Labor pains agonizing to 'NMSBC'

DALLAS -- Larry Jacobsen almost missed Super Bowl VI because, well, he was in jail for calling a cop a name. But then he peeled $50 from his wad of cash, posted bond and got to Tulane Stadium just in time to keep his young attendance streak alive.

Tom Henschel was there too, which came as a surprise to the medical staff at a local New Orleans hospital. Henschel was supposed to be in bed and under observation for at least 24 hours after suffering a near fatal asthmatic attack earlier that Jan. 16, 1972, morning. Instead, he told the nurse, a Catholic nun, "Sister, I gotta leave here. I've got to go somewhere.'"

When the nurse wasn't looking, Henschel pulled the IV out of his arm, got dressed and took a cab to the game.

Don Crisman's Super Bowl streak almost ended at the first Roman numeral. A buddy's private plane iced up and they had to make an emergency landing at an old military airfield in Orangeburg, S.C. Problem was, Super Bowl II was nearly 600 miles south at the Orange Bowl. So Crisman bummed a ride to a train station on a Saturday and pulled into Miami on a Sunday, about three hours before kickoff.

Then there's Bob Cook. Cook has to ask his wife how old he is these days (79), but he does remember thinking he was going to get mugged by a scalper at one of the earlier Super Bowls in Pasadena, Calif. Cook, the Green Bay Packers fan from Brown Deer, Wis., got mugged on the price, but he didn't miss the game.

These are the four known fan members of the exclusive NMSBC -- Never Miss a Super Bowl Club. You've seen them on the Visa television commercials. They're XLIV-for-XLIV on Super Bowls and, barring any more arrests or medical issues, their streak will reach 45 consecutive years this Sunday. They make Brett Favre and Cal Ripken look like slackers.

But what about next year? What if the NFL owners and players can't agree on a new collective bargaining agreement by March? What if the just-announced discussions go nowhere and the expected lockout escalates into an extended work stoppage, spilling over into next fall and beyond?

"I think they owe it to the public and the fans who support the game to put their heads together and find some central location that works for both sides,'' said Crisman, the New England Patriots' fan from Kennebunk, Maine. "I don't think any of them are poor.…Then again, I'm a fan, not an owner.''

Or worst of all, what if the unthinkable became thinkable: a season without a Super Bowl?

"No,'' said Cook. "God, no.''

Or as Jacobsen put it: "This is part of our national fabric, to watch football on Sundays.''

The fabric might have a rip in it soon. Think about it: An estimated $9 billion-per-year operation could be brought to its kneepads because NFL owners got out-negotiated by the players' union in 2006. Now the owners want concessions and changes -- an 18-game regular season, a rookie salary cap, a pay cut in the players' share of revenue -- or else.

If an agreement can't be reached by March 4, the lockout begins. After that, who knows? What a way for a Super Bowl streak to possibly end.

"I think that the game is so big that it would be impossible where we wouldn't have any football at all for the whole year,'' said Henschel, who was born and raised in Pittsburgh. "I just think that the sport is too big.''

"Even with the impending unrest, I think there will be a Super Bowl,'' said Jacobsen, who retired four years ago after a career with the city and county of San Francisco. "And I think it will be on the scheduled day in Indianapolis in 2012. Bottom line, it's all about money.''

Long pause.

"But I couldn't imagine there not being a World Series, either.''

Exactly. Baseball once thought its postseason was immune to work stoppages and look what happened -- no World Series in 1994. Let's not forget the NHL cancelling the 2004-2005 season, including the Stanley Cup Finals. If it can happen to MLB and the NHL, why can't it happen to the NFL?

The fellas from the NMSBC understand football economics. In 1967, they paid anywhere from $8 to $12 per ticket to Super Bowl I in Los Angeles. For Sunday's game, Visa is picking up the tab for their seats, which should go for $1,200 apiece, face value.

They also remember 1987, an NFL season stained by a players' strike, the owners' use of replacement players and a compromised regular-season schedule.

"Yeah, and that may be upon us again,'' Crisman said. "I think there was a point there [in 1987] that I thought we wouldn't be going [to the Super Bowl].''

Now is the time for posturing, theatrics and spin-doctoring. Commissioner Roger Goodell said he's going to reduce his salary from about $10 million to $1 if there's a lockout. Union executive director DeMaurice Smith said he'll cut his pay to 68 cents if there's a settlement before the Super Bowl. New York Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie went rogue with his angry CBA-related tweets. Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck wondered if Cromartie knew what CBA stood for. Cro said he knew what SHF stood for: Smash Hasselbeck's face. Chicago general manager Jerry Angelo questioned the union's solidarity. NFLPA president Kevin Mawae dared Angelo to test that resolve.

Blah, blah, blah. They should hear themselves talk. It's all so predictable, so comical and so embarrassing. A $9 billion operation and its 2011 season could go away because millionaires and billionaires can't figure out how to slice the revenue pie?

"The day is going to come when more and more fans are going to be turned off by the greed of owners and players,'' Henschel said. "If I had my way, everybody should be taking a cut in pay.''

Cook is 79. Jacobsen is 71. Henschel is 69. Crisman is 74. These are not men worried about bruising the owners' or players' feelings.

"I'm getting too old to care,'' Henschel said. "I do want to make 50 Super Bowls if I can.''

He'll make it to Sunday's Super Bowl XLV between Cook's beloved Packers and Henschel's Pittsburgh Steelers. They all will. But until the owners and the players' union figure out a new deal, XLVI is no gimme.

"I just think they're going to get some smarts,'' Jacobsen said. "When the Super Bowl is over, they'll roll up their sleeves and come to a settlement.''

For their sake, for our sake and for The Streak's sake, let's hope he's right.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.