War and Football: The Gulf War Super Bowl 20 Years Later

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War and Football: The Gulf War Super Bowl 20 Years Later
Rick Stewart/Getty Images

Next Sunday’s Super Bowl between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers will be the 10th since 9/11—a decade of contests held as U.S. troops are actively engaged around the world.

The game has gone on—occasionally with a red, white and blue nod to the broader world: Bono’s star-spangled jacket, Budweiser’s familiar Clydesdales genuflecting before a shattered lower Manhattan skyline or recorded greetings from the troops proceeded by messages of appreciation from the athletes.

It’s part of the “new normal” that descended in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks and, a decade later, nothing about it seems extraordinary.

But for the NFL, the networks broadcasting it and the advertisers that support it, the script was not always so clear.

Twenty years ago in Tampa, the New York Giants faced the favored Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXV. The matchup featured a classic contrast in styles: Buffalo’s high-octane no-huddle offense against New York’s smash-mouth philosophy epitomized by a suffocating defense.

It’s also the only Super Bowl the league ever considered cancelling.

At the least, the game makes everyone’s short list of the greatest in history. New York’s game plan called for intimidating and punishing Buffalo’s talented receivers, while the offense controlled time of possession and reduced All-Pro Bills quarterback Jim Kelly to spectator for much of the evening.

Stephen Munday/Getty Images
Bush gave order to begin bombing Hussein's forces on January 17, 1991.

For a game played at an extraordinarily high level—it was the first Super Bowl without a turnover—it’s defining moment was a miss, as Scott Norwood’s 47-yard game-winning field goal attempt sailed wide right.

But the prior week’s coverage focused less on the teams and more on how the league’s silver anniversary Super Bowl would play out against the backdrop of the first Gulf War, which had begun 10 days earlier with a massive aerial assault meant to dislodge Saddam Hussein’s occupying armies from neighboring Kuwait.

What we recall best from the Gulf War are the stars it birthed: Stormin’ Norman Schwarzkopf, Colin Powell, CNN. It was the first conflict of the mass media and video-game eras, and it teased the possibility that future wars could be waged remotely with minimal loss of life.

Not as well-remembered is the contentious vote authorizing President George H.W. Bush to use force—which passed the Senate just 52-47—or predictions from one prominent dissenting Senator that U.S. casualties would number 3,000 per week. “Gulf I” marked the military’s first major combat operations since Vietnam, and as the uniformed men who fought that war prepared to command a new one, lessons learned in the jungles of southeast Asia were seared into their collective psyche—and that of the nation.

But none of these divisions were apparent the evening of January 27th inside Tampa Stadium, where better than 72,000 mostly flag-waving fans heard Whitney Houston, clad head-to-toe in dazzling white, belt out a rendition of the national anthem so stirring it was later released as a single and became a top 20 hit.

George Rose/Getty Images
Houston's anthem became a top 20 hit.

Al Michaels called the game for ABC but frequently shared the proceedings with network news anchor Peter Jennings, who appeared at the end of the first quarter to intone that it was 3:00 AM and “unusually quiet” in Baghdad, and returned with a special halftime report that preempted a Disney-produced on-field show.

Trailing 12-10, New York received the opening kickoff of the second half and consumed most of the quarter with a 14-play, 75-yard drive, then the longest scoring drive in Super Bowl history. A one-yard touchdown plunge by MVP Otis Anderson gave the Giants a 17-12 lead entering then final stanza.

By then nerves had eased. Coca-Cola had aired a heavily criticized and transparent message advertising that it was not advertising out of respect for the troops, and Bud Light was staging a dramatic comeback to capture Bud Bowl III.

It was a sharp departure in tone from earlier in the week, when there were questions whether the game should be played at all.

Discussion centered first whether the game could be staged safely, given concerns that the site was an inviting target for terrorists, and then on the appropriateness of playing in light of the war’s recent commencement.

For freshly minted NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, it was an early test. His predecessor, Pete Rozelle, went to his grave in 1996 confiding that his order for NFL games to be played the Sunday after the Kennedy assassination was the worst mistake of his life. 

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
Former commissioner Tagliabue

Seeking to avoid a similar miscalculation, Tagliabue took the precautionary step of making plans to delay the Super Bowl a week in the event ABC was forced to preempt its broadcast for breaking war coverage.

Then, having determined to play the game—albeit a necessarily muted spectacle held under unprecedented layers of security—the commissioner received a vote of confidence from the President, who defended the decision at a White House news conference by saying, “Life goes on.”

Though federal, state and local officials maintained no credible threat had been made against the stadium, all fans were subject to bag searches and hand-held metal detectors. The New York Times mused: “Of course, no one knows exactly how fans will react to having bags X-rayed and pocketbooks and totes searched. Will the ambiance of the game itself suffer? Will pre-game anticipation be dampened by the sight of concrete barriers erected to prevent terrorists from crashing into the stadium? Or by a six-foot chain-link fence that rims the stadium?”

From a vantage point two decades and the events of September 11th later, one is struck by the apparent earnestness of those concerns. That the Super Bowl should be subject to the tightest security measures strikes us now as so self-evident that we wonder what any fuss was about. That the NFL might cancel the game seems, in retrospect, preposterous.

Today, games in the age of terror are old hat. Fans routinely pass through screening checkpoints to enter major sporting events—labeled “soft targets” by security experts—and no broadcast is complete without a word of support for our troops protecting freedoms around the globe.

Rick Stewart/Getty Images

For the sports world, the experience of Super Bowl XXV was in some ways instructive. Twelve years later another President Bush prepared to strike Iraq on the eve of March Madness, compelling NCAA President Myles Brand to acknowledge the possibility of rescheduling opening round games. But he followed it with: “I think we have to be very careful not to let Saddam Hussein control our lives.” When bombs began falling on the tournament’s opening day, CBS seamlessly handed off its broadcast to ESPN—but only for the day.

Twenty years ago, those charged with hosting, covering and securing Super Bowl XXV were in largely uncharted waters. It is a testament to their successes that the game is remembered for what happened on the field, where unfolded one of the most dramatic finishes in league history.

On the opening play of the fourth quarter, Thurman Thomas scooted 31 yards to the end zone, returning the Bills to the lead.

New York countered with another time-consuming drive, culminating in Matt Bahr’s 21-yard field goal to put the Giants ahead 20-19.

After the teams traded punts, the Bills took over at their own 10 with 2:16 on the clock. Its offense tailor-fit for the two-minute drill, Buffalo marched up the field and into Giants territory.

With eight seconds remaining in Super Bowl XXV, Kelly spiked the ball at New York’s 29, stopping the clock. Out trotted Norwood. Minutes earlier, Michaels had informed viewers that Norwood was an accurate kicker, “but not a lot of range.”

All remained still in Baghdad.

Norwood sized up the kick, took three steps toward the ball spotted on the right hash, and sent it deep into the American night.

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