When the underdog New York Jets were eliminated from Super Bowl
contention recently, it was a reminder of another underdog Jets team a
little over 40 years ago. In the 1969 Super Bowl, Jets quarterback Joe
Willie Namath changed, not just football, but the world of sports
You had to be there. Only football fans of that era can appreciate the
magnitude of the game. When the American Football Leagues (AFL) New
York Jets beat the Baltimore Colts of the National Football League
(NFL), it was considered the biggest upset in American sports history.
It still is - the mighty Colts were an 18-point favorite and
considered by some as the greatest football team ever assembled.
Unlike now, there was an intense rivalry between NFL and AFL players
and fans alike. The AFL was a rebel league, relatively new,
challenging the NFL for the third straight year in a championship
game. The NFLs Green Bay Packers had whipped the AFLs representative
badly in the previous two years.
Joe Namath was the most notorious outlaw in the rebel league. He wore
a sinister Fu Manchu mustache in a time when wearing any facial hair
at all was controversial. His party-animal, bachelor image spit in the
face of the sports establishment. He stayed out late Saturday nights,
reportedly taking in the alluring sights of Manhattan, but always
showed up on Sundays to lead the Jets to their most successful seasons
ever. His teammates and Jets fans loved him.
Probably not the best quarterback in the AFL, what Namath had was a
stadium full of confidence... okay arrogance. When he guaranteed a
victory for New York over Baltimore a few days before the 1969 game,
football fans backing the NFL were incensed. I cant tell you how many
times I heard to the effect, How dare he brag about beating the
Colts. Baltimore will make him eat those words.
Many people were compelled to tune in to a Super Bowl game that they
might not have watched otherwise to see that bigmouth Namath and the
upstart Jets massacred by the now-angry Colts. In the spirit of
Namath, guarantees to win made by athletes today are fairly common. In
Michigan, sports fans are most familiar with former Piston Rashead
Wallaces guarantees before playoff games. Wallaces promises had
mixed results at best, but they are no longer a big deal a cliché at
Few of us knew at the time that the proposed merger of the leagues
from 1966 began to unravel after AFL teams were trounced in the first
two Super Bowls. It appeared that the AFL couldnt compete with the
NFLwhy should the NFL bring in rinky-dink AFL teams that would dilute
the quality of play?
Of course, the AFLs Jets delivered on Joe Namaths guarantee by
humbling the NFLs Colts 16-7. Namath was the MVP of the 1969 Super
Bowl, the NFL and AFL merged leagues in 1970, and the rest is history.
The outlaw image of athletes is more the norm in sports, today.
The intense rivalry between the leagues has since all but disappeared,
but the merged NFL has prospered to become the most popular and
powerful sport in the United States. Pro football is now the model
sport for success. Its teams earn billion of dollars for relatively
few games each season. Players salaries average near $1 million per
season, often earning much more for endorsements from advertisers.
Pro football and sports has Joe Namath and the 1969 New York Jets
to thank for much of their popularity and wealth. And there will never
be another NFL championship game more memorable than Super Bowl III.