Broadway Joe & Jets made Super Bowl special
Posted January 31
The New York/New Jersey logistics make for a commuting headache and the weather may be chilly, but it’s fitting that the area gets to host a Super Bowl while Joe Namath is still around and healthy enough to enjoy it.
After all, Broadway Joe and the 1968 New York Jets – “Joey & Da Jets” they were nicknamed by some – were more responsible than other individuals or any other team for making the championship game the spectacle it has become.
Namath accomplished that feat as much with his mouth as his passing arm by “guaranteeing” a Jets win over the Baltimore Colts in the third title game.
At a time when very few football players at any level made rash statements, the Jets’ handsome young quarterback put on a boastful performance straight out of boxer Muhammad Ali’s psychological playbook during the week before the Jan. 12, 1969 game in Miami.
Jets coach Weeb Ewbank was outraged by the guarantee. So were many members of the team’s front office, but Namath teammates Don Maynard (WR), Matt Snell (RB), Johnny Sample (DB) and others endorsed his prediction.
The first two Super Bowls – easy wins by NFL champion Green Bay over American Football League champs Kansas City and Oakland – were too one-sided to grab the nation’s undivided attention.
Fan interest in those two games lagged in large part because the eight-team fledgling AFL was perceived as a second-class operation by the national media, the 12-team NFL owners and players.
Many of the NFL franchises had been around since the 1920s. The AFL debuted in 1960 and had only three East Coast members – the Jets, Buffalo Bills and Boston Patriots – at a time when only a handful of pro sports franchises were located west of the Mississippi.
Green Bay’s iconic coach Vince Lombardi all but called the first two Super Bowls glorified exhibitions, citing his team’s wins over Dallas for the NFL banner as the real championship games.
When Baltimore (15-1) routed Cleveland, 34-0, in the ’68 NFL title game, the Jets (12-3) were given no hope after stopping Oakland, 27-23, in the AFL qualifier.
The Colts opened as a 20-point favorite. The line dipped to 18, according to VegasInsider.com, by game time but many players and coaches on other AFL teams expressed no confidence that the Jets could live up to Namath’s promise.
Lombardi, whose ’68 team finished only 6-7-1, said Namath was about “to play his first true professional football game.”
When the Jets won with relative ease, 16-7, the sports world was flabbergasted and the sport itself changed dramatically.
So did New York. By the late ‘60s, Mickey Mantle’s fabulous baseball career was at its end and the Yankees’ dynasty was already in a period of deep hibernation.
The Dodgers had long since (1958) moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles and the baseball Giants to San Francisco.
The football Giants had become a distant second-fiddle to Dallas in the NFL East. College basketball was more popular nationally than the NBA, and the NHL was still basically a regional entity.
Broadway shows were in a period of flux particularly after the movie versions of Funny Girl and Oliver! were widely hailed as better entertainment than the on-stage originals. Hair – a hippie cult satire by design – had become more popular than the traditional Broadway fare.
New York mayor John Lindsay was engaged in a seemingly endless tug-of-war with labor unions. It wasn’t the Big Apple’s heyday by any means.
But when the Jets brought back the title, New York found new energy. Namath became America’s dashing darling and the city’s once laughable Mets baseball team seemed to follow the Jets’ lead and became the “Miracle Mets” in 1969.
George Steinbrenner soon would purchase and revitalize the Yankees.
But thanks to Namath and the ’68 Jets, pro football quickly raced past baseball as the nation’s most popular sport.
“We’ve got to be patron saints of underdogs, long shots and little sisters of the poor everywhere now,” Namath said after the win.
A year later, AFL title Kansas City blasted favored Minnesota of the NFL, 23-7, in New Orleans and the Super Bowl’s popularity spiked yet again.
By the time the two league officially merged into a 26-team union in 1970, the game had become a national keepsake.
The Jets haven’t played on Super Sunday since. Namath, now 70, would play for nine more seasons and continue as one of the sport’s top players.
But he would never repeat the magic of ’68, and maybe that’s fitting. Once was enough in this case.