In 1969, Joe Namath and the Jets were the outsiders in professional football — coming from that “upstart” football league; the American Football League or AFL; a league many regarded as lightweight and in no way the equal of NFL, the National Football League. Only two years earlier, the AFL had begun playing the more established NFL in an annual championship game. The first two of those games– then called championship games, not Super Bowls — were won by the NFL team, the Green Bay Packers. So, by 1969 most fans expected that the champion NFL team, the Baltimore Colts, would likewise dispense with Namath and the AFL’s New York Jets. The odds makers in fact, were betting against the Jets — at first, 7-to-1 against them beating the Colts. By game day the Colts were favored to win by 18-19 points. So the popular banter leading up to the game was that the Jets would be hammered by the Colts. That’s what everybody believed — everybody that is, except Joe Namath. What follows is some back story on Namath and the Jets in the years leading up to 1969, a description of the Jets-vs.-Colts battle in Super Bowl III, and then some accounting of how Namath and this game helped change the tenor of professional football, making it a more valuable business and a more center-stage part of popular culture.
Joe Namath’s grandfather, a Hungarian immigrant, worked in the mines and steel mills around Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Joe grew up as the youngest of five children with 3 brothers and 1 sister in a working class Hungarian Catholic family in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania. Namath’s parents divorced when he was 12 years old, not a happy development for young Joe. Among other things, he was known to frequent local pool halls in his younger years. But Joe Namath also became a standout scholastic athlete, excelling in high school football, basketball and baseball. In basketball, he could dunk the ball in competition, then uncommon in high school (a few high school photos appear below in Sources). He was also a good enough baseball player to receive offers from a number of major league teams, including the Yankees, Mets, Indians, Reds, Pirates, and Phillies. He admired Roberto Clemente of Pirates and at one point thought he might play for Pittsburgh. The Chicago Cubs offered him a bonus of $50,000, but he decided to play football, partly at his mother’s urging him to get a college education. Major colleges sought to recruit him, including Notre Dame, Penn State and others. But in the end he decided to play for Paul “Bear” Bryant at the University of Alabama. Namath led Alabama to a 29-4 record over three seasons, including a National Championship in 1964. However, he would not complete his college degree requirements until years later, in 2007.In late November 1964, Namath was selected in both the NFL and AFL drafts for college players — 12th by the St. Louis Cardinals of the NFL and No.1 overall in the AFL draft by the New York Jets. Namath signed with the Jets in January 1965 for a then record $427,000. Part of the deal included a retirement plan that guaranteed Namath $5,000 a year for life after his playing career ended. At signing, for good measure, a brand new Lincoln Continental automobile was given to him.
Namath arrived in the pro ranks with something a reputation. At Alabama he had been suspended as a junior when coach Bear Bryant kicked him off the team for drinking and carousing before the last two games of the season. With his good looks and no shortage of female admirers, Namath came off as something of a playboy. And there was a certain star quality about him recognized by others. When Jets owner and former Hollywood executive Sonny Werblin signed the 22 year-old University of Albama star he said: “When Joe Namath walks into a room, you know he’s there. When any other high-priced rookie walks in, he’s just a nice-looking young man.” Werblin also reportedly said to Namath at his signing, “I don’t know whether you’ll play on our team or make a picture for Universal.”Sonny Werblin, in fact, knew something about star power. For 30 years he had represented Hollywood and music stars for the Music Corporation of America (MCA), the biggest talent agency in show business. Among those he represented were: Jack Benny, Alfred Hitchcock, Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, Johnny Carson, Ronald Reagan, Jack Paar and others. He also helped put together TV productions such as The Ed Sullivan Show and The Jackie Gleason Show. When he retired in 1965 as a vice-president of MCA and president of MCA-TV, he was known as “the world’s greatest agent.”
Werblin came to the Jets knowing well the business value of stars and talent. He would later tell Sports Illustrated: “I believe in the star system. It’s the only way to sell tickets. It’s what you put on stage or the playing field that draws people.” Werblin and partners had purchased the faltering New York franchise in 1963. In the 1965 college draft, Werblin spent $1.1 million to assemble 28 rookies — the most money then ever committed for new athletic talent in one year by any pro football team. Among those acquired was Joe Namath, of course, but also two other quarterbacks, including John Hurate from Notre Dame, the Heisman Trophy winner in 1964, who Werblin also singed for $200,000. Still, it was Namath who got the notice.Namath, in fact, was billed by the press as a star at the outset — a star in that most glittery of galleries that is New York city. Sports Illustrated put him on its July 1965 cover with Broadway in the background. In fact, Namath would later get the nickname, “Broadway Joe.” The Jets, meanwhile, were then a franchise being rebuilt and reborn. Founded in 1960 as the AFL’s New York Titans, by 1963, they had gone through a change in ownership. The team also adopted the New York Jets as their new name and hired a new coach, Weeb Ewbank, who had produced back-to-back championships with the Baltimore Colts in 1958-59. By 1965, as the Jets began their new season with new players such as Namath, there were great expectations. The AFL by then as well had a brand-new $36 million, 5-year deal with NBC-TV network to televise the league’s games nationally. And the Jets in the big New York market, and then one of the city’s hottest sports teams, were sure to be a good draw. They would also prove to be popular nationwide. Namath, stepping onto this stage, did not disappoint, either as a player or a high-profile personality. Off the field, Namath’s reputation as a ladies man became part of his “man about town” image, appearing in public with actresses, models, and other stars. But on the football field he also stood out, and in the fall of 1965, after a brief battle with other contending Jet quarterbacks, he began appearing in sports-page headlines for leading the Jets to wins over their opponents. In his first season, Namath appeared in 13 games, nine as the starting QB. He threw for 2,220 yards and 18 touchdowns. However, the Jets finished their season with 5 wins, 8 losses and 1 tie, good enough for a 2nd place finish in their division. Namath, meanwhile, took AFL rookie-of-the year honors.
However, as the August 1967 exhibition season got underway, Namath appeared to have a little Alabama undergraduate still in his soul, as he violated the team curfew one night, staying out late. Coach Weeb Ewbank later dealt with his quarterback in private, levying a stiff fine on Namath.
1967: 8-5-1As the regular season began in 1967, the Jets dropped their opening game on the road to the Buffalo Bills and had a week off until their next game. On September 23rd against the Denver Broncos, Namath was in good form as he passed for 399 yards to help the Jets win, 38-24. The following week, on October 1st, as the Jets’ first home game that season was played at Shea Stadium, a record crowd of 61,240 watched Namath lead his team to win over the Miami Dolphins, 29-7. Namath had a total 415 passing yards that game. Running back Emerson Boozer also scored three touchdowns. The Jets then beat the Oakland Raiders at Shea the following week, and then tied the Houston Oilers the week after that in a game in which Namath made a game-saving tackle on the four yard-line during the closing minutes of play, preventing the Oilers from winning. On October 22nd, the Jets beat the Miami Dolphins, 33-14, after Namath had built a 24-0 first half lead. The following week, a Namath passing touchdown in the fourth quarter gave the Jets a 30-23 win over Boston Patriots. On November 11th, the Jets lost to Kansas City on the road, 42-18. Then back home at Shea Stadium they beat the Buffalo Bills, 20-10 on November 12th. They next traveled to Boston’s Fenway Park where they beat the Patriots 29-24. At the end of November they had a week off, but returned to lose three straight games — to the Denver Broncos, 33-24; the Kansas City Chiefs, 21-7; and Oakland Raiders, 38-29. In their final game of the 1967 season, the Jets beat the San Diego Chargers in San Diego, 42-31.
The Jets finished that year with an 8-5-1 record. It was their best showing since Namath had joined the team. For his part, Namath had put together a spectacular year. He complied 4,007 passing yards, which made him the first-ever pro quarterback in a 14-game season to pass for 4,000 yards in a season. At the time, passing for 3,000 yards in a single season was considered quite good. By the end of the year, Namath was still making the style pages occasionally, noted for his expensive suits and generally natty dress, sometimes described as the “swinging quarterback of the New York Jets.” One December story in the New York Times featured his bachelor pad — a penthouse apartment with white Llama rug and suede couch. He also continued to get attention as a ladies man. One notable girlfriend he dated in late 1960s was Suzie Storm, a singer and friend since college days and who he was sometimes photographed with during the 1960s.
Super Bowl Season: 11-3In 1968, the Jets were poised to have an even better year than they did in 1967, raising the visibility of the AFL’s play as they went. A major test for Namath and his team in 1968 came in their first game facing the Kansas City Chiefs on the road. The Chiefs were a perennial AFL power and had played in the first AFL-NFL Championship contest of January 1967 (later dubbed Super Bowl I). Added to the hype in opening day Jets-Chiefs contest that week was a comment that Chiefs’ coach Hank Stram had made about 1968 not being Namath’s year. But in the game, the Jets prevailed, 20-19, with Namath later claiming it as an especially sweet victory. The Jets then won their next game, then see-sawed a bit in the next few weeks, losing one, winning one, then losing another. But from that point on, from late October 1968, they would win every game they played with the exception of one loss to the Oakland Raiders in mid-November.
The game with Oakland, played on November 17, 1968, was also the infamous “Heidi game,” when NBC, believing the game was over with 50 seconds remaining as the Jets then led 32-29, switched from its national broadcast of the game to begin airing the children’s movie, Heidi.
However, in the remaining seconds of the game, Oakland would proceed to score two touchdowns to win the game 43-32, as the Heidi film rolled. Telephone calls from legions of irate viewers overwhelmed NBC switchboard in Manhattan, with much public scorn and ridicule heaped on the network for its televised faux pax. In any case, the Jets would later get another shot at the Oakland Raiders in the championship game. But in the regular season they went on to win their last four games and finished with a record of 11-3.
Namath, meanwhile, had grown a much- celebrated FuManchu mustache toward the end of the 1968 regular season, and as part of a promotion for some Schick razor advertising, he agreed to be filmed shaving it off. In mid-December 1968, Namath walked into a Manhattan television studio, was set up with a Schick electric razor as the cameras rolled, and within three minutes or so, it was done, the FuManchu was history. The 25 year-old Namath had just made a TV commercial for a cool wad of cash — a reported $10,000, which in 1968 was pretty good money for a few minutes’ work. Upon departing the studio, Namath commented that he was feeling “a little bit lighter” having lost his facial hair. “I can scramble better now,” he said. And in week or so, he might just have to do that, as the Oakland Raiders were coming to town.
In the AFL’s championship game, played on December 29, 1968, the Jets faced the Oakland Raiders at Shea Stadium. In what proved to be a very exciting game, Namath led his team to a 27-23 victory, throwing three touchdown passes. With a crowd of 62,627 fans looking on, the Jets took a quick 10-0 lead in the first quarter. By the fourth quarter, they still led 20-13. The Raiders, however, fought back and took a 23-20 lead about midway through the fourth quarter. But the Jets weren’t finished either, as Namath marched them down the field to score with a final short pass to end Don Maynard to re-take the lead, 27-23. The Jets defense then held, and with that, the New York Jets had won the AFL championship. Then it was on to Super Bowl III in January to meet the Baltimore Colts.
Colts on A Roll: 13-1
Over in the NFL, meanwhile, coach Don Shula’s Baltimore Colts had also completed a superior season in 1968 — in fact, pro football’s best that year — finishing the regular season by winning 10 games in a row, four by shutouts. The Colts posted a 13-1 record. In their last ten games, they had allowed only seven touchdowns. Their quarterback, Earl Morrall, who had replaced the legendary Johnny Unitas after an injury, was having a great season, with a league-leading passing performance. On their way to meeting the Jets in the Superbowl, the Colts had decisively beaten the Cleveland Browns 34-0 in the NFL championship game. Given this performance, many regarded the Colts as one of the best teams of all time, even comparable to Vince Lombardi’s championship Green Bay Packer teams — teams that had won Super Bowls I and II. So it was no surprise that the Colts were favored to beat the Jets in the big game.
Super Bowl III was scheduled to be played in the Orange Bowl at Miami, Florida on Sunday, January 12th, 1969. Both teams had come to Florida a week or so before the game to practice there and become acclimated to the warmer climate and prepare their respective game plans. Joe Namath had been talking to the press about the upcoming game even before his arrival in Florida. In late December, on the 30th, he told the press that Daryle Lamonica of the Oakland Raiders was a better passing quarterback than the Colt’s Earl Morrall. And once in Florida, Namath would appear in public a few more times, also speaking with the press about the game.
On the evening of January 9th, several days before the big game, Namath attended a dinner in the Playhouse Room at the Miami Villas. The Miami Touchdown Club was honoring him as pro football’s most outstanding player for 1968. During the course of events that night, when Namath spoke at one point, someone in the back of the room shouted out “the Colts are going to kick your ass.” Namath then responded: “Hey, I got news for you. We’re going to win Sunday, I’ll guarantee you…” The “guarantee,” as Namath himself would later explain, was not planned or premeditated, it just came naturally in the context of his remarks, prompted in part by the heckler — but also by Namath’s personal belief that the Jets would win. Namath had been studying Colt game films by this time, and he was seeing opportunity in the Colts’ defense. At the dinner, Namath reiterated his views about Colt quarterback Morrall, saying he was entitled to his opinion. He also took issue with press accounts that the Jets defense could not compare to the Colts, giving his own guys very high praise.The next morning The Miami Herald ran a banner headline on its front sports page that read “Namath Guarantees Jet Victory.” Jet’s coach, Weeb Ewbank, was furious when he learned about the story and Namath’s remarks, and he quizzed his quarterback at break- fast to see if he really, in fact, had said it. Namath readily admitted he had. “Ah Joe, Joe, Joe,” said Ewbank, with some exasperation, “you know what they’re going to do?,” referring to the Colts. “They’re going to put that [story] up on the locker room wall. Those Colts are gonna’s want to kill us.” Ewbank had preferred the Jets take a more low-keyed approach. But Namath and other Jets were growing angry over the predictions being made in the other direction — especially the bookie’s growing point spread on the game, how the Jets defense wasn’t any good, and the general talk about the inferior AFL. Namath’s “guarantee” also managed to convince some doubting Thomases on his own team — and get them rethinking and looking at Colt game films again. The effect was a positive psychology in the Jets’ locker room. In fact, on the day before the game, Bill Rademacher, a member of the Jets’ special teams squad, told the Newark, New Jersey Star-Ledger columnist, Jerry Izenberg, that Namath’s remarks had psyched up the Jets: “Joe has been trying to shake us up. That’s why he started all the talking. Well, now we’re properly shook and I’ll tell you something else. It’s more than just his pregame behavior. He’s telling the truth. We are going to win.”
Namath, meanwhile, persisted with his prediction, defending it poolside with reporters at the Galt Ocean Mile Hotel in Ft.Lauderdale where the Jets were staying. The Colts, he said, were not only beatable, but their quarterback, Earl Morrall, the NFL’s most valuable player, would have a tough time making the Jets’ third string. Engaging with reporters, Namath said: “We’re a better team than Baltimore.” And adding to his critique of Morrall, Namath said, “There are maybe five or six better quarterbacks than Morrall in the AFL.” Sports Illustrated reporter Tex Maule observed that Namath “reminds you a bit of Dean Martin (an actor from the 1950s) in his relaxed confidence and in the droop of his heavy-lidded eyes.” But some in the football world weren’t so taken with Namath.
Namath had already had a personal run-in with Baltimore Colt defensive end and field goal kicker Lou Michaels at a Miami nightclub the previous Monday evening. Michaels and Namath were there seperately having dinner with some teammates. Michaels later sought out Namath at the club telling him what he thought of his off-base remarks about Morrall and the Colts. There was something of a heated exchange between the two, each predicting their side would prevail on Sunday,but no fisticuffs. Namath, in fact, reportedly bought a round of drinks.Former NFL star and then Atlanta coach Norm Van Brocklin also ridiculed Namath and the AFL before the game, saying, “This will be Namath’s first professional football game.” Writers from NFL cities insisted it would take the AFL several more years to be truly competitive with the NFL. Much of the hype surrounding the game had to do with the worth of each league’s level of play — AFL vs. NFL. A merger of the two leagues was then in the air, and many doubted that AFL teams were truly worthy of merging with the NFL. Still, Namath’s message was the same whenever he was asked about the game: “We’re going to win. I guarantee it.” Still, it would all come down to game-day execution and which team was most effective on the playing field, man for man.
Most football fans, meanwhile, were unaware of Namath’s prediction that the Jets would win. This was the era before “all news all the time” — i.e., 1969 B.C., or “before cable.” This was a world without the internet, the iPhone, Twitter, etc.,. Newspapers and three-channel broadcast TV were the primary media. There were no TV cameras present at the banquet when Namath had made his remarks. The only news coverage of Namath’s “guarantee” was that first carried by Miami Herald newspaper on Friday, January 10th. On the Saturday before the game, January 11th, one New York paper, Newsday, had picked up the story. But most papers in Manhattan didn’t have it until game day, and even then it didn’t get much notice. At the outset of the game’s TV broadcast on game day, NBC’s announcer Curt Gowdy did say something about Namath’s prediction. Still, around the country, old-school fans who had heard about Namath’s prediction thought it little more than big-mouth braggadocio, and that Namath would get his comeuppance in the game. And so, it really wasn’t until after the game had ended that Namath’s famous prediction would begin to enter the realm of legend.
The GameAs the game began, it looked like the Baltimore Colts were going to validate the bookies’ odds-making prediction of a Colts blow-out over the Jets. The Jets had won the opening kickoff, but had five plays before turning the ball over to Baltimore. Then Earl Morrall went to work. He first passed to tight end John Mackey who ran over two Jet tacklers for 19 yards. Then fullback Tom Matte swept right end for 10 yards. Running back Jerry Hill then swept left for seven more yards. The first downs were racking up. Then Morrall passed to tight end Tom Mitchell for 19 more yards, another first down. The Jet defense then began to find itself and tightened up, forcing two incomplete passes. Morrall then sought to pass again on third down, but found no open receivers so he ran for no gain. The Colts kicker, Lou Michaels, then tried a field goal from the 27-yard line, but missed. On the Jets’ second possession in the first quarter, Namath threw deep to end Don Maynard, who was open by a step, but the ball was overthrown. After one quarter of play the Jets had held the powerful Colts to a stale mate. The score was 0-0.
In the second quarter, Baltimore recovered a Jet fumble on the New York 12 yard line. They could practically smell the endzone. On a third down play, from just six yards out, Morrall fired a hard pass to Colt tight end Tom Mitchell in the end zone, but the ball bounced off his shoulder pads into the air, as the Jet’s defensive back Randy Beverly made a diving, off-balance interception for a touchback. The Jets then had the ball on their own 20 yard line. Namath brought his offensive unit in and proceeded to engineer a 12-play drive for over 80 yards, taking the Jets deep into Colts territory, with fullback Matt Snell taking it in for the score from four yards out. In this drive, Namath mixed his play calling with a series of runs and short passes, but Snell’s running was key. A 219-pound fullback in his fifth year with the Jets, Snell had one of the best games of his career. Earlier that week Snell had to have fluid drained from a damaged knee, but on game day, he ran without flaw. The Jets were now up, 7-0.
At one point in the second quarter, Baltimore nearly broke it open. From their own 20-yard line, they advanced to a near score when fullback Tom Matte broke for 58-yard run. But with 2 minutes left in the half, Morrall was intercepted at the Jets’ 2-yard line, taking the air out of the Colts considerably. The Jets, however, lost the ball on downs, punted, and the Colts once again moved to New York’s 41-yard line. Then came another play that could have turned the game in Baltimore’s favor. Colt quarterback Morrall handed off to running back Tom Matte, who started on an end sweep, but stopped in a “flea- flicker” type play flipping the ball back to Morrall then setting to pass. The Jets were fooled, and so was the NBC camera crew, but Morrall’s pass to running back Jerry Hill went bad and was intercepted by Jets safety, Jim Hudson. However, Morrall hadn’t seen a wide-open Jimmy Orr, standing just yards from the end zone, all alone. Time then expired in the half, with the Jets still up, 7-0.
Superbowl III marked the first time that celebrities appeared in various game related ceremonies. Bob Hope led a pregame ceremony honoring Apollo 8 astronauts for the first manned flight around the Moon. Singer Anita Bryant sang the national anthem at the game. Big-time rock stars at halftime, however, had not yet arrived. The Florida A&M University band did the halftime show. On the first play of the second half, the Jets recovered a Tom Matte fumble which led to the Jets’ Jim Turner kicking a 32-yard field goal to make the score 10-0, Jets. Baltimore on its next possession lost the ball on downs. Namath then took his team back down the field with a series of passes, setting up another Turner field goal, this time from 30 yards out. It was now 13-0, Jets.With about three minutes left in the third quarter, Baltimore coach Don Shula turned to Johnny Unitas, the veteran quarterback and Joe Namath boyhood hero who had been sidelined most of the year with a bad elbow. But Unitas could not get the Colts offense moving on their next series of downs and had to punt. In the fourth quarter, Namath then made a 39-yard pass his split end, George Sauer, with the Jets later reaching the Colts 2-yard line. But Baltimore’s defense held tough at that point, keeping the Jets out of the end zone. Jim Turner was then called on once again, and he kicked his third field goal of the afternoon from 9 yards out. It was now 16-0, Jets. When the Colts next got the ball, Unitas showed a bit of his old skills moving the team 80 yards down the field for a touchdown, completing four passes on the drive. It was now 16-7, Jets.
The Colts were then successful with an onside kick, recovering the ball on the Jet 44 yard line. With 3:14 to go, Unitas hit three passes in a row, but then he missed three and lost the ball on downs. Taking over with 2:21 remaining in the final quarter, Namath used his running back Matt Snell on six running plays to eat up the clock. In fact, the Jets would not run a single pass play the entire fourth quarter. But in this final series, the Jets could not get another first down. Namath then took two penalties for delaying the game to wind down the clock down further. Jets punter Curley Johnson then kicked the ball to the Colts with only 15 seconds remaining. Unitas came back in to try to do the impossible, and he managed to complete one of two passes, but time ran out.The Jets had done it; they had won the Super Bowl! Professional football was instantly changed; the AFL had come into their own, or at least opened the door in a major way. The Jets had beaten one of the most widely touted NFL power teams.
Joe Namath, meanwhile, won the Super Bowl MVP award, more for his masterful game management than passing skills. Namath, in fact, did not throw a scoring touchdown all day, though he did use his passing talents strategically, completing 17 out of 28 passes for 206 yards and no interceptions. And it wasn’t just Joe Namath, of course. First and foremost was the hard running display of fullback Matt Snell, amassing 121 yards in 30 carries. Split end George Sauer had snagged eight completions from Namath for 133 yards. Defensively, the Jets’s secondary had a good day, picking off four Baltimore passes. Randy Beverly had two of those. The Jets offensive line had cleared the way for Snell and kept Namath well protected. Jet lineman Dave Herman had a tough assignment in the Colt’s hard-charging Buba Smith, but he kept Smith at bay. On the other side, Baltimore had a pretty bad day, with fumbles, interceptions and missed field goals proving costly. Morrall was 6 of 17 for 71 yards and was intercepted three times. Lou Michaels had missed two field goals. The Jets, for their part, had also missed scoring opportunities. For the Colts, however, there were a few bright spots. Unitas in his brief appearance had 11 completions for 110 yards, but was also intercepted once. Tom Matte had 116 yards on 11 carries and also caught 2 passes for 30 yards. Actually, with the exception of the turnovers, the game statistics for the two teams overall were very close in just about every category.
Overall, though, it was Namath’s day, as he was praised for running an intelligent game; one that included changing plays at the line of scrimmage, reading defenses incisively, and dealing with Baltimore’s famed defensive blitz. “Namath’s quickness took away our blitz,” said Colt coach Don Shula after the game. “He beat our blitz more than we beat him.” Namath’s teammates also had high praise for their quarterback, especially for his positivism before and during the game. “He never let up all game,” said Jet rookie John Dockery, a Harvard grad. “Every time he’d come to the sidelines after a series he’d pat everybody and keep telling us, ‘c’mon, c’mon — today is our day'”Around the country the next day, the headlines in major newspapers reported surprise at the upset, with a few vindicating Namath’s predictions about game and the worth of the AFL. “Jets Shock Colts in Super Bowl,” reported the Washington Post. “Namath Stands Behind Guarantee in 16-7 Jet Victory,” ran one headline with an Associated Press story.
“Broadway Joe Puts AFL in Lights,” said the Los Angeles Times, headlining one of its stories that suggested the AFL had now arrived. “Broadway Joe Rings Down the Curtain on the NFL,” was the headline used on the continuation page of that same story. Some L.A.Times columnists weighed in on the AFL vs. NFL argument. A Jim Murray story was headlined: “Don’t Look Now…But that Funny Little League is No.1.” A Bob Oates story was more circumspect: “Namath No.1, But NFL Teams Still Tougher.” Another headline spread across two pages in one paper read: “Famed Colt Defense Was Picked to Pieces…By Broadway Joe, Ruler of the Jet Set.” And so it went, all around the country. Many big city papers in NFL towns that had predicted a Colts victory, or that Namath would be crushed, were now eating crow.
But Joe Namath and Super Bowl III also marked a change in the history of sport in mainstream culture and the nature of “pop sports businesses.” Following this game, sport as big-business entertainment, sports news, and sports broad- casting were all ratcheted up another notch. Sports hype, promotion, and coverage all increased. Football, in particular –the sport and its stars — all got a little bigger as a result and moved more center stage in popular culture. Monday Night Football first aired on ABC-TV on September 21, 1970 featuring a game between the New York Jets and the Cleveland Browns (at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium where a record 85,700 fans came out). Advertisers were charged $65,000 per minute for that game by ABC, but its telecast collected a 33 percent share of the viewing audience. Pro football became a lot more impor- tant in terms of bottom-line business value — for owners, the media, and advertising. By mid-October 1972, with Joe Namath on its cover, Time magazine noted the following about Namath and the game:
…Win or lose, Namath generates more high-voltage excitement than any other player in the game. Indeed he is the sort of thrill producer that the N.F.L. badly needs these days. On the surface…the game still appears to be prospering at the brisk pace it set in the 1960s. Baseball may be the national pastime, but pro football has become the national obsession. It is now, according to N.F.L. Commissioner Alvin (“Pete”) Rozelle, a $130 million-a-year business. There are 26 teams in the league’s two conferences, and Rozelle talks of expanding… Last year the N.F.L.’s regular-season attendance surpassed ten million for the first time. Psychologists and sociologists by the score are peering into homes to determine the familial side effects on the 30 million-plus Americans who sit glazed before the tube on Sunday afternoons and Monday nights.The AFL of the 1960s and its legions were in one sense, the “entrepreneurs,” pushing on the NFL establishment, expanding the pie, bringing in new opportunities. And the Joe Namaths in these enterprises were the center-stage enablers of bigger economics. Namath biographer Mark Kriegel writes in his 2004 book, that Namath “aroused a kind of interest [pro football] had never before seen. He raised attendance, viewership, and wages.” But it wasn’t just Namath, as noted earlier. There were other movers and shakers behind the scenes who were prominently involved in the football-to-entertainment expansion, such as Jets former owner Sonny Werblin. Still, celebrities like Namath became the vessels of change and the media darlings. “Before Namath, football was a team sport played by mainly anonymous men..,” wrote Wall Street Journal reporter Stephen Barbara in 2004. “But after Namath, football was a show, a kind of unscripted drama that viewers could see in prime-time…”
And Namath’s stardom and stature were such that he began to cross over into the regular entertainment world. In fact, he is sometimes cited as one of the first “multi-platform” big time athletes — starring in advertisements, film, books, and television. Following Super Bowl III, for example, in 1969 alone, he: published a book, I Can’t Wait Until Tomorrow (co-written with sports writer, Dick Schaap); launched The Joe Namath TV Show of sports talk and related guests, co-hosted with Dick Schapp; appeared in TV and print advertising; and also began taking film roles in Hollywood and for television. But in the end, for Joe Namath, it has been the sports moment of January 12, 1969 that has lived in time.
The Iconic MomentAt the conclusion of Super Bowl III, Joe Namath ran off the field and into the locker room holding up his index finger saying “We’re No. 1.” Captured by photographers, that scene has become one of professional football’s classic iconic images — and to a degree, a validation of one man’s belief in his team, his own abilities, and of willing an outcome. And to this day, Namath’s famous “guarantee” remains memorable. Or as Mike Lupica of the New York Daily News recently put it: “Nobody ever proved that [Babe] Ruth actually called his [home run] shot in that World Series against the Cubs. Namath called his.” In Joe Namath’s athletic career, and much of his public life as well, there was perhaps no better moment than winning Super Bowl III.
Joe Namath would play eight more seasons with the Jets, finishing his career in 1977 with a final season with the Los Angeles Rams. Plagued with knee injuries and a series of surgeries throughout much of his career, and playing at a time when quarterbacks were not protected by game rules, Namath still managed to complete 1,886 passes for 27,663 yards and 173 touchdowns. He played in four AFL All-Star games and one AFC-NFC Pro Bowl. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1985. Well-respected coaches have touted his abilities. Bill Walsh, long-time coach of the San Francisco 49ers and three-time Super Bowl victor, has said that Namath was “the most beautiful, accurate, stylish passer with the quickest release I’ve ever seen.” And Don Shula called him “one of the 3 smartest quarterbacks of all time.”
Meanwhile, Joe Namath, the famous bachelor, did marry and became a family man. In 1984, when he married Deborah Mays, an aspiring actress, he settled down, stopped drinking, and became a devoted father of two daughters. Fifteen years later, however, in 1999, that marriage ended. Today Namath remains close to his now grown daughters, and one grandchild, who live with him in Florida.
The Real NamathIn some ways though, the real Joe Namath was never fully revealed during his football career or in his post-football acting days. “The sportswriters made Joe Namath into this hippie, stud, counterculture gambler,” observed writer Jack Newfield in a 2004 New York Sun piece. “They made him the Zeitgeist of the 1960s and this is how he was marketed.” But Joe Namath was more than the high-living and free-spirited celebrity athlete. Like everyone else, he was human, and he had his demons — a young boy scarred by divorce; an athlete self-medicating his pain with alcohol; and later, a lost husband and aching father when he faced his own divorce. And for all the hype about his boasting, Namath — even in his prime New York Jets days — was a guy who was privately not what he may have seemed in public. Hank Stram, coach of the Kansas City Chiefs remarked in 1975: “Too many people have given him the Broadway Joe image. He’s not that way at all.” Namath’s playboy image was played up as well, said Phil Iselin in July 1975, then president of the Jets organization. “He’s not that way at all,” said Iselin. “He is actually a very quiet and timid guy. I think more people are getting to know the real Joe Namath.” Iselin did admit to Namath being the “greatest sports attraction since Babe Ruth,” adding that the Jets had then, by July 1975, already sold out its 1975 fall season, with a long waiting list. “You can give Joe a lot of credit for that.” Sportswriter and commentator, Dick Schaap, co-authored and helped Namath write his 1969 book, I Can’t Wait Till Tomorrow..Because I Get Better Looking Every Day, which, according to Schaap, was part put on. Still, Schaap worried that some folks might get the wrong impression from this book and think Namath was “a braggart”. Schaap explained, in fact, that Namath was the opposite of braggart, though he had a sense of humor and was a guy who “winked at life”. Schaap noted that in the process of reviewing the manuscript for the book, Namath “deliberately edited out anything that smacked of serious immodesty, anything that sounded to him as though he were placing himself on a pedestal.” Schaap also added that while Namath was “no saint,” and that he could be rude and ill tempered at times, there were other aspects of Namath’s personality and character that did not appear in the book or always surface in public — “like his honesty, his generosity, his loyalty to old friends, his respect for elders, and of course, his charm with men and women.” Even when Namath made his much-celebrated “guarantee” he was making it out of a belief in himself and his teammates; a confidence he credits his father with instilling in him during his boyhood. As Namath’s high school football coach Larry Bruno said of Namath at his 1985 Hall of Fame induction: “When Joe played football for Beaver Falls High School, the entire football team believed whatever play Joe called it would work; they would make it work because they knew Joe had confidence in them.” In recent years, however, Joe Namath has battled his inner demons on occasion, some still carried from the scars of his pro football days and a renewed use of alcohol since his divorce. In December 2003, he had a publicly-embarrassing, alcohol-fueled “I-want-to-kiss-you” TV moment with ESPN’s Suzy Kolber, then interviewing him about Jets quarterback Chad Pennington. Earlier that day, Namath had attended a Jets reunion bash where he had been drinking. The incident with Kolber was seen by millions. Namath, mortified and contrite, later apologized to Kolber and has admitted to being “way out of line;” that it was “awful, rude behavior.” But the incident served to get Namath into rehab and onto a more sober path. According to his agent Jimmy Walsh: “That probably turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to Joe. He said, ‘Wait a second. I better straighten myself out.’ And he did.”
For those who may want further reading on Namath’s life, Mark Kriegel’s 2004 biography, Namath, A Biography, captures some of his personal history. And there is also Namath’s own 2006 autobiography, Namath, which reviewers at Amazon.com and elsewhere have recommended. Additionally, Michael Oriard has some interesting observations about Namath’s role in the business history of pro football in his 2007 book, Brand NFL: Making and Selling America’s Favorite Sport.
Additional pro football stories at this website include: “Bednarik-Gifford Lore” (the respective playing careers of Chuck Bednarik and Frank Gifford, and one famous on–the-field meeting between the two ); “Slingin` Sammy” (career of quarterback Sammy Baugh and Washington Redskins history, 1930s-1950s); and “Celebrity Gifford” (a detailed look at the advertising, sports broadcasting, and TV/film/radio career of Frank Gifford ). See also the Annals of Sport category page for other sports stories. Thanks for visiting – and please consider supporting this website. Thank you – Jack Doyle
Date Posted: 23 December 2009
Last Update: 5 October 2014
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Jack Doyle, “I Guarantee It. Joe Namath,”
PopHistoryDig.com, December 23, 2009.
Sources, Links & Additional Information
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