Greatest moment in Jets history made bittersweet 50 years later
It was the day and the game that impacted NFL history like no other, and stands as the one crowning achievement of a star-crossed franchise and everlasting memory to those who are still remembered as Cinderella Men.
Nearly 50 years to the day later, nearly 50 years after Jan. 12, 1969, nearly 50 years after Super Bowl III, Joe Namath sings a song of belief, and not only to the legion of long-suffering Jets fans.
“One of the things I learned that’s very important in life, we’re all underdogs from time to time,” Namath told The Post. “Think positive. If you think you can’t, you won’t. If you think you can, you got a chance to do it. Do keep dreaming and keep trying to fulfill your dreams. Don’t let anybody tell you you can’t do it.”
“Hoosiers” was the basketball movie version of the Super Bowl III Jets; “Miracle” was the hockey movie version; “Rocky” was the boxing movie version.
With television’s help, Jets 16, Colts 7 changed football forever. It changed Super Bowl Sundays in America forever.
It changed lives forever — none more than Namath’s.
Namath stood as a symbol to some, with his shaggy hair and white shoes, fighting the haughty Establishment NFL at a time when Muhammad Ali remained in boxing exile for refusing induction into the Army on the grounds of being a conscientious objector to the raging Vietnam War that caused civil unrest throughout the country.
Much like Ali, Namath was a rebel with a cause, a swaggerlicious bon vivant with a llama-rugged penthouse bachelor pad on the Upper East Side.
And a rocket right arm that weathered barking knees and a braggadocio that compelled him to issue his famous guarantee to an obnoxious heckler at the Miami Touchdown Club three days before the game.
He was Broadway Joe. He starred in “C.C & Company” opposite Ann-Margret, did a Noxzema commercial with Farrah Fawcett and even a pantyhose commercial. He had his own television show. Only months after Super Bowl III, here was Playboy Magazine’s intro to a provocative interview with America’s champion playboy:
“Last January’s Super Bowl victory by the New York Jets over the Baltimore Colts was by far professional sports’ most dramatic event since Bobby Thomson’s ninth-inning home run won a pennant for the New York Giants 18 years ago. The Jet win was doubly meaningful: It not only proved that the American Football League had achieved parity with the older NFL; it also vindicated Jet quarterback Joe Namath, who boasted before the game that his 17-point underdog team would vanquish the supposedly invincible Colts.”
Namath beat the mighty NFL Baltimore Colts and he beat the bottle, a much tougher battle. Asked what he thinks his emotions will be when he wakes up on Jan. 12, 2019, Namath said, “Thankful. It’s a special day when I’m thinking about Jan. 12 specifically and what it meant in my life and our team’s life and our family’s life. It’s a wonderful memory.”
Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom graciously sent champagne to the Jets’ Monday victory party at their Galt Ocean Mile Hotel on Fort Lauderdale Beach. Center John Schmitt, who defied pneumonia to play in the game, took his wife to Neiman Marcus the following day. She needed a dress for the party.
“And I’m on a chair while she’s trying on dresses,” Schmitt recalled. “She had a very pretty young girl waiting on her. She says, ‘Were you here for the game?’ And all I just said is ‘Yes.’ She goes inside again and brings another dress. She says, ‘Did you play in the game?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ She goes back in and she comes back out, ‘Were you on the winning team?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ And she jumps on me — I swear this is true — she jumps on me, she hugs, she kisses me. And my wife walks out of the dressing room and she goes, ‘EXCUSE ME?’ ”
Turns out the girl had gotten married eight months earlier and her husband had bet the $500 they had in the bank at 10-1 odds on the Jets.
“So that was like winning a Super Bowl also,” Schmitt said.
Weeb Ewbank’s Jets left for Kennedy Airport on Tuesday morning. It was such a hectic time that they left without taking home the championship trophy, which became known as the Lombardi Trophy beginning with Super Bowl V. They had left it in a safe at the hotel. Assistant equipment manager Mickey Rendine brought the trophy back home on a later flight.
“When we arrived at the airport, what stood out to me was there was Howard Cosell, who had predicted the Jets would lose 63-0 or something like that,” former longtime Jets PR man Frank Ramos recalled. “He wanted to interview Weeb. He had always been a severe critic of Weeb.”
The gentlemanly Ewbank ignored pleas from assistant coach Clive Rush not to do the interview.
Namath received Sport Magazine’s MVP award at Mamma Leone’s restaurant in Manhattan.
“They gave him the keys to the car at the presentation there, and then they went out into the parking lot at Mamma Leone’s, and the crowd of reporters and fans that were in the lot, a police officer said to me, ‘I haven’t seen anything like this since the Beatles,’ ” Ramos said.
As a fresh Super Bowl champion, defensive end Gerry Philbin earned a Campbell’s soup commercial and was given a two-year lease on a purple Dodge Challenger. The Jets were no longer second-class citizens on the banquet tour.
“Before the Super Bowl, we were getting like $50 and we would go to the same banquet and we found out the Giants were getting like $150,” Philbin said. “We wanted the same money, but we couldn’t demand it. So after the Super Bowl, then we were getting at least $150 — Joe was making the big money.”
Jets 16, Colts 7, cheered by AFL players everywhere, was a crushing blow to the NFL’s claims of supremacy and served warning to the Giants that a clear and present danger was lurking nearby.
Marv Albert was the legendary voice of the Knicks back then.
“It was more of a basketball town at the time, I thought,” he said. “People didn’t pay attention to the Jets or the AFL the way they did the Giants at the time.”
But Namath had blinding star power, and the aging Giants were so mired in mediocrity that fans had begun serenading head coach Allie Sherman with “Good-bye Allie.”
New York City Mayor John Lindsay inexcusably did not give the Super Bowl III Jets a parade. Only keys to the city at City Hall.
“I don’t think they were expecting that we were gonna win the game,” Ramos said.
Though they were kings of the world, the Jets knew they would not be kings of the city until they conquered the Giants. Which they did, 37-14, on Aug. 17, 1969, at the Yale Bowl.
“And that,” Philbin said, “gave us the right now to claim ultimately that we were the best team not only in the country, but in New York City.”
Super Bowl III had been sandwiched between the violent 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago and Neil Armstrong taking one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind. It came nine months after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., seven months after the assassination of Robert Kennedy, eight days before Richard Nixon’s first inauguration. And long before ESPN and MTV.
For Mayor Lindsay, whose Gotham was beset with financial woes, the Jets’ shock-the-world upset must have seemed like 1,000 points of light. The Amazin’ Mets captured their first World Series nine months later, and Willis Reed limped out of the Garden tunnel on May 8, 1970, before Game 7 against the Lakers to help Walt “Clyde” Frazier drive the Knicks to their first NBA title. Art Shamsky, a member of the ’69 Mets who wrote “The Magnificent Seasons” and has a second book, “After The Miracle,” out in March, lived on the Upper East Side.
“The Jets with their first win and then us,” Shamsky recalled, “and then the Knicks really kinda brightened the lives of New Yorkers, at least thinking that there was some light at the end of the tunnel.”
Super Bowl III ended with Namath trotting off the field wagging his index finger. Defensive back John Dockery, a long-shot kid from Brooklyn: “I didn’t run off the field. I glided off the field. I flew off the field. I wasn’t touching the ground.”
Namath was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 1985, as part of a class that included O.J. Simpson and former NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle.
“Pete Rozelle, who obviously probably was in pain as Namath conducted the win, also appreciated and believed that it was critical that the AFL did win that game because it brought the idea of parity between the two leagues. It made the Super Bowl that much more important,” Pro Football Hall of Fame Executive Director Joe Horrigan said.
“To have Rozelle and Joe Namath in that same class seemed so appropriate.”
Schmitt, a kid from Hofstra, now splits his time between Brookville, Long Island, and Boca West.
“Once you’re a champion in New York,” Schmitt said, “you’re a champion for life, and it’s a feeling you can’t buy.”
The ring is the thing.
“I leave it on and the response when people see it is one of ‘Wow!’ It’s a gift you can give them just by spending 120 seconds, three minutes, four minutes,” Dockery said.
The pride and joy each of them feels inside whenever they stare at the ring — EXECUTION etched on one side, POISE on the other side — will give pause to melancholy and sadness only when they mourn fallen brothers who are no longer with them.
Namath, 75, a proud grandfather, will be at his Florida home Saturday. His 33-year-old daughter Jessica has a small surprise planned for him and was asked if the day will be emotional for her father.
“I don’t think emotional,” she said. “I think he’ll miss his teammates that aren’t here. Guys that he can’t call.”
Namath wishes every one of his teammates could share it with him again.
“I feel confident that there’s gonna be some times during the day that I’ll see faces, man, I’ll see teammates, I’ll see guys that … aren’t with us anymore,” Namath said. “Guys that have passed on too early. Too early. I will specifically remember them.”
Joe Namath was 25 years old the day he and his band of Jets brothers gave us a forever moment.
“It’s a day that my dad and his teammates proved that they were who they knew they were, and the AFL was what they knew it was,” Jessica Namath said.
Her father watched the original Super Bowl III telecast five months ago for the first time. No particular reason why he hadn’t to that point.
“Timing,” he said. “I don’t watch a lot of television, man.”
And what did he think when he finally watched it?
“I wish I could have played better,” Namath said. “Our running game was very impressive that day, very impressive. The defense held those guys without points. We made some plays, and they didn’t.”
Jessica has watched Super Bowl III highlights with her father, and was struck by one particular reflection from him.
“I think that my favorite is probably when he talked about time just slowing down when he was walking across the field to see Johnny Unitas for the coin toss, his childhood hero,” she said.
If Ali was the fifth Beatle, then Namath was the sixth.
“I feel like he had the energy of that generation behind him,” Jessica said. “It’s what he represented that I’m so proud of.”
Of course, it is also unfathomable that the Jets haven’t been back to a Super Bowl since Jan. 12, 1969.
“It pisses me off,” Schmitt said. “We have great fans, and they deserve more than they’re getting from our team. They’ve been cheated for years. I’m tired of [BS], ya know? It’s 50 years. We haven’t been to even lose a Super Bowl in 50 years.
“My whole family are Jet fans. We live and die with the team. But we’ve died a lot more than we’ve lived.”
Jan. 12, 2019 is the one day for every last one of them to relive.
“I always call Joe on Jan. 12, and we talk about the game,” Ramos said. “And as he says, ‘It never gets old.’ ” Never.
“Yes, it was a dream come true, something we earned, something we dreamt about as kids … No, that doesn’t get old,” Namath said. “We get old — if we’re lucky. If we’re lucky, we get old, you know what I’m saying?”
He has a book on the way for Father’s Day entitled “All The Way: My Life in Four Quarters.” Joe Namath was always at his best in the fourth quarter.
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