He easily could have detoured to Bourbon Street and partied with French Quarter revelers, but Gary Mervis was a focused young man on a mission. He had a different New Orleans destination in mind during that trip to Southeastern Louisiana College in early January 1970. The future football coach’s visit to explore Southeastern’s physical education program just happened to coincide with Super Bowl week down in the Bayou. So, on a lark, Mervis decided to make a side trip to the Kansas City Chiefs’ make-shift New Orleans practice facility to see if the AFL champions needed any volunteers. In those days, pro football teams had small coaching and support staffs. Chiefs head coach Hank Stram didn’t hesitate putting him to work.
While thousands imbibed frozen daiquiris, Mervis shagged footballs.
“I was a gofer,’’ recalled the founder and long-time director of Camp Good Days and Special Times. “I must have retrieved a thousand balls for their kickers and punters that week. But I didn’t care. I was like a kid in a candy store. I loved every minute of it.”
Soccer-style kicking was just taking hold in pro football after decades of straight-on kickers, and the Chiefs boasted a future Pro Football Hall of Fame sidewinder in Jan Stenerud. Mervis was fascinated with the way the Norwegian ski-jumper-turned-kicker went about his work. “I don’t know what it was, but that style of kicking just intrigued me,’’ Mervis said. “So that week I became a sponge, observing and absorbing everything I could.”
As a reward for his grunt work, he was given a ticket to the game. The experience of being in the stands with 80,000 others at Tulane Stadium for Super Bowl IV would prove unforgettable. And historic. The oddsmakers had made the Chiefs 13-point underdogs against the NFL-champion Minnesota Vikings. Many believed the previous year’s “guaranteed” upset victory by the Joe Namath-led New York Jets against the NFL-champion Baltimore Colts had been a fluke. The Chiefs showed otherwise, striking another blow for the upstart AFL by devouring the Vikings’ famed “Purple People Eaters,” 23-7.
“It was significant because it showed that the new kids on the block had gained parity with the long-established NFL,” Mervis said. “With the Jets’ and Chiefs’ wins, the series was now squared, two-to-two, after Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers had won the first two. The Chiefs’ win was fueled in large part by Stenerud, who wound up kicking three field goals. I couldn’t have been happier.”
No one, though, was more ecstatic than Lamar Hunt. After the game, the Chiefs owner announced that anyone who had done anything to contribute to the victory would receive a Super Bowl ring. That included ball-shagging gofers like Mervis. “Never in a million years did I expect that,” he said. “But that was Lamar Hunt. He had a well-deserved reputation for being a generous man.”
And, so, Mervis wound up receiving a gold ring proclaiming Kansas City “world football champions.” As nice a gesture as that was, the greatest gift Mervis received that week was the experience itself. And he would put it to good use in 1983 when he joined the St. John Fisher College football coaching staff. For the next 29 years, he worked primarily with the team’s kickers. “The lessons Jan provided definitely helped lay the foundation for me,’’ Mervis said, “even though at the time I had no idea that they would.”
Although he hasn’t had any contact with Stenerud since, Mervis later developed close relationships with legendary Buffalo Bills kickers Scott Norwood and Steve Christie. Each became a huge supporter of Camp Good Days, which for 40 years has served close to 50,000 kids and adults dealing with cancer and other challenges. The two Bills also helped Mervis conduct clinics for high school and college kickers, and Christie collaborated with him on a coaching video.
Two years ago, the aches and pains from spending two hours a day on artificial turf finally caught up to Mervis, and he retired from coaching. But he didn’t leave cold turkey. The 75-year-old still spends one day a week during the season at Fisher, coordinating the school’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes campus huddle program. And he remains heavily involved in the Courage Bowl, the area’s premier football game which will be celebrating its 16th anniversary when Fisher plays The College at Brockport this fall.
Mervis will be among the 100 million Americans watching Super Bowl 54 between the Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers Sunday evening. Not surprisingly, he’s rooting for Kansas City, which is back in the game for the first time since that indelible January day a half-century ago. “I’m first and foremost a Bills fan, but I definitely have a soft spot in my heart for the Chiefs because of my brief but memorable experience with them way back when,” he said. “The football coach in me also wants to see them win this one for Andy Reid because he’s such a respected figure in the coaching ranks, and this would give him the one piece he’s been missing.”
In case you’re wondering, Mervis rarely wears his Super Bowl ring. It’s bulky, uncomfortable and a little gaudy. Which is why it resides in a safe deposit box at a local bank rather than on his ring finger. But if time permits, Mervis may swing by the bank this week and sport the bling this Sunday. It would be a pleasant reminder of how, 50 years ago, he took a little detour and wound up being in the right place at the right time.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.