Priceless Super Bowl moments: A cigarette and a Fresca

Among the thousands of images left behind by America’s biggest sporting event, a few live on as indelible. During this week leading up to Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta, we look back daily on a select precious moment and appreciate the story behind it. First in a seven-part series.

How long ago was LII Super Bowls ago?

Let’s demonstrate with a single snapshot. A photo that, like some prehistoric fern preserved in rock, represents a fascinating shaved slice of history. One that in just a glance says so much about how far removed that first championship game was from the absurd lavishness of the one bearing down on Atlanta at this very moment.

Everything about the photo – so much better in black and white than in colorized versions – is spartan and the polar opposite of all the Super Bowl has come to mean. The scene was the L.A. Coliseum, but it seems like it could almost date back to original one in old Rome.

More on the series

» 1998 Super Bowl: John Elway goes helicopter
» 2008 Super Bowl: The helmet catch
» 1973 Super Bowl: Who stole my watch?
» 1969 Super Bowl: The poolside guarantee

The quarterback – Kansas City’s Hall of Famer Len Dawson – sits on an unpadded metal folding chair, contemplating the second half to come against the favored and superior Green Bay Packers. So, this is how football did Buddha back on Jan. 15, 1967.

Is Dawson nourishing himself with an energy bar or an orange slice? No, he is taking a deep drag on a cigarette. The Surgeon General had just began putting health warning labels on the pack, but obviously the message hadn’t really grown roots by that time. And a fellow didn’t have to sequester himself in a hermetically-sealed room to have a smoke back then.

At Dawson’s feet, on a concrete floor as bare as any found in a Kansas City slaughterhouse, is the refreshment that would carry him into the second half. A Fresca, the no-calorie, grapefruit-flavored soft drink birthed by Coke just a year earlier.

Credit: Bill Ray

Credit: Bill Ray

Nobody has ever poured a Fresca over his coach’s head after winning the big game. And who rehydrates with a Fresca? By God, Len Dawson did.

In whole, the image is so retro that it is hip. There is nothing instructive nor even medically sound about the photo. It is just cool.

Fifty-one years later, Kansas City’s current quarterback, the electric Patrick Mahomes, wore a hoodie to a December home game against the Chargers featuring this same old photo. It’s a fashion statement now. And if there ever is an NFL Museum of Natural History, the scene of a great player with his cigarette and his diet drink will be worth its own diorama.

Dawson did not ride the dubious combination of tobacco and Fresca to a great upset. Trailing 14-10 at halftime, he and the Chiefs did pretty much as expected, losing to Vince Lombardi’s Packers 35-10. At the time, the game was known as the AFL-NFL World Championship Game, the Chiefs playing the role of upstart put in its place. Only retroactively did this game have its roman numeral appended.

Not to worry, Dawson would have his day. He took his turn beating the Minnesota Vikings in a Super Bowl, No. IV, and was named the game MVP with a relatively modest 142 passing yards.

Now 83, Dawson only recently retired as the Chiefs radio network color commentator after 33 seasons. He was one of the most accomplished cross-overs from field to booth, even working part time as a sports anchor in Kansas City while still playing (imagine Matt Ryan doing a 6 p.m. stand-up before a Hawks game). A long-time host of HBO’s weekly “Inside the NFL,” Dawson also spent six seasons as game analyst for NBC.

Mahomes may have captured the imagination of Kansas City and the rest of the country with the wild abandon of his play. But it is Dawson who still owns the past as the Chiefs all-time leader in passing yards (28,507), touchdowns (237) and wins (93). Just as he owns the smoking section of the Super Bowl hall of iconic images.