How a Bahamian guide got us the Super Bowl
By Tom Bie
Mighty Waters, a wonderful movie released last year by Austin-based filmmaker Shannon Vandivier, tells the story of beloved Bimini-based guide and boat-builder Ansil Saunders, in particular how Saunders had taken Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. out for a peaceful day on Bahamian waters just four days before King was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968. The fascinating story was part of the 2021 Fly Fishing Film Tour and was broadly shared with the public in early February by two of its sponsors, Simms and Costa.
Beautifully shot, Vandivier and his crew did an artful job of describing not only the visit to Bimini by the greatest civil rights leader America has ever known, but of the sacrifices made by Saunders himself, who—inspired by Dr. King—sat down 41 straight days for lunch at the “whites only” Bimini Big Game Club without being served. In the film, Saunders describes his motivation: “If they can go through that, and get locked up in jail, and get their heads beat in, I said to myself, ‘At least I don’t get arrested, you know?’ I’m gonna fight this with Dr. King. As long
as they don’t hurt me, I’m gonna keep coming.”
Saunders did keep coming. And on his 42nd day of protest he brought some friends along with him, to eat dinner at the Bimini Big Game Club because he knew the owner would be there. “We either get served in here tonight,” Saunders told the waiter, “or else.” Not only were Saunders and his friends served, “They fed us like we was the King of England,” he says in the film. The Bimini Big Game Club has been open to Bahamians ever since.
Mighty Waters is a powerful depiction of a real-life fight for equality and independence on an island less than 50 miles from Miami, and it shares an important and inspiring piece of history on racial justice. Yet there is, somewhat amazingly, a remarkable story behind that story. It’s an untold tale, compelling in its own way, that involves one of Ansil’s other passions: American football.
The story stems from another notable person spending time in Ansil’s boat: former NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, the man who, over the course of nearly thirty years on the job, oversaw the creation of both the Super Bowl and Monday Night Football. “He used to come down here and I’d fish him,” Saunders says. “I believe I introduced the Super Bowl to the world.”
Saunders has credible reason to believe this. Rozelle began fishing with him shortly after he became commissioner in 1960. At the time, America had two professional football leagues: the NFL and the AFL. Due largely to ego and money (shocker!), the champions of the two leagues didn’t play each other until 1967, in what is now retroactively called Super Bowl I. Being in the unique position as his fishing guide of having Rozelle’s undivided attention, and likely even more rare position of feeling free to speak his mind, Saunders would point out to Rozelle in the early to mid ’60s that a matchup of only-NFL teams was not determining the true champion of American football. “I told him, ‘You ain’t provin’ nothin’—you just playing yourself at the end of the year.’”
According to Saunders, Rozelle—sharing the opinion of many football pundits at the time—would reply that the NFL was simply the superior league. “He’d say ‘The American League’s not strong enough for the National League. They’re too weak.’” But one year in the mid ’60s, Rozelle gave Saunders a different answer: “You know, we’re thinking of trying that.”
We may never know how much influence this legendary Bahamian guide truly had on creating the first Super Bowl, but we do know this: Pete Rozelle gave Saunders a football from that game. And not just any ball, either. “This is the first football they used in the Super Bowl,” Saunders says, turning the now torn and worn ball in his hands. “The one they used for the kickoff.”
The belief that the National League had superior teams held true for the first two Super Bowls, both won by Green Bay. Then it ended. “The third year,” Saunders says, “Joe Namath and the New York Jets beat the National League.” Indeed they did, outscoring the Colts 16-7 in 1969, proving that Ansil’s idea was the right one.
Tom Bie is the founder, editor, and publisher of The Drake. He started the magazine in 1998 as an annual newsprint publication based in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. He then moved it to Steamboat, Colorado (1999), Boulder, Colorado (2001), and San Clemente, California (2004), as he took jobs as managing editor at Paddler, Senior Editor at Skiing, and Editor-in-Chief at Powder, respectively. Tom and The Drake are now both based in Denver, Colorado, where The Drake is finally all grows up(Swingers, 1996) to a quarterly magazine.
Good morning, An Positively beautiful Article! I woke up to reading this story, which is very close to me, I’m from Bimini, and Ansil has been in my life for long time, being that he’s My Sister dad, and A legend at the same time! I’m Grateful to having him in my lifetime, and now to share with the rest of the world is, remarkable, amazing experience! I thank you again for giving him his chance to tell the amazing stories he has to tell! I’m humble, and very proud of him!
You’re welcome, Calvin!