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The NFL and meat; mapping our evolution

Changes in the modern American can be seen from the 50-yard line. Or the couch.

By Michael Kruse, Times staff writer
Published February 2, 2008


Meat and greet
John's Butcher Shop is at 102 First Ave. SW in Lutz. (813) 909-9746.

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LUTZ - This is the story of America over the last half-century, albeit highly abridged, told through two seemingly unrelated businesses.

1. The National Football League.

2. John's Butcher Shop, just off U.S. 41 in northwest Hillsborough County.

The NFL was a whole lot of not much until Dec. 28, 1958, when 45-million Americans tuned in to watch Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts beat Frank Gifford and the New York Giants in what was then called the NFL championship game. The first Super Bowl happened in 1967 in Los Angeles.

Six years after that, in west-central Florida, John Smith stopped cutting meat at Winn-Dixie and opened up his own place at the corner of Bearss and Florida avenues. In the last 35 years, his shop has moved a bit down Florida, a bit up Florida, then back down again. Since last fall, it has been in a small white building not far from Lutz-Lake Fern Road.

Used to be, the NFL was a bunch of blue-collar roughnecks, rolling around in the mud in Rust Belt towns.

Used to be, we liked baseball, the national pastime. The Sporting News didn't cover the NFL until 1942. Post-World War II, though, we had more free time, more spending money, and NFL attendance went from 23,196 a game in 1949 to 43,617 a game in 1959.

Used to be, nobody watched TV on Sunday afternoon.

Used to be, people in TV said sports on weeknight prime time would never, ever work. Too unsophisticated, said people who were paid to know.

But then the modern NFL was created with TV in mind. It was the first league like that. Commissioner Pete Rozelle knew what he was doing. It wasn't just a game. It wasn't just a league. It was a product. It was a show. And it was sold as such.

The Super Bowl was the first sporting event essentially invented to be a TV show. Monday Night Football might have been the second.

The NFL's first national TV contract was in 1962. It was for two years for just over $9-million. The TV contract in 1998: eight years, just over $18-billion.

"The '50s," original Dallas Cowboys boss Tex Schramm told Michael MacCambridge in America's Game, "was a decade in which everybody became watchers instead of doers."

In the rise of the NFL, we can see us.

Used to be, at John's Butcher Shop, quarter cows hung in the cooler in back. Swinging beef. Now it comes from the slaughterhouse boxed and boneless.

Used to be, the guys who cut the meat in the shop saved the bones from the beef and sold them to their customers for their dogs. Now they have to buy them special, the bones from the beef that came boxed with no bones, so they can then sell them to their customers for their dogs.

Used to be, they say, women were the ones who cooked. Now it's the men, maybe, if anybody. Now half the display case is filled with prepared food, pulled pork, meat loaf, chicken cordon bleu, chicken kebabs, teriyaki chicken kebabs, honey Dijon chicken kebabs, garlic chicken kebabs, raspberry chicken kebabs, bacon-wrapped shrimp.

One time, and butcher Donny Duncan swears this is the God's honest truth, a woman bought a meat loaf, went home and then called back. Had a question. Did she have to take the meat loaf out of the plastic before she put it in the oven?

Another time, and this one comes from butcher Mike Lacy, a woman called to ask if she had to take the pork chops out of the bag first. He swears.

In the evolution of John's Butcher Shop, we can see us.

For Super Bowl Sunday?

"They'll hit the kebab counter pretty good," butcher James Smith said.

Used to be, at John's Butcher Shop, Christmas and Easter were the biggest holidays.

Then it was the Fourth of July.

Now it's Super Bowl Sunday.

"I'd say from the mid '80s," Donny said. "The mid '80s is when the Super Bowl started really coming in as far as the meat business goes."

More of us watched the Super Bowl in 2006 than voted in 2004. This is the weekend where we have the most in-home parties and the fewest weddings. Thirty-six of the 40 highest-rated telecasts ever are Super Bowls. It's the most watched show, all year, every year, by men, women, blacks, whites, Hispanics, young people, old people. We eat three times as many chips on Super Bowl Sunday than on an average day the rest of the year. Six percent of us will call in sick come Monday. Matt Fulks wrote a book called Super Bowl Sunday: The Day America Stops.

God.

Country.

This.

"Way of the world," Donny said.

"People change," Mike said.

Information from "America's Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation" was used in this report. Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com or 813 909-4617.