The Reporter Who Covered Every Super Bowl and the End of an Epic Run

From a story on by Bill Shea headlined “The man who covered every Super Bowl: Jerry Green and the end of an epic run”:

It was January 1967, and in Los Angeles, hundreds of sportswriters were gathering for the inaugural AFL-NFL World Championship Game between the Kansas City Chiefs and Green Bay Packers.

Among them was 38-year-old newspaper reporter Jerry Green, dispatched to L.A.’s cavernous Memorial Coliseum to cover pro football’s new championship game for The Detroit News.

That game, pitting the champions of rival leagues in what was soon to be known as the Super Bowl as the AFL and NFL inched towards a merger, was far from the enormous sports and cultural phenomenon that it would later become.

And Green, who had been covering the merger talks between the leagues, had no idea that he would become the only reporter to attend and cover all of the first 56 Super Bowls.

But like all streaks, his has come to an end. Super Bowl LVII on Sunday will be the first that Green watches at home on television rather than from the press box.

“It defined my career, I know that,” Green said of the streak. “I knew eventually something like this would happen. It’s going to be a different experience. I’m trying to lessen whatever feelings I have, my emotions, which are not nearly as bad as what I thought they would be.”

Now 94 and using an oxygen tank and often a wheelchair, Green opted recently to end the streak because of the physical hassle and dangers of air travel for him, even with help from his daughter, Jenny, who accompanied him on his annual Super Bowl trip in recent years. He deals with a lung condition that leaves him short of breath and causes anxiety, he said.

“Going to the airport, it would’ve been painful and difficult for me,” he said. “I’ve lost some of my navigation abilities since the last Super Bowl.”

Green, still sharp and articulate as ever, plans to watch the game at his apartment in an assisted-living facility in suburban Detroit.

“I’ve felt always that the viewer sees the game better on television, the close-ups of the camera work and especially the replays,” Green said. “I sacrificed that advantage by never watching a game on TV.”

Helping ease the transition from press box to home is that he’s still occasionally writing for The Detroit News. Before speaking with The Athletic on Tuesday evening, he’d just wrapped up a Super Bowl column and emailed it to an editor. He plans to do another after the game.

“I have a lot of good, fond memories. I loved going to the Super Bowl. I looked forward to it all year,” he said, reminiscing about the games, memorable players and coaches, and staying out to enjoy places like Bourbon Street in New Orleans and meals in San Francisco. “… It was better doing it there than the apartment.”

Thinking back, Green remembered some of his favorite players and coaches to interview during the madness of Super Bowl week — and a few who were unpleasant.

“Through the years, I thought John Riggins was funny,” he said of the unconventional Washington Redskins running back and MVP of Super Bowl XVII.

“(Tom) Brady was always decent. (Bill) Belichick was very difficult; if he didn’t like the question, he just snarled back at us,” Green continued.

One year, he asked the Patriots head coach about meeting Vince Lombardi, and Belichick provided an anecdote and was congenial. The following year, Green asked him about the lack of success his former assistants had as head coaches, particularly Matt Patricia with the Lions.

“Belichick snapped at me: ‘I’m here to talk about the Super Bowl,’ he said,” Green recounted.

Green’s Super Bowl memories are a veritable who’s-who of Hall of Famers.

“(Joe) Namath was good. (Joe) Montana came across the way he played — he was a bit vanilla. Terry Bradshaw was funny. Jack Lambert was just a piece of work, he was so funny. I loved talking to him,” Green said. “(Roger) Staubach was terrific.”

Green wishes he’d been able to interview more recent Super Bowl quarterbacks. He didn’t get a chance to talk to Patrick Mahomes a few years ago before Super Bowl LIV. The challenges of getting around the tightly controlled circus that is pre-Super Bowl media week made it impossible.

“You get to a Super Bowl, you get one shot, and that’s it, and they go to the next guy. It’s a grueling experience,” he said. There was more access to players and coaches over the first 25 Super Bowls, he added.

“As my health declined, as I got older, it became more difficult to cover. I used to be on every bus, at every press session. It didn’t happen the last three years,” he said.

Green wasn’t the only reporter with a marathon Super Bowl journalist streak. Jerry Izenberg of the Star-Ledger in New Jersey and Dave Klein, who’d been a Star-Ledger columnist before turning to blogging, both ended their streaks in the past couple of years.

Green’s streak was threatened a couple of times, first ahead of Super Bowl II when a newspaper strike halted The Detroit News from publishing, but Green attended anyway (partially on his own dime) and wrote some magazine pieces, he said.

He wasn’t thinking about attending every Super Bowl at that point, obviously, and the game wasn’t yet an institution.

“It could have ended then,” he said. “The Super Bowl hadn’t made a big dent in American culture at that time.”

His attendance almost stopped in 1997 when his wife, Nancy Hamilton Green, fell ill but insisted he cover the game. She passed away in 2002 from breast cancer.

It’s certainly not lost on Green that his streak now stops at 56, the same number forever connected to Yankees slugger Joe DiMaggio and his hit streak — a few of which Green saw his boyhood idol hit in person, he told The Detroit News recently.

A Manhattan native born in 1928, Green worked as a copyboy at the New York Journal-American in 1952 and then joined the Navy.

After his active-duty service, Green said he struggled to land a newspaper reporting job in New York City, so he ended up working for the Associated Press in Ann Arbor, covering University of Michigan football before being hired at The Detroit News, where he worked there for 41 years before semi-retirement in 2004.

He published several books over the years, including an insider’s reminiscence about the first 30 Super Bowls, but also on other sports topics such as baseball and hockey.

It was while still working at the AP that he covered the Lions beating the Cleveland Browns in the 1957 NFL Championship Game at Briggs Stadium. That was the Lions’ last title, meaning they’re one of the two legacy teams Green never covered in a Super Bowl (the Browns, ironically enough, being the other).

“It became a joke throughout the years: ‘When are you going to cover the Lions in the Super Bowl?’ I’d look sheepish about it, and that was it,” Green said. “I felt it would happen someday, and still feel it will. Not in my time.”

Perhaps more than any other player, Green said he enjoyed watching and writing about Brady, whom he saw play during the quarterback’s days at Michigan and then again many times during the Super Bowls.

“I liked to come back and watch Brady because I covered him when he played at Michigan. I didn’t know him then, but I saw and heard him. If Brady was going to play in a Super Bowl, I wanted to go,” he said.

Looking back, is there a championship game he’d like to revisit?

Green didn’t take long to ruminate on his answer: The Jets and flamboyant “Broadway Joe” Namath upsetting the Colts in 1969, to give the AFL its first victory over the NFL and the first to be formally called the Super Bowl.

“Super Bowl III with Namath was fascinating,” Green said. “That game was very important.”

And it also cemented Green into NFL history. The famous Walter Iooss photo of Namath lounging poolside at a Fort Lauderdale hotel two days before Super Bowl III at Miami’s Orange Bowl, amid a handful of reporters, includes a 40-year-old buzz-cut Jerry Green in horn-rim glasses. It was a chance occurrence that the mercurial Namath wanted to chat, after blowing off other reporters and media obligations.

Namath famously guaranteed his Jets would win and delivered, securing the game into sports lore.

Still, it wasn’t clear at that point that the Super Bowl was destined to become the centerpiece of America’s sports passion and to dominate television. It took a few years for most to realize the game had become part of broader American society.

“The first 10 years or so, the games weren’t really that competitive,” Green said. “I’d say around 1978. Athletes were becoming more important in American culture. Lombardi and Shula and Tom Landry were all figures of great importance. Very slowly you could see the balance shifting from baseball as a national pastime to football.”

Green’s routine for covering Super Bowls didn’t vary much until age made it difficult, but the equipment definitely evolved.

In his early Super Bowls, Green wrote on a small blue Olivetti typewriter he bought in Hong Kong while in the Navy in the 1950s and shipped home in anticipation of becoming a sportswriter. His typed stories were sent to Detroit via a Western Union teletype operator.

“I never had an idea I’d be writing on something called a computer and sending (my stories) on something called email over something called wifi that sometimes didn’t work,” he said.

Later came more complicated and heavier machines: a telecopier, then it was rudimentary “portables” as early clunky laptops were called.

“Hugely unreliable,” Green said. “Little by little we came to the internet. It was gradual. I’m not sure how many laptops I’ve owned. That I still own. I still don’t trust them.”

After retirement, he lived mostly in Palm Desert in California’s Coachella Valley. And since he was still writing Super Bowl columns for The Detroit News, that meant Super Bowl XL at Ford Field in 2006 was a road trip.

“I had to fly back to cover a Super Bowl in my own hometown,” he said, chuckling. “I still owned a house but stayed at a hotel.”

Today, Green can look back not only on a historic streak — his decision to call it quits drew coverage from ESPN, CBS and a statement from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell — but also a career that earned him plenty of accolades including enshrinement in the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame and the Michigan Jewish Sports Foundation Hall of Fame.

Perhaps the most important among his honors is the Professional Football Writers of America’s Dick McCann Memorial Award in 2005 — meaning he’s part of the informal “writer’s wing” of the Pro Football Hall of Fame where the award (now called the Bill Nunn Jr. Award) is annually bestowed.

Even without a gold jacket or bust, Green is in Canton along with so many of the journalists he covered pro football alongside (and against) over seven decades.

Most of his career remembrances are positive, and Green acknowledges that the bumps — including literal ones — were mostly the exception, even as the Super Bowl morphed into a vast, made-for-TV spectacle that’s tightly stage-managed behind the scenes to ensure reporters and players and coaches don’t mix like they once did.

“It became a monster. For a journalist, it was too big,” he said, remembering getting bonked on the head with video cameras and taking elbows (and maybe delivering some) in the gut during crowded press scrums. The Super Bowl today has about 6,000 credentialed media folks.

But any complaints are trivial, and he’s grateful for the decades of enjoyment of what’s become the premier American sports event.

“The favorable outweighed the unfavorable 50-1,” Green said.

Bill Shea is an award-winning reporter and editor who worked for daily newspapers in Ohio and Michigan for nearly 25 years. Prior to joining The Athletic, he spent 13 years as a reporter with Crain’s Detroit Business, creating the sports business beat to the point that Forbes named him a Twitter must-follow on the topic.

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