Chuck Bednarik, age 37, handing in his spikes and jersey for team history after his final Eagles game, November 1962.
Chuck Bednarik, shown at right in 1962, was a Hall of Fame football player for the Philadelphia Eagles. He is regarded as one of the all-time great linebackers known for his ferocious tackles and rugged play. Bednarik and Frank Gifford, the Hall of Fame New York Giants running back, would meet in a famous collision during a key November 1960 football game between their two teams. More on that game and the Bednarik-Gifford incident a bit later. First, some background on these two college All-American and All-Pro football stars.
Charles Philip Bednarik was born in May 1925. His parents emigrated to the U.S. from eastern Slovakia in 1920 looking for a better life. They settled in the Pennsylvania town of Bethlehem, where Chuck’s father began working in the steel mills stoking the open hearth furnaces at the Bethlehem Steel Company.
As a boy, Bednarik attended a Slovak parochial school in Bethlehem where Slovak was the language of instruction. The second oldest of six children, Bednarik was raised three blocks from Lehigh University, where he attended football games and wrestling events.
At Bethlehem’s Liberty High School he began playing football, and in 1942, his junior year, Bednarik helped Liberty to an undefeated season and became an All-American high school center. In the classroom, Bednarik was a vocational-technical student studying electrical work, and had figured he’d follow his father to work in the Bethlehem Steel mills.
Chuck Bednarik, circled above and enlarged below, in WWII-era photo with his B-24 crew.
Chuck Bednarik was 19 years old when he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps.
Oct. 27th, 1946: University of Pennsylvania's Chuck Bednarik named college Lineman of the Week in a poll of players by the Associated Press (Associated Press photo).
Following graduation, however, he entered the U. S. Army Air Force and served as a B-24 waist-gunner with the Eighth Air Force. During WWII, Bednarik flew on 30 combat missions over Germany, for which he was awarded four Oak Leaf Clusters, among other medals for his service. “How we survived, I don’t know,” he would often say in wonderment in later talks with reporters.
“The anti-aircraft fire would be all around us,” Bednarik recounted to Sports Illustrated’s John Schulian in a 1993 interview. “It was so thick you could walk on it. And you could hear it penetrating. Ping! Ping! Ping! Here you are, this wild, dumb kid, you didn’t think you were afraid of anything, and now, every time you take off, you’re convinced this is it, you’re gonna be ashes.”
After the war, Bednarik, who had previously thought of following his father into the steel mills, was instead encouraged by his high school football coach, John Butler, to go to college. Butler believed Bednarik could get an athletic scholarship, and after Butler arranged a meeting with the coach at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, Bednarik enrolled there.
At Penn, he became a three-time All-American football player, and a “two-way” man, excelling at both center on offense and linebacker on defense. He was also used occasionally as a punter. Beginning in 1946, Bednarik started at center and linebacker for Penn for three seasons.
In those years, Penn was a national football power, drawing crowds in excess of 70,000. For most of that time Penn was the second-best team in the East, behind the legendary Army teams with stars such as Glenn Davis and “Doc” Blanchard. Bednarik was named first team All-America his final two seasons at Penn. Bednarik has expressed found memories of his days at Penn. “I could relive Franklin Field forever” Bednarik would later say. “Every Saturday, 78,800 people. It was unbelievable, the crowds that we had.”
A collegiate All-American at center, he also excelled at linebacker, and proved to be a nimble defender. He intercepted seven passes in 1946 and six more the following year. In 1948, he was named the College Player of the Year by a number of organizations.
Bednarik won the Maxwell Award in 1948, given to the best collegiate player of the year. He also finished third in Heisman Trophy voting that year, just one of five offensive lineman in the history of the award to do so.
Chuck Bednarik strikes a linebacker pose in a early 1960s Philadelphia Eagles’ player photo.
Chuck Bednarik, No. 60, at linebacker going for the ball on a pass play to a Green Bay Packer receiver.
Drafted By Eagles
In 1949, he was the first player taken in the professional National Football League draft, selected by the Philadelphia Eagles. As a rookie with the Eagles, he alternated starting at linebacker and center. In that season, the Eagles won the 1949 league championship game, defeating the Los Angeles Rams 14-0.
Bednarik played 14 seasons with the Eagles, from 1949 through 1962. In those years he rose to mythic, “iron man” stature, noted for his durability as a two-way man, both a powerful blocker on offense and fierce tackler at linebacker. He missed only three games in his 14 years with the Eagles. He was named All-Pro eleven times, and was the last man to play both offense and defense for an entire game in the National Football League. Upon retirement, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1967, his first year of eligibility.
During the years he played with the Eagles, the club had its ups and downs. In 1952,1953 and 1954 the Eagles finished in the upper tier of their conference with season records of 7-5-0, 7-4-1, and 7-4-1. Bednarik’s play during these years was outstanding. In 1953, he intercepted a career-high six passes, then a high number for a middle linebacker. In the Pro Bowl that year, he was voted the player of the game.
But from 1955 through 1958 the Eagles failed to post a winning season. At the end of the 1958 season Bednarik announced he was quitting, but soon thought better of it and returned to the Eagles. With a family of four daughters by then, Bednarik needed the money.
By 1959, the Eagles went 7 and 5, and things were looking better heading into 1960, when Bednarik would have what some consider his best season. That year proved to be the magical season for the Eagles; they notched a 10 and 2 record and won the NFL championship, beating Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers with standouts Bart Starr, Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor. In 1961, the Eagles continued their winning ways, going 10 and 4. But in 1962, they finished in 7th place with a dismal 3-10-1 record, and that’s when Bednarik retired – this time for good.
Nov 1962: Chuck Bednarik with family in Abington, PA. From left, twins Carol and Pamela 7, Donna 9, Jacquelyn 20 mos., wife Emma, and Charlene 12. AP photo.
Hugh Brown, a sports writer for The Philadelphia Bulletin, who covered the Eagles, once wrote that Bednarik was as tough as the concrete he sold, referring to a another job Bednarik held at the time, adding the nickname “Concrete Charlie.” It was not uncommon during the 1950s and early 1960s for pro football players to have a full-time job away from the sport, as football salaries were not then the lucrative millions they are today. Bednarik, like others, worked another job to help support his family. A routine day during the season back then called for a team meeting at 9 a.m., practice from 10:30 to about noon. After lunch, Bednarik would then begin his second job as a salesman for the Ready-Mix Concrete Co., which later became the Warner Company. But the nickname Brown had come up stuck, as some used it in the context of Bednarik’s bone-crushing tackles at his day job.
Chuck Bednarik at his Hall of Fame induction, August 1967.
Bednarik was an Associated Press All-Pro selection nearly every year he played throughout the 1950s. He was an All-Pro center in 1949 and 1950 and then an All-Pro linebacker every year from 1951 to 1957 and again in 1960. He also played in eight of the first 11 Pro Bowls (1951-55, ’57, ’58 and ’61).
As an Eagle linebacker, he was not only a stalwart in stopping the run, but a nimble pass defender as well, snagging 20 interceptions during his 14-year NFL career.
On August 5, 1967, Bednarik was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In the years following his Hall of Fame induction, Bednarik would collect other awards and honors. In 1969, he was named center on the all-time NFL team and was also added that year to the College Football Hall of Fame.
In 1987, the Philadelphia Eagles retired his No. 60 numeral, one of only eight numbers retired in the history of the Eagles franchise. In 2010, Bednarik was ranked 35th on the NFL Network’s “Top 100″ greatest players.
Chuck Bednarik, No. 60, at his linebacker post in a game against the New York Giants.
Since his retirement, Bednarik at times has been outspoken, offering controversial and sometimes caustic comment about the current state of the game, certain players, and/or Philadelphia Eagles management and owners. Still, for the most part, he remains a revered figure among Philadelphia sports buffs, especially those of “old school” vintage.
During his tenure at linebacker, Chuck Bednarik faced many noteworthy and talented opponents – among them, some of the game’s all-time great running backs such as Jim Brown, Jim Taylor, and Paul Hornung. Frank Gifford, another among the all-time greats, was also one of Bednarik’s worthy adversaries, and the two had met in some memorable scrums, not the least of which was one on November 20th, 1960 at Yankee Stadium; a confrontation that is explored in more detail a bit later. But first, a look at Mr. Gifford’s football vitae.
Oct 1951: USC’s Frank Gifford making a big gain against the Univ of California Bears.
Francis Newton Gifford was born in Santa Monica, California in August 1930. His father, Weldon, was a “roughneck” oil worker who traveled to wherever oil drilling work could be found. While Frank was growing up, the Giffords lived in 47 different towns before he started high school. “I don’t remember completing a single grade in the same grammar school,” Gifford would later say.
It was in Bakersfield, California that Frank finally settled into high school and began to try his hand at football. He went out for the lightweight football team as a freshman, but he was just 5 foot 2 inches and 115 pounds and didn’t make it. As a sophomore, he tried for the varsity, but played on the lightweight team as a third-string end. And he wasn’t much of student then either. But between his sophomore and junior years, he filled out, and made the varsity team. When Bakersfield lost its starting quarterback to an automobile accident, Gifford replaced him. Along with friend and teammate, Bob Karpe, Gifford helped lead the 1947 Bakersfield “Drillers” to a Central Valley title. College scouts had come around by then, as well, but Gifford’s grades were terrible. With the help of high school coach Homer Beaty, Gifford headed to Bakersfield Junior College as a stepping stone to the University of Southern California (USC). He became a Junior College All-American football player at Bakersfield College and then went on to USC where he would become an All-American performer.
Frank Gifford was selected by the NY Giants in the first round of the 1952 draft.
In the late 1940’s, early 1950’s, Gifford was “Mr. Football” at Southern Cal, playing both offense and defense. He played three varsity years at USC, 1949-1951. In 1951, he alternated at quarterback, half-back, and fullback, punted, and place-kicked. That year he rushed for 841 yards, and rolled up 1,144 yards in total offense, also kicking field goals on occasion. In mid-October that year, Gifford and USC were nationally ranked at No. 11, as they came to play the University of California, then ranked No. 1. California got off to a 14-0 lead. But Gifford proved the difference in the final outcome. He scored on a 69-yard run, threw a touchdown pass, and with five minutes to play, led a drive that won the game 21-14. Gifford’s All American honors in 1951 came mostly for his offensive running and passing, but he also excelled on defense. In one the game against Navy he had two interceptions.
Gifford turned pro in 1952 when he was selected in the first round of the player draft by the New York Giants, where he would play his entire career. He also married that year, at the age of 22, to Maxine Ewart and the couple would have three children together. With the Giants, Gifford at first, like Bednarik, was a “two-way” man, playing both running back on offense and defensive back. In later years he would move primarily to offense as a flanker back/wide receiver. In the late 1950s, he was also considered briefly for the quarterback slot when the Giants were having some uncertainty at that position. But it was from his halfback position that Frank Gifford became something of triple threat, as he could run, throw, or catch. When the Giant’s offensive coordinator, Vince Lombardi, introduced the halfback option, Gifford was well suited to the role.
Frank Gifford was regarded as an explosive, open-field runner, capable of long gains and quick scores, both as a receiver and a through-the-line halfback.
At the Bleacher Report.com Gifford is listed as one of the “50 most explosive players in NFL history.” And as that report explains, he never posted 1,000 yards in a season as a runner or receiver. Nor did he ever post double-digit touchdown seasons or return a punt or kick-off for a score.
“But no defense ever wanted to see the former USC star carrying the ball in the open field,” says the Bleacher Report. For Gifford “turned short passes into 77-yard scores, turned quick hand-offs into 79-yard gains, and from the backfield [he] was a danger to throw his famous jump pass.” Gifford attempted just 63 passes in his career, but since 14 of his passes went for scores (including an 83-yard bomb to Eddie Price), he was, according to Bleacher Report, one of the most dangerous triple threats in NFL history.
Frank Gifford receiving the NFL’s MVP trophy for 1956.
In 12 seasons with the New York Giants, Gifford proved a versatile and valuable player. As a running back, he had 3,609 rushing yards and 34 touchdowns in 840 carries. As a receiver he had 367 receptions for 5,434 yards and 43 touchdowns. And as noted earlier, Gifford was a halfback who could throw, and during his career, he completed 29 of the 63 passes he threw for 823 yards and 14 touchdowns. Gifford still holds the Giants’ franchise record for touchdowns scored, with 78.
Gifford was an eight-time Pro Bowl selection, named at three positions: running back, wide receiver and defensive back. He also had five trips to the NFL Championship Game. Gifford’s biggest season may have been 1956, when he won the Most Valuable Player award of the NFL, led the Giants to the NFL title over the Chicago Bears. Gifford also played in the famous December 1958 championship game between the New York Giants and the Baltimore Colts, a game that many believe ushered in the modern era of big time, television-hyped, pro football. He would also write a book about that game many years later.
Frank Gifford in light New York Giants workout attire, 1963.
Gifford was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on July 30, 1977, and in the year 2000, his New York Giants’ playing numeral, No. 16, was formally retired.
Gifford’s good looks and affable manner gained him entrée to radio and television, and as a sports celebrity sponsor for print and TV advertising. In the 1950s and 1960s during his active playing years he modeled Jantzen swimwear and clothing lines along with fellow pro athletes, appearing in a series of print ads. He also began sports broadcasting on radio and television while still an active player, first on CBS, then later after retirement, for ABC. In 1971 he became a regular on ABC-TV, with Monday Night Football and Wide World of Sports, as well as occasional specials and guest hosting appearances. He would also write, or co-author, several books on football. See “Celebrity Gifford” story at this website for more on Gifford’s film, TV, and sportscasting career.
Frank Gifford is also credited with a somewhat famous quote about the game: “Pro football is like nuclear warfare,” he is reported to have said, “There are no winners, only survivors” – attributed to him via Sports Illustrated, July 1960. That quote would have special meaning for Frank Gifford after one famous 1960 encounter with Chuck Bednarik and the Philadelphia Eagles.
November 1960 Eagles vs. Giants
Ticket stub: NYGiants - Phila. Eagles football game of Nov 20, 1960, Yankee Stadium.
It was a late season game in professional football’s 1960 season when the Eagles came to play the New York Giants at Yankee Stadium on November 20th. Coming into the game, the Giants were 5-1-1 while the Eagles were 6-1-0, each with five games remaining, and each with a possible shot at the NFL’s Eastern Conference Championship. So the outcome of this game would be important. Philadelphia that season had lost its opening-day game to the Cleveland Browns, 41–24. But after that, they were unbeatable, winning their next six games in a row. The Giants had lost only one game by then, as well.
Tommy McDonald, No. 25, of the Philadelphia Eagles, was one of the team's top players in 1960.
Nov. 1962: NY Giants defensive lineman, from left: Andy Robustelli, Dick Modzelewski, Jim Katcavage and Rosey Grier, were also on the team in 1960. Photo Dan Rubin.
The Eagles and Giants teams of 1960 had many high caliber players between them. In addition to Bednarik at center and linebacker, the Eagles’ offense included quarterback Norm Van Brocklin, Tommy McDonald at flanker back/wide receiver, Pete Retzlaff at end, defensive lineman Marion Campbell, linebacker Chuck Webber, and defensive backs Tom Brookshier, Don Burroughs, and Maxie Baughan.
The New York Giants’ roster that year included notable linebacker, Sam Huff, quarterbacks Charlie Conerly and George Shaw, halfback and receiver Kyle Rote, defensive linemen Andy Robustelli and Roosevelt “Rosey” Grier, running backs Mel Triplett and Alex Webster, kicker, Pat Summerall, and offensive tackle Rosey Brown. Some of these Giants had also played on the 1956 team that won the NFL championship that year, as well as the 1958 and 1959 teams that had won the Eastern Conference.
But the November 20th, 1960 Giants-Eagles game would determine which team would hold first place in the Eastern Conference at that time.
In the early going, the Giants scored first with a Joe Morrison one-yard run in the first quarter, followed by a Pat Summerall point-after kick. Summerall added 3 more points with a 26-yard field goal in the 2nd quarter. The Giants led, 10-0. In the 3rd quarter, Eagles’s quarterback Norm Van Brocklin threw a 35-yard completion and touchdown pass to Tommy McDonald, followed by Bobby Walston kick. New York 10, Eagles 7. In the 4th quarter, the Eagles’ Bobby Walston kicked a 12-yard field goal, tying the score, 10-10. Then the Eagles took the lead after Eagles corner back Jimmy Carr scored on a 38-yard fumble return followed by Bobby Walston’s point-after kick. The Eagles now led, 17-10. But the fourth quarter could be decisive, and the Giants were versatile, capable of come-back play. And this is when the Bednarik-Gifford collision occurred.
Frank Meets Chuck
Frank Gifford, No. 16, has just taken a few steps after catching a pass over the middle, trying to avoid a downfield tackler, as No. 60, Chuck Bednarik, takes a bead on him.
Chuck Bednarik’s tackle of Frank Gifford, as the ball pops out far right, during Eagles-Giants game of Nov 20th, 1960.
Bednarik’s tackle of Gifford as seen from another angle, the near sideline, during Giants-Eagles game.
Chuck Bednarik continuing through his tackle of Frank Gifford as Gifford hits the ground.
With Gifford stretched out on the turf, Bednarik, No. 60, looks around as Chuck Webber goes for the loose ball.
Chuck Bednarik had jumped up after his tackle of Frank Gifford to celebrate the Eagles’ fumble recovery.
Iconic Photo. Chuck Bednarik, No. 60, standing over NY Giants running back, Frank Gifford after famous tackle, 20 Nov 1960. Photo/ John G. Zimmerman / Sports Illustrated.
Chuck Bednarik continuing celebration for his team’s near-certain victory while standing over Gifford. Photo/ John G. Zimmerman / Sports Illustrated.
Chuck Bednarik & Chuck Webber, No. 51, hover around the injured Frank Gifford as trainers attend to him on the field.
Frank Gifford of the New York Giants is carried off the field on a stretcher after Chuck Bednarik’s tackle.
As Frank Gifford is carried off the field near the end of the Giants-Eagles game, a press photographer snaps a photo.
Nov 22, 1960: The Eagles' Chuck Bednarik, in light work-out clothes in Philadelphia, looks at an Associated Press photo of Frank Gifford holding an ice pack to his head in the hospital.
As the Giants took the ball late in the fourth quarter with about two minutes remaining, they were on the move and looking for a potential game-tying touchdown. Frank Gifford at that point in the game had about 100 total yards rushing and receiving.
Giant’s quarterback George Shaw called the play in the huddle. At the snap of the ball, Gifford set out on his passing route, turning upfield, then cutting toward the middle of the field on a crossing pattern.
As he went, Gifford was surveying where the defenders were, later saying they he was eyeing Eagles’ safety Don Burroughs. As Gifford caught the pass from Shaw while crossing the middle of the field, he took a few steps to avoid an oncoming downfield defender. And that’s when Bednarik, No. 60, comes into the frame shown above right. Bednarik hit Gifford full on, forcing Gifford off his feet and into the air, legs flying. Bednarik, at 6-foot-3, 230-pounds, hit Gifford, 6-foot-1, 185-pounds, shoulder high, just under the chin. Gifford, expecting to find terra firma, instead, met something like a brick wall.
Following the hit, as shown on an NFL film clip, Gifford appears to go limp, as his arms splay out to his sides hitting the ground uncontrollably as he goes down.
When Bednarik hit Gifford, the ball popped out, causing a fumble, available for recovery by either team. Chuck Webber, No. 51 for the Eagles, is seen in the later photos below right recovering the fumble. A cloud of dust was still hanging in the air as Bednarik and other players looked around to get their bearings. Gifford was motionless, lying flat on his back on the field.
Bednarik later recounted the scene: “We were leading the game, and Gifford ran a down-and-in route. After he caught the ball he took two or three steps and I waffled him chest high. His head snapped back and the ball popped loose. It was retrieved by Chuck Weber [of the Eagles], and when I saw that, I turned around with a clenched fist and hollered, ‘This […expletive ] game is over!’”
The fumble, coming in the fourth quarter with little time left and the Eagles in the lead, meant that Philadelphia had won the game. The win put the Eagles 1.5 games ahead of the second-place Giants and in a good position to win the Eastern Conference.
One of the classic photographs to emerge from that moment was a Sports Illustrated photo taken by John G, Zimmerman of Bednarik standing over the prone Gifford, appearing to be celebrating over Gifford’s misfortune. The photo has become one the iconic sports photos of all time. In some ways, the Bednarik pose and interpretation – rightly or wrongly – resembles the famous May 1965 photo of Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) standing over Sonny Liston after a knock down in the world heavyweight championship fight. Bednarik, however, has stated repeatedly that he wasn’t gloating or cerebrating about knocking Gifford out, but rather at his team’s now-certain victory with little time remaining. “I was celebrating,” Bednarik would later say. “But the reason wasn’t that he [Gifford] was down. The reason was that the hit [on Gifford] won the game.’ ”
Steve Sabol, the late president and founder of NFL Films, and the man behind the slow-motion highlight clips of NFL games that were popular for many years, had once called the Bednarik-Gifford hit, “the greatest tackle in pro football history.” Yet, for many who have seen the old black-and-white film footage of that tackle, it does not appear to be a particularly vicious hit. However, Sabol explained in a 1994 Philadelphia Daily News story that the camera work of that day did not adequately convey the force of the blow delivered by Bednarik. “The fact that the film is black-and-white and the camera is so far away really diffuses the impact,” Sabol explained to Daily News reporter Ray Didinger. “If the same play happened now, with all our field level cameras and the field microphones to pick up the live sound, it would be incredible.”
Others who were on the field at the time of the tackle, also describe it as particularly frightening. Tom Brookshier, a former Eagles cornerback who was on the field that day, along with others, say they had never heard anything like it. “It was not the usual thump of padded body hitting padded body. This was a sharp crack, like an axe splitting a piece of wood,” explained Ray Didinger of the Daily News, recounting what Brookshier and others had reported. “You could hear it all over the field,” said Brookshier. “As a player, it gave you a chill because it was so unusual. Then I saw Gifford on the ground, his eyes rolled up, his arms flat out. He looked like a corpse. I thought, ‘My God, this guy is dead. Charlie killed him.’ ”
Over the years, the 1960 Bednarik-Gifford collision took on a life of its own, becoming part of pro football lore. “Any other guy in any other city, it would have been just another vicious, clean play,” Bednarik said of his tackle on Gifford in a 2009 New York Daily News story. “But against Gifford in New York it took on, well, a religious air.” Gifford in later years had become a well-known New York and national sportscaster, including a long run on the Monday Night Football program. “If that was Kyle Rote or Alex Webster or any other Giant [I had tackeld], it would have been forgotten long ago. But Frank’s (TV) visibility kept it alive. (Howard) Cosell talked about it for 10 years on Monday Night Football. Every time there was a hard hit, Cosell would say, ‘Just like when Chuck Bednarik blindsided you, Giff, at Yankee Stadium.’ I’d sit there on my couch and say, ‘Blindside my fanny. It was a good shot, head on.’”
And on that score, Gifford agrees, more or less. “It was perfectly legal,” Gifford would later say of Bednarik’s tackle. “If I’d had the chance, I’d have done the same thing Chuck did.” And again, in a 2010 phone conversation with New York Times reporter Dave Anderson, Gifford reiterated that view: “Chuck hit me exactly the way I would have hit him, with his shoulder, a clean shot.”
“I sent a basket of flowers and a letter to Frank in the hospital,” Bednarik reportedly said in one interview. “I told him I’d pray for him. I’m a good Catholic, but I’m also a football player. When I was on the field, I knocked the hell out of people, but that’s the name of the game.”
Decades later, the two Hall of Famers were attending a banquet, and Bednarik greeted Gifford:
“Hey, Frank,” Bednarik said, “Good to see you. How are you doing?”
Gifford replied, “I made you famous, didn’t I, Chuck?”
“Yes, you did, Frank,” Bednarik said.
Over the years, the photo of Bednarik standing over Gifford lying on the turf has become something of collector’s item, and Bednarik has autographed a fair number of them for fans. Sports Illustrated has included the photo in its gallery, “The 100 Greatest Sports Photos of All Time.”
Back in the 1960s, meanwhile, Gifford did not play football in 1961, the year following Bednarik’s hit. He began doing more sportscasting work with CBS that year, and it appeared his playing days were over. However, the football bug soon got the best of Gifford, as he had stayed involved with the Giants during the year as a team scout and advisor.
Each week he scouted the Giants’ upcoming opponents for strengths and weaknesses and would advise on game strategy. And sometimes during on-the- field practice sessions, Gifford would line up impersonating the next opponent. There was no contact for Gifford during these sessions. He would just run plays as a flanker. But during that time, as he ran those plays, Gifford was doing pretty well against the Giants best defensive backs. His speed was good, often beating them as he played the week’s coming opponent. That got him thinking about coming back. He was not happy with the exit he had made after the Bednarik hit and didn’t want to end his career that way. “I had been out for a year but I thought, what a terrible way to have gone out. And I thought if I don’t do it now, in 1962, I’ll never be able to.”
In 1962, Gifford would explain to Sports Illustrated reporter Tex Maule: “I made a lot of money in the year I stayed out. I didn’t stay out because of the head injury. I had personal reasons I don’t want to go into. But I missed pro football. I don’t know any kind of business you can go into where you can get as much excitement once a week as you can get playing pro ball. Nothing you can care about as much. If you are lucky enough to be able to do this for a living, I think you should do it as long as you can.”
Frank Gifford would return to play for the Giants as a flanker back, 1962-1964, shown here catching a pass over the middle in a 1963 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Dr. Francis Sweeney, team doctor for the Giants at the time, gave Gifford the go-ahead to resume playing in 1962. “He had a deep concussion,” Sweeney said in the 1962 Sports Illustrated article, adding this in his explanation: “…A severe shock [to the head ] may start a hemorrhage which can seep down into the lower parts of the brain and affect motor areas and be very serious. This is what Frank had. But once that heals, it’s completely healed and doesn’t have a carryover effect.”
In addition, the New York Times and other newspapers at the time of the Bednarik hit also reported that Gifford had suffered “a deep concussion.” However, Gifford, in later years, has a somewhat different account of the injury. In one interview at the Bluenatic blog with Mark Weinstein in August 2013, Gifford replies:
“…Can we get this right, please? I’ve tried to do it many, many times, but it keeps coming up. It wasn’t a head injury. It was a neck injury. I got hit by Chuck Bednarik on a crossing pattern. And I went back and snapped my head back on the field, which was kind of semi-frozen. And it stunned me. I wasn’t knocked unconscious or anything, but it did stun me. It wasn’t all that serious, really, but I was going to be out the rest of the season because the doctors didn’t know quite what to do. This was before they had CAT scans, you know, so I went to have my head X-rayed, and of course my head was all right. But I took some time off and then I came back and played three more years and made the Pro Bowl at a new position, wide receiver.”
Gifford, also explained in a November 2010 New York Times article by Dave Anderson:“When I had tingling in my fingers about seven or eight years ago, I had X-rays of my neck. The technician asked me if I had ever been in an automobile accident. I told him no, but he said the X-rays showed a fracture of a neck vertebra that had healed by itself. After the Bednarik play, they never X-rayed my neck. They just X-rayed my head.” But in 1962, after 18 months away from football, Gifford’s injuries apparently had time to heal, and by the time he went to training camp that year, he was cleared to play.
Early 1960s photo of New York Giants players in sideline dugout, believed to be, from left: Lane Howell (No. 78), Jimmy Patton (No. 20), Andy Robustelli (No. 81), Y.A. Tittle (No. 14), and Frank Gifford ( No. 16).
When Gifford came back in 1962, he was shifted to flanker back. By then, the Giants had a new quarterback, Y. A. Tittle, who had come from the San Francisco 49ers, and Tittle wasn’t sure about Gifford as a receiver. “Y. A. didn’t know me; he wasn’t throwing to me much,” Gifford explained to Dave Anderson of the New York Times. “But in our third game in Pittsburgh, Y. A. asked if I could beat defensive back Jack Butler on a fly. I dove and caught the pass for a touchdown. From that point on, he trusted me.”
1975 “Monday Night Football” broadcast team: from left, Alex Karras, Howard Cosell, and Frank Gifford.
Gifford continued catching passes and scoring touchdowns for the Giants for three more seasons. In 1962, he had his seventh Pro Bowl season, and the Giants went 12-2 to win their fifth Eastern Conference title in seven years. However, they lost the championship game to the Green Bay Packers that year, 16-7, in a frigid Yankee Stadium. The following year, the Giants finished at 11-3, but lost the title game again, this time to the Chicago Bears. The next year, 1964, was dismal for the Giants, finishing at 2-10-2, and that’s when Gifford retired. In retirement, Gifford continued his second career in sports broadcasting, including a 22-year run at Monday Night Football.
1976 book written w/ Charles Mangel, “Gifford on Courage: Ten Unforgettable True Stories of Heroism in Modern Sports.”
Gifford also continued to appear in print and TV advertising, endorsing a variety of products. In addition, several sports books featured or included him as the principal subject or a featured player, among them: Don Smith’s book, The Frank Gifford Story (1960); William Wallace’s book, Frank Gifford: The Golden Year, 1956 (published 1969); Jack Cavanaugh’s Giants Among Men: How Robustelli, Huff, Gifford and the Giants Made New York a Football Town and Changed the NFL.(2008).
Gifford also wrote or co-authored three other books – Gifford on Courage: Ten Unforgettable True Stories of Heroism in Modern Sports (1976, with Charles Mangel); The Whole Ten Yards, Gifford’s autobiography,(1993, with Newsweek’s Harry Waters ); and The Glory Game: How The 1958 NFL Championship Changed Football Forever (2008, with Peter Richmond).
In the 1980s, Gifford met his third wife, Kathie Lee Johnson, a popular TV host, while he was a guest host on ABC-TV’s Good Morning America. The two were married in 1986 and would have two children together. More about Gifford’s broadcasting and advertising career is found at “Celebrity Gifford: 1950-2010s,” also at this website.
Bednarik, Pt. 2
Chuck Bednarik in a rare moment on the sidelines, as he was known for his “iron man” two-way performances.
Back in 1960, meanwhile, Chuck Bednarik and the New York Giants had another round yet to go. Due to some odd scheduling that season, the Giants and Eagles played back-to-back weeks, and on Nov 27th, 1960, they met again, this time at Franklin Field in Philadelphia. First place in the Eastern Conference was still at stake with the Giants needing a win to stay alive. New York took a 17-0 lead in that game, but the Eagles fought back behind quarterback Norm Van Brocklin to win, 31-23.
Gifford was still in the hospital from the previous week’s encounter with Bednarik, and there was some talk of possible “Giant payback” for Bednarik’s hit on Gifford. “They were rough and mean, like always,” Bednarik would later report, “but not dirty.” Sam Huff had a good hit on Bednarik in that game with a blind side block on one play. And the two traded some trash talk at the time, but nothing more.
Bednarik, in fact, made a difference in this game as he had in the November 20th game, forcing a key fumble. In the second half, the Gaints’ Charlie Conerly was at quarterback and Bednarik faked a blitz up the middle. Conerly, spooked a bit by Bednarik, pulled away from center too quickly and fumbled the snap. Bednarik’s biggest game that year, however, came in December.
Eagles coach Buck Shaw with Norm Van Brocklin & Chuck Bednarik after winning 1960 Championship.
On the day after Christmas 1960, the Eagles met Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers for the NFL championship game at Franklin Field, where Bednarik had played his college ball for the University of Pennsylvania. In that game, quarterback Norm Van Brocklin, playing his last game as an Eagle, threw a 35-yard touchdown pass to Tommy McDonald in the second quarter. And again, in the fourth quarter, Van Brocklin took the Eagles on a 39-yard drive to put the Eagles up by a 17-13 count, which would prove to be the winning score.
Bednarik in that game had knocked Packer’s running back Paul Hornung out of the game with a jarring third quarter tackle. But in the fourth quarter, with the game on the line, Bart Starr threw a screen pass to their powerful fullback, Jim Taylor.
Taylor caught the ball on Philadelphia’s 23 yard line and had the end zone in sight. The Eagles’s Maxey Baughan had the first shot at him, but Taylor cut back and broke Baughan’s tackle. Then Taylor ran through Eagles safety Don Burroughs.
The 1977 book, “Bednarik: Last of the Sixty-Minute Men,” written with Jack McCallum.
At the ten yard-line, it was only Bednarik who remained between Taylor, a touchdown, and a Green Bay victory. Bednarik stopped Taylor and wrestled him to the ground, holding him there until the clock ran out. The Eagles won the game and the 1960 NFL championship. Bednarik would later be seen walking off the field with his arm around Taylor and shaking Paul Hornung’s hand.
Bednarik played 58 minutes of that game, only sitting out kickoffs, making one fumble recovery and 12 tackles. In fact, during the 1960 season by one calculation, Bednarik was on the field for some 600 of a possible 720 minutes, or more then 83 percent of the playing time that year. He was the NFL’s last two-way player over a full season.
In retirement some years later, Bednarik teamed up with writer Jack McCallum to do a book titled, Bednarik: Last of The Sixty-Minute Men. In Philadelphia, meanwhile, a group of businessmen and sports fans raised some $100,000 in 2010 to commission a statue of Bednarik in his football regalia to be located at the University of Pennsylvania. Dedicated in November 2011 with the help of former Pennsylvania governor and Philadelphia mayor, Ed Rendell, that statue today stands inside Gate 2 on the North side of Franklin Field, the stadium where Bednarik played his college ball and a number of pro games with the Eagles.
Statue of Chuck Bednarik in his football regalia stands at University of Pennsylvania’s Franklin Field, dedicated there in November 2011.
Both Gifford and Bednarik have had their numerals retired by their respective teams, and both are also pro football Hall of Fame members. Between the two of them, they provided many memorable moments of play throughout their careers during the 1950s and 1960s.
The Changing Game
The Bednarik-Gifford history in some ways is also a story about one of those transition periods of old and new; when the game of football was played differently, without all the hype it has today. Bednarik, in many ways, represented the old school, the way the game was once played – when players of the 1950s weren’t paid a lot of money, worked other jobs to make ends meet, while delivering a workman-like performance on the field. This was the era before the Super Bowl; before the media glare and pop culture focus. Gifford, too, was of that era, but he was also one of the first, like Paul Hornug of the Green Bay Packers, on the cusp of something new, and pushing into the new era, as players who had media appeal and commercial value; players who would transition into a public personas with second careers in the sports media, advertising, and /or entertainment worlds. There is more about Gifford’s off-the-field career at “Celebrity Gifford,” a separate story at this website. For additional story choices at this website go to the Home Page or the Annals of Sport category page. Thanks for visiting – and please consider supporting this website.
Thank you. – Jack Doyle
Article Citation: Jack Doyle, “Bednarik-Gifford Lore – Football: 1950s-1960s,” PopHistoryDig.com, February 18, 2014.
Sources, Links & Additional Information
The July 21st, 1997 cover of Sports Illustrated uses a 1959 Frank Gifford photo by John Zimmerman to feature “A Gallery of Unforgettable Portraits” – a photo of Gifford that projects a certain “superman” aura about it.
November 8, 1962: Chuck Bednarik in the snow at Yankee Stadium during a 19-14 loss to the New York Giants , the Bronx, New York. NFL photo.
Frank Gifford of the NY Giants being pursued by Deacon Jones of the L.A. Rams during a game in 1962.
Bob Gordon’s book, “The 1960 Philadelphia Eagles: The Team That They Said Had Nothing But a Championship,” with Chuck Bednarik, No. 60, and Bobby Jackson, No. 28, on the cover. (Published August 2001).
In the late 1950s, the New York Giants considered using Frank Gifford at quarterback. (NY Daily News).
Gifford, like Bednarik, was a family man in the early 1960s, shown here with his then-wife Maxine, three children, and family pet. December 1963.
Dec. 26th, 1960: Chuck Bednarik, # 60 walking off the field with Jim Taylor #31 & Paul Hornung #5 of Green Bay Packers after Eagles won NFL Championship game.
Jan 31, 1949: Chuck Bednarik, left, and Lou Boudreau of the Cleveland Indians baseball team, far right, collecting trophies for their play from the Philadelphia Sports Writers Association. Jack Wilson center (AP photo).
“Rough Day in Berkeley: A Zany Season Reaches Climax As Southern Cal Tips California Off Top of Football Heap,” Life (with photo sequence of a Frank Gifford 69-yard run), October 29, November, 1951, pp. 22-27.
“Gifford at Quarterback For Giants in Workout,” New York Times, July 25, 1956.
“Conerly’s Pitch-Out to Gifford Rated as Key to Team’s Victory,” New York Times, October 29, 1956.
“Conference Lead Will Be at Stake; New York Will Try to Take First Place Away From Philadelphia Eleven,” New York Times, November 20, 1960.
Louis Effrat, “Run with Fumble Wins Game, 17-10; Carr of Eagles Catches Ball Dropped by Triplett and Goes for 38 Yards,” New York Times, November 21, 1960.
Robert L. Teague, “Gifford Suffers Deep Concussion; Katcavage Also Sent to Hospital, With a Shoulder Injury,” New York Times, November 21, 1960.
Louis Effrat, “Halfback Facing Stay in Hospital; Gifford Will Be Confined for Three Weeks — Katcavage Has Broken Clavicle,” New York Times, November 22, 1960.
“Giant Back Calls Consultant Who Gives Dim Report on Concussion a ‘Crepe Hanger’ — Bednarik Sends Gift,” New York Times, November 23, 1960.
Robert L. Teague, “Cowboys’ Plays Tested by Giants; Aerial Defense Is Stressed at Workout — Gifford Is Released From Hospital,” New York Times, December 2, 1960.
New York "Daily News" headline with Joe Namath photo, January 13, 1969, following the New York Jets’ upset victory over the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III.
In January 1969, Joe Namath, the brash young quarterback of the New York Jets professional football team, made an audacious prediction. He “guaranteed” that his team would defeat the venerable Baltimore Colts in the world championship game that year. Namath’s prediction was especially provocative since the Baltimore Colts were heavily favored to win what became the first named superbowl game — Super Bowl III. What’s more, Namath delivered on his promise with a “Most-Valuable-Player” performance on game day, making it one of the more memorable and colorful acts in professional sport. But the full story — of the man, the boast, and the times — is even more interesting, especially given all the controversy and media attention that swirled around Namath in the years leading up to Super Bowl III.
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.
Young Joe Namath, around his rookie year, 1965.
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.
Joe Namath, 'Sports Illustrted,' July 19,1965.
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 knew the value of “star power” in signing Namath.
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.
Barbra Streisand, 23, and Joe Namath, 22, backstage at Broadway's Winter Garden, where Streisand was starring in ‘Funny Girl,’ Sept 1965.
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.
Joe Namath, leaping about 2 feet off the ground, throws a pass over the defensive line of the Houston Oilers at Shea Stadium, Sept. 18,1966. NYTimes/Barton Silverman.
As the 1966 season began, Namath did not start the opening game on September 9th against the Dolphins in Miami. However, on September 18th, not only did Namath start, but threw five touchdown passes, missing a sixth by a yard or so, as the Jets crushed the Houston Oilers, 52 to 13 with 54,681 fans on hand, setting a record for the league. However, in the following week, the Jets fought for their lives, hanging on with a second-half rally to beat the Denver Broncos, 16-7. They then fought the Boston Patriots to tie, and won their next game beating San Diego. They were 4-0-1 and leading the Eastern Division. By October 16th, the Jets suffered their first loss in a second game with the Oilers, with Namath tossing four interceptions. About this time, Namath was featured on a Sports Ilustrated cover story with the title “Jet Propelled Joe Namath,” focusing on his earlier games that season. By mid-November 1966, the Jets had lost four straight.
‘Sports Illustrated’ cover story of mid-October 1966 featuring ‘Jet-Propelled Joe Namath.’
In early December 1966, with a few games remaining and Namath leading the AFL in passing yards and completions, the Jets faced the Oakland Raiders in California. In that game, on soggy turf, the Jets tied Oakland, 28-28, on a rare two-point pass play from Namath to Emerson Boozer in the final minute. In the Jets’ final game that season, a showdown with the Boston Patriots, Namath threw three touchdown passes in a 38-28 upset victory. The Jets finished the year with 6 wins, 6 losses, and 2 ties, ending in third place in the Eastern Division. However, that December in the off-season, New York sports fans held their breath as Namath went into surgery to repair a gimpy knee. The 23 year-old quarterback survived the surgery, and by early January 1967 he reported to the press that his knee felt great, then heading to Miami, Florida to recuperate. By July of that year, in the Jet’s first scrimmages, Namath was moving smoothly on the field at his quarterback post and no apparent problems with the surgically-repaired right knee. He was soon back to his old form again.
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.
Joe Namath, getting some attention on the cover of ‘Sport’ magazine, November 1967.
As 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.
Suzie Storm & Joe Namath, circa 1969.
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: 11-3
Mustachioed Joe Namath shown at practice in 1968 with Jet’s coach Weeb Ewbank.
In 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.
Joe Namath (12), about to take a hit from an oncoming Denver Bronco (87), October 13, 1968, a game in which Namath threw five interceptions.
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.
Joe Namath, with FuManchu mustache, appears on cover of Sports Illustrated, Dec. 9, 1968, prior to Super Bowl III.
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.
Earl Morrall, quarterback of the Baltimore Colts, had a very good year in 1968. Photo, Sports Illustrated.
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.
Joe Namath, poolside, January 10, 1969, talking with reporters about his prediction that the Jets would beat the Colts in the January 12th Super Bowl. Photo, Walter Iooss Jr./Sports Illustrated.
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.
Joe Namath on game day, Super Bowl III, January 12, 1969.
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.
Offical Super Bowl III program with NFL and AFL logos.
As 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.
Jan 1969, Super Bowl III, Joe Namath hands off to fullback Matt Snell as Jet lineman clear the way.
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.
Baltimore Colts’ giant defensive lineman, Buba Smith (78), makes a charge at Joe Namath in Super Bowl III.
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.
The Colts turned to veteran QB Johnny Unitas late in Super Bowl III. Sports Illustrated photo.
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.
NYJets coach Weeb Ewbank congratulates Joe Namath in the closing seconds of the Jets’ 16-7 Super Bowl III victory in Miami, Jan. 12, 1969. AP photo.
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'”
Part of the Los Angeles Times’ coverage lauding Namath and the Jets for their Super Bowl III win, January 13, 1969.
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.
Joe Namath caricature on Time magazine cover, October 16, 1972 in story about growing interest in pro football.
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.
Joe Namath and actress Ann Margaret on movie set of 'C.C. and Company', Sports Illustrated, Aug 17, 1970. During off season and after he left football, Namath ventured into film & TV.
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 Moment
Joe Namath leaving the field of victory following Super Bowl III, January 12, 1969, index finger aloft signifying, "We're No. 1".
At 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 embraces his Dad, John Namath, at end of Super Bowl III, who he credits with giving him confidence in sport as a young boy.
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 become 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, in1999, that marriage ended. Today Namath remains close to his now grown daughters, and one grandchild, who live with him in Florida.
The Real Namath
Joe Namath’s 1969 book, with Dick Schaap, might have left the wrong impression for some.
In 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.”
Cover of Mark Kriegel’s 2004 biography of Joe Namath – “Namath, A Biography.”
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.”
Joe Namath, ‘USA Today’ photo, October 2004.
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
Article Citation: Jack Doyle, “I Guarantee It. Joe Namath,” PopHistoryDig.com, December 23, 2009.
Sources, Links & Additional Information
Joe Namath flanked by coach Weeb Ewbank, left, and his Dad, John Namath, right, post-Super Bowl III.
Matt Snell & Joe Namath at NY City Super Bowl III victory celebration, January 23, 1969.
Joe Namath with Mayor John Lindsay, at NY City Super Bowl III victory celebration.
“Denise, Mary, Rosie, Love You,” reads the banner for Joe Namath at a “rock star”-like reception during NY City 1969 Super Bowl III celebration.
Joe Namath gets a home town salute from Beaver Falls, PA for his Super Bowl III heroics.
Joe Namath (24) grew up & played sports with African Americans in Beaver Falls, and was shocked by racial attitudes he later found in the south & at Alabama Univ.
Joe Namath, with sunglasses, in portion of high school baseball team photo.
Joe Namath,, center, helped his high school win basketball championships – shown here with coaches and co-star, Benny Singleton, left.
At Alabama, Namath started out as a running QB as well as a passer, until his first knee injury. As a sophomore in the 1963 Orange Bowl, he went 9 of 17 with 1 touchdown pass.
Joe Namath & Bear Bryant. In 1962-64, Namath led Alabama to an overall 29-4 record, with a running & passing total of 3,652 yards and 44 touchdowns.
Joe Namath’s knee operations during his career became a newsworthy staple -- media attention which, according to one orthopaedist, helped advance sports medicine.
Joe Namath doing leg strength training while coach Weeb Ewbank looks on.
Joe Namath holds up newspaper headline in the summer of 1965 when he faced the military draft, but was deferred because of his knees.
Young Joe Namath in sideline parka.
In June 1969, Football Commissioner Pete Rozelle told Joe Namath to sell his ownership share in an East Side New York bar named “Bachelors III” because gamblers frequented the place – or else he would be suspended. At an emotional press conference, Namath announced his retirement from football rather than comply. Six weeks later, however, Namath's love of the game prevailed and he sold his share of “Bachelors III,” returning to the Jets. Life magazine, June 20, 1969.
Joe Namath, making a pitch for an electric razor: “I’m shy with girls. But I kind of like the one who gave me this Soilid State Schick Retractable.” 1969.
Esquire magazine writers have a go at Joe Namath in October 1969.
Joe Namath, working at his day job, 1970.
Joe Namath escorting Raquel Welch to the Academy Awards in Hollywood, April 1972.
Joe Namath & Farrah Fawcett on the set of a famous 1973 Super Bowl TV ad for Noxema shaving cream. Fawcett was an unkown at the time. Photo, Robin Platzer.
Allison Danzig, “No. 1 Team Halted on One-Foot Line; Koy Scores Twice, Once on 79-Yard Dash — Namath Is Brilliant in Defeat” (Orange Bowl, college game), New York Times, Saturday, January 2, 1965, p.13.
Allison Danzig, “Namath Accepts a $400,000 Pact to Play for Jets; Contract Reported to Be for 3 Years — Huarte Seen Ready to Join Club,” New York Times, Sunday, January 3, 1965, p. S-1.
“‘Bama Star Gets $400,000; Namath Pro Football’s Richest Rookie,” Los Angeles Times, January 3, 1965, p. D-1.
“Ewbank of Jets Says His Scouts Call Namath ‘Best Since [Sammy] Baugh’,” New York Times, Sunday January 3, 1965, p. S-3. (See also, Jack Doyle, “Slingin’ Sammy, 1930s-1950s,”PopHis- toryDig.com).
Sid Ziff, “Namath Hot Copy,” Los Angeles Times, January 5, 1965, p. C-3.
United Press International (UPI), “Namath’s Pay Inflates Ryan’s Sense of Values; Browns’ Quarterback Asserts He Should Get $1 Million Believes a Tested Star Rates That Over $400,000 Rookie,” New York Times, Tuesday, January 5, 1965, p. 27.
“Namath Deal Irks Ryan, Jurgensen,” Washington Post, Times Herald, January 5, 1965, p. B-2.
“Pro Football: The Collectors,” Time, Friday, January 15, 1965.
UPI, “Namath Kisses Stewardess on Return to ‘Bama,” Washington Post, Times Herald, February 7, 1965, p. C-1.
William N. Wallace, “Ticket Sales up for Giants, Jets; Signing of Namath, Other Top Talent Cited as Reason,” New York Times, Wednesday, February 10, 1965, p. 37.
UPI, “Hometown Fetes Namath,” Washington Post, Times Herald, February 27, 1965, p. D-4.
Dave Brady, “Otto Graham In Middle Over Namath,” Washington Post, Times Herald, March 30, 1965, p. C-3.
William N. Wallace, “Namath Passes for Two Scores in Debut as Jets Beat Patriots, 23-6; Rookie Connects on 9 of 19 in Air…,” New York Times, Thursday, July 29, 1965, p. 23.
William N. Wallace, “Football Scores Over Show Biz; Namath and Huarte Benched in Favor of Taliaferro,” New York Times, Saturday, September 4, 1965.
Frank Litsky, “Taliaferro Gets Jet Starting Job; Namath to Be Back-Up Man Against Chargers Tonight,”New York Times, Saturday, October 23, 1965.
Frank Litsky, “Namath Passes For 2 Scores as Jets Top Patriots, 30-20, for Third in Row,” New York Times, Monday, November 15, 1965, p. 53.
“Namath Zings 4 TD Passes as Jets Romp,” Los Angeles Times, November 22, 1965, p. B-5.
Dave Brady, “1-Y, 4-F or 1-D, Selective Service Can’t Touch Clay, Namath, Nobis,”Washington Post, Times Herald, January 9, 1966, p. C-4.
Dick Young, “Oiler Accused in ‘Cheap Shot’ Namath Injury,”Los Angeles Times, August 16, 1966, p. B-2.
Frank Litsky, “Namath Throws Five Touchdown Passes as Jets Turn Back Oilers, 52 to 13; 54,681 Fans Set Mark for League; Namath’s Tosses Gain 283 Yards–New York Breaks Team Scoring Record,” New York Times, Monday, September 19, 1966, Sports, p. 58.
Frank Litsky, “Jets’ Second-Half Rally Beats Broncos, 16-7; Eagles Rout Giants, 35-17; Namath Connects in Final Quarter, Snell Takes 5-Yard Scoring Pass–Jim Turner Kicks Three Field Goals,” New York Times, Monday, September 26, 1966, p. 52.
Frank Litsky, “Namath’s Passes Ward Off Defeat; 14 Completed in 4th Period for 205 Yards Turner’s Field Goal Ties Score,” New York Times, Monday, October 3, 1966, Sports, p. 85.
Frank Litsky, “Namath Checked in Houston Game; 4 Interceptions Mark First Defeat for Jets–Blanda Passes for 2 Scores,” New York Times, Monday, October 17, 1966, Sports, p. 50.
Dave Anderson, “Bills’ Defense Enjoys Namath Pool; Player Who Gets to Passer Most Often Wins Side Bets,” New York Times, Monday, October 31, 1966, Sports, p.62.
Frank Litsky, “5 Namath Passes Are Intercepted; Jets Throw 53 Times, Bills 40; Warner Scores on a 95-Yard Kickoff Return,” New York Times, Monday, October 31, 1966, Sports, p. 62.
Dave Anderson, “2-point Play Key; Namath Hits on Pass for Conversion after Boozer Scores; Raiders Strike Quickly; Jets and Raiders Play a 28-28 Tie,” New York Times, Sunday, December 4, 1966, Sports, p. S-1.
Charles Maher, “Joe Namath: The League Leader—in Publicity,” Los Angeles Times, December 12, 1966, p. C-1.
Frank Litsky, “Namath Excels; Throws 3 Touchdown Passes–Boozer, Snell Also Star,” New York Times, Sunday, December 18, 1966, Sports, p. S-1.
William N. Wallace,”Victory Is Tied to Namath’s Maturity,” New York Times, Sunday, December 18, 1966, Sports, p. S-3.
Frank Litsky, “Namath of Jets Undergoes Surgery to Remove Torn Cartilage in Right Knee; Operation Here Termed a Success Tendon Also Is Transferred to Kneecap to Provide Greater Stability,” New York Times, Thursday, December 29, 1966, Sports, p. 37.
William N. Wallace, “Namath’s Mobility Raises Jets’ Title Hopes; Knee Problem Eased As Passer Practices Without Limping,” New York Times, July 25, 1967.
Frank Litsky, “New Yorkers Win Exhibition, 55-13; Namath Reported to Violate Curfew, Plays a Period– Boozer Scores 3 Times,” New York Times, Saturday, August 5, 1967, Sports, p. S-17.
“Night on Town Proves Costly to Joe Namath,”Los Angeles Times, August 6, 1967, p. G-7.
Frank Litsky, “Jets’ Ace to Explain Reported ‘Night on the Town'; Ewbank to Rule on Namath’s Thursday Fling,” New York Times, Sunday, August 6, 1967, Sports, p. 155.
Frank Litsky, “Jets Trounce Dolphins, 29-7, Before 61,240, a Record; 415 Yards Gained in Air by Namath Boozer Scores 3 Times as Jets Take Eastern Lead in Opening Home Game,” New York Times, Monday, October 2, 1967, Sports, p. 64.
William N. Wallace, “Namath of Jets Passes Rivals As A.F.L.’s Top Quarterback,” New York Times, Tuesday, October 3, 1967, Sports, p. 58.
“Namath, Tarkenton Excite N.Y. Football Fans,” Los Angeles Times, November 16, 1967, p. C-8.
Judy Klemesrud, Edward Hausner, and Larry Morris, “The Penthouse of Joe Namath: First There’s the Llama Rug…; Suede Couches Appeals ‘To Me’,” New York Times, Tuesday, December 12, 1967, Family/Style, p. 54.
“Jets Romp Past Chargers, 42-31, as Namath Sets Passing Record,” Los Angeles Times, December 25, 1967, p. C-2.
“Joe Namath’s Left Leg in Cast,” Los Angeles Times, January 26, 1968, p. B-7.
Bob Oates, “Namath’s Year? Stram Says ‘No’,” Los Angeles Times, September 14, 1968, p. A-2.
Bob Oates, “Gotham Glamor Guys; Namath, Tarkenton Invade Golden State,” Los Angeles Times, November 17, 1968, p. D-13.
“NBC Reverses Field After Namath Is Dumped for Showing of Heidi,” Los Angeles Times, November 19, 1968, p. C-2.
Charles Maher, “Namath Doesn’t Even Muss His Mustache in Rout of Chargers,” Los Angeles Times, November 25, 1968, p. B-1.
“Jets’ Star Shaves Controversial Mustache; Namath Takes It Off for $10,000,” Washington Post, Times Herald, December 12, 1968, p. K-1.
Dave Anderson, “Namath Takes It Off — at $10 a Clip,” New York Times, Thursday, December 12, 1968, p. 68.
“Namath Heads Chain Of Fla. Cafes,” Washington Post, Times Herald, December 14, 1968, p. D-5.
“People,” Time, (re: Namath Schick razor ad), Friday, December 20, 1968.
“Reporters and Coaches Agree: Namath No. 1 Player in A.F.L,” New York Times, Wednesday, December 25, 1968, p. 47.
Dave Anderson, “Jets Favored over Raiders; Raiders Wary of Namath Arm,” New York Times, Sunday, December 29, 1968, p. S-1.
Dave Anderson, “Jets Win A.F.L. Title by Defeating Raiders, 27-23, Before 62,627 Here; Namath Connects for 3 Touchdowns; Maynard Registers Twice — Jets to Face Colts in Super Bowl Jan. 12,” New York Times, Monday, December 30, 1968. p.40.
Jeff Prugh, “It’s Super Joe vs. Super Colt Defense,” Los Angeles Times, December 30, 1968, p. D-1.
Bob Oates, “Namath to Test Colt Zone Defense,” Los Angeles Times, December 31, 1968, p. D-2.
“Namath Delivers First Super Bowl Salvo; Rates Lamonica as a Better Passer Than Morrall,” New York Times, Tuesday, December 31, 1968, p. 35.
Joe Willie Namath, I Can’t Wait Until Tomorrow … ‘Cause I Get Better Looking Every Day by (Hardcover – January 1, 1969).
Les Carpenter, “Nothing Like Namath’s Guarantee — QB Made History With Correct Prediction That Jets Would Beat Heavily Favored Colts in Super Bowl III,” Washington Post, Tuesday, January 30, 2007, p. E-5.
It was December 1937 in Chicago. The Washington Redskins professional football team had come to town to play the fearsome Chicago Bears in the National Football League championship game at Wrigley Field. It was a bitterly cold day with frozen turf. Washington, although a good team, wasn’t given much of a chance against “the big bruising Bears,” as Washington Post reporter Shirley Povich called them. But the Redskins had a new powerful weapon in the person of Sammy Baugh, their 23-year-old rookie running back.
Sammy Baugh, quarterback for the Washington Redskins, in action during a 1942 game vs. the Chicago Bears.
Baugh had come out of the college ranks, an innovative “passing” back, still something of a rarity in professional football at that time. In his college career at Texas Christian University (TCU), Baugh was an All-American who had led the nation in passing in his junior and senior years and finished fourth in 1936 Heisman Trophy voting. He had helped TCU to victories in the Sugar Bowl and Cotton Bowl. But Sammy Baugh’s professional career — played entirely with the Washington Redskins over 16 years — would be even better. In fact, he would change the way pro-football was played. “The history of pro football simply cannot be written without the story of Slingin’ Sammy,” says Washington Post sports columnist Michael Wilbon.
The Forward Pass
In the late 1930s when Sammy Baugh arrived in Washington, throwing the ball in football games — i.e., the forward pass — was still quite new, especially in professional football. Pro football was then second fiddle to college football, which was much more popular. In fact, the first time the passing technique had been used in football was at the college level, dating to an 1895 game between North Carolina University and the University of Georgia — an illegal use, it turns out, not then “approved” by the rules of play. Passing began at the college level, and slowly made its way to the pros, where it was used only sparingly by the early 1930s. But the first officially approved forward pass also occurred at the college level — in September 1906 when St. Louis University used it against Carroll College of Wisconsin. St. Louis University, however, was in the Midwest, and due to the nature of communication in those days — primarily newspapers — not many other colleges “back East” had heard of or used the technique, so its adoption by other schools was slow. But in 1913 a then little-known minor school named Notre Dame used the forward pass in a surprise win over a highly-touted team from Army. The technique demonstrated how a smaller Notre Dame team could use it to their advantage in beating the bigger Army team ( Knute Rockne then played end for Notre Dame and Gus Dorais, quarterback). After that game, the forward pass began to get more notice. A variety of college coaches and teams all experimented with passing and new formations — among them: Knute Rockne, who later became a coach at Notre Dame; Pop Warner, who used it as a college coach; Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indians; Alonzo Stagg at the University of Chicago; Johnny Heisman at Georgia Tech; various Ivy League teams; and others.
1997 book on Sammy Baugh’s TCU years by writer Whit Canning and editor Dan Jenkins of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
Still, passing then was also not like the conventional drop-back passing of the modern game today, centered on the quarterback. Passing came out of the single wing formation, where play responsibility was split between a separate play-caller and another running back who may have thrown the ball. Passing was also more of desperation measure then, not a planned part of the offensive attack. At the professional level, the first passing appears to have been used in the late 1920s and early 1930s, but then only rarely. Professional football games then could be very dull and boring compared to today’s games. They used the single- and double-wing offenses, and almost always ran the ball — no sixty-yard touchdown pass plays. But that more pedestrian style of football play was about to change with the arrival of Sammy Baugh in Washington in 1937. Baugh was one of the few experienced passers from the college level, and he would soon prove to be one of the best of the new breed at the pro level.
Sammy Baugh was born in Texas in 1914, and played three sports in high school at Sweetwater, Texas — football, basketball and baseball. In preparing to play for his high school team, Baugh practiced with an old tire strung from a tree which he would try to throw the ball trough while the tire was swinging and he was on the run. He developed a strong arm and pretty good accuracy. And although he did well in high school football, Sammy had his heart set on becoming a professional baseball player, and that’s the sport where he would pick up the name “slingin’ Sammy.” A sportswriter impressed with Sammy’s throwing arm as a college third baseman is credited with giving him that nickname.
December 1936 AP photo of TCU star running back, Sammy Baugh.
After high school, Sammy had played semi-pro baseball for a time, and had met a guy who was going to arrange for a baseball scholarship at Washington State University. But Sammy hurt his knee right before he was to attend, and the baseball scholarship fell through. But as Baugh would later recount, “Dutch Meyer [ the football coach at TCU] told me he’d get me a job and help me through TCU if I’d come there and play baseball and football and basketball — the whole thing. So that’s where I went.”
At TCU, it was Sammy’s football play that would put him in the big time — although he remained a very good baseball player at TCU as well. However, in football as a college junior, he threw for 1,241 yards and 18 touchdowns. TCU only lost one game that year, to national champion SMU. As a senior, Baugh threw for 1,196 yards, completing 50.5 percent of his passes. He led the nation in both passing and punting his final two seasons at TCU. Many believe that Baugh’s performance at TCU helped bring national press notice to Texas football at a time when press coverage tilted to eastern sports teams. And although Baugh did not win Heisman Trophy in 1936 — he finished fourth in the voting — his performance is believed to have opened the door for his successor at TCU, Davey O’Brien, who did win the Heisman two years later.
Sammy Baugh at right in autographed photo during his short-lived baseball career with the St. Louis Cardinals.
Still, when Sammy completed college, his thought was to play professional baseball. Baugh wasn’t convinced football was his best sport. He also thought he might have a longer career in baseball. Baugh had been a star third baseman for TCU, and drew the notice of a few scouts. Rogers Hornsby, the famous St. Louis Cardinals baseball Hall-of-Famer, was then a St. Louis Cardinals scout, and in the spring/summer of 1937, he signed Baugh to play with the Cardinals. However, Baugh was farmed out to the minor league Columbus team after being converted to shortstop, and then was sent even lower down in the minor league system to Rochester. There, Baugh still had to play behind Rochester’s starting shortstop, Marty Marion, who would go on to the major leagues and become a Cardinals regular for 11 years. Baugh knew he would never be as good as Marion. “The other [problem] was I couldn’t hit that curve [ball] very well,” Baugh would later say. “So I left in August  to play football, and after that I stuck with football.”
Preston Marshall & Sammy
But the courting of Sammy Baugh by Washington Redskins owner George Preston Marshall had begun when Baugh was still at TCU. Marshall’s Washington Redskins professional team, in fact, was then newly arrived in Washington, as Marshall had moved them from Boston where he lost money and failed to generate a fan base. But Marshall’s fortunes would change in Washington, and Baugh would become one of his best new assets. Baugh later described his early meetings with Marshall and the salary discussions:
“…In the spring of my last year, 1937, George Marshall brought me to Washington and offered me $4,000 to play with the Redskins. Now down here in Texas, no one knew anything about pro football. They didn’t even know what it was. I didn’t know if I could make it in pro football, and since Dutch Meyer had offered me a job as freshman coach, I told Mr. Marshall I thought I was going to stay in Texas and coach. “…So I asked Mr. Marshall for $8,000, and I finally got it. Later I felt like a robber when I found out what Cliff Battles [a Redskins star] and some of those other good players were making… If I had known what they were getting I’d have never asked for $8,000…” - Sammy Baugh See, I still wanted to be a baseball player, but I wanted a coaching job to fall back on.
Anyway, the summer after I got out of college I went to Chicago to play in the College All-Star football game against Green Bay. I talked with the rest of the boys on the All-Star squad and found that a bunch of them were going to play pro football. I found that most of them were just like me — that they hadn’t been out of the country too often themselves — and that I could play ball better than 99% of them. So I became more confident. As it turned out, we beat Green Bay, and then Mr. Marshall got after me pretty hot.
I didn’t know how much pro players were making, but I thought they were making pretty good money. So I asked Mr. Marshall for $8,000, and I finally got it. Later I felt like a robber when I found out what Cliff Battles [a Redskins star player] and some of those other good players were making. I’ll tell you what the highest-priced boy in Washington was getting the year before — not half as much as $8,000! Three of them — Cliff Battles, Turk Edwards and Wayne Millner — got peanuts, and all of ‘em are in the Hall of Fame now. If I had known what they were getting I’d have never asked for $8,000….”
Sammy Baugh at the Polo Grounds in New York, December 1938.
When Baugh first reported to the Redskins for practice, he had a meeting with coach Ray Flaherty and had an exchange that reportedly went something like this:
“They tell me you’re quite a passer,” said Flaherty, handing Baugh a football.
“I reckon I can throw,” Baugh answered.
“Let’s see it. Hit that receiver in the eye,” said Flaherty, pointing to a man running down the field.
“Which eye?” said Baugh.
For years, this exchange was believed to have been more urban legend that truth, but Washington Post sportswriter Shirley Povich confirmed it with Baugh himself in the 1990s. Baugh admitted the exchange was true, adding it was the one time he had been a little too flip. “Yep, ah said it,” he acknowledged in his Texas drawl to Povich. “First and last time in my life ah was cocky.” But Baugh would soon show he had something to be cocky about.
At 6′ 2″ and 182 pounds, Baugh was a good size for a throwing back. He also had large hands, and could grip the ball in a way at the laces to send it skyward in a spiraling fashion, achieving both accuracy and distance when he threw it. And throw it, he did.
In his first game, and the Washington Redskins first game in Washington at Griffith Stadium, Baugh completed 11 of 16 passes for 116 yards as the Redskins defeated the New York Giants, 13-3. Baugh’s passing, still new to the NFL, would become a key part of Washington’s attack. Washington Post reporter Shirley Povich greeted Baugh’s performance with high praise: “There was Slingin’ Sammy Baugh, putting his college reputation squarely on the spot, and justifying every advance notice with his magnificent forward-passing barrage against the Giants.” In the 11-game season that year, the rookie Baugh set an NFL record, completing 91 of 218 attempts and throwing for a league-high 1,127 yards, taking the Redskins to the NFL championship. Baugh was also defensive back and the team’s punter, or quick kicker in those days.
Sammy Baugh, No. 33, far right, being tackled at Wrigley Field, Chicago, 1937.
The 1937 NFL championship featured the Western Division’s Chicago Bears (9-1-1) vs. the Eastern Division’s Washington Redskins (8-3). It was only the fifth time the annual NFL championship game had been played. Washington was the distinct underdog, not expected to have much chance against the “Monsters of the Midway” as the Bears would later be called. The contest was held on December 12, 1937, on a bitterly cold day on frozen turf at Wrigley Field in Chicago. The recorded attendance that day was 15,870. This was, of course, long before the Super Bowl and television. Players still played both offense and defense then, including running backs, and they had no face masks. The game was a lot rougher then as well. Quarterbacks were not protected and could be hit at will until the end of the play. In the Chicago game, in particular, Baugh was targeted by certain Bear players — linebacker and fullback Bronco Nagurski among them — who were trying to knock him out of the game. In pile ups, there was also some purposeful Sammy Baugh leg twisting.
Sammy Baugh, No. 33, making a run in another game.
In that championship game, the Bears had pinned Washington to their own five-yard line in the early minutes of the game, pushed up against the end zone. On first down, Baugh called for “punt formation,” but in the huddle told his teammates, “we’re gonna pass.” Passing, then used sparingly at the professional level, was hardly ever used on first down, and certainly not when a team was deep in their own territory. So Baugh got some weird looks on the call from his teammates. With the Bear lineman charging hard to block a punt, Baugh calmly tossed a pass to halfback Cliff Battles, who then ran for 42 yards. A few plays later Washington scored, and went on to win the game, 28-to-21. Baugh in that game turned in a stellar, championship performance, completing 17 of 34 passes for 352 yards — an astounding number even by modern day passing standards. Baugh’s passing yardage alone that day was more yardage than the entire Chicago offense had managed. He threw three touchdown passes — of 35, 55 and 78 yards. “Baugh was a one-man team,” one of the Bears coaches told reporters after the game.
Dallas Morning News, December 21, 1937.
By the end of his first year, Baugh had become a pro football veteran and a key player to the Redskins’ future. Back in Sweetwater, Texas that December, a few weeks after Baugh and Redskins had won the championship game with Bears, the home town boy was honored at a gathering of townspeople, ex-teammates, and former coaches. They praised Baugh and said he done more to “put Sweetwater on the map that any citizen in history.” Red Sheriden, one of Baugh’s former Sweetwater High School football teammates, said that “all the adulation had not gone to his head,” and was still “the level-headed, likeable kid he was back in 1931 and 1932 when in high school.” Baugh’s high school coach Ed Hennig, was credited with teaching Baugh both football and modesty.
The Preston Marshall Show
Back in Washington, Redskins owner, Preston Marshall, was setting out to build a business empire around his new team. Marshall was a colorful character who had once dabbled in the business of Vaudeville entertainment, dated Hollywood star Louise Brooks, and married another film star, Corinne Griffith. Marshall had been the owner of a chain of laundries in Washington, built up from a single store founded by his father — a business which Marshall later sold for a considerable profit. By the time Sammy Baugh was signed, Marshall had only been in the football business for a few years. In the early 1930s he and three other partners acquired a National Football League franchise in Boston naming their team the Boston Braves. By 1936, Marshall had gained sole control of the team and renamed it the Boston Redskins. But the team fared poorly, was not supported by the fans, and Marshall moved the team to Washington in 1937, the year he signed Sammy Baugh.
Preston Marshall as a younger man.
According Washington Post sportswriter Shirley Povich, who followed the Redskins organization from its start, Marshall had brought his franchise to Washington with a plan to make the Redskins “the South’s team.” Marshall established a network of radio stations in Southern cities and towns to carry the games, and later TV coverage as well, and he directed his coaches to draft players mostly from Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia and Texas colleges. They did, and the team became, according to Povich, “the Confederates of the NFL.” In fact, one original line in the Redskins’ fight song originally was penned as, “Fight for Old Dixie,” later changed to “Fight for Old D.C.”
In bringing notice to his team, Marshall also sought the help of sportswriters. “I need the support of you guys,” he said to reporters, according to Povich, who was among those Marshall was pitching. “I’m paying Sammy Baugh $8,000, and I need to put 12,000 people in the park [Griffith Stadium] to break even.” In 1937 the Redskins sold 958 season tickets. By 1947, with the help of Marshall’s promotional flair, all of the stadium’s 31,440 regular seats were selling out. Marshall was also something of a showman, and installed entertainment for the fans with a band and a team song, “Hail to The Redskins.” He also once paid for an entire train of multiple cars to take 10,000 Redskins fans to a New York Giants game in 1937. When Baugh first came to Washington, Marshall also insisted he wear cowboy boots and a Stetson hat, even though Baugh was more small-town boy than Texas cowboy.
Sammy Baugh & Preston Marshall, believed to be sometime in the 1940s.
Marshall was also active in opening the game up through rule changes and advanced a proposal to divide the league into divisions, keeping more teams involved in title races. According to Baugh, Marshall also helped win a rule for protecting quarterbacks: “…Marshall called me into the office one day and said, ‘What if we could get a rule put in that after a passer threw the ball, that they couldn’t run him down and knock him around?’ I said, ‘Do that and the passer will play about 10 years longer than he used to.’ And he picked up the phone and called [the Bears’] George Halas, and George went for it, and they put the rule in.”
But one area where Marshall was not progressive was in the matter of racial integration, believed related to his southern states business strategy. Some pro teams had begun signing and drafting black players in 1946-1949, but it wasn’t until 1962 when Marshall did. And that came about only after Interior Secretary Stewart Udall threatened to revoke the Redskins’ 30-year lease on the new D.C. Stadium (RFK Stadium), paid for with government money.
Marshall was also a meddlesome owner on the field at times, frustrating and firing his coaches. Baugh, in fact, played for ten different coaches, a fact which may have held Sammy back from an even greater career. But Sammy Baugh was undoubtedly the best investment Preston Marshall ever made, as Sammy helped put the Redskins on the map in those early years, boosting the organization and its business.
Passing From the “T”
Sammy Baugh football trading card (front & back) issued by Bowman Gum in 1948.
Sammy Baugh began his career with the Redskins as a tailback, playing from the single-wing and double-wing formations. Baugh was responsible for passing and punting, while another back, Riley Smith, handled the play-calling duties. But all that began to change in the 1940s when the Redskins and other teams began to adopt the T-formation. In this formation, the quarterback became a more central figure, taking responsibility for both play-calling and passing, giving the quarterback full control of the offense. And this is where Baugh excelled — making the forward pass a more a designed-in part of the game, played from the line scrimmage. With the “T”formation and passing now part of the planned attack, Baugh helped bring a more exciting form of play to the pro game. From 1940 to 1949, Sammy Baugh led the league in passing five times. Together with his passing championship from his rookie season, Baugh would claim six career passing titles; a feat only equaled by Steve Young of the San Francisco 49ers in the 1990s.
Baugh would direct the team to four division titles and two NFL championships in1937 and 1942. In a career spanning 162 games, he threw 1,693 completed passes in 2,995 attempts, a 56.5 percent completion rate. He totaled some 21,886 passing yards and 187 touchdowns. At the time of Baugh’s retirement, he held a number of NFL and Washington Redskin records, some of which still stand at this writing.
Baugh played his entire 16-year career with the Washington Redskins through the 1952 season. But in Washington, he also had a few bad games, the most notorious of which was the 73-0 drubbing by the Chicago Bears for the 1940 championship. He was pulled out of the game to spare him embarrassment, after completing 9 of 16 passes for a total of 91 yards with 2 interceptions. But two years later, Baugh and the Redskins took some satisfaction in stopping Chicago’s perfect season, then at 11-0 until Washington beat them 14-6 in the championship game. In 1945, Baugh compiled his best statistical season, completing 128 of 182 attempts for 1,669 yards and a 70.3 percent completion average — an NFL record that stood for decades before being surpassed in 1982 by Ken Anderson of the Cincinnati Bengals who posted a completion rate of 70.6 percent. One of Baugh’s most impressive games came fittingly on “Sammy Baugh Day” in 1947 when he threw six touchdown passes against the Chicago Cardinals. But by all accounts, Baugh worked hard at his craft, as it was said that in practice he liked to complete 100 consecutive passes before leaving for the day, and missing one, he’d start again.
Sammy Goes Hollywood
Sammy Baugh had a brief run with movie stardom in 1941 when Hollywood’s Republic Studios approached him about acting in a Western TV series, King of the Texas Rangers. Republic was then known for its quality B pictures, especially westerns and movie serials. John Wayne, Gene Autry, and Roy Rogers were among those who played in Republic westerns and became recognizable stars at the studio. With Sammy being a well-known football star by then, both nationally and in Texas from his TCU days, Republic wanted to capitalize on that notoriety by using him in its films. So Sammy signed a contract to make a dozen or so of the Texas Rangers serials, all filmed in June and July of 1941.
Advertisement for a 'King of the Texas Rangers' film serial in which Sammy Baugh starred as Joe King.
In the series, Sammy played the role of Joe King, a Texas college football star who leaves school and to join the Texas Rangers. King takes up with the Rangers to avenge the death of his father who had been murdered by a group Nazi-like agents acting on the U.S./Mexican border with designs on the Texas oil fields. King teams up with Sally Crane, a reporter who witnessed his father’s murder, and Mexican police officer, Pedro Garcia, who is also after the saboteurs. Garcia is played by Duncan Renaldo who later becomes a star in The Cisco Kid series. In the Texas Rangers serials, King pursues the villains on horseback, fights them with his fists, and in gun battles.
Though inexperienced as an actor, Baugh was a quick study and had worked on a ranch as a youth, so he was a capable horseback rider. He did his own riding in the serial, but others, including, Davey Sharpe and Tommy Steele, did the more dangerous stunts for him. Some film analysts say the serial contains “one of the greatest cliffhangers of all time.” King (Baugh) jumps onto a speeding train and gets into the engine cab just as the train enters a tunnel in a mountain. The villains detonate explosives causing a landslide at the other end of the tunnel. But Baugh saves the day yelling “Open that throttle!” as the train shoots out of the tunnel to safety.
Sammy Baugh with Bob Hope on the set where Hope was filming ‘The Lemon Drop Kid’, in 1950-51.
Sammy Baugh was offered more roles by Republic, but acting wasn’t quite Sammy’s cup of tea. He took it as a one-time experience, and enjoyed it, but it wasn’t a new career path for him. He preferred playing football and spending time with his family. However, some of those in the film industry who worked with him, such as director William Whitney and co-star Kenne Duncan, believed that Sammy had Western star potential and thought he should stay in the business. But after filming ended, Sammy returned to football, and he also bought a ranch in Rotan, Texas, which he named “Double Mountain Ranch” for the two mountains overlooking the property. Sammy’s Texas Rangers serial, however, continued to run for many years in television syndication. But Sammy apparently had some unique character qualities about him, as in the late 1980s, actor Robert Duvall visited Sammy in Texas to study his manner, crafting the character of Gus McCrae in the Lonesome Dove series after Baugh.
Sammy Baugh played in the day of 'two way' players, excelling as a defensive back as well as a quarterback, here making an interception.
In his professional football career, Sammy Baugh was an all-around athlete. In an era when players played both offense and defense, before the days of free substitution, Sammy Baugh played defensive safety, and did well at the position. He was not shy of contact either, taking down the toughest runners of the day, including the likes of Bronco Nagurski. “He had that tough, prairie strength,” says NFL historian Steve Sabol. “He was a leathery kind of guy.”
Baugh’s agility and quarterback sense made him an excellent aerial defender, and he shares a defensive record to this day of making four interceptions in one game. In 1940, he intercepted 11 passes in just 10 games, which Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell has singled out as especially noteworthy. “How good is that?,” says Boswell, adding that “no NFL player has intercepted 11 passes since 1981 and the last man to have more than an interception per game was Night Train Lane in 1952.” In 1943, Sammy was one of the few players to win a rare pro football “triple crown” distinction in offensive, defensive, and special teams categories — passing, punting, and interceptions. In 1943 he completed 133 of 239 attempted passes for 1,754 yards and 23 touchdowns. In punting, his 50 kicks averaged 45.9 yards for a total 2,295 yards. And he also led the league that year in interceptions with eleven. Baugh is the only player ever to lead the league in offensive, defensive and special teams categories. As a passer, he was known for his ability to accurately connect with his receivers over long and short distances in the face of onrushing defensive linemen. In nine seasons — 1937, 1940, 1942, 1943 and 1945-49 — he led the NFL in completion percentage. Sammy also passed for six touchdowns in a single game on two occasions — once in October 1943 and again in November 1947.
Sammy Baugh, quarterback.
After retiring as a player in 1952, Baugh returned to his 7,600-acre ranch in Rotan, Texas, about 95 miles south of Lubbock. Although ranching would become a major part of his life thereafter, he also stayed involved with football. In 1955, Baugh began five years of college coaching at Hardin-Simmons College at Abilene, Texas. He was also a coach of freshman football at Oklahoma State University and a backfield coach at the University of Tulsa. In 1960 and 1961 he was head coach of the New York Titans of the new American Football League — the team that would later become the New York Jets. In 1964, he became head coach of the Houston Oilers, posting a 4-10 record and decided he needed to focus on his West Texas cattle operation. In November 1993, during a pre-game ceremony at a TCU football game, the university retired Baugh’s No. 45 college jersey. His No. 33 Washington Redskins jersey was also retired, and is the only one the Washington organization has retired to date. And each year since 1959, the Sammy Baugh Trophy has been awarded to the nation’s top collegiate passer.
Sammy Baugh was also a good punter.
But Sammy Baugh, despite his one year of film acting, or even his stardom as a football player, was never much into being a celebrity. After retiring from football, he stayed out the limelight for the most part, and lived a pretty modest life in west Texas. Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell would later write that every decade or so, reporters would journey to Texas to seek Sammy out for an update. “They always found him a gentleman,” said Boswell, a fellow who told stories punctuated by a single “hell” or “damn,” but otherwise, was a model of restraint. Although there was a flurry of activity around him in 1994 when the NFL selected him to its 75th anniversary all-time team. In September of that year he “stole the show,” according to some, with his “hysterical frankness and salty language” on the TNT cable TV special, 75 Seasons: The Story of the NFL.
Baugh had married his college sweetheart, Edmonia Smith, of Sweetwater, Texas in 1938. They had five children, followed by 11 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren. His wife died in 1990, and he lost a son in 2006. But Baugh himself lived to the age of 94, when he died of kidney failure and pneumonia. The doctor said his body just wore out.
“Changed The Game”
Sammy Baugh at Hall of Fame induction, 1963.
Sammy Baugh was inducted to the Professional Football Hall of Fame in 1963, a charter member, along with George Halas, Bronko Nagurski, Red Grange, Jim Thorpe, Curly Lambeau and about ten others. But only Halas and Baugh were selected unanimously. Sammy’s Hall of Fame profile calls him a “premier passer” who influenced a the game’s great offensive revolution. “When Baugh first started with the Redskins,” says the profile, “pro football was largely a grind-it-out ground game. The forward pass was something to be used with caution. . . By the time Baugh was through, the forward pass was a primary offensive weapon. Obviously, such a change could not be totally brought about by one individual. But Baugh was the catalyst that changed the game. No one had seen a passer who could throw with such accuracy.”
Putting some perspective on this accomplishment, Washington Post sports columnist Thomas Boswell observes: “What Babe Ruth’s home runs did for baseball in the early 1920s, Baugh’s bombs did for the NFL in the late ’30s.” In 1936, the season before Baugh arrived, the average NFL team scored 11.9 points a game and completed 5.6 passes. “What Babe Ruth’s home runs did for baseball in the early 1920s, Baugh’s bombs did for the NFL in the late ’30s.” – Thomas Boswell The NFL completion percentage was 36.5. The entire sport threw only 67 scoring passes. As a rookie, starting only five games, Sammy Baugh broke the NFL completion record with 81. By 1940, he was completing 62.7 percent of his passes.” Before Baugh came,” says Boswell, “only one man ever passed for 1,000 yards in a season. By 1947, Baugh completed 210 passes for 2,938 yards… If Ruth [in baseball] quadrupled the prevailing view of how many home runs were possible in a season, then Baugh tripled the notion of how much yardage a team could gain through the air.” Baugh was a trendsetter, who influenced other great quarterbacks of his day, including Sid Luckman in 1942 and Otto Graham in 1946, who also helped move the game into its modern era.
For those who saw him play, Sammy Baugh remains one of the game’s best. Said legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice in 1942: “Sammy happens to be just about the most valuable football player of all time, according to most pro coaches I’ve talked to.” In the 1990s, sportswriter Dan Jenkins a Fort Worth, Texas native who saw Baugh play at Texas Christian University and as a pro, called him “the greatest quarterback who ever lived, college or pro.” Steve Sabol, president of NFL Films and a noted football historian told the Washington Post’s Michael Wilbon about an experience he had as a young boy seeing Sammy play:
“I was 9 years old and my father took me to Shibe Park in Philadelphia to see the Eagles play the Redskins. It was 1951. My dad said: ‘See the man wearing Number 33? That’s Sammy Baugh.’ That’s all he said.”
“It was like pointing out the Empire State Building, the Washington Monument or Niagara Falls. ‘That’s Sammy Baugh.’ That’s all that needed to be said to anyone who followed pro football in the 1940s and early 1950s.”
Richard Goldstein, “Sammy Baugh, N.F.L. Great, Dies at 94,” New York Times, December 18, 2008.
Joe Holley and Bart Barnes, “The First of the Gunslingers — Quarterback Led Redskins to Two Titles, Football Into Modern Era,” Washington Post, Thursday, December 18, 2008, p. E-1.
Michael Wilbon, “Getting In a Word For Slingin’ Sammy,” Washington Post, Friday, December 19, 2008, p. E-1.
Thomas Boswell, “Rock of the Redskins, Arm of the NFL,” Washington Post, Friday, December 19, 2008, p. E-1.
Samu Qureshi and Valerie Grissom, “Team Report” Cover Story, (Letters from Hall of Fame quarterback Sammy Baugh and owner George Marshall reveal the Redskins’ early struggles on — and off — the field.) Washington Post Magazine, Sunday, August 2, 2009, pp 8- 13+.