. I told him to let me know if he wanted me to go, and he looked at me quizzically. “What are you going to do, say I watched the game on TV and went to bed?” he said. “You’re going to stay until the last play.”
Writers’ anxiety, even at 94
I would soon realize that what I had read as boredom and perhaps fatigue was, in fact, a columnist’s anxiety. It was pushing into the fourth quarter, he groused, and he still didn’t have an angle. The game was entertaining, suspenseful and high-scoring, and I’d won a few more of my props including a +150 payout when Mahomes threw for more than 2.5 touchdowns.
Jerry, though, hadn’t fixed yet upon what Super Bowl 57 was about – until the moment that ruined it all for me. When the refs called that fateful holding penalty on the Eagles’ James Bradberry to give the Kansas City Chiefs the first down with less than two minutes to play, our moods went in opposite directions. I had the Chiefs -3.5 and they were now going to slow-walk to a 3-point win.
My companion, however, marveled at the precision with which KC deliberately didn’t score that last touchdown and managed the clock. Earlier, when the Eagles took a timeout in the third quarter, Jerry presciently suggested they might come to regret it. And then boy did they ever. “It’s definitely a different kind of ending to a Super Bowl,” he said as he scribbled on his pad.
I complained about how lame it was that they didn’t take that last touchdown, how unsatisfying it all was.
“That’s why I don’t bet on the games,” he says with a Cheshire grin. “It would influence my writing.”
With that, it was over and I began packing up to go. Did he miss being there? “If I was there, I wouldn’t have been able to hold up,” he says somberly. We parted with a handshake and a plan to do it again next year.
The next day, this is how he’d close his News column about — what else? — watching his first Super Bowl in absentia:
“It had been well plotted.
Harrison Butker’s 27-yard field goal could not have been better.
The TV world smiled.
The Chiefs had won, 38-35, their second Super Bowl victory in four years.
Nick Sirianni might have unloosed some more tears.
And if I am Philadelphia, I might have booed at my television.
But I’d have preferred to have been around, in person, to ask questions.”