Sports fans are notoriously contrary, and it would be tough to find any two — even two supporters of the same team — who could agree on everything having to do with, say, American football. It would be equally tough to find one issue that could somehow, miraculously, unite all fans, everywhere. But even the most vociferous and combative aficionados would agree that “the Super Bowl” is a far better, far snappier name for the sport’s ultimate contest than “the AFL-NFL World Championship Game,” which is exactly what it was called for the first two years it was played, in 1967 and 1968.
Despite its utterly prosaic name, the First AFL-NFL World Championship Game, in Los Angeles on Jan. 15, 1967, remains a thrilling benchmark for fans not only because it was, in fact, the first-ever Super Bowl, but because of the jaw-dropping number of future Hall of Famers — and gridiron legends who never made it to Canton — who played, coached or were simply associated in one way or another with the event. The American Football League’s Kansas City Chiefs, for example, featured Len Dawson, Emmitt Thomas, Bobby Bell, Buck Buchanan and long-time coach (of the Chiefs as well as the team’s previous incarnation, the Dallas Texans), Hank Stram.
The NFL champion Green Bay Packers, meanwhile, boasted the likes of Bart Starr, Ray Nitschke, Herb Adderley, Forrest Gregg, Willie Davis, Henry Jordan, Jim Taylor and Willie Wood. (Another Packer great, running back Paul Hornung, suited up for the game but did not play, having been injured earlier in the season.) Finally, Green Bay was coached by none other than Vince Lombardi, subsequently immortalized in the big game’s ultimate symbol: the big, silver Vince Lombardi Trophy.
The Packers won the first Super Bowl in 1967 — the only Super Bowl that did not sell out — handily beating the Chiefs 35-10. Bart Starr was named the game’s Most Valuable Player. (He was also Super Bowl II’s MVP, when the Packers beat the Raiders, 33-14, in Miami.) Here, five decades later, LIFE.com presents a series of photos — none of which ran in LIFE magazine — made by Bill Ray and Art Rickerby before, during and after that in augural game, casting light on the hard-fought, hard-nosed conflict.
Here are players whose names immediately summon the no-frills look and feel of pro football in the mid-1960s (Starr, Buchanan, Otis Taylor, Sherrill Headrick, the great Fuzzy Thurston and so many others) as well as players who have long been forgotten by all but the most die-hard fans.
Here is Chiefs’ defensive back (and, later, an actor in scores of movies and TV shows) Fred “The Hammer” Williamson — very publicly over-cocky in the lead-up to the contest — carried from the field on a stretcher after being knocked unconscious.
Here is running back Elijah Pitts (see slide 11 in this gallery) and the Green Bay offensive line perfectly executing the team’s famed “power sweep.”
Here is a tired Len Dawson in the Chiefs’ locker room, taking a drag on a cigarette before heading back to play the fateful second half.
Here is Jim Taylor, the Packers’ indomitable fullback, almost tackled, off-balance, still grinding it out, pushing for that extra yard.
Almost everything about the Super Bowl has changed drastically in the long years since Green Bay won the first. But as the pictures here attest, what happens between the lines has always been all that really matters, and all that anyone ultimately remembers.
Ben Cosgrove is the Editor of LIFE.com