Rookie Madden And OJ On The Run: Silverdome’s Super Bowl XVI Was 40 Years Ago

Written By Julie Walker on January 25, 2022
Joe Montana leaps for a touchdown.

The temperature hovered around 11 degrees, about 20 degrees below average for the area. Icy, snowy roads provided a traffic nightmare, snarled by another complication: A vice president’s motorcade.

That’s how the first-ever Super Bowl played in the North began 40 years ago. It finished with the San Francisco 49ers defeating the Cincinnati Bengals 26-21 at the Pontiac Silverdome.

Now, following what some are calling the best playoff divisional playoff round ever seen, the Niners and Bengals are once again one win away from a rematch on the big stage.

But back on Jan. 24, 1982, shenanigans almost over-shadowed the actual gridiron contest known as Super Bowl XVI.

Vice President’s motorcade added to traffic woes

Former President George H. W. Bush, who played soccer and baseball at Yale, was a known sports lover.

Bush had five Super Bowl highlights, according to a 2017 Houston Chronicle story following his coin toss at Super Bowl LI in Houston at age 92. He made appearances at Super Bowl XXXIX and Super Bowl XXXVIII, and became the first president to be in-person for a coin toss in New Orleans during Super Bowl XXXVI.

But all great Super Bowl stories start somewhere, and for the former president, his started in Pontiac, when his title was still vice president.

Bush’s motorcade, slowed by Michigan’s icy weather, reportedly impeded traffic for fans, and in this case, a bus that carried a crew of special guests that were even more important to the game than the second-in-command.

The wheels on the bus go nowhere in the snow

A bus carrying half of the Niners’ football team, including coach Bill Walsh, hit traffic struggles, too, stopping just close enough for the anxious team to see the Silverdome, according to Robert Mays in a story for Sports Illustrated.

To calm down his players, Walsh reportedly got on the PA system, saying he had good news and bad news. The bad? Well, he joked, the game had started without them. The good? Team equipment manager Chico Norton had thrown a touchdown pass to George Cosmo, another staffer, to give the Niners a 7-0 lead.

The jokes worked and apparently calmed the team.

Also battling traffic and the weather was a car carrying then-owner of the Niners Edward DeBartolo and his counsel Carmen Policy. Also in the car? O.J. Simpson.

The trio jogged from the car to the entrance, Mays wrote, with fans heckling Simpson about a Hertz commercial that featured the Hall-of-fame running back dashing to a counter at Hertz.

Jogging to the entrance must have been a feat. Despite the balmy average temp that day of 11 degrees, the wind chill made it nearly 25 degrees below zero.

Snow and ice caked the ground and video clips from that day show bundled Bengals and Niners fans carefully crunching their way into the stadium, then the largest in the NFL with a seating capacity of 80,311.

Among the hubbub: the 49ers dynasty begins

Sifting through footage of that day, the storylines run rampant to a point where one could almost forget a game was played.

Yet the Niners and Bengals did clash following a coin toss by legendary Lions quarterback Bobby Layne.

San Francisco struck first after an early turnover and went up 20-0 by halftime with the help of three Cincinnati turnovers. The Bengals staged an impressive comeback in the second half but ultimately fell short.

San Francisco won, 26-21, and the Niners’ dynasty era was born. The team would go on to win five Super Bowls in 14 years. In Pontiac, a young Joe Montana earned the Super Bowl MVP, going 14-of-22 for 157 yards and a touchdown by air and rushing for 18 yards and a touchdown.

For the Bengals, tight end Dan Ross racked up 104 yards and two touchdowns off 11 catches, the standing NFL record for receptions by a tight end in the Super Bowl. (Travis Kelce of the Chiefs had 10 Super Bowl receptions for 133 yards this past year).

Some reports say that Walsh’s work to calm his team helped give them the edge over a Bengals team described in one broadcast as looking anxious.

Walsh reportedly brought in his college boxing skills, dancing and shadowboxing around the locker room as Olivia Newton John’s “Physical” supplied the soundtrack.

Entertainment, halftime show and more

Music played a big part in the spectacle of Super Bowl XVI. After a pregame performance by the University of Michigan’s marching band that included a rendition of the Canadian National Anthem – the first time two national anthems were played during a Super Bowl – the legendary Diana Ross sang the U.S. National Anthem.

Ross later would appear in Super Bowl XXX as the halftime show performer. Although the Supremes legend did not perform at the half in 1982, Motown was represented. Up with People, a nonprofit organization that uses the arts to help young adults learn to excel in multi-cultural environments, provided the halftime entertainment.

According to the broadcast, the group had 30 performers from 24 countries performing songs from the 1960s, including of course, Motown hits. Dressed in brightly colored button ups, mostly long skirts, slacks and vests, the group did the twist, Monster mashed and more while strumming guitars during the medley.

Not exactly Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and Eminem.

Super hangover: Not all fun and games

A day after the music quieted and the last seconds of the game ticked down, a Channel 4 report revealed a darker side of the game. In this case, newsman Robert Vito reported on the post-game cleanup where crews found nearly 500 wallets strewn about under the seats and in bathrooms.

Vito said in his report that stadium personnel estimated a few hundred credit cards and nearly $200,000 in cash were stolen from those wallets. Two arrests were made, according to the broadcast, and it was estimated that about 50 thieves from a national pickpocket ring did the snatching.

One unidentified woman from the broadcast said a suspicious-looking kid grabbed her wallet as she leaned over to protect her husband’s.

“How much money did you have in there?” Vito asked the woman.

“I didn’t have any. That little snot didn’t get a dime,” the woman replied with a smile. She told Vito she had called the stadium and learned that her wallet was there somewhere.

According to Vito’s reporting, the crew estimated the cleanup to be a three-day job.

John Madden’s first Super Bowl in the broadcast booth

Many firsts were born on that day four decades ago. The first Super Bowl appearances by both franchises, clashing in a game hosted in the North for the first time ever.

Know how announcers can draw Xs and Os during plays to explain what’s happening to viewers at home? That tool is called a Telestrator and it, too, debuted during Super Bowl XVI. The game remains one of the most-watched broadcasts in the country’s television history, earning a Nielsen rating of 49.1, a 73 share.

One legendary broadcaster also debuted on a Super Bowl stage, as the late John Madden called the big game for his first time.

Madden joined Pat Summerall after the pair were tapped to be the top NFL duo for CBS in the fall of 1981. Summerall had beat Vin Scully to snag the spot next to Madden. The pair continued to call the championship games until 2002 in Super Bowl XXVI, when the Patriots beat the Rams under the arm of a little-known quarterback named Tom Brady.

So long to the Silverdome

The Silverdome lived until its demolition in the winter of 2017. In its time, it not only hosted the Lions, but the Detroit Pistons from 1978 to 1988, the Detroit Express soccer team and the Michigan Panthers of the United States Football League. A Motor City Bowl and Cherry Bowl took place inside the dome, as did the 1979 NBA All-Star Game, FIFA World Cup games and more.

Michael Jackson performed there, a pope visited and on March 29, 1987, a record 93,173 fans watched WrestleMania III, as detailed in this story by Tony Paul and Adam Graham of the Detroit News. The WrestleMania record for largest indoor attendance for a sporting event in the US stood until the 2010 NBA All-Star game drew 108,713 fans to Cowboys Stadium.

But Super Bowl XVI remains a top memory for the dome, even if the home team didn’t make it. The 1981 Detroit Lions, did, however, open that season with a 24-17 win over the 49ers.

Photo by Associated Press
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Julie Walker

Julie has written, edited and designed words at five Michigan newspapers and websites. She’s worked on two sports desks, including at The Oakland Press and most recently at The Detroit News. Julie has contributed to stories on many big sports moments, from the NFL’s 100th season to Super Bowls to Justin Verlander’s trade to the closing of the Palace of Auburn Hills.  Julie loves lakes, bonfires, Dachshunds, coaching Little League and carrying on her Dad’s fantasy football legacy that he started in 1987 — before there was an app for that.

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