Why the Super Bowl is called the Super Bowl: Is Lamar Hunt's 'Super Ball' story a myth?

The Kansas City Chiefs will play in the Super Bowl on Sunday. Which means, for the first time in 50 years, the franchise founded by Lamar Hunt will be featured in the game he’s popularly credited with naming.

The story goes something like this: The National Football League and American Football League merged. They created a championship game. They needed a name for it. And – actually, we’ll let the New York Times take it from here:

The showdown was officially called the First AFL-NFL World Championship Game. But after watching his children enjoying Wham-O’s bouncy new Super Ball, the AFL’s founder, Lamar Hunt ... told NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle that the game should be called something like the Super Bowl, although he was sure that name could be improved. The name was quickly adopted by other owners and much of the news media.

But dig into the New York Times’ own archives, and you’ll realize there are some inconsistencies in the tale.

Lamar Hunt’s ‘Super Bowl’ etymology

Lamar Hunt (right) stands on the field before Super Bowl I – then known as the First AFL-NFL World Championship Game. (Rich Clarkson/Rich Clarkson & Assoc/Getty Images)

Hunt wrote a first-person explanation in the Times in 1986. There were, he said, eight-man meetings “in the summer and early fall of 1966” to hash out AFL-NFL merger logistics. Two sticking points were the championship game’s location and name. “In the early fall, the concept of a neutral location was selected and the game was set for the Los Angeles Coliseum,” Hunt wrote. But they continued to struggle with a name. “Then one day,” Hunt recalled, “the words flowed something like this: ‘No, not those games – the one I mean is the final game – you know, the Super Bowl.’

“I do not recall any predetermined thought relative to this rather unhistoric moment. My own feeling is that it probably registered in my head because my daughter, Sharron, and my son, Lamar Jr., [ages 8 and 10] had a children's toy called a Super Ball and I probably interchanged the phonetics of ‘bowl’ and ‘ball.’”

His memory lines up with folklore – likely because it influenced folklore. But either he claimed responsibility where it should have been shared; or his memory was faulty; or his timeline exposes his own story as fabricated.

Because on Sept. 4, 1966 – on the eve of the first post-merger season, a couple weeks before “early fall,” and 13 weeks before the site of the game was announced – the same New York Times was already calling the game the Super Bowl. “National Football League Set to Open Season That Will End in Super Bowl,” a headline blared. And this wasn’t just a headline-writer’s quirky ingenuity; the term appeared again in the body of the story, S and B both capitalized, Super Bowl. The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times also used the phrase around that time.

So is the Lamar Hunt “Super Ball” legend just a myth?

What is the true story behind the ‘Super Bowl’ name?

There are several possible explanations for the inconsistencies in historical accounts. The easiest one: Writing in the Times 20 years after the fact, Hunt simply erred in recalling the timeline. Perhaps he blurted out “Super Bowl” in a July or August meeting, rather than in an “early fall” one. Perhaps the eight-man committee then began using it, which led the media to pick it up, which led to it sticking. Perhaps the legend is real.

Or, perhaps, the name “Super Bowl” wasn’t Hunt’s creation at all. Perhaps it was the media’s. “Super” would have been a natural, descriptive word for something bigger than two already-established championship games – the NFL’s and the AFL’s. And college football’s postseason had been using “bowl” for decades. Perhaps reporters and commentators popularized the “Super Bowl” name gradually and organically.

Or, perhaps, the truth is somewhere in between the two extremes. Perhaps the media had toyed with the term. Perhaps Hunt read it, and didn’t consciously bank it in his mind, but unconsciously did. Perhaps he then spit it out at a meeting, unaware that his eyes had seen it before, and pinpointed the “Super Ball” as the most plausible source of inspiration.

In fact, deeper research into newspaper archives might support that in-between. Because “Super Bowl,” although it had been used by major newspapers, was far from ubiquitous. A Times article five days later twice referred to what would become the Super Bowl as the “super-championship game.” Perhaps some random person whose name we’ll never know first coined the term. Perhaps Hunt then played a starring role in popularizing it.

With Hunt having passed away, and with his version of the story enshrined everywhere from internet articles to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, it’s unlikely any of those explanations will ever be confirmed. The Chiefs and the NFL and just about everybody will give you Hunt’s version of the story. You can pick whichever you like best.

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