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What makes Super Bowl XLV special?
In the official game program for Super Bowl XXXIII, there was a small article written about the three living NFL fans who had been to every Super Bowl. Larry Jacobson, a former middle-school teacher from San Francisco, read the article while flipping through the program before the game's kickoff and thought to himself, “Hmm . . . Well, this is interesting.”
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Jacobson, you see, also had been to every single Super Bowl, but he had not been included in the article.
“I figured there couldn't have been too many Don Crismans living in a town called Kennebunk, Maine, so I dialed the operator, got his number, called him up and introduced myself.”
A year and several phone calls later, the three men featured in the article — Crisman, Tom Henschel of Tampa, Fla., and Stan Whitaker of Denver — met Jacobson for lunch at the Buckhead Diner in Atlanta on the Saturday before Super Bowl XXXIV.
It was on that afternoon that the "Never Miss A Super Bowl Club" was born.
“That first lunch was a bit strange, if I recall,” says Jacobson, now 71 and still living in San Francisco. “We were still feeling each other out, I think. I wasn't sure what these other guys were all about. Were we going to split the bill evenly? I don't drink. These were the things that were going through my head that afternoon.”
“Lamar Hunt, the late owner of the Kansas City Chiefs, just happened to be sitting with his wife at the table next to us that day,” Crisman remembers. “Here we were, having been to every Super Bowl and reminiscing about each one, and there's the owner of one of the two participants in the first Super Bowl at the very next table. We introduced ourselves, he sat with us for a while, and we took plenty of pictures. What an afternoon.”
At every Super Bowl week since that one in 2000, the “Never Miss a Super Bowl Club” has gathered for a lunch. In 2003, a sportswriter introduced them to Robert Cook, a lifelong Packers fan from Brown Deer, Wis., who'd also never missed a Super Bowl. A fifth member joined the club.
“We've become quite fond of each other. We obviously share something very unique,” says Henschel, a Western Pennsylvania native who's eyeing a seventh Super Bowl ring for his Steelers this weekend.
Of course, becoming part of this elite club was just as much a matter of luck as it was undying passion for the sport. Jacobson bought tickets to Super Bowl I on a whim, as part of his effort to impress a girl. “The tickets to that game cost $12, and all you had to do was write a letter to the league office asking for a pair. I did just that, and then booked two plane tickets from San Francisco to Los Angeles that ended up costing $13.50 per a person, round trip. I think I rented a car for $8, too. All told, it was less than $100.”
How'd it go with the girl?
“That was the only date we went on. I don't even remember her name. I always say she wasn't impressed with the football. Truthfully, she probably wasn't all that impressed with me.”
A ticket agent for one of the major airlines at the time, football fanatic Henschel worked part time as a bartender in a popular Chicago bar called Some Other Place when he wasn't flying. Some of the Bears players would come in, share their tales and relish hearing their favorite bartender's views on the game. When one of the players was given tickets to Super Bowl I but couldn't make the trip to Los Angeles to attend, Henschel was given two free tickets. All he needed was a flight and someone to go with. A pilot, he jumped on a flight to LA, met up with a cousin he'd never met before and attended the game. He hasn't missed one since.
Each member of the club has had his Super Bowl scares, too — the games they almost missed.
Perhaps no tale of a near miss is wilder than Crisman's incredible journey to Super Bowl II. Living in Maine, the lifelong Patriots fan secured tickets to Super Bowl II at the Orange Bowl in Miami, but he had to attend a business meeting in Atlanta a few days before the game. After doing what Crisman calls a “real dog and pony show” in Atlanta, rain and sleet began to fall from the sky. Against his better judgment, Crisman hopped on a tiny propeller plane that’d take him from Atlanta to Columbia, S.C., where he then wound up taking a train to sunny Miami. Sure enough, the propeller plane froze up immediately after takeoff, and an emergency landing was in order.
"The only problem was — there was nowhere to land the thing," Crisman says with a laugh. A traveling salesman at the time, he looked out the plane's passenger window and saw an empty landing strip a few thousand feet below. After the plane somehow safely landed in the horrible weather, Crisman got out and saw that he was standing in the middle of an abandoned Air Force base. Wearing a suit and holding a briefcase, he climbed several fences and ran for shelter in the storm. When he finally got to a nearby Texaco station, he had to make a decision — call it a trip and return to Kennebunk, or keep on going until he reached his final destination.
All flights in the area were cancelled the next few days, and that propeller plane wasn't an option. So, he got a ride to Columbia and hopped on that train. Twelve hours or so later, Crisman was in his seat at the Orange Bowl, watching the Packers beat the Raiders in Super Bowl II.
Henschel nearly missed Super Bowl XIII, having tickets fall through on him exactly one week before the game. Figuring he had nothing to lose, he wrote a letter to commissioner Pete Rozelle, detailing his Super Bowl streak and his desire to see his beloved Steelers play the Cowboys at the Orange Bowl. A few days later, he received a letter in the mail signed by Rozelle on NFL stationary and an invoice for two tickets. When he got to the game, his seats were on the 50-yard line, just a few rows up from the field. "To this day," Henschel says, "those were some of the best seats I've ever had at a football game."
Not every Super Bowl was particularly memorable, though. Crisman grunts at the mere mention of Super Bowl XX, a 46-10 blowout loss to the Bears for his Patriots in New Orleans. Jacobson, meanwhile, recalls a Super Bowl experience he describes as “miserable” at Super Bowl XVIII in Tampa in 1984. “For whatever reason, the NFL messed up that year, and there were about 2,000 more people in the stands than there were seats. People were overflowing into the aisles. I was seated on top of some idiot who didn't know the first thing about football. He had $2,000 on the Redskins and spent the whole night moaning and groaning and throwing his hands up in the air every time the Raiders scored. He wasn't even a Redskins fan!”
A few years ago, Whitaker stopped attending the games because of health reasons, leaving the “Never Miss a Super Bowl Club” with just four members.
After 44 Super Bowls and a 2010 season in which they became minor celebrities from a plethora of TV advertisements and promotions surrounding Visa's “Super Bowl Trip for Life Sweepstakes,” the four remaining club members are set to meet later this week for lunch at a golf club in Dallas.
Each has his own reasons why this Super Bowl is special.
“Aaron Rodgers is a Cal-Berkeley kid, so I love him,” says Jacobson, the San Francisco native. “You know, the 49ers could have had Rodgers in the draft a few years back. We passed on him and took Alex Smith instead.” Jacobson pauses. “That didn't turn out so well, now, did it?”
“I love the history of these two franchises,” adds Crisman, the Patriots die-hard. “I thought this was going to be the Patriots' year. We went 14-2, but it all went up in smoke in the playoffs. The Patriots beat both of these teams just a few weeks ago!”
As for Henschel and Cook, their two teams are going for Super Bowl rings seven and four, respectively. For the first time since the “Never Miss a Super Bowl Club” was formed, two of their teams are going head to head.
Does Cook have a message for Henschel and his fellow Steelers fans?
“No, I have no message for Tom or any of the Steelers or their fans. But the Packers, they certainly will deliver a message next Sunday.”
Henschel isn't engaging in any trash talk this week, noting, “I'm ecstatic for this matchup, and I'm happy for Robert. I'm 69 years old and feel like a little kid in a candy store right now. Both of these franchises came along in the early '30s, both have had their ups and downs and both have had terrific seasons this year. May the best team win!”
As for Crisman, he says that as much as he’s loved being a member of the “Never Miss a Super Bowl Club” and as much as he's enjoyed his partnership with Visa on this campaign, he's likely going to a call it a Super Bowl “career” after Super Bowl L. The big 5-0.
“That is, of course, unless the Patriots are playing in Super Bowl LI. I'll obviously be there then.”
Sounds about right.