Fan's streak will hit XLIII today
The Henschel brothers -- Jim, left, and Tom -- with part of their collection of Super Bowl tickets. Tom Henschel, a Natrona Heights native, has attended every Super Bowl, and is holding his ticket from the first Super Bowl in 1966 and his ticket for this evening's game.
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TAMPA, Fla. -- Tom Henschel holds the unlabeled scrapbook in front of himself a moment before opening it.
"Not many people have seen these," he said, before gingerly turning the cover to reveal his treasure.
Inside, slipped neatly into plastic sleeves, are each of the tickets he has saved from attending all 42 Super Bowls that have been played.
Today, when he and his brother, Jim, pass through security and enter the gates of Raymond James Stadium, his streak will reach XLIII.
Mr. Henschel, 67, a native of the Natrona Heights section of Harrison, is one of only five football fans to have attended every Super Bowl since the Green Bay Packers defeated the Kansas City Chiefs, 35-10, on Jan. 15, 1967, in what then was called the AFL-NFL World Championship Game in Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
"I remember the stadium was half-empty," he said, standing in "the Steelers room" of his Tampa home. "And I might have been the only fan there who wasn't wearing a suit and tie."
He didn't know he was witnessing a historic event. To him, it was just a football game. And the Henschel brothers love football.
"We were born with a football in our hands," said Jim Henschel, 66, who still lives in Natrona Heights.
"Our dad would bundle us up and take us to high school games every Friday night," Tom Henschel recalled. "And a lot of times we would go to the Pitt games. Years later we would go see the Steelers, when they played at Pitt Stadium and old Forbes Field."
In 1960, the brothers graduated from Har-Brack High School, where Tom Henschel was a ball boy for the football team, the Tigers. After a four-year stint in the Navy, he took a job as a ticket agent for Northwest Airlines in Chicago.
He made extra money working as a bartender at Some Other Place, a popular spot near O'Hare International Airport, where off-duty stewardesses occasionally crossed paths with traveling football players. Mr. Henschel handled the introductions.
Because he knew that Mr. Henschel, as an airline employee, could fly to California for free, the bar owner one day handed him a ticket to what was going to be the first game between the National Football League champion and the winner of the rival American Football League.
Favorite Super Bowl city: New Orleans -- "It's not so spread out. Everybody is down on Bourbon Street. You see everyone from a bum to a millionaire."
Favorite Super Bowl time: XIII in Miami -- When the Henschel brothers went to the game with their wives and their parents.
Best game: Super Bowl XIV in Pasadena -- When the Steelers came from behind to defeat the Los Angeles Rams.
Best performance by a player: Steelers wide receiver Lynn Swann making a diving catch in Super Bowl XIII against Dallas.
Biggest disappointment: "The cost of the tickets now is so high that only the big spenders can go to the games. The game should be for the fans."
Team he would have liked to see win: "Buffalo. I always liked Jim Kelly. And I felt so bad when the Bills kicker [Scott Norwood] missed that field goal [in Super Bowl XXV]."
Favorite halftime show: "We've never seen one, I swear to Pete. We're always going out and having a couple beers at halftime. The one I regret is the one with Janet Jackson. I missed that one."
Super Bowl XLIII outcome: Steelers 27, Cardinals 23.
The next year, when the Packers played the Oakland Raiders in Miami, the free ticket came from Chicago Bears quarterback Jack Concannon.
The streak might have ended there, had it not been for the third year's match-up: Johnny Unitas and his favored Baltimore Colts against Joe Namath and the upstart New York Jets.
"Joe Willie was a local legend, so I bought a ticket to that one," Mr. Henschel said.
The game was an upset, as was the next one between the Minnesota Vikings and the Kansas City Chiefs in New Orleans. By that time, the game was officially called the Super Bowl, and Mr. Henschel began to appreciate the growing significance of the annual event.
But even for an avid football fan, it isn't easy to watch teams other than your own play for the national championship every year.
"I remember Super Bowl VI or VII, I was in the stands, and I had a Steelers hat on, an old Steelers hat," Mr. Henschel said. "And a couple Dolphins fans were laughing at me, saying, 'You guys will never be here.' And I said, 'Well, someday, maybe.' Well, I got the last laugh."
Once his beloved Steelers began their run of Super Bowl appearances -- four in a six-year span -- Mr. Henschel's passion for the big game was ingrained. Each year, he would buy his ticket and book his hotel and travel arrangements. He even started taking friends and family members to the games.
"I only started going when the Steelers got in there," said Jim Henschel, who will be attending his 33rd Super Bowl today.
There was only one game that Tom Henschel almost missed. It was Super VI in New Orleans, when he woke up in the hospital the morning of the game, suffering from a toxic combination of bronchial asthma and Bourbon Street.
"I came to with IVs and an oxygen mask," he said. "This [nurse] told me I had to stay in the hospital. Well, as soon as she left, I pulled the IV out and took the oxygen off, and got the heck out of that hospital. That's the closest I ever came to missing a game."
Mr. Henschel, who moved to Tampa in 1980, has seen many changes over the years. Once having a reputation for not living up to their names, the Super Bowls have been more competitive lately. Defensive battles have given way to offensive explosions. And the prices ... well, those tickets that once had a face value of $12 now go for hundreds of dollars. This year's tickets cost him $800 each.
"I tell you, it's getting tough," Jim said. "We've paid so much. The most we ever paid was $1,400 per ticket for Super Bowl XXX between Dallas and Pittsburgh in Tempe, Ariz."
"There must have been hundreds of fans outside the stadium waving stacks of hundred-dollar bills saying, 'Please, sell me your ticket,' " Tom said.
The idea that he might sell his ticket is laughable to Mr. Henschel, even though his seats to the games have gotten progressively worse. He's gone from Section 24, Row 6 in 1967, to Section 344, Row A3 today.
"The first years, I usually had pretty good seats, because I got them from the ballplayers," he said.
But tickets he bought from agents or scalpers in later years weren't as sweet. Even the ones he has purchased through invoices sent to him the past several years from the league have been disappointing, he said.
"Lately, the seats I've been getting from the NFL have been lousy," he said. "The last time we were in New Orleans [for Super Bowl XXXVI], we were in folding chairs in the top row, up by the roof [of the Super Dome]."
Still, he is determined to keep his attendance streak alive, not only because he loves football, but because he is one of the few. Sure, there are some reporters, photographers and NFL employees who have attended every Super Bowl, but only five fans have that distinction.
The other four are Larry Jacobson, of San Francisco, Bob Cooke, of Milwaukee, and friends Stan Whitaker, of Denver, and Don Crisman, who used to live in Denver but now resides in Maine.
Their streak has afforded the five men a fair share of celebrity status. They've been interviewed by numerous media outlets and will be on camera today before the game. And now that they're familiar with each other, they make a point of meeting every year.
Mr. Henschel retired in 1998. His brother -- a longtime employee of Heinz, where he designed product labels -- retired four years ago. But they've barely slowed down. The Super Bowl is a holiday to them. It means travel and family and good times and memories.
"We always get [to the host city] about four days ahead of time," Mr. Henschel said. "We want the whole experience. But this year, it's in Tampa, and we stayed in. Just last night, I said, 'Jimmy, we must be getting old, just staying here at home like this.' "
He returns his attention to the tickets in his hand. In past years, the tickets have had holograms and fancy artwork. This year's ticket is die-cut and embossed. Once used, it will be placed in the scrapbook with the others.
Asked what motivated him to keep them all, especially the first ones, Mr. Henschel said, "We've always been collectors. When we were kids, we used to deliver the Post-Gazette, and we'd stop and buy those baseball cards and save them. I've always been a collector."
And how many more does he expect to collect? He has said that his goal is 50.
"As long as we're healthy," he said nodding to his brother. "Even if one of us has to use a cane or push the other one in a wheelchair, we'll be there."
First Published February 1, 2009 12:00 am